Loving the Alien: or, Making Theory Useful to the Undergraduate American Literature Classroom, Part One

PALS Note: PALS is excited to have a post from its second guest contributor, Sheila Liming. Liming is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Dakota. This post will be Part One of a two part series on teaching literary theory. Look for Part Two this Wednesday, January 27th

Like many, my first scholastically sanctioned interactions with literary theory came in the form of an Introduction to Theory and Criticism course, which I took as a sophomore undergraduate at the behest of curricular requirement. And, like many, my hatred for the subject was, at the time, nigh instantaneous

LIMING_annotations copyThese early encounters with literary theory made me feel as though I had been tossed into a new kind of arena, inside of which all of my previous skills and training – however fledgling – seemed to evaporate or, worse, to no longer apply. My copy of Criticism: Major Statements (Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2000) still retains the notes that bear witness to those feelings of estrangement and ineptitude. Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play,” for example, is awash with notes and markings. In it, I can see myself at nineteen, desperately trying to keep pace with Derrida’s logic, teasing out individual words from the text only to crash-land, at the margins, with hand-written admissions of confusion: Say what?

Often, it is the philosophically inflected language of theory and criticism that appears to forestall our understanding of it. But language is a problem that we who receive training in literary arts curricula have, in general, the means to solve. Our training prepares us to work with and to wrestle with language; my markings in the Criticism volume indicate that, even at nineteen, I felt willing and prepared to do as much. But what I was, at the time, far less prepared for was the messy work of application, the stuff from which theory is born and also that which it demands. And the kinds of applications that I saw theorists and critics making seemed all the more alien to me because they referred, for the most part, to bodies of literature that were as yet wholly unfamiliar to me. Lukacs spoke to me of Zola, Eagleton of Racine, Bakhtin of Turgenev, and Karl Marx, well, he didn’t speak to me of any kind of literature at all. What, I wondered, did all this have to do with Toni Morrison’s Beloved? (We would, some months later, end the course with a paper assignment asking us to attach a theoretical or critical perspective to none other than this novel.)

The vast majority of my undergraduate coursework in English was focused on American literature, because this was what interested me. While I didn’t know then that American literature would likewise become the center of my graduate studies in English – and, later, of my career in it as well – I had already figured out that reading many of its canonical figures seemed to ignite my brain (while reading Jane Austen, by comparison, yielded a kind of anaesthetizing effect). While I didn’t feel, at nineteen, like I was able to lay claim to much expertise on the subject, I felt certain that I was on my way to expertise, and that my training was designed to get me there. The Introduction to Theory course, though, came in the form of the proverbial wrench: it seemed to derail my journey towards expertise. My professor, I recall, explained that Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play” was first delivered as a lecture in 1966, “The same year Pynchon published Crying of Lot 49,” he added. At the time, I was reading Pynchon’s novel in another course and I, groping for some incipient understanding of what Raymond Williams would probably call a structure of feeling, reasoned that there had to be a link between Derrida’s arguments and Pynchon’s narrative. But damned if I could figure out what it was.

Given both the context and the tenor of my introduction to the world of literary theory, then, my initial hatred for it is pretty unsurprising. I struggled through the Intro. course, handed in a paper on Beloved that I knew to be insipidly deficient, received my less-than-stellar grade for it, and walked away from the whole experience not as an expert, not even as an expert-in-training, but rather haunted by feelings of failure. All those guys with their hard-to-pronounce names and their decontextualized references to French and Russian literature had beaten the tenderest interests in expertise right out of me.

It turned out that there was a word for how I felt then about my experiences with theory, though it would be years before I would learn it: alienation. I had become estranged from the logic of my own labor, and the result of this estrangement was that I felt additionally disinterested in and separated from the products of that labor (whether we’re talking about a bachelor’s degree in English, a set of skills associated with literary arts education, or a really very terrible term paper on Toni Morrison). True, I’m being a bit cheeky here when I use the word alienation in this way. Marx’s original use of the term, to be sure, invokes a variety of consequences and stakes, including the reduction of the human subject to the basis of his labor power and then, given that basis, the inevitable conflict that results when “each man measures his relationship to other men by the relationship in which he finds himself placed as a worker” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts). Compared to such stakes, the B-minus I received on my Morrison paper looks, admittedly, like small potatoes. But so far as the construction of my intellectual identity may be concerned – that long road toward eventual expertise – my experiences with a literary theory curriculum registered, at the time, in many ways as “the loss of myself,” to paraphrase Marx.

I eventually came to understand – yea, love – theoretical critique, but not through the context of my literature courses. As an undergrad, I ended up opting for a second major in Women’s and Gender Studies and, in the courses I took through that program, I came to realize that theory was everywhere. The WGS curriculum did not cordon off the teaching of theory and criticism, or banish it to the level of curricular obligation. It did not ask me to dispense with my previous training as a reader and thinker but, instead, offered an argument for theoretical inquiry as, in fact, the basis of that training. Feminist theory never left our side in those WGS courses, no matter the subject of the conversation. The result was that I came to greet the messiness of application without the anxiety of Am I doing this right?, since repeated application became the test through which we were encouraged to scrutinize others’ theoretical claims.

Today, scrutiny continues to play a big role in the strategies I employ in teaching theory to undergraduates. In Part Two of this post, I’ll discuss some of those strategies in greater detail, and describe my take on making theory useful to undergraduates’ interactions with literature.

Contributor Bio:

LIMING profile pic copySheila Liming is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Dakota, where she teaches courses on twentieth-century American literature, theory and criticism, and digital methodologies. Her research centers on print culture, media histories, and all things Edith Wharton, and her public writing has appeared or is forthcoming in venues like The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Catch her on Twitter: @seeshespeak.



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