Build-Your-Own Damn Crash Course in Literary Theory

My areas of scholarly study are bibliography, editorial theory, and digital humanities. These areas of study inform my teaching practice and scholarship, but I do not expect graduate students to delve into my preferred area of theory to inform a paper in, say, an historical survey of American Literature, which I am teaching in summer 2015. Therefore, if you are an MA student and have not already chosen certain theoretical commitments that you want to continue working within, you need to quickly acquire mastery of “enough theory” to write a competent seminar paper. This post was written specifically for students in an early American literature survey, but I write it a bit more broadly so that it might serve students in other literary periods and traditions. This post was inspired by Natalia Cecire’s “Crash Courses for the Desperate” (more on that below).

First, let me specify what “enough theory” is not: it does not mean that you have identified an interpretive error in the reading of a canonical work of literature by three random critics, one that you in your seminar paper will correct by a close reading of several passages from the perspective an illuminating theoretical lens. The rationale for such a paper is that this fresh theoretical lens not yet been applied to the canonical text that you have selected. Don’t write that kind of paper. Why not? Because that is not likely to be better than a “B” paper. Yes, exceptional work of this type may be published as a brief item in Notes and Queries, which is roughly equivalent to a book review. Though valuable service, ambitious editors of literary texts often achieve as much with three of four annotation notes to an edition. If you’re interested in writing about 50 such annotations, talk to me about a different type of project than a paper. Scholarly service is valuable, but the purpose of a seminar paper is to write a strong draft of a paper that (after revision) could merit submission to a respected journal that would be received favorably enough to go to outside readers.

To aspire to publication (though it is not necessary to merit publication by end of semester: to earn “A” your paper need only to reasonably “aspire”), your paper needs to be strong in at least two of the following areas and competent in the third:

  1. Enough knowledge of an historical and cultural moment outside of the present, whether when work composed and first published or during a particular moment of reception. Sources include letters, contemporary reviews, author’s other works, other works in same genre, and scholarship that seeks to make sense of the work from such perspectives.
  2. Enough knowledge of the present as a particular moment in the critical heritage for the study of the text: Who are the major critics? Which are the major articles and books? What has been at stake when reading texts from this period? Sources include major scholarly monographs on related subjects (“major” is generously considered, from past 3 decades) and present-day (past decade of) scholarly articles, book chapters, monographs, calls for papers, dissertations.
  3. Enough theory.

The recommended readings in this course will provide many of the first two, but I will not provide direction on “enough theory” in a formal way. Therefore, you should devise a crash course for yourself within a contemporary theoretical framework, such as one of the following: Marxism, Feminist Theory, Cultural Studies, Queer Theory, Race Theory, Postcolonial Theory, Pyschoanalytic Theory, New Historicism, Formalism and Structuralism, Phenomenology and Hermeneutics, etc. Recall that I began by admitting that no one of these is my particular area of study. And yet, my names for theoretical schools were chosen deliberately: I opened the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2nd ed., 2010), edited by Vincent Leitch, and copied out section titles–some shortened–from the alternate Table of Contents, which is labeled “Modern and Contemporary Schools and Movements” (xviv-xxii). If you buy (or acquire by interlibrary loan) the Norton Anthology, select one of the schools in which you have an interest, and spend three days in a crash session reading from texts and head-notes under each section, you are on your way to “enough theory” to write a seminar paper in my class. To be more assured that you have a fuller grasp, read fuller versions of one or two “major texts” that are referenced in the anthology’s head-notes.

