Theory Module 1

During the first four weeks of the semester, we will be covering some crucial and complex theoretical concepts. In order to document what we cover and discuss in class, I will offer a brief overview of what we covered during the previous week and pose some general questions that you should keep in mind as you approach the reading for the coming week. Please feel free to comment on my posts, filling in any details I might have missed that you found interesting and important.  If you don’t contribute to class discussion regularly, commenting on these posts will offer another way to demonstrate your informed “presence” in class.

Looking Back

In addition to routine, first-week business–discussing the schedule, course policies, assignment sequence, and so on–I felt that we established a strong foundation for our work in this course during our first few days.  We began articulating why we are here and what we hoped to get out of ENGL 299, and our English majors and minors more generally. We also began thinking about our work in this course from day one by brainstorming various genres and periods of literature that we might write about for our final projects.  There are many ways, we discovered, to join the conversation.

Last Wednesday, we read a few brief chapters from Robert Eaglestone’s Doing English, learning, first, about the disciplinary history of English: its surprising connection to British colonialism in India, the complexity of its original “civilizing” mission, and the way it has gradually become less about affirming dominant cultural values than about testing and questioning those values.  Indeed, that evolution from stability to critical instability will be very relevant to our work over the next few weeks.

In relation to Eaglestone’s chapter on “Critical Attitudes,” we discussed his useful division of various critical approaches into two basic modes: the intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic approaches, he suggests, absorb our attention into the work itself: its sounds, structures, colors, textures, rhythm, symbols, syntax, imagery, and so on.  Extrinsic approaches call our attention to that which lies outside of the artwork itself, whether that involves the artist’s own life and career or the historical, social, political, or literary contexts in which a work emerges.  This will be a useful distinction for us as we sort through various methodological approaches to literature, noting how they might favor the extrinsic, the intrinsic, or some useful blending of the two.

Beyond merely talking about these things in the abstract, we experimented with various intrinsic and extrinsic approaches–many of which, we found, were already familiar to us–by looking very closely at Claude McKay’s sonnet from the early 1920s, “The Lynching.”  As a class, we discovered that the decision between extrinsic and intrinsic approaches is not the either/or proposition Eaglestone makes it out to be.  Indeed, any conscientious and complete reading of McKay’s sonnet seemed to involve a combination of these apparently divergent approaches.  We can avoid neither form (the intrinsic), nor history (the extrinsic).

Moving beyond Eaglestone, we discussed the first chapter in The Theory Toolbox. Working to convince us that theory does something crucial for us, the authors Nealon and Giroux write that “unless we can ask theoretical questions–larger questions about he origins of knowledges, who holds them, and how such knowldges were formed and might be changed–we’re stuck in a go-nowhere exchange of opinions: he said, she said” (4).  They propose that we use their toolbox as a useful and practical set of concepts that we can experimentally deploy as we engage those “larger questions” in literature and culture. Such concepts allow us to be critical, self-conscious participants in our information-rich world.  Theory, moreover, is a source for change, for revising the way things are as we work towards a  better, more equitable vision of how things might be.

The Toolbox‘s self-proclaimed motto–what they call “theory rule # 1”–is to be skeptical: “everything is suspect,” they write, and we can sense their highly suspecting tone throughout (6). We took that rule to heart, turning it on the authors themselves.  Nicole (or was it Nora?) sensed something oddly retrograde about the repeated insistence on skepticism.  Doesn’t such skepticism and suspicion seem a bit, well, negative?  A bit paranoid, even?  Can’t we think of a slightly more positive way to describe our intellectual vigilance? Autumn suggested a model of curiosity, and that seemed just right.  We should be always curious–critically curious–about the texts we read and the world that surrounds us.  Curiosity is rooted in the Latin cura, meaning care.  Doesn’t that seem to be a more fitting and earnest way to begin? Doesn’t theory have a heart after all?

Looking Ahead

Week 2 will be a bit of an experiment.  I’ve devised a three-week “TheoryCamp” module–a phrase that tries to capture both the rigors of something like boot camp and the glorious nerdiness of something like band camp.  As we read two chapters a day from The Theory Toolbox, we will also be learning about a specific critical methodology via readings from Dobie. I will always try to give us a chance, as a class, to apply these methodologies and theoretical concepts to an actual piece of literature–a poem or short story or artwork–that I will bring to class.

The reading, at first, will be thick.  I don’t expect you to absorb everything at once, but try to keep thinking about those approaches and theoretical ideas that are most compelling to you, or that you might want to think about in relation to your eventual research topic.  Above all, come to class with all the texts thoroughly read and annotated (take notes!), and with any questions you might have.  I don’t assume familiarity with any of these concepts, and I know it can be difficult to grasp the significance of some of them after an initial reading.  The purpose of our class over the next three weeks will be to clarify, via class discussion, these rich concepts and approaches, and also to begin applying them to different situations in literature and culture.

Blog Prompts

On certain weeks noted on the schedule, I will provide a set of prompts that you can use to begin generating ideas for your blog post.  You can always stray from these prompts, responding in any way you choose to what we’re reading and working on during any given week.  Blog posts should be 250-300 words (the equivalent of 2/3 – 1 page double-spaced). They can be informal, but they should still be thoughtful, smart, and free of grammatical errors (no textspeak). Always imagine that you’re writing for an outside audience.  This means that you should name the book and the authors you’re discussing rather than assume our familiarity with them.  It also means that you can and should quote from the reading as well.

(1)  Go Broad: Take one of the key theoretical concepts of methodologies from this week and offer a distilled definition in your own words.  After you adequately capture the main point, offer a brief response to it.  You can be as enthusiastic or critical as you want.

(2) Go Specific: Zero in on a more specific point, quoting a passage from the reading that you think deserves closer attention.  It could be a point that you found confusing and would like to “think through,” or a point that you thought was particularly well-made that you think the rest of the class would benefit from revisiting. Note that quoted material does not count towards the final word count.

(3) Make Connections: Draw connections between individual concepts from The Theory Toolbox, between different terms in the Bedford Glossary (BG), or between the two (how a certain concept from the Toolbox helps us think about a specific idea presented by BG, or vice versa), or to an outside text / image / video.

(4) Keep it Going: Continue any conversation we began in class that you think deserves more attention. You might continue to discuss the literary example that we explored as a class, or return to point that you or one of your peers made during class discussion.

(5) Respond/Comment: Rather than write your own blog post, you might respond to what one of your peers posted.  As long as your post is blog-length (250-300 words), it counts as a post.

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