Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Teaching Literary Theory without Opaqueness

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Teaching Literary Theory without Opaqueness

Article excerpt


Theory is usually rendered obscure by its own discourses. Classroom experience and empirical observation show that abstract teaching of literary theory generates confusion in students' minds, and the best way to elucidate any literary theory is to dwell less on its abstractness and more on the procedures and steps needed to apply it to a literary text. In such a heuristic approach to theory teaching, different theories are simplified and combined into a strategy for the interpretation of texts. The heuristic method means that literary theory is something that must be applied, not passively learned about.


Theory is the bugbear for most of the students I have come in contact with in various universities and countries throughout my career as a university professor. The fear of theory seems global. Why is this? Simply, it is because theory deals with abstractions, and it is often obscured by its own discourses.

As a university professor whose aim is to inform students and elucidate what might appear to be intricate and opaque, I suggest that we approach theory in a pragmatic way. A successful teacher of introduction to theory class approaches his/her theory courses with the class level in mind. In the domain of literary theory there is no denying that the discourses of luminaries such as Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Bloom, De Man, Bhabha, Baudrillard, Macluhan, Christiva, among others, seem to defy understanding. The fact that professional readers and critics find such discourses alienating, ambiguous, farfetched, redundant or irrelevant should be made clear to the learners, who in turn should be encouraged to contribute their opinions on the theories they study. An example of open resistance to literary theory is Ray S. Hymowitz who attacks feminism and sees it as "mired in self-righteous sentimentalism, multicultural nonjudgmentalism, and internationalist utopianism." For him, "feminism has lost the language to make the universalist moral claims of equal dignity and individual freedom that once rendered it so compelling. No wonder that most Americans are paying feminists no mind." (24)

In another article, Mark Goldblatt denounces deconstruction and declares Jacque Derrida, its main proponent, as a fraud accusing professors and academicians who embrace deconstruction of dilettantism. He asserts that when Derrida was awarded an honorary degree from Cambridge University in 1992, twenty of the world's most-prominent philosophers--including W. V. Quine and Ruth Barcan Marcus--signed a letter of protest that is worth quoting at length:

   Derrida describes himself as a philosopher, and his writings do
   indeed bear some marks of writings in that discipline. Their
   influence, however, has been to a striking degree almost entirely
   outside philosophy.... In the eyes of philosophers, Derrida's work
   does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor.... Derrida
   seems to us to have come close to making a career out of what we
   regard as translating into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks
   similar to those of the Dadaists.... Many French philosophers see
   in Derrida only cause for embarrassment, his antics having
   contributed significantly to the widespread impression that
   contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object
   of ridicule. (17)

In "Bloomin' Genius" Joseph Epstein attacks the snobbery, shortsightedness and single mindedness of Harold Bloom, a renowned literary critic and theoretician. Epstein derogatively writes: " Proust says that in art, medicine, and fashion, there have to be new names, by which he meant that new names will arise whether they are worthy or not of being known. The same principle operates in literary criticism, where the name that has now popped up is that of Harold Bloom. But his is a reputation much in need of puncturing, if only to release the bloat and if literary criticism is once again to be taken--and is to take itself--seriously. …

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