Formalism, Using Blogs in Class

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I just received the MLA edition on teaching contemporary theory to undergraduates I ordered in preparation for my courses this term, and on a quick browse, it looks less useful than I thought it would be–that is, more theoretical. Which is not bad, but telling…. Why do we assume that if a text like this doesn’t have direct, hands-on suggestions for engaging students in the material that it’s “less useful”? Framing theory, helping students see how and, more importantly, why it’s in the curriculum in the first place, is one of the most challenging facets of this kind of class, and I think we get around it by divvying up the syllabus according to arbitrary sets of critical approaches while ignoring the conceptual relations between them. I have to admit, I’m guilty of it, too, though I try to historicize the approaches as best I can. I was skimming through John Kucich’s piece (random side note: I took a class from him on Victorian literature and masochism at the University of Michigan, and I remember vividly a few faculty student parties at which wonderful conversations were had, so I figured I’d start there!) and I have to say I’m looking forward to playing with ways to select a handful of complete primary texts to share with undergraduates throughout the term. By the way, if anyone has good recommendations for more contemporary texts like that MLA options for teaching, please comment!

But, today we’re going over formalism.

We’re also going to spend some time today dealing with student blogs–I’m asking everyone to keep a personal online journal, where each student will respond to the day’s readings and periodically comment on their peers’ work, too. We didn’t have a tutorial on setting up a blog before I assigned it; rather, I wanted to see how they would go about it, where the problems were, and whether they could discover how to overcome those problems–whether through trial and error or by looking up an online tutorial, asking questions of friends, and so on.

It occurs to me that this presents an opportunity to connect some of the theoretical issues to a very practical, very everyday context. If form is meaning, and meaning is form, then what are some of the meanings generated by the particular formal features of Marymount’s WordPress install? What habits of reading will be created? How will those habits of reading–and of writing–be reinforced, limited, or enabled by the formal features of the tool? One starting question to ask would be: “what do you have to do, physically, to read a peer’s blog and comment on it?” We can take a few moments to do it, then reflect on how the formal features of the install are canalizing our behavior.

4 thoughts on “Formalism, Using Blogs in Class

  1. Sounds great. When I do this kind of class, I handle it by pairing Gulliver’s Travels with a succession of critical theory “digressions”: structuralism, post-structuralism, gender theory, post-co. Those rubrics tend to embed the critical discourse in some kind of succession. The important thing, probably, is what master-schema you want to use to relate the “approaches” to one another. These could be historical, logical, cumulative and incremental, or negational and destabilizing. What’s important is that you devise and articulate the account of how they relate and then recur to that throughout the term. I think that it’s best, as you note, to teach the theory through the concrete instantiations, so the formalism in WP idea sounds really good. It should get them quickly into the problem of distinguishing authorial “expression” from social “convention.” And I love the questions you’re pursuing here. They can then be alerted to the differences among approaches by the different kinds of questions asked and pursued in each.

    1. I typically take the historical approach in relating the “approaches”–especially the historical as it reveals characteristic gaps and biases. Today, we related defamiliarization and roughened language to the act of encountering a different writing platform–I think it worked, but it’s always so difficult to tell. I’m definitely going to make more visible the expression/convention distinction, which we touched on in different language, as part of reception (I like to start with the “three locations of meaning” and then complicate it with reference to hybridity and textuality). Do you have a syllabus you’d be interested in sharing?

  2. Here’s the course-blog, which for the moment is open to non-participants:

    http://engl3301sp12.wordpress.com/

    I’ve published an article in Profession ’98 about the genesis of the course, which is called Swift and Literary Studies, and have blogged on it several times at the Long 18th. Let me know if you need any further information.

    I’ve seen a lot of those kinds of theory anthologies/primers, which in my mind are modeled on Terry Eagleton, and I have to say I hate them. There’s something about the decontextualization and anthologization of theory that lowers the stakes. If you’re looking for one interesting historicization, try Francois Cusset. Weirdly enough, I spend a certain amount of time talking my theorists’ biographies and disciplines, and this helps ground discussions, I’ve found

    1. Oh, that’s very helpful, David! I am using the Rivkin/Ryan anthology, which is what I was assigned when I was in grad school, and I do find it offers pretty effective excerpts and a generally strong introductory contextualizations. The introductory essays could be more historicized, but we cover that in class, too. I do like having students read a little about the theorists’ biographies–it definitely helps to ground their work, to help make the stakes of their arguments visible.

      I’ve never read Cusset–but I will definitely check out French Theory, as it looks spectacular! Thanks!

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