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Critical Theory and Some Decisions

October 12th, 2007 · No Comments

So, a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about genres and how the academy pretty much dismisses genre fiction out of hand. In it, I mentioned that I have Issues with Critical Theory, but that that was a whole nother post. Well. Here it is.

When I first started looking at literature from a critical perspective, it was in my Honors Sophomore English class. Excellent class. Everything I needed to know about how to write a paper, I learned in that class. I also learned the fundamentals of poetry that no one seems to teach any more (can you identify dactylic trimeter at a glance? You could, if you’d had Mr. Wood). Until I graduated from high school and started college, however, my papers were essentially formalistic in nature. You know, I wrote about what was actually in the book/poem, without imposing any kind of theory on it beyond a bit of biographical/historical background.

My first brush with critical theory, then, came in my freshman year of college, when I took English 251: Fundamental Literary Criticism. We had a brief (VERY brief) overview of the different theories, and then got to pick one and write a paper on it. I chose multiculturalism and used Amy Tan’s A Pair of Tickets. Why? Because multiculturalism was pretty much the only theory I actually understood. The only thing I can actually remember learning in that class was from a rap that a fellow student wrote for our end-of-the-year talent show (yes, my class was taught by a grad student; why do you ask?): “Of all the authors we have read, one thing that we have noticed: they all were alcoholics and died of tuberculosis). Yeah. That, and my teacher had written a song called “The Last Train to Tocquerville,” which is a teeny little town in Southern Utah. Anyway.

The next year I took English 252: Critical Writing. Again, we had a very brief overview of the theories. I understood even less this time, I think. The class (there were only 5 of us, it was an evening section) chose a single novel (Pride and Prejudice, much to my delight, because the one male in the class said he didn’t want to read anything depressing, which of course eliminates a good 87% of the English-language canon) and each wrote our own papers about it. Mine ended up being deconstructionist, although not really. I just called it that because my teacher said that that’s what I was writing.

After that, for my undergrad at least, I was almost able to forget about theory. I took a Shakespeare class where the teacher tried to help us understand the intricacies of rhetorical criticism (that teacher is actually on my thesis committee now. Funny old world, innit?), and my capstone course had a post-colonial bend to it. But mostly, I my encounters with critical theory were limited to some of my more annoying classmates parroting a few terms here and there.

And then came grad school. I was required to take an undergraduate critical theory course as a condition of my acceptance, which I did, my first semester. Luckily, my prof was actually able to make Marxism, Feminism, and Postcolonialism understandable to me. I even managed to write what would become the presentation I gave at Lumos on the Sorting Hat and Ideological State Apparati. But was that the end? Of course not! Because after taking that class, I was subjected to a graduate-level critical theory course. I took it in the Spring semester, because the guy who taught it for Fall and Winter talks so fast that I can’t understand him. He’s brilliant, but he mumbles. I thought that might not be the best idea.

So, I took 630. I’ve never been in a class that made me feel more stupid. Everyone around me seemed to really get the theories and the theorists we were discussing, but I didn’t. Well, a few I did. But most I didn’t. And, of course, I had to write a thesis. Which meant that I had to pick a theory and understand it enough to write an 80-page paper about it! I chose a hybrid of moral/biographical criticism. I think. That’s how I’m justifying my topic, anyway. Neither of those theories are currently in vogue, incidentally.

And then last year, I took Rhetorical Criticism, mainly because I’d had to take a rhetoric class as part of my breadth requirement, and some of the issues we touched on seemed vaguely intriguing. That was the class I ended up failing.

So, what have I learned from my experiences with critical theory? Well, first, I don’t understand most of it. Seriously. And I’m a fairly intelligent individual. I have the standardized tests to prove it (my scores, let me show you them). I have a sneaking suspicion that most other English majors, graduate and undergraduate, don’t either. They may act like they understand Neitchze, Derrida, Althusser, Foucault, Burke, Eagleton, Said, and their ilk, but they don’t. They’ve assimilated enough of it to parrot the terms, but they’re, at best, pseudo-intellectual poseurs. I know I am.

