Teaching Methods of Literary Study

In Fall 2010, I am scheduled to teach a course entitled “Methods in the Study of Literature.” According to Kent State University’s Graduate Catalog, the course’s purpose is to teach the following:

Analytical reading and interpretation of published research and criticism, its assumptions, trends, controversies; course will identify and contextualize present opportunities for research in field.

It is intended for entering Ph.D. candidates, though it is open to MA candidates. With a description so expansive, colleagues who have taught the course previously have developed various methods to address this wide range. One professor, who posts his course on a public site, designs the course so that incoming PhD. students collide head-on with the demands of professionalization: analyze discipline’s rhetorical practices, identify controversies that shape the field, develop an understanding of ethics of practice, and learn the norms of professional behavior in the classroom and the university as larger entity. On top of a suitably heavy reading list for each of these topics, students must make significant progress in the major tasks of Ph.D work outside of language acquisition and course work: write a proposal and conference paper, prepare field reading lists with a rationale to support selections, prepare a prospectus, and present projects in class. I can see why, if another of my colleagues is correct, that the students were rather upset and angry at the amount of work that was expected. However, given that literary studies is ever in crisis–the major crisis is that many people who earn PhD.’s face a brutal job market–the course as conceived by this scholar throws a bucket of ice-water on any airy-fairy ideas of self-supervised pleasure reading that still lurk beneath the sophisticated rhetorical poses that graduate students are already adept in.

But I never had a course of quite that type in my own graduate work: I completed these tasks as each was demanded, except that I never was never formally introduced to field controversies and ethics. So, for example, since I finished my MA in 1996 but had dropped out of institutional life months earlier and did not return to graduate school until 2002, I have been mercifully oblivious of the Sokal hoax, which erupted and died down without my ever having known of its existence. My most fond memories of graduate school evils–fond because I can laugh now–are the bibliography and library research boot camps at two different institutions. Although library research boot camp is an essential part of the course conceived above–students have to do that work even as class discussions focus on matters of professionalization–the subject matter for discussion is mostly the types of behavior that mark one as scholarly: research, teaching, institutional service and engagement. I absorbed these matters haphazardly, in two distinct graduate school stints. I did absorb them eventually, but I would benefit from again thinking through them explicitly with the aid of writers who discuss the profession in a systematic fashion.

It might be noted that this professor’s interests more closely align with my own: American literature, editing, and other text-intensive disciplines like concordance preparation. And so one of the assigned books is Harner’s Literary Research. I finished my Ph.D. work at the University of Virginia. And while it is a school with an English department known for its textual scholars and bibliographers and editors, we in that small band were a minority among graduate students with a literature focus (as compared with rhetoric and composition or MFA, another group entirely). While I had three or four graduate students in my cohort interested in similar pursuits, we were outnumbered 4 or 5 to 1 by students who (in the prospectus course after other classes were done) framed a prospectus with well-worn techniques: apply a handful of theorists to a each chapter’s handful of texts from a particular period. These projects at their best—informed by judicious selection, by an insight that could build on the work of other scholars in an historical period, and by a theoretical bent that truly offered a new lens on these works—had a future as dissertations revised into books. I have nothing to say about these projects’ worst tendencies of inane jargon and of predictable tilting at windmills of current theory fashion. Editorial work, too, can be good or bad.

When I surveyed the work of some other future colleagues in the English Department at Kent State–yes, graduate student readers, I surveyed the work of the entire department before my job interview—I find myself in this department to again be in a small minority of scholars interested in text-intensive rather than theory-intensive disciplines. When I now survey the design of the same course by colleagues with the theory-intensive bent, the profession is imagined differently than the other scholar did it. The process of professionalization is the process of learning how to write a paper that addresses a few vibrant but broad areas of contemporary professional interest (for example, postcolonial studies, gender studies, psychoanalytic studies, modernisms) that correspond fairly closely with the disciplines defined in anthologies of theories. With that background, the student derives a research project that mirrors or (better yet) is the process of preparing a paper for presentation at a conference while looking forward to journal submission. Wide reading should also offer opportunity to review new books. While professionalization is typically part of these courses as well, the theory readings squeeze out the work with Harner. When one of my former Virginia professors told me that one of his colleagues did not include Harner, we commiserated with the new inductees into graduate school, who I assume left the class without a clue that Harner provides 10 to 15 essential reference works in every field of literary study and 20 to 30 essential reference works in every subset of the discipline. How can someone do “research” without knowing this stuff? Likewise squeezed out in my Kent State colleagues’ course—because the theory readings are applied to canonical and newly canonical texts also—are the prospectus and the reading lists for coverage of a field more broadly conceived. But again, despite my reservations about such a course design—and some doubt about whether I would be able to do it justice—I myself would benefit from again thinking through trends in literary criticism and theory. And a secondary benefit is an assurance from at least one of these colleagues that the graduate students enjoyed the course very much.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine myself proposing to my students that we will study a large range of texts that coincide with my interests in textual theory, because my scholarship revolves incessantly around a few major writers and works. I could fit textual theory into such a course—yes, Virginia, there is such a discipline as textual criticism because W. W. Norton now has an anthology–but it couldn’t become the focus of the course because it seems selfish to guide students toward a view of the profession as I would with it to be rather than a view of the profession as the larger cohort of professors in my department view it.

In the best of all possible worlds, I would not be preparing this course in panic mode just as the deadline for course description passed and book order calls start to press, but a textual error in my course assignment had led me to believe I would be teaching a course other than this one until about three weeks ago. Note that textual errors can smack you when you least expect it. In any case, as error righted just before midterms and committee work and outside review work crushed the breath from me, it was not until this weekend that I saw a small hole of light. So I stuck this work of course planning into it. I’m inclined to think my assigned works are going to look about like this:

  • MLA Style Manual, 3rd Edition.
  • Graff, Professing Literature. U Chicago P
  • Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English
  • Harner, Literary Research Guide, MLA
  • Bérubé, Rhetorical Occasions
  • A Theory Anthology, either Norton’s or Blackwell’s
  • Goldsmith, et al. Chicago Guide to your Academic Career
  • Course Pack with selected supplementary readings about scholarship and probably a handful on textual scholarship and digital humanities

The weighting of assignments will look like this:

  • Conference proposal (based on article) submitted and in-class oral presentation of paper (25 percent for MA, 20 percent for Ph.D.)
  • Formal short article-length paper with intended journal specified (25 percent for MA, 20 percent for Ph.D.)
  • Examination Rationale and Reading Lists (25 percent for MA, 20 percent for Ph.D.)
  • Everything else (25 percent for MA, 20 percent for Ph.D.)
  • Draft dissertation prospectus with annotated reading list (20 percent for Ph.D.)

A statement of goals will follow.

Thoughts would be welcome, especially from anyone who has prepared a methods course before.

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