- Anthologies, Literary Theory and the Teaching of Literature: An Exchange
You’ve thought a great deal about the institutionalization and professionalization of literary studies in America. What role have anthologies played in the institutionalization and professionalization of literary studies?
The roles and effects are obviously multiple and over-determined, but let me start, being the curmudgeon I am, with one of the worst pedagogical results of literature anthologies: legitimating the primacy of literary texts and their supposed transparency, and obscuring the importance of criticism and interpretation (not even to mention theory) for the literature classroom.
Why does foregrounding the significance of criticism and interpretation make you a curmudgeon? I would say just the opposite. I don’t think that teachers have really thought enough about how to incorporate theory into the teaching of literary texts. The result is either a misappropriation of theory and criticism in their classroom, or an avoidance of theory and criticism in the classroom. The worst instance of the former is what I call the “cookie cutter approach” to theory which works something like this: apply literary theory “A” to literary text “B”. Result: a valid interpretation of literary text “B” (and a successful use of literary theory “A”). On this strategy, students think that criticism and theory is some kind of game wherein points are scored for the production of valid interpretations. Textbooks like many of the volumes in the Bedford series in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism that have primary texts along with selections like “What is Deconstruction?” and “What is Feminism?” promote this type of trivial use of theory, albeit I think unwittingly. In other cases, theory and criticism is entirely avoided in the classroom either because it is perceived by the teacher to [End Page 113] be beyond the ken of the students, or because the teacher wants to promote the illusion that literary studies just involves a close reading of the primary literary text at hand.
I agree. Students and teachers who pick up an anthology get the illusion that studying literature is a matter of closely reading a bunch of primary texts and letting those texts in themselves somehow tell them what to say about the texts in class and in student writing. This obscures, conceals, and mystifies the fact that what we say about a literary text, though certainly accountable to the text itself—and this is important in ways I hope we can pursue—is generated not by the text but by the critical questions we ask about it. These questions come from the secondary conversation of readers and critics rather than from the text itself.
I like this as a general way of approaching the teaching of literature, but worry about placing the onus of criticism on the asking of the right critical questions. For me, questions can both lead us to find new aspects of the text at hand as well as delimit our discovery of the text. I’d put the emphasis on the “conversation” part of your comment, rather than the “critical question” part. We should encourage our students to enter a conversation about a text. Specifically, the members of this conversation are the people who have written and commented on this text. The student can gain entry into this conversation only by acknowledging the scholarship of its members. His or her questions should concern the terms of the discussion, its assumptions and its conclusions. The arbiter in the conversion should be the literary text in question. In this context, the approach to literary texts is one of entering a discourse community or discussion of the text. Students should recognize that the questions they ask about the text are determined by the terms, assumptions and conclusions of the discourse community concerning the text. These questions are “critical questions” because they are meaningful within a particular critical context, not because they are questions in an anthology or what are perceived to be perennial questions.
Anthologies tend to efface the mediating intervention of criticism in literary study by reducing criticism to its dullest common denominator—informational headnotes and...