But beyond the fact that most theory is utterly incomprehensible to any but the most whacked-out of English professors (I am provisionally convinced that you have to be at least partially insane to understand Derrida), it’s how theory is applied. It’s simply impossible to just read a book any more. No, instead you have to declare that the author is dead and therefore what the author meant to say is absolutely irrelevant, or that everything actually means the exact opposite of how it is portrayed, or that every male character is misognynistic and every female character written by a man is unrealistic and every male OR female character written by a woman must be a Paragon of Every Feminist Virtue. You have to point out the injustice of every binary. Economics and social status are crucial to EVERY story. Anything long and skinny is a phallic symbol. Any character with a physical imperfection is an example of the marginalization of the disabled. Sisterly love is actually lesbian incest. And an author just can’t win when it comes to race–either they’re too focused on it or not focused enough or they’re betraying their own racial roots or they’re dooming their race to continued prejudice or revealing their own subconscious racism or. . . yeah. But sorry, you’re not actually allowed to point out the moral messages a book might be sending. Morality is Taboo.

Even those of you who aren’t English majors recognize much of what I said in the previous paragraph, because you’re all Harry Potter fans, and you’ve seen those same things applied to HP. And therein lies the rub. Because even if I were to write about the books I actually enjoy reading, I’d have to do it like that. And I’m sorry, but that stuff right there? Is balderdash. I distinctly remember sitting in a creative writing class in high school, having a poem I’d written critiqued. My classmates were finding all sorts of things I never even thought of putting in there, and a good portion of them went entirely against what I’d actually been trying to do. I think that colored my perception of the value of literary criticism. Of the hundred or so papers I’ve written in my life, even counting those in which I tried to avoid theory whatsoever, I can probably count on one hand the ones I actually believed. And even those, I’d give odds on. I’m about 87% confident that I’m on a close-to-true track with my thesis.

And I hate that. I hate that I’m faking that I even understand the theories I’m applying, let alone that I think there’s any substance to them. Because in English papers, unlike scientific ones, you’re supposed to write that something “is” happening, not that something “might be.” Weasel words not allowed. It seems dangerously close to dishonesty. And when I imagine doing it for several more years to earn a PhD, only to have to keep doing in for more years after that to earn tenure– I’ve come to realize that I just can’t.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many things about being an English major that I love. I’m absolutely certain that there are things about being a professor that I would love. If I hadn’t thought that, I wouldn’t be where I am now. But my experience in grad school has taught me that if I have to keep doing Critical Theory for the rest of my life, I will go absolutely insane.

So, what does this mean? It means that after I finish my MA thesis, I’m done. No applying to PhD programs. No retaking the GRE lit exam. It’s taken me 3 years to realize it, but it’s not for me. Maybe it could have been. I don’t know. When I started thinking of doing an MA in English, it felt very right. Maybe that was because of the lessons I needed to learn, not because of the career path. But I’ve met with nothing but uncertainty, failure, and panic attacks since starting grad school, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep going.

So what am I going to do instead? I’m going to get my MLS. I want to be a Youth Services librarian in a public library. Librarians are semi-in-demand here in Utah, because there are no MLS programs in the state. It will mean two more years of school and a bucketload of student loans, because I’ll have to pay out-of-state tuition. But it feels right. My front-runner program is an online one at the University of Arizona. You see I’ve done my research.

And it’s amazing. I made this decision a few weeks ago. And since then, I’ve felt the most amazing sense of peace. And drive. I’ve been doing meaningful research on my thesis. I should be able to write again soon (although I haven’t tried it, but I have high hopes). It’s like this enormous weight of personal expectations has been lifted off my shoulders. To paraphrase Lois McMaster Bujold, maybe I just needed to free my brain.

Tags: Essay · Life · School

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