Critical Practice, or, What Do We Do When We Do English?
To the world outside, English Studies are about reading and writing—and that’s just about that. But over the past few decades the field itself has become intensely self-conscious of what those two activities actually are. “Reading” and “writing,” we’ve decided, are complex processes, and depending on how you understand them, you will be doing very different things. One kind of reading, for example, has for some critics come to look like a kind of cultural cheerleading; another takes an angle that makes it deeply distrustful of anything—including successful authorship—that looks like the promotion of power or privilege.
In that context, this course will ask you to think carefully about what English Studies people actually do when they do English, particularly as readers. We’ll begin with half a dozen essays that make claims about what work in English actually is or should be, and we’ll go on to read the whole of a short book that seems to argue that you needn’t actually read much at all (but doesn’t actually). Finally, we’ll also read/watch some of the texts that that book looks at as part of its argument—some short, like Montaigne’s essay “On Reading,” others more substantial, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Throughout I will be asking you to think carefully about the reading and writing you do, and how and why you might choose to do either of them differently. You’ll write, too, about your own literacy habits, and in the end I’ll ask you to formulate for the future your own reading/writing plan. What are you doing when you do English, and how and why might you want to modify either?
Students will write short response papers for almost every class; there will also be three formal paper/mid-term assignments and a group project.
- Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.
- Shakespeare, Hamlet.
- Assorted essays either on-line or on electronic reserve.