Deconstructive dismissal

January 10, 1997

Introductory courses in literary theory are failing to inspire students to produce new and exciting readings of texts and a growing number of critics want it abolished for first-year English students. Robert Eaglestone reports on why a re-evaluation of literary theory teaching is urgently required.

Every English degree in the United Kingdom has a first-year course called something like "Introduction to criticism and theory", or "Critical practice 1". Every academic book shop has rows of books with titles such as An Introduction to Literary Theory. Both courses and books belie the fact that there is an urgent need to reassess how literary theory is taught.

These introductory courses are the result of the theory wars that raged throughout English in the late 1970s and 1980s. They replaced more traditional first-year courses organised around "genre" or "The epic" and aimed to open up exciting ways of thinking about literature for students.

That the courses need to be re-evaluated is clear from conversations between academics, from student responses and from intellectual debate. The function of introducing theory early on in the degree programme has again become an issue for a number of reasons. Those involved in the growing backlash against literary theory are keen to abolish teaching it to first-year students altogether. If this happened then the sorts of issues that studying theory raises - questions of interpretation, of gender and of power, for example - would be lost from the curriculum.

On the other hand, the rapid and continuing growth of the "introduction-to-theory" book industry also raises questions. The problem is not that ever more books are being published, but that many cover the same ground, rounding up the usual suspects in the same sort of way. They offer a version of "great man" history for criticism, outlining what such-and-such a movement thought, or what so-and-so said. The apparent remoteness of these debates often puts students off theory altogether.

Perhaps most significantly, many people, both pro-theory and anti-theory, feel that these first-year courses are not achieving what they set out to do. The "Introduction to theory" in the first year has not led to the majority of students producing new readings of the texts that they study later. Sometimes students who want to use what they have learnt on theory courses can be discouraged, usually unintentionally, by academics with different interests.

Theory is simply not a single unified standpoint. The word itself is a catch-all term that covers everything very broadly defined as "not traditional". This includes approaches as varied as Russian formalism, semiotics, Marxism, deconstruction, new historicism, old historicism, all sorts of feminisms and everywhere in between. These different ways of interpreting literature are not reducible to a few general rules and to put them together obviously creates pedagogical problems. Some of the courses that feature all these approaches were often given a unifying focus simply by being in opposition to traditional introductions. However, as theory courses have become more the norm, any oppositional agenda looks increasingly out of place. Some were put together simply to follow what departments saw as prevailing trends in the discipline or as a compromise between different factions. As these trends are now much less clear, and as factional strengths change, these compromise courses too lack direction.

Although theory is part of many access courses for mature students, it is a new departure for those who come from A-level English. Although the A-level canon now includes a wider variety of texts, studying theory and asking questions about reading itself are still not a part of most A-level English curricula. This means that if students find theoretical arguments difficult to analyse, they often choose to retreat into a familiar critical approach, especially in departments where theory is already marginalised. Finally, many students find it hard to see how or why to apply theory: "This isn't what I came to university to study." Again, this is partly because it is new to them, and partly because it is often taught and written about in a "great man" way, outlining debates that seem a long way from the texts they are used to reading, and even further from the essays they have to write. This is absolutely not to argue, as some do, that theory is simply "too difficult" for first-year students. Poetry can be difficult, too, but nobody suggests that poetry should not be studied. Rather it is to suggest that the way in which theory is taught needs to be more accessible.

The starting point of any re-evaluation is to take stock of the changes theory has made to what the discipline teaches. Perhaps the most significant lesson of theory is that how we read is as important as what we read. A degree in English is no longer just about a selection of texts, however varied. It is also about the process of reading itself. Thinking about interpretation is now an explicit part of the degree course. Apart from its considerable intellectual, social and ethical importance, "looking at looking" is also a key transferable skill. Studying theory also encourages students to think about their position in the education process. It is impossible to consider issues of power or gender in a novel, for example, without reflecting on how those issues are at work in wider contexts.

The question remains of the method of teaching. Most of the introductory texts discuss theory first in the abstract and apply it later, as if a theoretical approach were an interpretative tool capable of application to any text. One way of resolving this problem is taken up by Andrew Bennet and Nicholas Royle in An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, perhaps the most stimulating introduction available. Their point of departure is not an abstract account of literary interpretation, but "what is powerful, complex and strange about literary works themselves''. They draw theoretical points out of texts, rather than outlining a theory and then showing how it might apply to a text. This seems to be a fruitful model for teaching theory - pulling issues out of plays, poems and novels rather than seeming to import them. The point of introductory theory to students is not to enter them into complex debates over interpretation. Rather it is to open up texts, to draw out ideas and issues from reading, to show why reading any text is special, disturbing and important.

The teaching of English cannot omit theory. It would be ironic if English turned its back on it, just as other disciplines are taking a variety of theoretical claims seriously. It would be equally ironic if the teaching of theory, an issue so bitterly fought over, turned out to be theory's worst enemy.

Robert Eaglestone is a part-time lecturer in English and philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the universities of Westminster and Middlesex.

What is literary theory?

Although the term "literary theory" was used in the 1940s, it became widely popular in the late '70s and early '80s. It lumps together a disparate range of approaches to literature that filtered into English in the '70s and '80s from linguistics, film studies, European philosophy, feminism and psychoanalysis. These approaches did not just offer new interpretations of texts: they also raised questions about the presuppositions that lie behind any critical method.

Some literary theory explores the process of interpretation itself: looking at reading. Literary theory, then, becomes a general term for not just what we read but how we read.

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