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ON THE TEACHING OF LITERARY THEORY by David Gershom Myers My title is intended to evoke Lionel Trilling's famous essay "On the Teaching of Modern Literature." And my theme is similar to his. But where Trilling was convinced that modern literature is betrayed by teaching unless students are not left in the dark about their teacher's commitment to it, fear of it, ambivalence to it, I believe the only way to teach literary theory is to take issue with it. Although many teachers of theory claim to engage in "oppositional pedagogy," dieir opposition falters at theory itself. If the available materials are any indication, die most common approach to the subject is the taxonomical survey, with lessons or units on Saussurean linguistics, structuralist anthropology, la nouvelle critique, deconstruction, rezeptionästhetik and reader response, Marxist criticism, psychoanalysis, feminism, the New Historicism, etc.1 Here theory is represented as dieories, and what is imparted in die classroom are die propositional contents of various and differing bodies of doctrine. Students are instructed diat language, meaning, and the selfare socially constructed, diat discourse is ideological, that il n'y a pas de hors-texte, that paradigms shift, that the author is dead. The ideas of literary theory, in short, are treated as accomplished facts. Such an approach has something to recommend it. It is a convenient way to organize a syllabus; it acknowledges and conveys the significance of theory as a historical movement; it is founded upon the sound educational precept that learning can take place only where there is something in particular to be learned. But pretty clearly the teaching of literary theory as a set of facts is not the teaching of it as theory. Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 326-336 David Gershom Myers327 Although theorists like to speak of solving problems, although their followers act upon occasion as if the achievement of recent theory has been to settle certain issues and close off certain inquiries, it is a betrayal of literary theory to teach it with this attitude, reducing theory to received ideas. On one hand die attitude is untheoretical. Traditional humanists are abused for believing in the normative force of preexisting standards when "post-modernist lit profs by definition recognize that 'literary standards'—literatures themselves—are socially constructed and therefore ideological."2 But to speak so confidently of what is "therefore" the case is to insist without further argument that true statement p entails true statement q, and this is not (in Gilbert RyIe's words) a "dieory-constituting sentence": such expressions belong not to players on the field oftheorybut to spectators and cheerleaders.3 If teachers really believe that theory has solved some of the traditional problems of criticism and interpretation it would be dishonest of them not to drill students in the solutions, perhaps with the aid of mnemonic rhymes. But if literary theory means anything by definition it is that all verdicts about literature and literary standards—and not only humanists ' —are open to interrogation. Otherwise, the culture of humanism is merely being unseated by the culture of theory, and tiieory is misunderstood as die authoritative source of a New Wisdom. The original hope that theory would offer defiance to just such a moral and literary education based on cultural authority is diwarted. Most teachers would probably agree that genuine learning has not been attained witii the ability to recite that-sentences ("Derrida says that . . ." or "feminists assert that . . ."). It also involves the knowledge how to carry forward a specific inquiry for oneself. Is theory then a set of methods and probative techniques? R. S. Crane once proposed such an approach, in which critical theories would be treated heuristically, "not as doctrines to be taught, but radier as more or less useful tools of our trade. . . ."4 Instead of boggling at the word trade, which may seem to imply a bourgeois conception of teaching and critical activity, it might be worthwhile to consider tiiis heuristic approach, while holding the question of its class consequences in abeyance. For it, too, is a favored approach to the teaching of literary theory, perhaps only slightly less common than the taxonomical survey. Here different theories are abridged and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 326-336
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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