University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire



ENGLISH 715: CRITICAL THEORY AND ENGLISH STUDIES

R, 7 to 9:45 p.m., HHH 407

Spring 2002, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire


PROFESSOR BOB NOWLAN

Office: HHH 425, (715) 836-4369

Office Hours: M, W, R 10-10:45 a.m., T 5:15-6:45 p.m, R 10-11:15 p.m.,

and By Appointment.

ranowlan@uwec.edu

http://www.uwec.edu/ranowlan





COURSE EXPLANATION

    Conventionally many of those working in English today understand "critical theory" as "literary theory and criticism." Some qualify this notion by expanding and redefining the object "literature" to include all "texts of culture," all sites at which "meaning" is located and upon which "meaning-practices" are performed and from which "meaning-effects" emanate: "critical theory," in other words, is understood to include all kinds of theory and criticism which are in some way concerned with objects of any kind that can -- again, in some way -- be "read" as having been "written" to signify, to express, to communicate, to provide source for and stimulus to the operations of human intelligibility. On the other hand, however, some continue to use the term "critical theory" (and the numbers of those who do this increases significantly among those working in disciplines outside of English, and, especially, in the social sciences) strictly to refer to the specific tradition of sociological analysis and ideological critique associated with the Frankfurt School, and including the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas - among others.


    Ultimately, neither of these definitions is entirely satisfactory: the former is too vague and the latter is too narrow. However, the latter much more accurately reflects the spirit of what distinguishes critical theory in practice from "traditional" (or, more tendentiously, "non-critical") theory - and philosophy. (In short, much literary theory does not in fact qualify as critical theory.) "Critical theory" refers to a series of pathways for intellectual inquiry that first emerged with the end of the 18th century European Enlightenment and in particular with the initial widespread waning of intellectual confidence that the newly hegemonic bourgeois society would succeed in realizing Enlightenment ideals. In short, critical theory represents the intellectual articulation of the conviction that modern capitalist society cannot - at least not without significant reformation or substantial transformation - realize the Enlightenment ideal of an enlightened - that is, a rational, just, and humane - society. According to Enlightenment consensus, this (ideal) society is to be one which will genuinely embody the highest values of human civilization, and which will thereby insure steady progress in the attainment of liberty, justice, prosperity, and contentment for all of its citizens.

    Critical theory begins by inquiring into what prevents the realization of this Enlightenment ideal. In doing so, critical theory questions and challenges the seeming obviousness, naturalness, immediacy, and simplicity of the world around us, and, in particular, of what we are able to perceive through our senses and understand through the application of our powers of reason. Critical theory is therefore concerned with discovering and uncovering, and with describing and explaining "mediations" - environmental, ecological, physical, physiological, psychological, intellectual, emotional, historical, social, cultural, economic, political, ideological, linguistic, semiotic, aesthetic, religious, ethical, etc. - between "object" and "subject," "event" and "impression," "impression" and "perception," "perception" and "cognition," "cognition" and "reflection," "reflection" and "response," "response" and "reaction," "reaction" and "action," and "action" and "practice." At the same time, "critical theory" also always involves questioning and challenging the passive acceptance that "the way things are" -- or "the way things seem" -- simply "is" the "natural" way they necessarily "should" or "must" be. In other words, critical theory questions and challenges the conviction that what is, or what is in the process of becoming, or what appears to be, or what is most commonly understood to be, or what is dominantly conveyed to be, is also at the same time right and true, good and just, and necessary and inevitable: critical theory does not, at least not automatically, accept any of this. Critical theory is always particularly concerned with inquiring into the problems and limitations, the blindnesses and mistakes, the contradictions and incoherences, the injustices and inequities in how we as human beings, operating within particular kinds of structures and hierarchies of relations with each other, facilitated and regulated by particular kinds of institutions, engaged in particular kinds of processes and practices, have formed, reformed, and transformed ourselves, each other, and the communities, cultures, societies, and worlds in which we live.

