I expressed my reluctance to teach an intro to theory course. I taught such courses at UC Berkeley and in the Netherlands, both times with mixed results, from my perspective. And having an office opposite that of a teaching assistant who was teaching it, I couldn't help but overhear his 308 conferences, and they produced a rather dismal deja-vu for me.
The faculty voted in 2009 to make this a required course for all English majors and reaffirmed that decision informally in a "retreat" last August. (Unfortunately, few of them want to teach the required course - hence the recruitment effort). After consulting my colleagues who had taught the course before, and after long thought about the state of our actually-existing English majors' knowledge, it was clear to me that a survey of literary theory had not worked well, would be pointless to repeat, and would divert attention from addressing our students' needs. So here is the course description I came up with:"This course will help you develop essential skills that will serve you in good stead in English studies, in your college career, and in your career beyond college. We will spend as much time as it takes for the class to master each subject or skill before moving to the next. In Part One, you will study the following elements of the language, as well as their changes over time: (1.) Words: spelling, vocabulary, usage, parts of speech, etymology; (2.) Sentences: diagramming sentences, grammar, syntax & punctuation, types of clauses, common errors; (3.) Paragraph construction in the expository essay: parts to whole, sequential (logical) progression, transitions. You then will be required to produce a piece of writing that seeks a response from someone beyond the classroom (an actual job letter, fellowship or award application, letter to the editor, etc.). Part Two will require you to develop the skill of “close reading,” or explication. We will apply what we’ve learned about words, sentences and paragraphs to (1.) explicating sentences in contracts; (2.) explicating paragraphs in literary essays; and (3.) explicating poems. In this part, you will be required to write a close reading of a poem (5-7 pp.) using the knowledge acquired thus far. Finally, in Part Three (if we get that far!), we will explicate poems in their historical context. This specialized form of close reading will form the topic of the third and final writing assignment, in which you will explicate a poem in light of your own historical research. In addition to the three major writing assignments (which I will expect to be error-free), there will be weekly quizzes on each of the topics above, along with a mid-term exam and final exam."
Concern was expressed that this description, emphasizing as it does sentence and paragraph structure and mastering one level of knowledge before progressing to the next, might turn students off of the course, and, by extension of the major. This is not an imaginary fear: the number of our majors is down almost half (!) since 2008.
Here is my reply to the Chair (and several other Dept. leaders):
"I can try to re-word the description, but I don’t want to give the students the false impression that we’re not going to work with spelling, vocabulary, etymology, grammar, syntax, and paragraph construction. Hopefully, this will just be three or four classes of review of things they already know how to do. But I can’t guarantee that. It depends on the skill level of the students in the class. I’ve become convinced, by talking with people who’ve taught the class before, that we have to start at a more basic level – not literary theory, but close reading skills. And close reading skills presuppose reading skills.
"I realize that we’re all in the business of marketing, under the present regime. And in the short term, our market is the current students, and the product is the course schedule for next semester – esp. in our current sped-up, crisis-driven culture. Our assumption has been that we can attract students for the next semester – and maybe even majors – by offering courses with more popular subject matter under sexier titles, and perhaps that’s true. (If it is, we even might want to re-think requiring all majors to take a course titled “Intro to Literary Criticism” . . .)
"But long-term, there is a secondary market, which is the employer. I have to think that one of the reasons that fewer people are majoring in English is that they feel it puts them at a disadvantage on the job market. And maybe it does. But why would that be, at a time when many employers are asking for trainable people who possess basic skills? Surely people who can read and write better than their compeers would make competitive job candidates.
"From my experience – and from speaking with students and colleagues – I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that it is precisely because our graduates can’t read and write better than others. In many cases, the reverse may be true. Sure, there are the award-winning students, but then there are the other papers in the stack. Indeed, my freshman engineers this semester are better writers than my senior English majors. One of the smartest among the latter recently complained that she was about to graduate from college with an English major, but no one had ever taught her grammar. Judging from her most recent close-reading paper, I believe it. (She said she’s taking 308 next semester; I said we’ll be studying grammar; she said “GOOD!”)
"I don’t know how we’ve gotten to this pass. I guess grammar isn’t taught in grade school or high school. And then perhaps most majors “test out” of 100 and 200 level English courses (which means they’ve skipped a crucial stage in learning writing and reading – composition - one that the engineers are getting). But it’s my impression that it’s long been part of academic culture to accept as a fact of life that most graduating seniors, even English majors, will not be able to spell, use words correctly, or construct grammatical sentences. I’m no longer willing to accept that. In fact, I think they should be able to do those things much better than the average of the student population. And this is the one English course they’re all going to take (ideally before they take others), maybe the last one they take that focuses on skills.
"Moreover, from the point of view of teaching literary criticism & theory – or literary anything – I think it is essential that people have a very good feel for the elements of language, in particular the one they are studying. There’s no point trying to teach people about Viktor Shklovsky if they don’t know the difference between syntax and semantics (let alone how they work or don’t). Gertrude Stein loved diagramming sentences because it revealed to her the inner workings of language (and probably led her to her conclusion that sentences are not emotional, but paragraphs are).
"My take-away from my experiences trying to teach theory, as well as my correspondence and talks with colleagues who have taught 308, is that literary theory presumes and requires a level of knowledge of the basics of language that most undergraduates don't possess. Moreover, it seems to me that learning more about (the) language - grammar and syntax, for instance - is an excellent preface to beginning to think about theory. I doubt that Saussure, Jakobson, Derrida, et al. would have meant much to me, had I not had a good grounding in grammar and usage (I also was fortunate enough to have studied Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Hegel and others before I studied lit theory, which not all undergrads are). Grammar, etymology, usage, spelling - that's what (post-)structuralism & continental philosophy are all about, and I can't imagine approaching literary theory without talking about all that.
"So instead of following my (our) usual procedure, i.e., starting at the level of argument, then organization, using evidence, and (time permitting) style, I decided it could be productive to reverse this procedure, to begin with letters, words, then clauses and sentences, then paragraphs. At the same time, this approach will help students better understand the literary texts they read and then enable them to develop meaningful arguments about those texts.
"I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that no students are going to be interested in this subject matter or approach, or that they won’t understand the case I’m making here. They must be interested in language to be majoring in one. And I think a lot of them feel that their knowledge of the English language is not as advanced as they might wish (or they’re just interested in learning more). And this will definitely be a fresh approach for most of them."
It's entirely possible that I'm totally full of shit. What do you think?