From Teaching & Learning English Literature, Ellie Chambers and Marshall Gregory discuss the topic of teaching theory in literature courses. The question of debate in regards to theory is not whether or not it should be taught in the classroom, but rather, “how much/what” theory to teach, as well as “when, and how, should it be taught?” The authors note that theory has mostly been reserved for graduate study, and left out of undergraduate work since the mid-1960’s due to the ‘core’ requirements that do not entail the need for theory in undergraduate education (69). As a result, the “purpose” of literary theory during this time is in debate, where most view it as too arduous to present in an undergraduate classroom. However, they admit that “what undergraduates need to understand is that all literary interpretations and judgements derive from certain presuppositions” (68; emphasis in original). Thus, an argument can be made that in order for students to obtain such an understanding of literature and the proceeding interpretations of it that Chambers and Gregory impose, theory must be woven in to the curriculum.
Just because there is not a blatant example to show an undergraduate student how one can use new knowledge, it does not mean it is not beneficial or cannot help make future decisions. How do we know if a student finds a specific subject interesting unless they are introduced to an array of possibilities that subject has to offer? For example, a student who excels in math during high school becomes eligible to take more challenging math courses that are not necessarily a requirement of their high school education, such as advanced algebra and trigonometry. Without specific career choices set, a trigonometry teacher cannot explain to his or her students as to why knowing how to identify the asymptote of a line, or figuring the triangulation of an object is relevant to learn. However, because the students have trigonometry as a part of their skill set, they become more knowledgeable in making those future career choices that are inevitable for all of them. As a result, the familiarity of asymptotes, or trigonometry in general, may result in a student finding interest in the subject and as a result, choose a major or career choice that is math or trig based such as engineering or architecture. The same applies to Literature. How can an undergraduate student know if his or her personal interests lie in literature if they are not working with theory – one of the main aspects of literature as a discipline?
Chambers and Gregory acknowledge the possibility of including theory as a part of undergraduate work, noting that, because most beginning students have not read or dealt with theoretical works before, “we should surely just accept that they will find it difficult” (73). However, just because something is difficult, does not mean that it should be excluded, especially in a university environment where students should be challenged in order to learn and grow. As a possible solution to the challenging aspects of theory, the authors suggest that theory be placed in its own genre and that teachers specifically show their students strategies on how to read theory proficiently. In addition, teachers are also encouraged to reduce student confusion by either narrowing down the theoretical approaches they teach, or narrow down the text in which they are all applied (76-77). Not only will undergraduate students be more prepared for theoretical graduate work, if they should choose to embark in higher education, but they will also be more aware of what is to come in graduate school. Theory may in fact be the additional tidbit of information that allows undergraduate students to choose literature as their future career choice. Moreover, if a student realizes in undergraduate study that they do not personally find theory compelling, then they are able to skip over the stressful and overwhelming step of realizing it later in graduate work.
Chambers, Ellie, and Marshall Gregory. “Teaching Literary Theory and Teaching Writing.” Teaching & Learning English Literature. London: SAGE Publ., 2006. 63-90.