    Critical theory has always occupied tenuous positions within traditional (academic) disciplines, and has always moved restlessly across disciplinary borders; after all, when we think of what critical theory has influenced, we must include such diverse disciplines as sociology, political science, philosophy, economics, history, anthropology, psychology, and even biology and physics, as well as studies in English and other national, regional, and ethnic languages and literatures. Critical theory, in sum, is by no means merely a province of English Studies, and neither need it be, should it be, nor can it be confined to English Studies alone, or to language and literature studies more generally. Yet the questions that we ask of the texts we read and write and of the discourses we produce and disseminate, in English Studies, are always already sedimented with the weight of extensive historical exchange -- and interchange -- with critical theory, and the answers we seek to these questions eventually require us to engage with and draw upon critical theories far more directly than simply to acknowledge this sedimentation. These questions include, at their most fundamental, why should we, or anyone for that matter, read and write these texts, the texts we privilege, and why should we, or anyone else, be interested in producing and disseminating these discourses, the discourses that are of the greatest importance to us, and why so here and now? What is the value of these texts and discourses? What is their relevance? What is their usefulness? How and why are they different, including different in their kind or degree of value and use, from other kinds of texts and discourses in circulation within contemporary society and culture at large? Any self-reflexive program or department in English Studies today must, therefore, of necessity, include substantial education of its students in critical theory.


    Yet the value of education in critical theory extends still further beyond the limits of work conducted within the confines of a particular academic discipline and its attendant array of fields of intellectual inquiry. Throughout the everyday lives of each and every one of us, our ability to make sense of the world around us -- and to orient ourselves to engage in relation to it on the basis of how we make sense -- means that we are continually working with "theories" of one kind or another. At the same time, because our everyday lives also demand that we make numerous judgements according to various standards and criteria and that we then proceed according to the judgements we have made, we are also continually thinking and acting in ways which are at least rudimentarily "critical" as well. Nevertheless, in our everyday lives most of us do not all that often reflect upon precisely what theories are guiding and sustaining us, how so, and why so, nor do we frequently examine how and why we think and act critically in the ways that we do. Moreover, if asked to produce a rigorous intellectual explanation, precisely accounting for and meticulously justifying the theoretical and critical influences upon and determinants of our everyday ways of thinking, understanding, feeling, believing, interacting, communicating, acting, and behaving, most of us would have a very difficult time. A principal aim of studying and learning to think, read, write, and act theoretically is to develop the ability to recognize, understand, explain, account for, and justify the theories that guide and sustain us throughout our everyday lives. Likewise, a principal aim of studying and learning to think, read, write, and act critically is to develop the ability to recognize, understand, explain, account for, and justify the kinds of judgements, the ways in which we make judgements, and the standards and criteria we use in making judgements throughout everyday life.


    Because the theories that guide and sustain us and the ways in which we think and act critically in our everyday lives are rarely simply the result of our own uniquely individual creation and rarely a matter simply of our own autonomously free choice -- especially when we either are not conscious of their effects upon us or are unable to explain, account for, and justify these in a sustained and rigorous fashion -- we are always working according to the influence and the determination of theoretical and critical approaches which are much larger than the space "inside" of our own "heads" or "minds": we are always working according to theoretical and critical approaches which occupy particular places within particular societies and cultures and which are formed as particular products of particular histories and politics. A course in "critical theory" presents an opportunity not only, therefore, to learn about the theoretical and critical approaches of what might often at least initially seem like an elite caste of distant and specialized others -- specific, and frequently famous, named "theorists" and "critics" -- but also, and more importantly, to reflect upon how and why all of us work with the kinds of theoretical and critical approaches we do; where these come from and what gives rise to them; where they lead and what follows from them; which such approaches predominate in what areas of everyday life today, in what places within what societies and cultures, with what uses and effects, toward the advancement of what ends and toward the service of what interests; and what alternative approaches are possible, what alternatives are desirable, what alternatives are necessary, and how do we get from here to there.

    In sum, education in critical theory enables the development and refinement of our ability to engage as critical citizens , that is as empowered agents able effectively to question, challenge, and contribute toward the progressive transformation of the prevailing status quo within the communities, societies, and cultures that we work to help maintain and reproduce every day, and in relation to which we are, as such, always not only inescapably interested -- but also vitally important -- participants.


    This course will begin, after an initial session of introduction and orientation, with an exploration of three histories of the rise of institutionalized English (Literary) Studies - in England, India, and the United States. Comparing and contrasting these three accounts will enable us better to come to grips with the factors, especially political and ideological, that have shaped the form and content of English Studies in the higher educational academy - from its beginnings in the 19th century through the present. After this we will turn to the history of critical theory from its own beginnings with "The Rise of Modernity" in the early to middle of the 19th century through late 20th century postmodernism and the beginning of the 21st century and "the new millennium." Interestingly enough, critical theory and English Studies emerge and develop over the same period of time, the past approximately 150-200 years.

