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Recap of meeting with 306 instructors

This week I met with Nico Israel and Mark Miller about English 306 (Introduction to Literary Theory). Both have extensive experience teaching the course, and we tried to articulate some broad goals and best practices to guide faculty who teach the course. We focused on the issue of culminating assignments (in most cases, final essays) and meandered from there into broader discussions of the aims of the course and some of the challenges of teaching it.

I wanted to sum up some of this discussion for the benefit of next year’s instructors and the current instructors of the course who couldn’t attend. Here, I will sketch out some of our conclusions, which will be subsequently edited into a nice one-pager for novice instructors along the lines of the FAQ for 252 instructors. If you haven’t, please join our group on the Commons, which is a growing trove of resources for instructors of the course.

These guidelines should be read, not as prescriptions or rules from on high, but as suggestions that grow out of extensive experience with the course and with its place in the curriculum as a whole. I will move from the broadest aims to the more granular level of assignment structure:

Broad aims:

  • the course should be a survey of theory with a strong historical emphasis and deep engagement with philosophical “primary texts.”
  • it should emphasize theory rather than criticism. English 252 is a criticism course that emphasizes the protocols of critical writing, the process of doing literary research, and the relationship between the close reading of primary texts and the integration of secondary sources into arguments about primary texts. English 306 is different: it provides an introduction to a wide historical and topical range of texts such that students in subsequent “topics” courses can identify theoretical traditions and weave theoretical discourse into their own arguments.
  • English 306 is an introduction to theory. Thus, it should not be limited to one topic or “school” of theory or time period. Rather, it should begin with introductory texts that facilitate discussion around what theory is (e.g., selections from Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory or perhaps foundational texts from antiquity (Nico uses the Norton’s selections from Plato and from the book of Genesis). Then it would provide a survey, firmly rooted in classic twentieth-century texts with some material from the nineteenth century (e.g., Marx on ideology, Henry James on the novel genre) and certainly some texts from the past twenty years at the end. See the FILES section of our group for examples; my own syllabus is open, so check it out. The department has a “topics in theory” course, so if you’re interested in teaching a more targeted, specialized theory course, contact me.
  • In terms of assignment structure, most instructors emphasize exams over formal essays or research papers. Given the amount of material students must assimiliate and the dense interrelationships between texts that they must synthethize, a well-constructed exam with lots of writing helps them to produce mastery rather than just reflect it. See the examples from Jeff Allred and from Tanya Agathocleous in FILES.
  • Frequent, low-stakes writing is a must. I use blog posts of 500-800 words, assigned roughly every other week. Others use brief response papers or in-class writing. However you do it, it’s essential to have students devote time to engaging these formidable texts in writing.
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