Friday, December 06, 2013

In theory

Is it a mistake to teach undergrads literary theory? Yes, says Daniel Mendelsohn - "it’s impossible to theorise about texts before one has deep familiarity with them." Sounds about right!

Then again, it might also be a mistake not to do so, at least when it comes to the undergrads who end up in literature grad school. I remember telling a classmate once (and I remember oddly vividly which edge-of-Park Slope bar this was in, and which other classmate's mother was for some reason present) that I hadn't encountered theory until grad school, and he was just horrified. As if I'd been admitted to grad school - this was still early on in the program - under false pretenses. (If you can't enjoy impostor syndrome yourself, you can always, knowingly or inadvertently, inspire it in others.) And then grad school happened, and... it really didn't matter. I took an interesting theory class, got the idea of what's meant, and then proceeded not to use any of it in my dissertation, which I have no reason to think was a problem. (Not that my dissertation committee didn't find any room for improvement. Rest assured.)

Of course, maybe the French PhD gods will revoke my degree once they learn I've never read more than a sentence of Derrida.


caryatis said...

Well, undergrads who are headed to grad school in literature are probably going to read theory regardless of whether it's taught. Those undergrads who have no strong interest in literature might as well get a brief introduction, you know, just in order to be culturally literate.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"Well, undergrads who are headed to grad school in literature are probably going to read theory regardless of whether it's taught."

You'd think! I, however, had not. (I had read texts that I later learned count as theory, but outside the literary-theory context, and hadn't put these things together.) I also never applied to literature grad school (long story), and so might not be representative.

Flavia said...

The reality is, every literature student is being exposed to theory whether she knows it or not, by virtue of the fact that all reading practices are shaped by their cultural and historical moment (and by virtue of the fact that her instructors have probably studied theory). And that being the case, it's worth being explicit about where some of those methods come from rather than pretending that the way we read is the way everyone ever has read these texts.

My own experience is unusual, but illustrative, I think. I was not taught theory in college and I was exposed to only wee little bits of it in grad school. And I had a complex for a long time about this gap in my education. So a few years after my degree, I decided to sit down and read large selections from a bunch of major theorists.

And. . . I kinda knew all that stuff already. I mean, I LOVED reading it, and had my mind blown regularly, but basically the theorists were only naming habits of reading that I'd already encountered and done myself. And I felt a bit aggrieved that I hadn't understood that what I thought of as my square, old-fashioned close-reading habits were actually post-structural and heavily influenced by new historicism and cultural materialism.

And although I still don't think of myself as fully theory-literate or as deeply invested in any particular school, it's incredibly easy to expose undergrads to a little bit of it here and there (three pages of Foucault, two pages of Bakhtin, whatever) where relevant, to give them a half-dozen terms, and NAME the thing they're doing.

Theory certainly shouldn't substitute for teaching close-reading, genre, and all the other basics--but I'm not sure it's just a late-stage add-on, either.

james said...

this attitude towards theory only makes sense if you understand the purpose of theory to be impressing your grad committee and/or peers with your cultural and intellectual capital, in which case *shrug* fine, theory's not that necessary. there are equally expedient routes to being a Success and getting your degree. but what about the for-itself value of teaching critical theory in order to transform critical thinking? particularly the kind of critical theory that grounds the objects of the bourgeois sciences in real material political struggles. being proud of theory-ignorance is not the same thing as being proud that you don't purchase luxury handbags (as you can get by with regular no-name brands! look how of the people you are!). it's an indication that you don't get the point of critical theory at all, as the least of its worries is whether it helps get undergrads into literature phds

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Do the unusual capitalization choices here (only "success" gets one) have significance I'd pick up on if I were better-versed in not merely theory, but its purpose? Kind of a critical-in-a-different-sense tone to your comment - I see where you're going re: "handbags," but I'm not proud of my ignorance (or my wardrobe's deficiencies, for that matter!), so much as unsure of how big a place theory needs to have, at which stages in school. It's a stretch to say I "don't get the point of critical theory at all," thanks. But setting that aside...

I think Flavia's got it right, that the point of theory is making sense of ways of reading you're like to encounter, regardless. Including connecting literature to "real material political struggles." So as not to keep reinventing the wheel, and so as to have a common language for discussing texts with others.

The danger of introducing theory too soon is, it makes those new to serious reading paranoid about saying what's already been said. Is it really all that useful for a 19-year-old to hear that what they thought was their original take on some text is actually Foucaultian? There's something to be said for knowing how to respond to a primary source before consulting secondary ones. Granted, as Flavia says, on some level, you're always influenced by readers who came before you. But if you're told you need to articulate this from the get-go, it can make serious reading intimidating and unappealing.