ENG 285 Intro to Contemporary Literary Theory

Andrea Stone, T Th 3:00 PM -4:20 PM

Unlike most English courses where we usually read poetry, drama or fiction, in this course we read mostly essays that are about literature and the processes of reading and interpreting. Often they argue with each other, offer different theories, and throw our implicitly held ideas into crisis, challenging us to think through and justify those ideas. They range around some pretty major and basic issues, such as: what do we DO when we read? What assumptions do we not even know that we have—about texts, about authors, about language, about "meaning"? Is the author's "intention" the sole determinant of meaning or can readers draw conclusions about an author's unconscious or cultural beliefs or about a text's implications regardless of "intention"? Is there only one "right" meaning for a text or are there several possible interpretations and ways to "read"—if so, which are more "valid" than others and how do we determine validity? How does a text change if we ask different kinds of questions of it—for example, what ideologies of gender, sexuality, race, work, class, nationhood, does it reveal? How do we determine what is "good" literature—how does some literature become "canonized"? What are the links between literature and society—what role does literature have in shaping values, beliefs, "culture" or community?

This course is an introduction to some of the questions and debates that have shaped contemporary literary studies and that often draw upon disciplines as varied as anthropology, psychology, linguistics and philosophy. We will become familiar with the theory and critical practice of the New Criticism, structuralism, post–structuralism, deconstruction, Marxism, psychoanalysis, New Historicism, feminism, postcolonialism, race, queer and cultural studies, trauma theory and autobiography. We will focus on some central questions that many of these different approaches ask, and to which they offer different, sometimes related answers. While poets and philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Sydney and Shelley have written some very important things about literature, we will concentrate on 20th–century theories, since (after Saussure, Freud and Marx) they begin with radically new realizations about language, consciousness and society. We will also read some literary texts in conjunction with the theoretical pieces. We will end (I hope) with a sense of what choices we have as readers, how we can read with and against the grain of a text, and what is at stake in some of the battles being fought these days about what literature is and how it may be studied.

Some of our readings are quite difficult, and might not be a good idea for first–year students—but sophomores on are very welcome—and I hope this course will be a help in other literature classes too. For those considering graduate work in English (or any) literature in the future, this course would provide very useful preparation, but it is meant for all who are interested in becoming more self–conscious about what we do as students of literature.

Required texts: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism; Peter Barry, Beginning Theory; and a photocopied course packet.

Classes will vary between lectures, discussions and group presentations. Course requirements: two take–home exams, one paper (6–8 pages), informal reading responses and active class participation.