    Our source of readings in critical theory, Social Theory: the Multicultural and Classic Readings, edited by Charles Lemert, organizes the selection of excerpts we will engage both chronologically and conceptually - the latter according to an array of broad themes that not only have served as major points of conversation and contestation within the domain of critical theory but also will provide us a useful focus for our reflection and discussion. Lemert's anthology also includes introductions to each chapter and for each writer that helpfully explicate and contextualize the readings.


    In order to test out the relevance of issues of focal concern to critical theory with texts of conventional interest to English Studies, we will read a series of six novels this semester, assessing the ways in which critical theory helps illuminate the meaning, value, and significance of these novels - and vice-versa. We will read these novels in relation to critical theoretical discussions and debates taking place over roughly the same period of time, although we will take up our first novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, before initially turning to Social Theory . Frankenstein will allow us to reflect upon the ways we already approach interpreting and evaluating literary texts, as well as to explore intriguing correlations between, on the one hand, the origin and development spread of institutionalized English Studies and the higher educational academy, and, on the other hand, the classic tale of Victor Frankenstein and the Monster he creates.


    All the novels I have selected for the course maintain an extensive, overt engagement with philosophical and sociological issues of urgent interest and concern at the time in which they were written. They also all continue to speak quite powerfully to issues which transcend these temporal limits and which have continued to prove highly relevant, provocative, and influential in the years that have passed since their initial publication. I am using literary texts for extending our discussion of critical theory because literature continues to maintain a dominant position within institutionalized literary studies. Even in the wake of the partial transformation of significant segments of English Studies into a more broadly inclusive and wide-reaching series of modes of text and culture studies (over the course of the past approximately thirty years), the term "literature" still often continues to refer, within the disciplines of English Studies, to those written texts which cultures and subcultures tend to value most highly (at least in aesthetic terms). This is true even if, of course, standards for assessing literary value change considerably over time and vary considerably between and across particular cultures and subcultures, while the question of what cultures and subcultures conceive to constitute the forms and media that the term "literature" describes - as well as the question of how to assess relative literary "value" - sparks continuously ongoing conversation and contestation.


TEXTS


The following required texts are available for purchase at the UWEC Bookstore in Davies Center:

1. Lemert, Charles, ed. Social Theory: the Multicultural and Classic Readings. 2nd Edition. Westview Press, 1999.

2. Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: an Introduction. 2nd Edition. University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

3. Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: an Institutional History . University of Chicago Press, 1989.

4. Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, 1998.

5. Shelley, Mary. 1818. Frankenstein. Signet, 2000.

6. Kafka, Franz. 1925. The Trial: a New Translation Based On the Restored Text. Breon Mitchell, trans. Schocken Books, 1999.

7. Wright, Richard. 1939. Native Son. Harper Perennial, 1989.

8. Capote, Truman. 1965. In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. Vintage, 1994.

9. Ngugi Wa Thiongo. 1980. Devil on the Cross. Heinemann, 1989.

10. Wojnarowicz, David. Close to the Knives: a Memoir of Disintegration . Random House/Vintage Books, 1991.


SCHEDULE OF CLASSES

1/24 Introduction and Orientation. What is Critical Theory. What Does Critical Theory Have to Do with English Studies.

1/31 Eagleton, Literary Theory: an Introduction (Selections): vii-x, 1-46, and 169-208.

2/7 Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest.

2/14 Graff, Professing Literature.

2/21 Shelley, Frankenstein.

2/28 Lemert, ed., Social Theory: "Part One: Modernity's Classical Age, 1848-1919," 21-189.

3/7 Kafka, The Trial.

3/14 Lemert, ed., Social Theory: Part Two: "Social Theories and World Conflict, 1919-1945," 191-270.

3/21 Wright, Native Son.

4/4 Lemert, ed., Social Theory: Part Three: "The Golden Moment, 1945-1963," 271-364.

4/11 Capote, In Cold Blood.

4/18 Lemert, ed., Social Theory: Part Four: "Will the Center Hold? 1963-1979," 365-449.

4/25 Ngugi, Devil on the Cross.

5/2 Lemert, ed., Social Theory: Part Five: "After Modernity, Since 1979," 451-596.

5/9 Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives.

5/16 Lemert, ed., Social Theory: Part Six: "Searching for the Millennium," 597-664.


