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

PALS Note: This is the second post in a two part series from guest contributor, Sheila Liming.

In Part One of this post, I sketched a personal genealogy of my dealings with literary theory, describing the components of a transition that saw me first rejecting, then embracing it as methodological entrée to literary texts. In this, Part Two, I’m going to focus on my efforts to incorporate theory into undergraduate literary studies curricula.

Today, in my work as an educator, I still strive to keep theory close by my side, and to permit my students the opportunities to gauge its usefulness through the very fact of its omnipresence. For instance, I regularly teach the “Introduction to the English Major” course, which we here at the University of North Dakota call ENGL 271: Writing and Reading About Texts. This course is framed as a literary survey and is designed to introduce students to various forms, genres, and types of text. When I’m doing the driving, this course skews heavily towards American literature, and as my students and I engage with a retrospective sampling of poetry, fiction, and drama, I try always to make space for theory, reserving a spot for it (even if that spot isn’t necessarily the front passenger seat). To a certain extent, my doing so bucks against the sequential logic of our curriculum; students in our program encounter theory and criticism on formal terms through the ENGL 272 course, which follows the 271 Lit Intro. But in an effort to prevent the experience of alienation that I have been describing here – an experience that, Williams argues, is not unique or rare but rather a structurally predestined “phenomenon” – I try to model a kind of ubiquity and everydayness in my approach to teaching literary theory (Williams, “Alienation”).

For example, last semester I taught Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” a text that, I would argue, not only begs for elucidation at the hands of theoretical investigation, but that also makes little sense if considered apart from the concept I’ve been harping about here: alienation. The question of What’s wrong with Bartleby? compels our reading of Melville’s story. We desire to know Bartleby, to understand his reasons for “not preferring” his work as a copyist, especially since he does not seem to “prefer” anything else over it. And the answer to the riddle that is Bartleby – or, at the very least, an answer to that riddle – can be found in Karl Marx’s writings on alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. In that work, we see Marx, writing in 1844 (less than a decade before Melville), wrestle with the meaning of work in the context of the new industrial economy. Under industrial capitalism, Marx observes, human labor has become “externalized” and made separate from the laborer’s existence. “Labor is exterior to the worker,” Marx explains, “Thus the worker only feels a stranger … His labor is not voluntary but compulsory, forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need but only a means to satisfy needs outside himself.” Bartleby chafes at this understanding of what his own labor is good for, and resists the reduction of his own person to the status of laborer by refusing to do his work as a copyist. The nature of that work, too – copying documents which, rather than productive, appears only grossly and inanely reproductive – spells out the conditions of Bartleby’s alienation. Melville’s protagonist eventually starves himself, because he realizes that, as with work, the meaning of life has become vulgarly self-regenerative: we only labor so that we may continue laboring; we only live so that we may continue living. Marx tells us that the alienated laborer only “feels himself freely active in his animal functions of eating, drinking, and procreating.” Thus, Bartleby’s refusal to eat while he is imprisoned in the Tombs comes from a desire to transcend the conditions of his alienation.

I assigned a short excerpt from Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (from David McLellan’s Karl Marx: Selected Writings) to accompany our reading of “Bartleby,” as well as Williams’ brief entry on “Alienation” from his volume Keywords. I chose these two texts on the basis of expediency: reading theory and criticism, as even the most accomplished literary scholar will admit, takes time, and time is seldom found in excess when we’re talking about undergraduate survey curricula. But, in this case, both the Marx excerpt and the Williams essay amounted to about eight pages of reading – far less than the text of “Bartleby” itself, and less than I might normally assign for a single given class period anyway. And I can’t help but venture to think, optimistically, that doing so might have made the difference in my students’ understanding of Melville’s text.

I often administer mid-semester reviews as a way of checking-in with my students, and in those reviews, I ask them to list the course readings that they “liked” or “didn’t like.” Mind you, this is not the way that I would prefer to solicit student feedback: the language of like and dislike can yield exasperatingly insufficient results. But, in this course in particular, since I did not list the course texts in association with this question, I was also testing for both recall and comprehension: the implicit question in What did you like? was, of course, What do you remember having read? To my surprise, many of my students reported having liked “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” despite its being the longest reading on the syllabus. What’s even more interesting, though, is that several students reported having “got” Melville’s story better than some of the others we had read. The word “got,” in particular, signaled a voluntary switch from the language of like / dislike to that of comprehension that I hadn’t expected, but which I found encouraging. Too, many students opted to write final papers on “Bartleby,” even with sexier options (Sherman Alexie, Joyce Carol Oates, David Sedaris) on hand. Had the combined powers of Karl Marx and Raymond Williams helped some of my students reach a place where “getting” became implicitly linked to “liking”? I, at least, am hopeful that it did.

I’ll close here with a brief note about learning to love that which you cannot, at first, seem to fathom. When I first encountered literary theory as an undergraduate, my hatred for it was forged from a basis of incongruity: theory did not seem, at first glance, to jibe with the things that my training had taught me to care about. But, years later, when I applied to and selected a Master’s program in English, it was in a reputedly “theory-intensive” program, and this was intentional. In the interim, I had learned to understand – and thus to love – theoretical inquiry for its ability to add stakes to a conversation that I had always enjoyed, but previously not understood as necessarily important. Theory holds the potential to up the risks and rewards of a literary arts education, but this potential is squandered if we relegate it to the level of mere degree requirement. As the recently late, and forever great, David Bowie reminds us (in the chorus to a song that qualifies as Minor Bowie, but which interested readers should definitely YouTube because the video is nothing short of splendid), “believing the strangest things” often precludes “loving the alien.”

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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