Do you now have “enough theory” now? Maybe, but there is the risk that you have taken a flyer on the definition of an area of theory under the recommendation of a single scholar (Leitch) and are not yet able to connect your theoretical knowledge with one of the two other areas in which I suggested you need to write a competent paper: 1) “historical and cultural moment outside the present,” or 2) “the present as a particular moment in the critical heritage” for the text on which you want to write. The three backgrounds of your paper must be integrated. And in fact, a “crash course” is not really a shortcut: you need to allow all three things to percolate in your mind a bit. So long as you remain far from a thesis that is theoretically informed and that will be a useful for the two other areas I suggested, continue enriching your understanding of all three areas. Boundaries between areas of theory are not rigid: they cross-pollinate, as even a schema like that in the Norton Anthology hints: Antonio Gramsci appears both in Cultural Studies and Marxism, Paula Gunn Allen appears both in Feminist Theory and Race and Ethnicity studies, etc. Such is unavoidable: major shifts in scholarship often disrupt previously accepted boundaries. Some areas of theory are rising in importance, drawing from multiple antecedents, and gaining energy, and some are beginning to seem dated. Scholars who are serious about literary theory right now are asking whether my basic distinction between study of text in historic moment and the critically sophisticated present is not a little naive. For acknowledging the importance of boundary crossing only in passing but not exploring it, I plead pedagogical usefulness and my own bias toward editing and philology. The purpose of this post is not to teach you to make a contribution to cutting-edge theory but to advise you on writing a first-year seminar paper in a graduate course.

To continue expanding your study of theory, I suggest consulting one or more of the following resources: John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman (2005), Continuum Encyclopedia of Modern Criticism and Theory, ed. Julian Wolfreys (2006), Literary Theory and Criticism: an Oxford Guide, ed. Patricia Waugh (2006). Again, these titles did not trip off my tongue. I consulted James L. Harner’s Literary Research Guide (Kent State Library, Online Copy) which has an entry on the John Hopkins Guide that mentions the Continuum Encyclopedia and the Oxford Guide as particularly valuable (and mentions other titles). Again, my purpose is not to advise how to make a serious contribution to theory: you only need “enough theory” to be recognized as aware of major texts that may inform your reading. If you wish to contribute to theory (or you wish to develop a better sense of how areas of theory may be divided or intersect) you would be consulting annual volumes from Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, reading widely in major theory journals, and probably studying with someone else in the department.

If this sounds intimidating because your interests in advanced study in English don’t fit easily under literature and theory—because, for example, your interest in English is from composition and rhetoric or linguistics; or your interests are philosophy or religion—I only ask that any work that draws from your favored discipline make accommodations to address readers outside of that discipline. As noted, this post was inspired by a comment on Cecire’s Crash Courses for the Desperate. Cecire prepared three one-page crash courses in “Queer Theory,” “Modernism,” and “History of Science.” Cecire writes as an expert on the areas that she has selected. Each of her crash courses consists of 5 or 6 important articles or chapters (with one or two sly of-course-you’ve-already-read-that hints), a series of questions to consider, two or three prominent journals from which to consult recent articles, and an advisory on building your own more extended reading lists. As no good deed by a female scholar in a public forum should be allowed to stand without queries for assistance mixed with presumptuous insult, a commenter promptly asked her to prepare additional reading lists.

It takes genuine expertise to devise a crash course on Cecire’s model. When initially enamored with her crash course proposal, I envisioned spending 8 or 10 hours a piece preparing a crash course in each of the following subjects: Early American Literature, Bibliography, Textual Criticism, Digital Humanities. Why I did not do this is the same reason Cecire is not going to post crash courses on demand. Such work is most useful, when it is useful, when you take it up yourself. This post serves a different purpose: to offer a guide to some of the infrastructure that will allow you to prepare a crash course for yourself. Students in my classes should not be surprised if I try out asking them to develop a new crash course as a graded exercise.

To finish the job on Cecire’s crash course model, you will need to devise questions and pick important journals in an area of literary scholarship. Through the act of selecting and reading and consulting, you should have a reasonable grasp on the major journals. For more comprehensive work, see the MLA Directory for Periodicals if your library subscribes. If you do not have access to that service, the Humanities Journals Wiki does a pretty good job on its list of literary journals. On a particular general theory topic, pick six or eight articles from most prominent journals to read, from during last two or three years. Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory should again be consulted, as it may help you identify individual articles in the journals that regularly engage your area of study.

This is not career advice. But if it sounds like too much work for a seminar paper, then I do have career advice: quit graduate school. I welcome other useful hints and reference works for building up knowledge in a particular area. But for almost any scholar in English-related disciplines, Harner’s Literary Research Guide is an essential first-stop shop to gain your bearings in a new area of study.

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