Saturday, August 4, 2007

In Theory...

Purely hypothetically speaking, how might you introduce undergraduate students to the existence of theory? (oops, sorry: Theory.) I'm not talking about a theory survey or methodology class or senior thesis group that would be primarily focused on Theory, but bringing it into a "regular" course in small and managable doses. How do we spend at least a small amount of time making students aware of theory in a way that would help them navigate future courses and critical articles and writing research papers or even (god forbid) thinking about grad school? How might you give students a "heads up" or some ideas that might prepare them for a theory survey? Or heck, I have this friend (cough) who is teaching the first course of a three-quarter sequence which might be called Critical Analysis-Theory-Methodology. It's not in a literature department. What should this teacher teach to help students move into the Theory course? What do students need to know or be able to do by the time they hit a Theory course? What should they do to prepare?

I'd love to hear your suggestions, ideas, funny anecdotes, representative assignments, citations of education articles --- just anything that might get a lively conversation going here about Theory in all its theoretical-ness or practical handling. (We may or may not want to take note of types of theory and what types of disciplines we are working in.)

You know, I think discovering theory and grappling wth it, along with its many specialized languages, is a major part of the struggle --- the agon, even --- in transforming from an undergraduate to a graduate student. And I certainly didn't feel like I got much help or guidance about what to read or how much to know, so I'll be revisiting this off and on at both the graduate and undergraduate level for the next few weeks.


Hilaire said...

I don't have any specific suggestions. But I I "do" theory and I teach theory (i.e. year-long required course in theory in the department I taught in last year; a term-long version this year), and so I have thought a little bit about this lately - since I will be teaching first-year, Intro, again. I've thought about it because it's how I approach any question I teach, in any context. So the inquiry I model to them is theoretical, and that is a big part of their introduction to what it means to do theory in this discipline. So - and I'm thinking this through as I type it - if that is the case, then maybe I (you?) can just every once in a while be quite up-front about what we're doing...stop ourselves as we teach, put a little frame on what we're saying, and point out, "this is 'theory', and here's what's theoretical about it." That can maybe be set up - so as not to freak them out too much when it happens - with a little mini-lecture on theory near the very beginning of the course, explaining what the definition of theory is, why it's useful, what it "does", and so on.

Thank you for posting this, at any rate, because it's made me think through this question for myself! :)

negativecapability said...

I've had them read Culler's Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory, which worked for me because he juxtaposes a discussion of what "T"heory is with what "L"iterature is. He also does a good job outlining the various branches of it without getting bogged down in the details (although he does, of course, have his own argument).

Earnest English said...

I don't often teach literature, but I do find myself teaching theory of various kinds. But rather than talking about it as theory so much, I talk about ways of reading and lenses -- often in terms of sunglasses. (Yes, this tells you what a dorko I am in the classroom. But this kind of works. You know, we start with the idea that there is no absolute one way of looking at things/truth, so then we get to put on our deconstruction sunglasses, our rhetorical sunglasses, our feminist sunglasses, our ecocritical sunglasses.) Of course, starting off with the idea that there is more than one way of looking at things can be hard, but I start asking students to think about what the "truth" is about a certain misunderstanding or argument they've had in their lives (something they have perspective on). And then I go from there. And of course we do use these sunglasses/lenses to look at texts, but first I like to introduce them to the world of theory. Frankly, I think that the world is full of theory. How do you look at X if you believe in intelligent design, evolution, die hard creationism, complete materialism? So I explain how theory is already embedded in their perspectives and then encourage them to begin to place the various ways of reading the world they already have -- looking at conflicts in their thinking is often very productive. But maybe you don't want to go that far. Anyway, my fifteen cents, since this comment is way too long.

gwoertendyke said...

i teach theory first through the primary texts themselves--what theory of history is suggested in, say, _The Scarlet Letter_--from there, any and all sorts of other theoretic questions surface. once these have more or less "organically" been introduced, i begin to flesh out theory in chunks, like say introducing the difference between new criticsm and post-structuralism and new historicsm, feminism, and postcolonial theories. providing a family tree of sorts of the ideas, then providing the institutional history and conflicts between the branches seems to help students really learn their place and purpose rather than cramming THEORY in all of its intimidating forms.

as far as assignments go, a basic one is achebe's critique of heart of darkness against the novel itself. i often ask students to choose a particular theoretical focus and use it to perform a close reading--sometimes with a critical article, sometimes without. the norton and bedford critical companion books are often really useful and accessible texts for undergraduates.

sorry for being long winded--hope any of this is useful.

negativecapability said...

Ah yes, like AW does, I also tend to teach theory through the literature - Borges short stories are excellent for this. Doing it in this way tends to sidestep the "apply theory to text" approach, since it makes clear that literature theorizes just as much as Theory itself does.

Another random remark - I didn't know Theory existed as an undergrad. My advisor just handed me a book full of essays and marked some of them for me to read. So I read them, and we talked about them, and that was that. When I got to grad school I couldn't figure out why everyone seemed so intimidated by the Gods of Theory (not that it can't be difficult or complex, just that there's a weird hero worship factor previous to and inhibitive of the process of grappling with and understanding). I think introducing it more organically might do away with some of the "well, gee, I'm just not *smart* enough to deal with these Theory people" nonsense.

OK. Obviously I have opinions on this topic :)

gwoertendyke said...

yes yes i agree with negativecapability. entirely.

Sisyphus said...

Thanks everybody! I will mull over your ideas. Got more comments? Please add them!

(And negativecapability: yes, I don't want to be creating or perpetuating Theory as the big ugly monster under the bed or anything, and I don't like the hero-worship thing, but I took a theory/philosophy course and found it tough going even without the prof "setting us up" to feel that way; the first time I read Derrida I burst into tears because I was so sure I was never going to get it. So even when we demystify theory into theories some of it is still going to be hard going.)

Bardiac said...

Fascinating question and discussion!

In introductory level classes, I choose a particular theoretical lense, and set it up, maybe have students do a short reading from a theorist, and then show them how we can use that theoretical lense to understand a particular issue.

For example, I may use Bahktin's idea of the classical/grotesque body to talk about bodies in *Titus* or *Julius Caesar*. I'll have them read a short bit of Bakhtin, talk about bodies, and then we talk about how this helps us read the text.

In upper level classes, I can count on students having had an intro theory course, so can use a theorist in more depth. I can't count on students knowing a particular theory/theorist, so I always have to do groundwork.