Troubling Times for Teaching Theory

This week begins the Fall 2018 semester, and I am tasked with leading a group of 20 students through a course in Literary Criticism. Half of them are graduate students. I enjoy these courses a great deal, because I’m fascinated by the critical history of my field. I enjoy reading essays by Cleanth Brooks, revisiting the promises of reader response criticism, dwelling in the still captivating work of Roland Barthes, learning (anew) the interventions of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Patricia Hill Collins, Barbara Smith, Barbara H. Smith, and on, and on. I even like puzzling out Lacan’s seminars as well as the many critiques of psychoanalysis that have multiplied over the years.

But today I enter a new classroom, and I’m faced with the potential consequences of assigning Jonathan Culler’s A Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory after also having read this morning his comments in this LARB blog post. In response to a question of whether or not he regretted signing a letter sent to NYU in support of Ronell (a letter that also included the signatures of Butler, Spivak, Emily Apter, and many more), especially after hearing of the evidence presented in the New York Times, Culler writes,

I think that signatories to Judith Butler’s letter probably varied a lot in how much they knew about the accusations. I certainly don’t regret signing, because I don’t believe the accusations of sexual misconduct. Professor Ronell certainly does write over-the-top emails, as all her correspondents know.

Jon Wiener, author of the blogpost linked above, continues, “[Culler] accepted [Ronell’s] defense that Nimrod ‘reciprocated,’ and pointed out that if Nimrod had been ‘upset’ by the emails, ‘he could have chosen to work with someone else’—which indeed often happens with grad students.” I really can’t fathom this response.

Honestly, I can’t.

How do I square the perceptive analyses of Culler with the human being saying these things?

I’m not judging the impulse to support a friend.

I would probably want to do the same.

But I do judge the stupidity of Culler’s proposed solution.

And I do judge him for his refusal to see that (the appearance of) reciprocity is not always (probably usually isn’t) a sign of equality.

There are many lessons to learn here, and I continue learning a great deal as I read the reactions of my friends and my colleagues to this case.

But today I want to be open with my students about this case. I want them to know that the humanities are better than this—that scholars and teachers who almost never find their name in newspapers or who do not have high honorarium expectations when they travel or present their work (but who are rockstar researchers all the same) are here at the University of South Dakota—ready to listen to, to teach, to guide, to honor, and to learn from them and their work.

I hope I can live up to this ideal.