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.



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.