Does graduate coursework in literature prepare students for professional academic literary criticism?

Grad seminar at London School of Economics, circa 1981

What is the point of a graduate level seminar in literature? In a Masters-level class in, for example, medieval Spanish literature, there are two goals.

The first is to help students achieve mastery of a corpus of texts that will provide them with a broad familiarity with Hispanic cultural production. This way, when they are looking for work as instructors at the post-MA or postdoctoral levels they will have a familiarity with major works and movements in their historical contexts. To this end we require them to read and demonstrate critical understanding of primary works and secondary essays.

The second is to help them develop professional skills. To achieve this, I feel it is helpful to draw on communities of practice pedagogy, which in a nutshell suggests that if you want to be a chemist you should do chemistry and not just learn about it.

In literary criticism this generally means engaging with texts and eventually producing a critical essay that is essentially a Fisher-Price version of an academic journal article. I feel this is a reasonable goal for a graduate class but that ten weeks of furious reading followed by a week or so of scrambling to put together an acceptably rigorous essay is not a fair approximation of professional academics.

We all have different working methods, but generally the road from reading to finished manuscript is more iterative. We read, take notes, discuss with students or colleagues, write abstracts, give papers, respond to questions, rework ideas, hand a draft to a colleague, perhaps blog a preliminary version, submit a manuscript for peer review, incorporate readers’ comments, and then —hopefully— have a finished manuscript.

In a traditional graduate seminar there are far fewer formal occasions to articulate and reflect on the ideas you are forming. This is partly due to time constraints: in ten or fifteen weeks it is difficult to both get through a list of books and drill down onto one of them in particular.

We can, however, take steps to offer our students a more graduated experience, one more in line with the experience they are likely to have as an academic literary critic. One way to increase the intensity of a course is to limit the syllabus to one or two major works to be read in full over the term. This way, students can spend less time frantically trying to cram themselves full of Canonical Works and spend more time understanding a single work in its particular context. They can read selections of related works or source texts, historical documents, and secondary essays. And they can work on a series of close readings of the week’s section of the work. All of these, hopefully, contribute to a deeper and more intensive understanding of the work in question.

This format is also more conducive to a critical practice that anticipates the work of a humanities researcher. Students can develop a concept or theme over the course of the term, in a series of related writing assignments, in a conference abstract, in a short paper delivered in class, and then in a term paper.

The communal focus that comes from all students focusing on different aspects of a single work creates a group of critics who all have a stake in the conversation that is based on a deep and sustained reading they have undertaken together. When they present papers, all of their interlocutors are similarly critically engaged in the same text, as in a conference panel where the audience has all read, taught, and written on the text in question.

There are, of course, tradeoffs involved. The monographic course does not get you much closer to the bottom of your exam reading list. You could argue that by showcasing a single work, students who are not likely to take more than a single course in (for example) medieval Spanish literature will not get a sufficiently broad understanding of the period from their subsequent individual readings of the rest of the works on their list from that period.

This can be allayed somewhat by making an effort to bring the work into dialogue with other major works of the time. In one course I required each student to present on a related work of the same period in order to get a better idea of the intellectual context of the times. This provides some synthetic overview of the period, but does not go into much detail about the related works.

This past term I taught a seminar on Fernando de Rojas’ Celestina (1499) putting some of these ideas into practice. It yielded some fine results. There was sustained, insightful discussion in every class session, and all students participated very actively. I could see the students developing their critical voices over the course of the term, and by the end of the ten weeks they were able to write with some authority on their selected themes. The Q&A sessions after the short 10-minute mini-conference papers were lively, and the resulting essays seemed more interesting and more rigorously thought out than the kinds of essays I would receive when the syllabus was more ambitious. For now, at least, I’d say that’s a case for slow reading in graduate education.

What do you think? Have you had success designing (or taking) courses focusing on one work? Courses with graduated assignments that take students through various steps of the idea-mongering process? I look forward to your comments.

2 thoughts on “Does graduate coursework in literature prepare students for professional academic literary criticism?

  1. I’ve had great success focusing more intently on a single work (or two) with graduate courses. I’ve taught a course on Hamlet and Paradise Lost in which we read and re-read both these works in multiple editions (and formats). This is a good approach for graduate students, I think, who can then go deeper into the text and into the critical contexts.

    As to the question posed in your post title, though, I think modes of academic communication are undergoing profound change, making any “academic” or practice literary criticism a kind of intellectual embarrassment in a day and age when it is possible to engage multiple communities of practice immediately via the web. At my institution we made a step forward when we restructured our grad courses to aim more at an outcome of a publishable paper. And I have had students submit their term papers and get published — after many months of waiting. So, to me, that’s not adequate. I think we do a disservice to introduce graduate students into a culture of private, delayed, privileged publication. It only underscores an unnecessary elitism. And while it will take some time before the tardy humanities catch up with the discourse practices of the Internet, such recalibration is inevitable. This is why I think the only morally defensible approach to teaching literary criticism is to problematize the traditional outlets for that criticism (elite, peer-reviewed publications; elite conferences; elite academic courses) and not simply have them publish those problems in the same outlets, but aim our students at the many authentic audiences already discussing the literary works they are studying, but who feel no need to keep that research and writing buried from view. In that spirit I have taught my undergraduates to conduct public literary criticism (see the link to the recent eBook we’ve created that in part addresses these issues). It really depends upon how long you think the traditional modes of scholarly communication are sustainable in the digital age. As much as I value the range of critical approaches to literary works to be found in standard scholarly outlets, there are so many other ways literary works are being engaged and discussed today (in alternate formats, in popular culture, applied to politics and other fields of endeavor) that sticking to the traditional conversations in the traditional outlets would be preparing students for a future that has, well, less future. I don’t know, what is your take on literary criticism? Should it remain exclusive and elitest, a private language? Or should we be public intellectuals? I obviously favor the latter, but old habits do die hard.

    • Gideon, thanks very much for your comment. I’ve been following your feed for a while and your Academic Evolution was key in getting our department to pass a unanimous OA mandate (with mandatory deposit of peer-reviewed pubs for purposes of promotion and tenure). Like you say, old habits die hard, but I think we can all take steps to, as someone once put it, “iterate toward openness.” I’m looking forward to checking out your class’ e-book pub.

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