GENERAL EXPECTATIONS OF STUDENTS

    I expect students in this course to be sincerely interested in learning about the subject matter of this course, and to be consistently intellectually serious as well as academically diligent in their pursuit of this learning. I expect students to strive to bring actively and extensively to bear -- in their essays and contributions to class discussion -- insights they gain through their engagement with the texts and topics addressed as part of this course, and I expect students to strive at the same time to relate these texts and topics as closely and fully as possible to subjects of genuine interest and concern in their own lives. Finally, I expect students to let me know right away when and if you have any questions or problems about any aspect of how you are doing in and with the course, so that I can do everything I possibly can to help answer these questions and solve these problems.


SPECIFIC REQUIREMENTS FOR THE COURSE GRADE

Introduction

In evaluating all work done for this course, I will take account of how carefully, seriously, intelligently, enthusiastically, and imaginatively students engage with the concepts, issues, positions, and arguments addressed in the course and represented by the texts we read, by me, and by each other.

Learning and Contribution

    What This is and Why it is Important

    My foremost aim in teaching this course is to help you to learn something of significance and value. I will judge you to a significant degree on what you learn, how - and how hard - you strive to learn, and on how - as well as how well - you contribute to the learning for the rest of the class.


    You cannot learn or help others learn if you do not contribute. If you don't contribute to the work of this class not only will you fail to derive as much gain from it as would be the case if you did contribute, but also you will deprive everyone else of the benefit of your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, knowledge, and experience. In fact, to remain passively silent in class exploits the work of others who actively engage.

    Class Participation

    Class participation represents an important opportunity to learn, not just a place in which to demonstrate what you have learned. By raising questions, testing and trying out ideas, taking risks and making mistakes, you learn a great deal - and help others learn a great deal as well. You learn through talking, not just talk to show what you have learned. Don't hesitate to speak forth in class if you have anything at all to throw into the mix.


    At the same time, just talking a great deal does not necessarily mean that you are making a quality contribution to the class by aiding the learning that we aim to accomplish. Quality of participation is much more important than quantity, although a sufficient quantity is indispensable to insure quality.


    Quality class participation does not, moreover, involve merely asking questions of me and responding to my questions; quality class participation requires you to work as assiduously as you can to advance a serious and substantial discussion with your peers as well as with me about the texts and topics subject to discussion. Students should, therefore, be prepared to engage with and respond to each other in class discussion, and I will take particular note of how well you do so.

    In sum, I want to make this clear, right from the beginning of the semester: because this is a graduate seminar I expect every student enrolled in this class to participate regularly , and extensively, in class discussion.


    Learning and Contribution Reflection Papers/Learning and Contribution Grades

    I will divide your learning and contribution grade into two parts: one for the first half of the semester, and one for the second half of the semester. Toward the end of each half of the semester I will ask you to prepare a learning and contribution reflection paper, assessing your learning and contribution over the course of the preceding half of the semester. As I see it, this provides you an opportunity to communicate with me how you believe you are doing with the course, as well as why so, and to demonstrate your critical self-reflexivity, the hallmark of a liberal arts education.


    You may here include thoughts in reaction to issues raised in class discussion that you did not have the opportunity or did not feel comfortable enough to share in class; these additional reflections will help me get a better sense of what you have been thinking about and how you have been responding to class discussions, as well as to the readings. I will take into account what you write in determining your learning and contribution grade for the preceding semester period.

    I will provide you specific directions in the assignment I give you for each of these papers; please note well that the questions I ask you to address will change from the first to the second of these reflection papers. I expect these papers to be typed, double-space, on single sides of letter-sized white paper. I require that you use a print size between 10 and 12 points, that you place your name at the top of the first page, and that you staple the separate pages of the paper together. I expect you to follow all rules and conventions for Standard Written English, including MLA guidelines for citing and documenting sources, in writing these reflection papers. Please proofread before giving me your paper. These papers do not need be any specific length or follow any particular format but I expect you to answer the questions I raise for you in the reflection paper assignment precisely and thoroughly. Each learning and contribution grade will be worth 20% of the overall course grade, for a combined total of 40% of the overall course grade.


Reading Papers

    In relation to a series of questions I will post on our internet classroom website (more details below) you will write reading papers responding to and reflecting upon each week's readings. You will post these papers no later than 48 hours prior to our class meeting, i.e., by Tuesday at 7 p.m. These papers should aim for an approximate average target length of 750 to 1000 words. You each need to write and post ten of these.


    I expect students to read each other's reading papers prior to class, and we will use these papers to help stimulate discussion.


