Monday, December 16, 2013

I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs

From an interview of Daniel Mendelsohn by David Wolf.
I want to end by asking you about your experience of teaching. Do you think it might be worth teaching undergraduates not only how to write academic essays but also how to write criticism of the kind one finds in magazines and popular journals?

First of all, I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word “theory” until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorise about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.

Later on, when they’ve had experience in close reading, when they have a number of works under their belt, they can be introduced to theory—to the wide array of approaches to texts that they already will have “owned,” in some small way. That is exciting. But to flatter the vanity of 19-year-olds by letting them think they know about “theory” before they have read anything in real depth strikes me as preposterous. That very approach bred a generation of academics whose approach to literature is contemptuous.

So would you like to see popular critical essays on the curriculum?

Yes. One of the courses I like to teach is a Great Books course that’s mandatory for first year students, and after I read their first papers it’s always very clear to me that they have no model, no template for what a critical essay is supposed to do—what (or how) you’re supposed to be arguing when you’re writing about a text or a movie or anything. They don’t understand there is a rhetoric of criticism—that there’s a stance you have to have, that you have to position yourself, that you don’t just blather about your impressions or your “opinions” or, worse, your “feelings” about a work. They literally have no idea, at first, what the point of being critical is—no doubt because, in part, they are being raised in a culture where a bland, everything-goes, multi-culti niceness is the paramount virtue. You have to know who you are—as a person, but also as a member of a given civilization—in order to speak about a work.

I always tease them at the beginning of the semester about their writing—I say, “Whenever you write me at 11 o’clock on a Thursday night begging me for an extension on the paper, the prose is always so beautiful and the email is so wonderfully structured.” It’s a joke, but it’s also not a joke—in that situation they understand the rhetoric of the form to which they’re committing themselves: They understand who they are as a writer and a beseecher, they understand who I am as the person in charge, they understand what evidence to adduce in their favour—their dog died, their computer broke or whatever. Which is why the email begging for the paper extension is always a well-written piece. But whenever they have to write three paragraphs about women in Genesis or whatever—when they have to make an argument—it’s basically “word salad,” because they’ve never read anything that presents a text, wrestles with it and comes up with some conclusions. For that reason, I think it’s better that they should be reading Pauline Kael reviews in the New Yorker than Derrida.

If you were to recommend a particular book or writer to someone getting interested in criticism, what would you choose?

I’m torn. On the one hand, I want to say that one of the best collections of essays on what was then contemporary literature, which turned out to be right about virtually everything, is Axel’s Castle by Edmund Wilson. But I would tell my own students, if they asked, to read Pauline Kael about the movies, Arlene Croce about dance and Gore Vidal about anything. Those are people I read growing up. Or Helen Vendler on poetry. I didn’t know anything about poetry when I was 15 but I read her in the New Yorker all the time. That’s how you get a sense of what an essay should accomplish. That’s the tradition to which I like to think I belong. I never think of myself as anything but a popular critic, in the broad sense. I’m writing for anybody who can pick up a piece of paper and read. On the other hand, what’s admirable about all those critics is that they knew their stuff. What enabled them to be as free and informal as they are is precisely that they know everything about what they’re talking about. That’s what gives you the liberty to have fun.

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