Teaching Theory, Beginning Theory

I’ve looked at (and used) several introductory textbooks to literary and cultural theory over the years.

Most of them approach this subject matter in the same way: once there was undisciplined “Old Criticism,” then there was “New Criticism,” then all hell broke loose and literary studies disaggregated into schools, lenses, movements, approaches, etc.

The textbooks do what they can to organize this disaggregation into manageable chunks (Structuralism, Deconstruction, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory, etc.). The most recent textbooks or most recent editions even try to include Eco-criticism, Cognitive Approaches, Animal Studies, Affect Theory, Disability Studies, Posthumanism, and so on.

No matter how inclusive a textbook appears to be, however, there is consensus that the best way to teach theory is from the beginning.

First there was formalism.
Then a bunch of French theory.
And then things get political, ethical, and historical.

But what if one begins elsewhere?

What if one doesn’t begin with the intentional fallacy or with the signifier and signified but with intersectional feminism?

What then?

Perhaps someone might say: students need to know what later branches of literary study were reacting to.

They need to know New Criticism before Feminist Literary Criticism makes any sense.

But if Sara Ahmed is correct that learning theory is like learning any language, then it follows that the best way to learn theory is not necessarily through a linear, chronological method but, rather, through immersion in what might (initially) seem a foreign tongue.

Immersion in queer feminist of color theory.

My graduate students are spending five weeks on feminist theory before we rewind on Week 6 and begin the normative move through the history of theory and criticism.

What will it be like to read Wimsatt and Beardsley, Saussure, Derrida, Freud, Marx and Engels after already having spent so much time with Wollstonecraft, Woolf, Gilbert and Gubar, de Beauvoir, Cixous, Wittig, Zimmerman, Rubin, Halberstam, Mulvey, B. Smith, Bordo, and Ahmed?

I can’t wait.