ENGL602 - Critical Theory and Literary Criticism

An introduction to critical theory and literary criticism, with an overview of major movements (including formalism, structuralism and poststructuralism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism). Designed to help graduate students assess the various ways of approaching and writing about literature.

Using theory: just because you have a hammer doesn’t mean everything is a nail. What is “theory” in the context of literary study? How can various theoretical and critical approaches be used effectively to formulate literary interpretation? What are the stakes for the analytical approaches various theories offer? What are some possibilities bringing theory to literary interpretation offer and what are some limitations? What conversations have introduced and sustained various theories in literary interpretations and where are those conversations now? Those are a few of the questions framing this course: an introduction to critical theory presenting some of the major issues and vocabularies in the histories and evolutions of critical thought and considering some of the possibilities offered by contemporary critical theories. We will begin by examining how archives of theoretical canons and traditions were made, and will analyze methods of curation that determined them and so will consider thinkers and ideas from antiquity to the present that are regarded as primary. Our overview of critical theory will take into account various shifts in theoretical movements of the 20th and 21st century such as formalism, structuralism and poststructuralism, Marxism, feminism, critical race theory, psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory, ecocriticism, textual theory, lyric theory, new media studies, digital humanities, affect theory, and queer theory. Our intensive focus will be on feminist, critical race,  and queer theories. Course requirements: a theory workbook (or online journal kept in Discussions throughout the semester); a class presentation and discussion questions, possibly supplemented by a bibliography and/or short (2-3 pp.) critical response paper (‘tis the presenter’s option); active participation in face-to-face discussions, in response to others’ presentations and projects. Also required is a slightly longer (7-10 pp.) final critical response paper or the equivalent. We will conclude the course with oral presentations drawn from this longer critical writing project. Always foregrounded will be the importance of having fun in the best intellectual sense—no kidding! The course is designed to help you identify and take advantage of the critical tools most suited to developing your intellectual interests.