My American Studies training and perspective has helped me to create what is, I hope, an accessible and practical, and most importantly a productive, graduate English course in literary theory.
When I taught our graduate program’s Literary Theory course for the first time, back in the spring of 2008, I began the class with a (somewhat dated) pop culture analogy for how surprised my own grad school peers would be at the thought of me teaching such a course: “Ben and literary theory,” I imagined them arguing, “are like Britney Spears and panties: maybe they’ve been in the same room at some point, but you’ve certainly never seen proof, and it’s quite possible that they haven’t.” That was an overstatement, of course—I took my own intro to theory course at the start of my grad training, for example—but there’s no question that I’ve been, and remain, very resistant to employing theory in my own work. I believe that resistance is directly connected to my American Studies perspective, and that it has helped me create an accessible, practical, and productive kind of lit theory course.
I would never try to argue that American Studies scholarship hasn’t been informed by theory, in both (to my mind) helpful and less helpful ways; Michel Foucault in particular has been utilized by many American Studiers over the last few decades. But I would note that the very nationally-specific focus of American Studies has made, and continues to make, it more difficult to directly apply the ideas of theorists from other countries to American Studies questions; the most exemplary works of American Studies scholarship, after all, are profoundly grounded in broad and deep engagement and analysis of American sources and evidence, across disciplines and media and time periods but always connected by this place and community. So while a theorist might well help provide analytical frames through which an American Studier can engage with his or her subjects—as, for example, I used Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the dialogic to help develop my first book’s analyses of voice in American culture and literature—those frames remain (again to my mind) very much a supplementary focus in such scholarly projects.
I have similarly, if perhaps counter-intuitively, tried to make literary theory supplementary to both primary texts and the students’ own interests and voices in my grad lit theory course. For example, the course is organized around two-week units in which we first read and discuss a work of literature (such as Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw), with no contexts of any kind (theoretical or otherwise) between the students and the text; having developed those analyses, we then add in some theoretical essays and ideas in the second week, allowing the students to make them a part of their evolving conversations rather than a focus in their own right. Even more illustrative of my goals for the course is the final, seminar paper, in which I ask the students to pick a primary text of their own (something they use in their own classrooms and/or scholarship, something they’re passionate about or interested in exploring further, etc), and then to think about how a few of the theorists and essays with which we’ve engaged can supplement and strengthen their own analyses of that work. The first two times I’ve taught the class have yield a very impressive range of subjects for those seminar papers—from Shakespeare to House of Leaves, Milton to In the Lake of the Woods—and I’m very excited to see where this semester’s grad student’s go.
Pretty good semester all the way around, I’d say—and one very much influenced by American Studies. As is the one newest and most unique course I get to teach, on which more in this weekend’s post,
PS. Any theorists or theoretical ideas that you’d highlight as helpful or important for American Studies?
1/20 Memory Day nominee: Buzz Aldrin, the pioneering astronaut and advocate for space exploration who performed America’s first spacewalk, was one of the first men to walk on the moon, and has continued to make an impassioned case for the values of exploration and science ever since—most especially and inspiringly in his books for and work with schoolchildren.