Category Archives: 290

Is It Literature?


My first meeting of Literary Theory and Practice is today at 12:30, and I’m super excited about it! I’ve taught the class once before, using the same basic materials, and this term I’m fleshing it out a bit more with some excerpts from primary theoretical sources. FSG also recently republished the collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop with a wonderful new section of facsimile drafts, so we’ll be able to take a look at those sometime in the next 15 weeks. One of my goals for teaching this class the second time around is to create some effective videos and discussion activities that will bring home the central theoretical concepts we’re working on. First up is formalism, though today we’re starting with a general conversation about the class, the work of the critic, the nature of literature, and how it’s changed over time.

So, today I want to start with an activity I’m calling “Is this Literature?” I’ll give students a selection of excerpts from a variety of texts, and they’ll have to organize them into a couple categories: is it literature? is it good literature? is it something a literary critic can talk about? The idea is to get students thinking about some of the criteria that make a text “literature” and the extent to which those criteria are fungible and contingent. Here are my excerpts, if anyone is interested. If you have good ideas you want to share, please comment!

Gender Studies, Bishop

In 290 tomorrow, I’m going to try something a bit new–students will have read the Ryan introduction to gender studies, which has three distinct portions (not divided as such, but useful): an overview, a closer look at the patriarchal construction/rejection/suppression of the feminine, and a section on homosexual panic and compulsory heterosexuality, all the while focusing on the fluidity of gender rather than its stability. We’re also reading Bishop’s poem, “The Roosters,” about which Ryan has generated some interesting prompts. My plan is to divide the students into three groups, and have each group teach a section of the introduction to their peers in a 5-minute presentation. They’ll need a bit of time to gather thoughts and figure out what is most important, plan an approach, and organize themselves, but I think 15 minutes should do it. Then, we’ll use most of the rest of the class to go over “The Roosters” in general, after reading it aloud, spending the very last portion on a prompted freewrite to prepare for later assignments.

Bishop, "Insomnia," and Psychoanalysis

Today in EN290, we discussed Bishop’s poem “Insomnia” from a psychoanalytic perspective. I started the class by turning to some important themes in Bishop’s biography, themes which find expression quite often in her work–loss, alienation, dislocation, and so on. This allowed us to differentiate formalist from psychoanalytic methodology, while also giving us a starting place for our return to the basic principles of psychoanalytic theory. For the next 20 minutes or so, I tried to establish a sense of continuity and difference between this and earlier theoretical approaches we’ve studied–there can never be too much repetition! What ideas/images/practices would most interest a psychoanalytic critic? A deconstructionist? A structuralist? A New Critic? A Russian Formalist? I think that working backward, continually, from the approach-of-the-day may be useful in encouraging students to continue asking the same question of different theories.

For homework, I’d asked each student to annotate a poem of their choice using the tools of psychoanalytic analysis, and some poems were particularly well-suited; the one we worked on as a class, “Insomnia,” had been given short shrift in the annotation. I used an example of close reading for theme to model how to start or set-up an analysis, and we briefly discussed the poem as a whole–I am constantly amazed that students don’t immediately gravitate toward the title as a site for analysis! Then the students got into smaller groups to discuss the poem, jot down notes, and so on. Then, students individually worked on a paragraph of their own analysis–starting with a completion of the sentence, “Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘Insomnia’ addresses….” We weren’t able to finish the paragraphs, so I’ve asked students to finish and revise at home. If I were to have done this class again, I’d truncate the discussion time, which did run a little over, and devote more to the writing and full-class discussion of their analyses. Nonetheless, I do like the continuity established through revision; there’s just never enough time in the period!