“A Discussion on Literary Theory” by Lawrence Ishii

Posted: January 3, 2013 in Vol. 2: Fall Essays 2012

theoryFirst of all, let me be clear about something so that I am not accused of having a hidden agenda: I hated this class.

Yeah, you tell ‘em!

This class did not spark any interest in me, nor did the challenge of the class provoke me to a higher level of learning.

Keep giving it to them!

I am a long-time college student who has taken more college-level English courses than I can remember, and  I have never once come across a class that I found to be more stressful, impossible, and plain unlikable as this class.

You’re warming up now! Bring it home!

I found the topics to be ridiculously absurd and completely incoherent for the average person.

Nailed it!

Now that I have been clear about my feelings for this class, let me be clear about something else: Every single English student at the college level should be required to take a class in Literary Theory such as this.


In today’s world, we have a lot of students who declare a major such as English because they used to like to read books when they were in high school or because they have an affinity for writing and want to become the next legendary wordsmith.  Most students do not have any idea what literary theory is all about. They may have heard the words before and know theoretically what it is all about but they have no actual experience or practice with theory.

They theoretically know what theory is?! You’re becoming one of them!

In order for students to have a complete understanding of what it means to study literature, they must look at it from the viewpoint of theory.  For an undergraduate, this will be difficult and hard to understand, but even if they don’t fully grasp the concepts that they study, the act of looking at literature from a standpoint that they have never conceived of is a great development tool for them.

Are you trying to tell me that even if you are completely confused by a class, you are benefiting by being confused? Seriously! I disagree completely. An undergrad must be made to feel comfortable with the material they are learning. If they begin to feel that sinking feeling of not being able to comprehend, the chances of them continuing to pursue those studies go down significantly.  At this level we must make education an exciting opportunity for them and not overwhelm.

I’ll agree that the concepts that are put forth by Structuralism and Post-Structuralism can be so counter-intuitive to what we have been taught all of our lives prior to it that it can easily frustrate an undergrad.

Uh huh, check that one!

However, as the students incrementally pick up individual concepts, the larger ideas become clearer to understand.  And it is the incremental learning that ultimately benefits the rest of their literary work.  During this class we are training ourselves to look for patterns or structures in the texts; as we learn and implement this small tool it begins to flood over to our other studies.  The simple act of forcing ourselves to look at literature from an angle that we had previously not used only deepens our understanding of literature.

So you want to convince me that something that you completely do not understand will make you better? Look I may have been able to understand some of these ideas after having them spoon fed to me by Dr. B but my ability to comprehend them on my own was severely limited. Which, in turn, led me to not be able to confidently attack a piece of literature using these tools. The end result was a student who was completely frustrated with the learning process. Is that what we want to expose our students to?

If we look at the general education process, students are always given broader subjects to begin with and then slowly focus in on specific topics.  A freshman undergrad must complete their core subjects before they are able to begin their specific major courses.  This way they are given a broad overview of education and are allowed to then make an informed choice as to what they want to study.  Within our English major, we must be given an overview of what literature studies entail completely before we get to a graduate level of study.  This way we will be able to make an informed choice about what we want to focus our literature studies on.

Ok, I will agree with your premise that the more information that an undergrad receives the richer their education experience will be, but there has to be a level of comprehension to the material or else it is just a waste of time. I can walk into a microbiology course and probably be able to understand a piece here or a piece there when the professor breaks it down, but that in no way means that I would be able to take those bits and pieces and apply them to any type of thought process to produce anything meaningful. Take for example the concept of Differance from Derrida.  Now when it was explained by Dr. B in the classroom it was possible for me to understand.  And then when she breaks down a piece of literature and gives examples of what Derrida is referring to with this concept, it even makes sense.  However, this concept is so abstract and alien to the intelligence that I have developed over the years, that when I try to apply this concept on my own it is impossible.  This is not a concept that can be learned in a 16 week semester where we meet a few hours a week.  This is a concept that must be learned through great mental repetition and something that is much more appropriately situated at the graduate school level.

Aren’t we then allowing our undergraduate population to slip? Shouldn’t the number one job be to challenge the minds of our young students and not to find a way to coddle them? Yes, these are tough subjects and abstract ideas that will challenge your mind but you’re not in kindergarten anymore. It’s time to put up or shut up. The phrase is you “earn” your degree from a university.  If you want a degree in literature studies from a university, then literary theory should be a required course for you. Now, you do not need to be a literary theorist to receive an undergrad degree but being able to speak to the basic concepts of it and educate the average person on it should not be too much to ask for.  However, at the very same time, the world of literature is a large one and just because you do not understand literary theory does not mean you can’t be a part of it. Literary theory did not exist up until relatively recently on the historical timeline of humans using the written word.  English’s most important writer, Shakespeare, came and went in this world without every giving a thought to the formalized concepts of literary theory.  Literary theory is just another tool in the work belt of anyone involved with literature today. It can be used or it can be discarded but it must be a tool that is offered.

I’ll agree with the idea that it is a tool that may or may not be used and also with the idea that one does not need to master literary theory in order to continue with one’s literary studies, but we will have to agree to disagree on the benefits of offering it to an undergrad. I would be completely on board with the idea of offering a broad level overview class of all literary theories and what they are in general.  That way undergrads could be made aware of the topics but not be overwhelmed with their complexity.

I believe we can agree that this topic is one that needs to be taught to undergrads; however, where we differ is on the level of detail that the instruction must go to.  I feel a level of specifics must be taught in order for there to be a true grasp of the ideas.  A survey level course would be nothing but a waste of time to all involved because it would not offer enough knowledge for a true understanding to occur.  However, a full blown course on a specific theory may send the students running to another area of study.

Written for Prof. Brenda Machosky’s ENG 300D: Topics in Literary Theory: Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

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