Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 539-545
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The Undergraduate Curriculum in Theory
Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. 2d ed. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.
Just how much theory literature students should get early in their undergraduate studies is a question that frequently surfaces in departmental discussions of curriculum. Should they become acquainted with literary texts and learn to read and write about them before they are introduced to the contemporary theoretical debates that absorb many of us in literature departments? Or is it more effective to introduce undergraduates to the critical controversies early so they can recognize the approaches they encounter in their classes and situate their own reading and writing in those debates? The latter view is the driving principle of David H. Richter's anthology Falling into Theory. "Students," Richter argues, "need as early as possible an exposure to the debates themselves to mark out their own positions" (ix). He regards his book as a "primer" that implements Gerald Graff's belief that we should "teach the conflicts." It aims to involve students in the issues of academic debate, to "get them engaged in our conversation" (ix).
This anthology is valuable in many ways. Richter has thought a lot about teaching, and the book poses many questions about literary study that every student and teacher should consider. In this revised edition, twenty-two of the thirty-eight pieces are new, and many are complete essays, given as originally [End Page 539] published. While some of the readings were specifically written in response to others, the apparatus and organization of this volume effectively put many of the essays in conversation with each other.
Unlike most theory textbooks, which are organized around various critical schools, this anthology is divided into three parts: "Why We Read, or English and the Crisis of Disciplinarity"; "What We Read, or the Canon, the Curriculum, and the Idea of Literature"; and "How We Read, or Authors, Readers, and Literary Interpretation." It is also meant to do different work from the standard theory anthology, for instance, Blackwell's recent Literary Theory (Rivkin and Ryan 1998) or Richter's (1989) own The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Only the third section of Falling into Theory deals with interpretive methods, and even there the aim is not to give students a survey of various schools of interpretation but to introduce them to broad issues in the interpretation of literary texts and to acquaint them with prominent trends in current criticism. Above all, the book provides students with extensive grounding in the disciplinary and professional questions that have been so central in recent years, among them the aims of literary studies, the origins and institutionalization of English, and disputes over the curriculum, the canon, and aesthetic value.
Thus this volume could not replace a standard theory anthology in a course that aims at imparting broad knowledge of contemporary critical schools. It will not teach students about Marxism, deconstruction, structuralism, and other modes of interpretive theory. For such a purpose I would turn to Blackwell's impressive Literary Theory. Richter himself recommends that his anthology be used in an introductory course in literature or as a supplement to any literature course, and the related Internet site includes sample syllabi that suggest ways to design such courses.
One of Richter's central assumptions is that "theory is the talk we talk when a consensus breaks down" (9). Literature professors, he claims, no longer hold the unreflective, shared suppositions "about nearly everything that was basic to their profession" (2) that they held several decades ago. The volume presents the central controversies that have arisen as a result of this "fall into theory." Part 1, "Why We Read," takes up the functions of literature and literary education. It provides, through Richter's introductory essays and the selections, a good overview of the institutionalization of literature, as well as useful discussions of recent revisions to the curriculum, while placing contemporary trends in the university in social and historical context. The contributors include Helen Vendler on the pleasures...