Friday, April 13, 2007

Feet of clay

As in most grad classes, the students in mine this semester read criticism as well as the primary texts. We read some purely theoretical pieces, too, but since the students have already had whole classes in theory, the secondary readings tend to use theory more as a lens for interpretation. In choosing the secondary readings, I didn't do a "greatest hits" approach but tried instead to provide a mix: some classic or essential pieces on the work, articles from a variety of critical perspectives, very recent articles, and articles that are representative of the critical discourse on the primary work. I don't set out to give them bad articles, but some "representative" articles may be more workmanlike than stellar.

It's been interesting to see the class's progression from a more hesitant to a more confident engagement with these secondary texts. Some of them are written by The Greats (and anyone who doesn't think academia has a star system is kidding herself), and sometimes it's entirely clear why certain analyses are classics. Some aren't called classics but are clearly excellent work on the text.

The students have also become a lot more adept at critiquing the weaknesses in a piece, however, and that's even better. They're able to spot flaws in logic or an interpretation that's simply a point-by-point application of Theory A to Text B, without much illumination of either.

On a couple of occasions lately, they've also discovered errors in the article. By errors, I mean attributing whole long speeches on which the author's interpretation rests to an entirely different character in the primary work. Think something like this: "King Lear enters the stage carrying the dead body of his beloved daughter Goneril" or "'From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee' cries Ishmael as he strikes at Moby-Dick." And this is in Prestigious Journal A and Prestigious Journal B.

Okay, so Homer nods, and so do academics and their editors. It'd be nice if errors wouldn't happen, but they do, and so finding this stuff is good in two ways:

It teaches students that they, too, are full participants in this process and that the Great Gods of Academe can have feet of clay without necessarily losing their crowns.

And, in the immortal words of Joe E. Brown in Some Like it Hot, it shows them that "Nobody's perfect."

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