See, this class is a strange animal, particularly at an institution like mine, I think. Students get very little exposure to theory, theoretical writing, or even critical writing in their regular classes in the discipline. Sure, they have to write papers with research in upper-level courses, but let's just say that they are often shocked when I insist that sources need to be, for the most part, published within the past 20 years. Or when I say that they have to have some sort of broader argument of their own - not just offer summaries of other people's ideas without explanation. They typically are not expected to read and analyze this kind of writing in their classes, and so using it in their papers is an activity completely disconnected from what they do in the classroom. And so. Unless they have taken courses with a handful of more recently hired faculty, the likelihood is that "criticism" is very divorced from "literature" in their heads, and they may even be hostile to the very idea of "criticism." (Aside: this is sort of hilarious to me, since what English professors like to shout from the rooftops is how we teach critical thinking. Maybe some of us do, but I am fully willing to suggest that many students who major in English feel deeply hostile to the idea of critical thinking and they have no interest in criticizing those books they love so much.)
So this, my friends, is the audience for this course. An audience of students who come to the class either openly hostile to its material or who at the very least are horrified by this requirement in the major. I'd imagine that if we have one "weed-out" course, this one is probably it, except for the fact that since students don't typically take it until they are juniors or seniors it's not an effective gateway that separates the strong from the weak. Instead, students grumble and do what they can to squeak through because they're typically close enough to graduation that changing majors isn't an option. They probably have had very, very little exposure to theory in any form, and the whole shebang is very intimidating to them. (This is what perhaps distinguishes them from students at, say, an institution like the Fancy Research University where I did my doctorate. Even if students weren't reading theory in their undergraduate classes, they were theoretically engaged by virtue of how the professors approached the material.) Just one section of the course is offered per semester, and historically, the same two professors (both men, both hired 20 years ago) taught the course.
So, the teaching rotation has only changed in the past couple of years. First, one of the two people who had always taught it decided he needed a change. So another female colleague of mine got a bite at the apple, and she taught the course once, with results that I think she would characterize as uneven (for lots of reasons, including when the course was scheduled). In the meantime, I taught an elective seminar in feminist theory (to a class made up of many students that I'd had before), and I agreed to teach a grad class in theories of gender and sexuality in an upcoming semester for our MA program. In the meantime, the colleague who had taken on the required theory course had an opportunity to do something else that meant she wanted to drop teaching it, and so now, all of a sudden, I'm apparently one of the people who "teaches theory" in my department - in fact, I'm the person who teaches the most theory. Like, as far as I can tell, I'll be teaching 3 theory classes next year, and I think I'm slated to keep teaching the required theory course every spring (though I suppose if I hated it, I could get rid of it, even though I do think in theory - ha! see what I did there? - that I'm a good person to teach it).
So here are the strikes against me going into this course:
- Likely an audience that is quite hostile to the class, which I will need to win over for the class to work.
- A class filled with students whom I don't know, which could be a problem if they haven't heard about how I run a class.
- Theory is hard. And I can't just teach theories that I like or am into, but am obligated to teach things that are my own personal theory roadblocks (*cough* Derrida *cough*).
- We don't (yet) have an intro to the major course, which I think would go a long way to informing students about the theoretical context in which most criticism in the 21st century is written.
But hey, I do tend to crush students' spirits anyway, so I'm sure that will be fine.
So those are my thoughts on this Tuesday morning. Otherwise, I'm totally excited about my upper-level fiction class and my intro to lit class. I've taught versions of them both and I love them both with a love that is pure and true. So at least in this trial semester teaching theory I'm teaching two other traditional classes that are really just classes where I teach things that I think are cool. Who doesn't love to teach classes like that?
Ok, I must get ready and get myself into the office or I won't find parking. Actually, I may not find parking anyway, which stinks. Sigh.