Is There a Literary Theory In This Class?

When I casually confessed, more or less in an aside, in my blog post last week to being a fan of New Criticism, I didn’t expect to spend so much of my time in this week’s readings thinking about New Criticism as a valid, or invalid, school of thought.

It’s not that I’m afraid of taking a stance when I have one, but, I feel compelled in this case to emphasize the casual nature of my affection for New Criticism.  I like a lot of things about it, and I think I got a lot out of learning how to interpret literature through its lens.  I also, though, would argue that I learned just as much from studying Historicism, and the psycho/sexual analyses of Freud and Lacan, and gender/queer theories and colonial/postcolonial contexts and Marxist interpretations and modernism/post-modernism/post-post-modernism and so on.  No one literary theory exists in a vacuum, and to my mind, that’s where a lot of the value in examining criticism lies.

Though, I’ve noticed that a lot of academic types like to pledge allegiance to a particular school of theory in a manner that resembles rooting for the home team.  “Why are you a Ravens fan?”  “My favorite color is purple! Also I live in Maryland.”  Okay, that’s mean – I trust academics who hold one school up above others have given their affinity much more thought than I’ve ever applied to picking out sports teams – but I think as educators, it’s important to caution ourselves against teaching one or two ideas at the exclusion of others (because if I were tell my students Freud is the only way to go, they just might walk out of my classroom believing me).

I tend to have a lukewarm opinion of survey classes—yeah, it’s great to be able to say I have “studied” 400 years of Western Literature across the span of 10 or 15 weeks, but, how intimately have I really gotten to know any one text?  I think a survey class does more to help you understand things about texts, and while that’s certainly valuable, it’s not the same as the ten weeks I spent in college picking apart Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.  For one thing, there was nowhere to hide in that class:  Miss a week’s readings in a survey course, and whatever, next week is a new novel; but missing a week’s readings in that class was a slippery slope of doom and, frankly, embarrassment.  In any case, the end result is that I can chat about Either/Or with a lot more confidence several years later than I can re-cap, in the right order, the major themes of the literature produced in the West in the past 400 years.

But literary theory is a realm in which I think the survey model is entirely appropriate, and even desirable.  Perhaps the best exposure to literary theory I’ve ever had – ever – was by one of my high school English teachers.  He laid out a sort of “fact sheet” about all the major literary schools he could come up with, and we learned to understand how each critical theory worked by applying it to the same text over and over.  In our case, Huckleberry Finn fell victim to all sorts of strange interpretations, each one as well supported as the interpretation of the assignment/”poem” described by Fish in his essay.

And so, I would hope that teaching literature would give me an opportunity to reproduce something similar to what my high school teacher did for me:  I’d like to lay all the schools of thought out there—including Fish’s own unique school of being anti-school—and let the students make their own minds up about whether or not there’s really a text in the class.  I think this approach would fulfill a lot of the objectives of this week’s readings, which address the importance of teaching critical readings skills in a way that enables students to engage their minds, engage with the texts, and transfer what they get out of the whole experience to other endeavors.  It would challenge them to make valuations—I like this theory because X, but I don’t buy this theory because Y—while also introducing them to some of the “vocabulary” they should acquire along the way as they study literature.  I also think it would help them see that there is no one right way to read a text, and that the point isn’t to arrive at what it is I think the poem means or the author thinks the poem means, but instead to arrive at that moment when neurons are firing and the text is something they simultaneously see and feel, know and question, wrestle with and embrace.  Which is to say, the act of reading, enjoyed.