    I also ask that you revise and expand any five of the papers you posted for discussions through week 15. Your revised and expanded papers should take into account your subsequent reflections after and responses to class discussion. These revised and expanded reading response and reflection papers should run an approximate average target length of 1500 to 2000 words. They should follow the stylistic format I previously described for your mid-term and final learning and contribution reflection papers. Each reading paper will be worth 2.5% of the overall course grade, for a total of 22.5 % of the overall course grade. Each revision will be worth 7.5% of the overall course grade, for a total of 37.5% of the overall course grade.


Our Internet Classroom Website

    I request that you post your reading papers at the web-based classroom I have created for this class at www.nicenet.org : "Critical Theory and English Studies." To access our nicenet internet classroom website for the first time, proceed as follows:

  1. Open the location "www.nicenet.org" on your web browser.
  2. Click on the link "join a class."
  3. Type the class key "[WITHHELD FOR PRIVACY REASONS -- AVAILABLE IN PRINT COPY OF THE SYLLABUS ONLY]" in the space provided for it (do not type in the quotation marks).
  4. Click on the "join the class ->" button.
  5. You will next be given the opportunity to select a username and password; please do this and be sure also to then type in your first and last names in the appropriate boxes below those for username and password so as not to be listed as "anonymous" among the class membership.
  6. Click on the link "join the class!"
  7. Click on the link "http://www.nicenet.org/ICA/login.cfm."
  8. Login by first typing your username and your password in the appropriate boxes, and then by clicking on the link "Log in to the ICA." You should now be in our internet classroom, Critical Theory and English Studies.


    Please join this virtual classroom as soon as possible
, and let me know if you have any problems so doing. After you have joined, you can post documents under your name and read posted documents from your fellow students as well as from myself.


    Look under "class schedule" for the week's reading paper assignment. Once you have finished your paper, you can post it to our nicenet classroom by clicking the link "turn in on-line" right next to the title of the assignment to which you are responding. Give your document a title and simply copy and paste this paper from your word processing program into the space provided to do this. If you can save your paper in html format, you can copy and paste the paper in html format to the nicenet site; once you then add the document on our website, nicenet will be able to pick up and reproduce your document codes (this is useful in preserving underlining, italics, boldface, and the like in the copy of your paper you post to nicenet).


    Once again, you should post your reading papers to our nicenet classroom website no later than 7 p.m. the Tuesday prior to the class in which we will be discussing the texts and topics you address in these papers.

    I will let you know if and when I post other documents and/or recommended links on this site, and you also will be able to do so if you have time and interest, as well as participate in the virtual chat - "conferencing" - space that this site also includes (if this is something you think might prove of interest, and use, to you and to your fellow classmates).


CONFERENCES/EXTRA HELP

    I encourage you to meet with me in conference during office hours or at another mutually convenient time to discuss any issue of interest or concern related to what we are doing in this course. Learning that takes place in conferences can at times be equally as important, and in fact occasionally even more important, than what takes place in class. Please do not hesitate to meet with me during office hours or to ask for an appointment at any time you think this might be helpful; I regard making myself available for conferences with you outside of class to be an indispensable part of my responsibility as your teacher. Moreover, I always sincerely do welcome getting to know and working with my students outside as well as inside of class. I am ready to do whatever I can to help you in your understanding of issues addressed in readings and discussions, as well as to help you in your writing for and participation in this course. I want to make sure that I do all that I can to help you succeed in this course and I want to help you, as far as I can, to gain as much out of it as possible through your participation in and work for it. You may also feel free to write me via e-mail, and to call me -- or leave a message for me on the answering machine -- at my office. I enjoy meeting and working with students outside as well as inside of class; I really do. I would rather talk with you during my office hours than do anything else, so please do not worry about "disturbing" me in coming to talk with me; my office hours are time that I have set aside to meet, talk, and work with you. PLEASE DO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS OPPORTUNITY! And, remember, once again, taking the time to meet and talk with me periodically in conference is another great way to contribute to the class.


CONCLUSION

    I strive to be as accountable to my students as possible. I believe it is crucial that students become aware of the ideas and the values which shape and direct their education, and I believe students should expect that all of their teachers will be prepared to explain why they teach as they do. Please, therefore, take the time, as early as you can this semester, to read through and think carefully about my "Statement of Teaching Philosophy" that I have posted on my UWEC faculty website:

http://www.uwec.edu/ranowlan

This statement explains WHY I teach as I do. I think it is extremely important that you know where your teachers are coming from in teaching you as they do. You will find me one who trusts you sufficiently always to be frank about this with you.


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Professor Bob Nowlan

Last Updated: January 19, 2002