English | Critical Practices
L371 | 15882 | Heather Johnson

Heather G. S. Johnson

1:00p-2:15p TR (30 students) 3 cr., A&H. Open to English majors only.

PREREQUISITE: L202 with grade of C- or better. NOTE: The English Department will strictly enforce this prerequisite. Students who have not completed L202 with a grade of C- or better will have their registration administratively cancelled.

Texts can sometimes feel like winter ponds—a thick layer of ice allows us to see the surface meaning, but hides other meanings that may be lurking below the barrier. In this course, we will be studying and learning to use the literary critic's box of tools— tools that make holes in the glassy surface of the text and allow access to the abundance beneath. At first, these tools, collectively identified by the term literary theory, can seem bewilderingly complex. One of our goals this semester will be to untangle the language of literary theories, and to mentally organize the concepts and techniques that these literary theories describe.

The course is designed as a general overview of the major literary theories of the 20th century, but we will begin with some foundational texts that point to the origins of current critical practices. In this first section of the course we will be looking at excerpts from the works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Sidney, and Johnson, among others. These will serve to give us a basic critical vocabulary, but they also raise questions that remain revelant throughout the 20th century and into the 21st: What is literature? What is the role of the writer? How does literature work? This introduction to the language and the basic concerns of literary theory will prepare us to leap into an investigation of current critical practices and the varied flavors of literary theory that give those practices their intellectual bite.

The question is one of the most effective tools in the critical toolbox, and we will be asking them in numbers: What is a text? What is an author? How do we read texts? How is the text constructed? What is language? How does language work? How does literature reflect the world that engendered it? How does literature create the world it lives in? How does literature reveal the life of the mind? How does literature grapple with history? How does the text engage in political, religious, or cultural debates?

We will apply our sharpened critical skills to several literary works, including William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Emily Brontė's Wuthering Heights, and T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. We will be using Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory as guide through the critical jungle, and many essays will be available through e-reserve or the course website. Students will be required to write three formal essays (4-5 pages), a series of very brief, informal microthemes due on a weekly basis, and to give one short oral presentation in class.