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ENG 6018
Criticism and Theory I

Class 2: Crisis in the Humanities

Class Objectives:

  • Review syllabus, report sign-up, questions
  • Discuss readings on "Crisis in the Humanities": Perloff, responses to Fish, additional readings introduced by the students
  • See also Fish's second column in NYTimes, in response to readers of the first.
  • Discuss overview of literary criticism and theory in NATC

Reading Assignment:

    NATC Introduction (pp 1-28);
    Perloff, "Crisis in the Humanities" avail in Course Documents;
    responses to Fish's 1/6/08 article (see Web Resources in Blackboard);
    additional research submitted by students

    At some point prior to reading Aristotle's Poetics students should read Oedipus the King

    Due: Post #1

Notes and Discussion Questions:

    Based on your reading of Fish and Perloff, how would you describe the "Crisis in the Humanities"? Is this a recent phenomenon attributable to current conditions or events? What are the implications of the "crisis"? Why is it called "crisis"?

    Do some further digging on your own to see how widespread this phenomenon is. You can simply Google "Crisis in the Humanities" or do some targeted research on professional websites. I recommend, for example, the Modern Language Association, the Association of American Universities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the government task force on education that resulted in the Spellings Report. You might also investigate what's been said in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    How widespread is this concern? When did it originate? What is at stake?

    What are some of the trends in reporting and responding to this "Crisis"?

    What does this suggest about your role as a graduate student of English?

    What role might the history of literary criticism and theory play in understanding the current crisis?

    Introduction to NATC

    Although very simplified, this introduction provides an overview of the major movements in literary criticism and theory over the expanse of Western history. It usefully sets up a discussion of different theories in terms of two fundamental questions: What is literature? and What is interpretation?

    As you consider the different theoretical texts this semester, keep in mind how each constructs or assumes a concept of literature and a method of interpretation. Also consider the reader: "In depicting the critical encounter, theories of reading and interpretation invariably assign characteristics to texts and allocate particular roles and tasks to readers" (NATC 2).

    Your role in this class will be first to understand the meaning of the texts we are reading so as to create a clearer sense of the history of approaches to these fundamental questions, and second to analyze the texts and raise questions about the ways in which they answer these questions.

    Consider the schematic from M. H. Abrams offered on page 5. What are the theories that reflect a primary orientation toward the universe? What theories reflect a primary orientation toward the artist? Toward the audience? Toward the work itself?

    The introduction suggests that the theories we will be reading -- from Ancient through Enlightenment texts -- are primarily oriented toward the universe. What does that suggest about the function or value of literature during this vast historical expanse? What might you expect for the role of mimesis in these theories? What might you expect for the role of didacticism?

    As we begin to read the actual texts and discuss their complexities, we will return to these questions to see if these generalizations bear scrutiny. Is there room for theories of reader-response or authorship in this era?

    On page 6-7, the editors suggest that theories of literature often go hand in hand with theories of interpretation. What does this mean? How might we apply this idea to the theories in this class?

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