English 215: Critical Methods (Spring 2014)

   lawyers.jpg (18237 bytes)

Professor Arnie Sanders (Section .001 WF 11:00-12:15)

VM 141 (x6515)  Office Hours: TuTh 11:30-12:30, but make a formal appointment, don't just drop in.  You only have to call or email.  Page last updated: 04/23/2015 03:38:11 PM    Note on this web site's typographic conventions

        N.B.:   If you were unable to take 215 this semester, another will be offered in the Fall.  If you are currently enrolled in English 200, you should not take English 215.  If you have not yet taken 200, ordinarily you should take 200 before you take 215 or demonstrate to the department chair that you already can write good papers doing close-reading literary analysis. 

New! 5/2/14--Thursday's class will be a question and answer session on the take-home final exam.  Questions can address specific theories, their relation to one another, individual theorists, works of literature you might apply the theories to, and journals to follow if you are interested in specific kinds of theory.  I also will be discussing the long-term intellectual benefit of following or even subscribing to Poetry Magazine, and one or both of the major literature reviews: The Times Literary Supplement ("TLS") and The New York Review of Books ("NYRB").

          We have now gone past the last official theoretical position which you will be responsible for writing about in English 215.  We have not reached "the end of theory," of course. 

               An author asked a critic for his opinion of the author's latest work.  "It's worthless," said the critic.  "I know," said the author, "but tell me anyway."

        Announcement: the new Book Studies minor (BKS) has been approved.  If you are interested in old books and manuscripts, the history of literacy and book production, and hands-on work with rare objects, please consider signing up for English 241, Archeology of Text.  If interested, please contact me.

Some generally useful links that didn't quite fit in the menu below: What is literature?   Link to "concordances" list.  Recommended GRE Lit Exam reading list.  Link to an archived Web page created by Reed College's English Department to support students preparing for the GRE Lit Exam (useful as a checklist of authors, works, and issues).  Good practices to follow when submitting professional documents by email.

Writing Help: Please consider taking your notes and ideas for all English 215 assignments to the Writing Center to talk it over with one of the tutors who have taken English 215 with me.  Interpretation of any kind is hard work.  Seek help and you will have more fun doing it.  One good strategy is to schedule regular appointments each week with the same tutor.  To help you understand the theories and their methods, try meeting just before or after the Tuesday classes in which we introduce the theories.  That will give you a better global sense of what writers do when they use the theory, which will help you start the "Working With [Theory X]" assignments with a realistic sense of what you are attempting to do.  Then, meet again with the same tutor between Friday and Sunday, either to brainstorm or edit a draft of your "Working With" paper.  If you commit the time to discussing your learning with the tutors, you will learn more and you will feel better doing it.

Grice's Maxims of Ordinary Language Use  ("literature" violates these maxims in ways readers learn to love and anticipate)


        The goal of this course is to alter, enrich, deepen, and complicate your current strategies for reading and interpreting literary texts. We would argue that the chief difference between new and relatively inexperienced readers and experienced ones is not that the latter group has read more but that they have a more extensive repertoire of questions they tend to ask texts. For example, someone new to the field of literary studies might be limited to these kinds of questions: What is this character like? Who is telling the story? Do I trust him or her? What is the significance of the setting? etc. These are important questions, but they also limit the possible responses to and insights into a work. Over the course of this semester, we will generate together a new list of questions. What one quickly discovers is that the kinds of questions you ask texts allow you to be identified with particular groups or schools of critics. Your tendency to be concerned with questions of a work's formal unity, its internal organization, might reveal you to others as a New Critic; questions that uncover the ways in which a work is caught in a web of historical conditions link you to New Historicism; your questions about the portrayal of women, or about whether women write differently than men, suggest your interest in one of the many strains of Feminist criticism. The members of the English Department are much less concerned that you learn these "isms" and their basic tenets--a task, in the end, that no semester-length course could adequately address--than that you leave this class with a fresh array of questions that you are committed to asking the poems, short stories, novels, and plays you will encounter in your junior and senior years of study.

        However, if you are at all interested in graduate study in English, or if you are simply curious about why so many smart people in recent history have spent so much time and passionate energy arguing about theory, you might want to know something about the "Theory Wars" of the 20th century, and how they produced the current state of the profession.  Briefly put, a successive series of revolutions in English Departments from England to America have overthrown one critical school after another until, near the end of the 1990s, the momentum of theoretical innovation seems to have slowed and the carnage within the study of literature has diminished somewhat.  In return for this struggle, readers of literature have discovered new levels of meaning in literary works, and new ways that literature helps to create, as well as to represent, the societies which produced it.

        This interpretive progress was not without its costs.  While the "Theory Wars" raged, scholars in our discipline were willing to destroy each other, socially and professionally, for the sake of ideas they held so dear that no price was too high to pay in order to advance them.  The public, political consequences of some theories arguably have led to the deaths of millions, and the battles within English Departments have resulted in the firings of both senior and junior faculty, and even produced at least one formal challenge to a duel of honor in a state institution very near Maryland.  These powerful ideas have made and broken careers, and have resulted in the emergence of a set of "celebrity" scholars whose influential leadership among proponents of particular theories have permitted them to reject attachment to any individual university for more than a few years, traveling the world from one prestigious appointment to another, carried (as it were) on the wings of theory.  Click here for a very brief overview of The Theory Wars of the 20th Century.  Click here if someone has told you that "theory is dead--nobody studies it any more."

 "Academic Honor Code: Reference to the academic honor code is required of all course syllabi as a reminder to students.  Suggested wording includes: Reminder: All students are bound by the standards of the Academic Honor Code, found at www.goucher.edu/documents/General/AcademicHonorCode.pdf."  I distinguish between accidental forms of plagiarism, in which the author obviously intended to cite sources but cited them at the wrong place, from pure carelessness (no citations, even if sources are listed at the back) and outright theft of intellectual property intentionally passed off as one's own.  The first type of cases usually are opportunities to teach and learn.  The second type are more troubling and may go to the Honor Board if they happen late in the semester, after we have discussed source use and its importance to your readers.  The last will be sent to the Honor Board without hesitation.  Students also are increasingly content to cite sources long after their prose has begun to borrow ideas from those sources.  That is technically plagiarism, too, but it has become so common that I must spend gallons of ink and hundreds of keystrokes un-teaching it.  Never make me guess whose ideas I'm reading.  Cite sources when you first depend on them.  I want to know how well you can think, not how well your sources can think, which is a matter of historical record for anyone who reads them.  Let there be a bright line of fire between ideas that are originally yours and those of other writers to which you refer. 

Student Learning Outcomes: (click on the link for an explanation of what these things mean)

Students will successfully explain the assumptions and interpretive methods of at least five of the eight critical theories studied, including Psychological, Marxist, New Critical, Structuralist, Deconstructionist, Feminist, Reader-Response, and New-Historical/Cultural Criticism.

Students will apply correctly the interpretive methods of at least five of those eight theories.

Students will compose a coherent, thorough, final explanation of the critical methods they will choose to use in the future, and a reasonable explanation of why they will not use the others.

Hit Counter since 1/27/09 reset