Literary and Critical theory
Like other pages in this area of the website, this page seeks to complement the wealth of scholarly and teaching resources available to the teacher. Programme and module leaders will make their own choices about texts, anthologies and student support reading. The object of this page (and the growing body of resources to which it links) is to ‘think the subject pedagogically’. As teachers we are naturally attentive to what needs to be known. We also need to attend to how the subject is known and where learners have got to.
While many students come to experience the existence of these alternative paradigms as a revelation, it seems that for many others, ‘theory’ remains a grim obligation inviting the minimum of compliant gestures.
In the case of ‘theory’ this means starting from the fact that a lot of the material is conceptually very difficult, and that it draws on traditions of thought and analysis to which only very exceptional students will have had previous access. Both colleagues’ observations and student surveys indicate that ‘theory’ and theoretical ways of thinking lie at the heart of students’ sense of the paradigm shift undergone on moving from school to university. While many students come to experience the existence of these alternative paradigms as a revelation, it seems that for many others, ‘theory’ remains a grim obligation inviting the minimum of compliant gestures.
In many ways it seems that the exciting vertigo experienced by many in the early theory generations has been replaced by conformity to what is experienced as a form of oppressive orthodoxy. Any pedagogy of theory has to start from acknowledging that this material is not only difficult but often ‘counter-intuitive’ and unsettling. It has also often provided the grounds for competitive one-upmanship among students themselves. Our object here is not ‘theory made safe’, but learning made attractive.
Students in Theory
The suggestions that follow derive from a belief that as teachers we need to help establish pre-conditions for thinking theoretically. To achieve such pre-conditions we must build on students’ aptitudes and their existing critical repertoires. (Students frequently have very sophisticated ideas about culture and media. But do we always make use of these when it comes to the curriculum?) This requires us to set up preliminary and enhancement work which awakens questions and opens up alternative perspectives.
In aiming to problematise taken-for-granted or tacit assumptions about representation, or the constructed nature of identity, about authorial intention, about how culture and history might be enacted within a text, about knowledge as being more than information, teachers need at least to consider staged preliminary activity – work which moves through a spiral of increasing sophistication. In doing so they should seek to avoid instigating competitive superiority. There’s always a danger of creating those in-groups of the sophisticated which are all too common in the theory class. We are not here advocating what some colleagues would refer to as ‘spoon feeding’. But we are suggesting that respect for subject matter goes hand in hand with respect for students.
How Do Students Understand Theory?
Coming away from a visit to a prestigious university, I’m in the midst of a weekend exodus. The student opposite me on the crowded train is flipping through her highlighted copy of a well-known theory reader. There’s a certain amount of brittle self-dramatisation about this in front of an audience of other students. ‘Gothic, gothic, gothic’ she declaims. ‘Be something about Gothic, be something about Gothic …. No, there isn’t anything. Damn.’
Room for a little amateur ethnography? Student resistance may take the form of compliance, silence, and overt boredom as well as the pursuit counter arguments ….
… this is not spoon feeding
Questioning your own assumptions is a desirable outcome of university education, but teachers are too apt to overlook the insecurity experienced along the way.
At least in the early stages of a theory module, the majority of students are likely to require help if they are to become self-aware as readers and users of language. As teachers we hope that they will in the end become partners rather than dependents in this process. But it is not unreasonable for them to expect that you and your colleagues will provide an environment at once stimulating and supportive in which to develop and practise their new-found capacities. The propensity to question your own assumptions is a desirable outcome of university education, but teachers are too apt to overlook the insecurity experienced along the way. ‘Theory’ is likely to be experienced as counter-intuitive and disturbing; as a genre, it unsettles views of the world which may well need to be unsettled. But we need to make pedagogic allowances, and not just look down on students from the vantage point of our own intellectual superiority.