The Perils of Theory (Syllabi)

Here I am, wandering in the desert of teaching the required course in literary theory for the English majors (which I’m loving!), only to find that I’m far from being alone. I fretted about the design of this course for much of the fall semester and throughout the winter break; I asked everyone I knew who had taught one of these before for their ideas; I performed a close reading of my colleague’s syllabus for the same course to discern her logic and pedagogical choices, in order to figure out what might work for me.

Come to find out, this practice may be a widespread scholarly dis-ease. Over at Acephalous, Scott Eric Kaufman has a post about a theory syllabus designed in 1994 by Jeffrey Williams, based on the idea of the professionalization of theory. This post and the comment string attached give a good sense of the multiple considerations that go into designing a course like this. Commenters question professionalization as a viable theme, the makeup of the class population and their specific interests and needs, the necessity of including continental philosophers, the compulsion to assign newer theory rock stars (e.g., Judith Butler) vs. the critique that this inclusion is an indication of how their theories have become “ossified”…and the comments continue.

For my part, I’m still stuck on Kaufman’s original question: “What would I teach and why?” As I put together my own theory syllabus, I was constantly trying to balance a couple of ideas:

  • What will students need to know later in order to be successful in our English program?
  • What ideas should they be introduced to that might serve them later in life, regardless of major?
  • What were the pieces that I had read that really changed the way that I looked at texts and the world?
  • What was appropriately challenging, but not so tough that they’d just give up?
  • How could I group texts to create coherence and “handholds” on relevant ideas that many theorists engage?

That’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s the short set of the questions that I checked each and every piece against as I put the syllabus together. Some pieces (e.g., Butler) easily fit a couple of categories (useful for both English studies and life), but defied others (more than “appropriately challenging”). Others defied many categories (e.g., the rhizome chapter of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus), but as theory goes, I think are important enough to make exceptions. [If you’re dying to know what the final choices were, you can look here. Gentle critiques are happily accepted.]

On some level, what becomes clear is that the history and canon of literary theory is as contested as that of literature itself. The criteria we create and the rationales we deliver are indicative of the kinds of critics we are, complete with the traces (insert Derrida joke here) of our indoctrinations and rebellions against those, our idealism and our despair over the futures of literary study. The process of developing and defending a single 16 week introduction to theory is a practice of theory itself.

At the successful conclusion to a theory class, perhaps students should be writing their own syllabi?

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