[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
On two exemplary moments of applied literary theory.
I’ve written before in this space about the irony of a scholar who has never been closely connected to theory (to put it politely) becoming a frequent teacher of our department’s two most theoretical courses: the undergraduate Approaches to English Studies and graduate Introduction to Literary Theory. I’ll be teaching the latter course for the fourth time this spring, and this fall taught my second and third sections of Approaches. I can’t lie—I was still most excited for the weeks when we were working more directly with primary literary texts (and various contextual and theoretical materials related to them), from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Shakespeare’s The Tempest through a week with multiple poets and poems. But as I’ve gotten more practice with these theoretical courses, I’ve gotten better at finding ways to help students (and me!) connect our theory readings to literary and cultural questions and conversations, and here want to highlight two wonderful such connections from this semester’s sections.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the day in which we discussed four Feminist essays (by Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Annette Kolodny, and the Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective) inspired a particularly rich discussion. The conversation ranged across multiple subjects, from the more familiar (Disney Princesses) to the more unexpected (She’s the Man). But I was particularly impressed when we turned to Facebook, and the many ways in which users on the site create, reinforce, challenge, and otherwise engage with aspects of gender, sexuality, and identity (both in their individual profiles and in how they relate to one another). I try throughout the semester to argue that our theoretical readings, even the densest and most seemingly philosophical (yes, even our essay by Derrida, much as I sorta hate to admit it), have things to contribute to our contemporary conversations and perspectives; in these few minutes of discussion, the students made the case for such connections far better than I ever could.
The place where the Approaches students most consistently demonstrate those connections, however, is in their individual final projects: I ask them to create a Casebook focused on a primary text of their own choosing (in any genre/medium), and to consider how different contexts and theories can help us approach and analyze that work. All 40+ Casebooks were interesting and inspiring, both in their specific readings and in the way they reflected the students’ evolving perspectives to which our readings and conversations had meaningfully contributed. But I have to admit that I was ecstatic (my son Aidan’s favorite adjective, and a very apt one here) when one of the students used The Wire as his Casebook text, and applied Ethnic Studies, New Historicism, Gender Studies, and Marxist theoretical approaches to an extended and entirely successful reading of multiple moments, characters, and themes from that seminal show. Omar Little analyzed through a combination of bell hooks’ ideas of postmodern blackness, gender theory, and Georg Lukacs’ Marxist concepts of heroic identity and potentiality? Okay, literary theory, I’m sold.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?
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