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  • The Truth Shall Make You Freire
  • Robert Canter
Teaching Contemporary Theory to Undergraduates, edited by Dianne F. Sadoff and William E. Cain; 271 pp. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1994; $19.75, paper.


The newest title in the MLA’s Options for Teaching series, this publication is well-timed. Concerns about “classroom advocacy” and “politicized teaching” have recycled into near-critical mass, even in the mass media. The book is well-arranged, too, with a solid sample of deconstructionist, New Historicist, Marxist, feminist, and cultural studies, and more mix-and-match theorists describing their classroom aims and means in twenty-one essays grouped into four sections. Sadoff and Cain offer elegantly evasive introductions—not only to these essays per se, but to the issues these essays purport to address. In “Surveying Theory,” David B. Downing, John Kucich, Susan S. Lanser, Lynette Felber, Donald G. Marshall, and Gary Waller lay broadly “anti-foundational” groundwork. In “Focusing,” Diana Fuss, Sandra A. Grayson, Beverly Lyon Clark, Evan Carton, Laurie A. Finke, Jonathan Arac, and Cary Nelson deconstruct things in more detail. In “Theory and Culture,” Huston Diehl, Cannon Schmitt and Donald Ulin, Lindon Barrett, Simon Gikandi, D. N. Rodowick, and Jan Gorak again widen the scope of “theorized teaching,” aiming regulation anticanonical shrapnel at every bastion of coded convention. And while readers may pause over [End Page 336] its backcover promise of “lively and accessible prose,” on the whole, the book is unusually readable for an MLA publication about theory.

Since Teaching Contemporary Theory to Undergraduates is a how-to directed at true-believers, it might seem like critical blindsiding to address its fundamental assumptions rather than its tactical suggestions, to focus on its “theory” rather than on its pedagogy. Yet such a focus is not only fair but necessary. The pedagogy is in this book a pawn of the theory. And the theory is, at best, a lesson in how not to teach students how to learn. For despite all its noisy celebrations of methodological, cultural, ontological, and occasionally even human “difference,” the anthology is really a chorus of self-defeating dogma. 1 Like the virtue of variety, even the relative absence of jargon here works as much against as for the book, revealing self-contradictions so perfectly unwitting that they are twice as funny. It is a good thing, then, that the authors eventually contradict these claims, too—even if they know not that they do.

The canon? In accordance with postmodern tradition, “the canon” can be calibrated to be whatever best attacks whatever other tradition a particular theorist is aiming at. It is a very modular “monolith.” And theorists never try to “overdetermine” definitions, anyway. The classroom? As an “overdetermined” site of class-struggle, “the classroom (and the academy at large) is . . . a social institution designed to reproduce the interests, values, and politics of the dominant social classes” (p. 104). Convention? Anything “mainstream” is so polluted with “the notion of mastery, of total and complete knowledge” that even assigning “mainstream” theorists in a theory class “reproduces that hegemony, no matter how critically we read them” (pp. 105, 61). The runoff of mainstream theorists quoted here—conventional MLA Style—makes the same point. Culture? As always already—and only—“a struggle between power and its disenfranchised shadow,” culture “systematically excludes and marginalizes disenfranchised social members” (pp. 263–64, 20–21).

Education? As Paulo Freire has revealed, 2 on the one, bad, goatish, wrong Right-wing hand of God, there is the repressive “banking” model of education; on the other, good-shepherdish, right Left-wing side, there is the liberating “problem-posing” model. You are either a droning clerk bent on subduing students into serfdom, or you are a resistance fighter lighting fuses of freedom. “Instrumental activity” does “pedagogical violence,” making the teacher a tyrant and the student a victim, a “submissive imitator” in a “system” that’s “abidingly committed [End Page 337] to the vision of a white-supremacist oligarchy.” Even asking students what level of “guidance” they feel they need is imposing “rhetorical control” (pp. 32, 23, 222, 135).

Facts? The fact is, they are “the discursive gestures of the dominant groups” (p. 222). Unless they are...

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