About "Working With..." Papers

Why "Working With..." Papers?  When trying to understand a new interpretive theory's methods, students need to try to use those methods in hands-on analysis, trying their hands at various styles of critical thought, while keeping the academic risk relatively low and the intellectual rigor relatively high.  Students' reactions to using interpretive theories and their critical methods tend to be highly idiosyncratic, emotional as well as intellectual events.  Most students won't be able to do excellent work using every one of these critical theories, but they need to be encouraged to try their best.  To do my job, I have to make sure you at least understand what these various theories are about and how a competent practitioner would operate them.  This will help you read secondary scholarship with a discerning eye, alert for missed opportunities you might exploit in your own work, and free from any slavish respect which might result from your not understanding how the scholars arrived at their insights about literature.  The assignments which really work for you will tell you what kind of theories are most fruitful for you to apply in your papers, and the next trick will be to discover for what kinds of literature each theory works best.

What is a "Working With..." Paper?  Each assignment will tend to be short to make writing and reading them practical.  If your summary of the theory and method is efficient, and if your application is deft, they might be between 3 and 5 pages for the simpler theories (Psych, Marx).  If you find yourself writing more than 8-10 pages, let's talk about ways to get the papers done in less space and time.  They also will be frequent.  Eight times you will wade into a piece of literature to interpret it with a different set of theoretical assumptions and interpretive moves, and eight times I will respond to let you know how well you have captured the theory's potential for revealing meaning in literature.  Grading will be rudimentary, a 1 to 10 score, and I will drop the lowest two grades.  That means you can try and fail 1/4 of the time without penalty, and based on my feedback, you should improve your performance throughout the semester.  I also have set up criteria for evaluation so you will know exactly how your attempt to apply the theory will be tested.  Basically, if your attempt meets the criteria, you'll get a 10.  If you get half-way there, you'll get a 5.  I will not expect these papers to be particularly stylish examples of prose, just unambiguous, coherently organized, grammatical writing.  I also will make organization easier by allowing you to split your writing into two sections for which you do not have to write transition.

        For each "Working With..." assignment, I am looking for a demonstration of two kinds of knowledge.  The first section should contain your summary of the main principles of the theory we are "Working With" and a statement of the critical methods that arise from those principles.  I want these to be compressed but complete in their grasp of the most important elements of each.  (Guidance for the perplexed: if Tyson has a major chapter section devoted to the topic, you should at least mention it in a sentence or more; if there is more than one reading for the week, you should deal with all the readings, not just Tyson.)  The second section should contain an application of one or more of those critical methods to an analysis of the text I have paired with the theory.  That section, too, should be considered only a short demonstration.  Show me that you know how the theory affects your handling of the text and your presumed relations with your readers, and that you can use at least one of its basic critical methods to disclose something non-obvious and arguably important about the literary work in question.  This second section should not be expanded into a complete paper, but you might consider at least a sentence or two at the end to explain the importance of what the method helped you discover (English 200's "so what?").  I am looking for a demonstration that you not only can explain what the theory says a competent practitioner should do with the literary text, but also that you can do it.

Should I Introduce My Own Opinions About These Theories in the "Working With..." Papers?  In the take-home final exam, you will have a graded opportunity to reflect on your experience trying on these various theories' styles of thought, and you will critique them or argue for their practices in an act of critical self-definition.  In the "Working With" papers, however, I ask you to approach your reader in one of two personas: your own, if you genuinely believe in the theory's principles and methods, or that of a critic who does believe, in the event you find the theory either intellectually doubtful or emotionally repellant.  Think of this as an opportunity to play, to adopt some new intellectual roles.  Beware any impulses toward satire of the theories' shortcomings unless you are supremely confident that you can control your weapon.  More than one satirist has been beheaded by strokes aimed at the satire's target.  Pour your critiques and queries into postings for the Blackboard forum discussion, which I evaluate qualitatively and quantitatively at the end of the semester as part of your class participation grade (35% of the total).

How Can I Be Sure These Theories Always Will Work With The Assigned Literary Texts?  In the interests of full disclosure, I must warn you that I have pre-selected all the examples of literary texts to make certain they are compatible with the theoretical assumptions of the week's critical methods they are paired with.  Each work, when paired with the theory of the week, will produce a wide range of correct interpretive insights.  It works this way because English 215 is the inverse of an ordinary literature course.  Usually, we assign you to read texts and then we expect you to choose an appropriate interpretive theory to generate an insight for the thesis of a paper about that work.  In 215, first you have to see the theories working before you can decide whether you want to make them work for you.  I have matched each theory with a text or texts that meet its basic requirements for an interpretable object.  If you are to employ these critical methods successfully in literature courses, of course, you will have to learn to do that last step yourself, to match the text you are exploring with interpretive theories that suit the text's properties.  To choose but one example of many, psychoanalytic criticism presumes that the work is in some sense realistic, so that characters are constructed with at least rudimentary systems of unconscious drives that produce patterns of symptoms psychoanalysis can analyze.  However, medieval allegories like Everyman explicitly do  not strive for "psychological realism," but rather they try  to generalize about all humans' behaviors using "flat," relatively unrealistic characters with little or no psychological depth..  Sometimes they explicitly dramatize psychological events (like "Strength" coming to Everyman after he consults "Good Deeds"), but the characters are not "psychological" in a Freudian sense.  In fact, some scholars doubt that the human psychology described by Freud was necessarily present in pre-Industrial, pre-Modern, or pre-literate cultures, depending on the degree of their skepticism.  The student who tries to write a psychoanalytic treatment of any "flat" or "type" character would be in the same situation, as in an attempt to discover the unconscious roots of Wiley E. Coyote's obsessive pursuit of Roadrunner.  As Gertrude Stein once wrote of Oakland, California, "There's no 'there' there."  Characters drawn with slightly more "roundness" or psychological "depth" might be analyzed using that method, but the introduction would have to explain why it was possible.  Modern, psychologically realistic fictional characters and poetic personae are fair game without apologies or elaborate introductions.

        For each discussion of theory, we will explore the issue of what kinds of texts are best suited for analysis with that theory, and which ones are "booby-trapped" with violations of the theory's basic assumptions.  I encourage you to discuss possible theory applications in public folder postings as a way to test whether you really understand the theory.  If you can tell me why Dada poems are not suitable for Marxist interpretation, or why fairy tales work so well with Feminist theory and Structuralism, or why short lyric poems by English Romantic or Modernist poets work well with New Criticism but modern novels tend not to work well with New Criticism, you are beginning to understand the tool kit of ideas and methods which English 215 is attempting to teach you to use.

        Click here for evaluation criteria I will when grading the written product of the process described above.