Friday, February 24, 2006

On the Line

The English major here at Northwoods is organized around a central line of what I think of as skills-oriented courses. The theory course I'm teaching now (for only the second time) is one of those courses.

Having reorganized our major a few years ago now, we're finally getting to the point where the students under the old major are mostly finished up, and most majors are working within the new curriculum. For the past several weeks, we've been having short presentations and then discussions amongst the faculty about each of the line courses, and yes, this week's theory. And I've been asked to be one of the presenters during the discussion. We're supposed to talk about how the theory course fits in the line, and what we want students to get out of taking it as part of the line.

The trouble is, I'm not a "real" theory person. I just play one on TV. Like most places I know, theory here is very gendered; I'm the only woman teaching the basic theory course in our department. I'm also the only earlier lit person.

I have a serious image of myself as a theory imposter, and I'm wrestling with that today as I prepare my presentation. The other two presenters are the young, hip, cool, male theory people, both of whom work on recent texts. I'm beating myself up a bit today because I really shouldn't be so worried about the whole thing, but that doesn't help the fact that I am.

We're supposed to talk about what we want students to get out of our classes, and part of my anxiety comes from thinking that at least some people think our students should get a survey of the history of theory, though that's not how I teach the class, and not how most others do, either. That is, they're thinking in terms of specific content, while I think in terms of skills for theory, and for all our central line classes. (Though there's certain bits of content I expect, when I get right down to it.)

What I want students to get out of a theory class is more basic, first, a sense that theory should make them question common sense answers and questions. I guess that's sort of Althusserian of me; I want us to think about what goes without saying. I also want students to understand that even if we don't acknowledge our theoretical approaches, we have them, and that if we acknowledge them, they're stronger, and we're more aware that we'll have blind spots. Or perhaps we're more aware that our theoretical approach determines to some extent what questions we can ask about literature, and if we're lucky, helps us be aware that other approaches will enable other questions, without ever quite enabling us to not have blind spots.

(I love the metaphor of the blind spot. I actually make my students fine theirs, often, and it's great to see them realize what a great metaphor it is. The way the brain interprets photons exciting retinal cells--or not--just blows my little mind.)

While I want my students to have a good foundation in a couple of theoretical approaches, I think even more, I want them to have a strategic approach to reading theoretical works, to thinking about them as arguments, and I want them to be able to use their strategy (or strategies) to approach texts in general.

Assuming other folks have theory classes, either in English departments or beyond, what do you want your students to get out of those classes?

Do you think primarily in terms of content or skills for your central line of classes (if you have one?)?


  1. Anonymous8:15 AM

    One thing I think is important to get out of a theory class is a sense of what kinds of questions different theoretical perspectives ask.

  2. That's a good way to put it Anonymous, thanks!