I just received the MLA edition on teaching contemporary theory to undergraduates I ordered in preparation for my courses this term, and on a quick browse, it looks less useful than I thought it would be–that is, more theoretical. Which is not bad, but telling…. Why do we assume that if a text like this doesn’t have direct, hands-on suggestions for engaging students in the material that it’s “less useful”? Framing theory, helping students see how and, more importantly, why it’s in the curriculum in the first place, is one of the most challenging facets of this kind of class, and I think we get around it by divvying up the syllabus according to arbitrary sets of critical approaches while ignoring the conceptual relations between them. I have to admit, I’m guilty of it, too, though I try to historicize the approaches as best I can. I was skimming through John Kucich’s piece (random side note: I took a class from him on Victorian literature and masochism at the University of Michigan, and I remember vividly a few faculty student parties at which wonderful conversations were had, so I figured I’d start there!) and I have to say I’m looking forward to playing with ways to select a handful of complete primary texts to share with undergraduates throughout the term. By the way, if anyone has good recommendations for more contemporary texts like that MLA options for teaching, please comment!
But, today we’re going over formalism.
We’re also going to spend some time today dealing with student blogs–I’m asking everyone to keep a personal online journal, where each student will respond to the day’s readings and periodically comment on their peers’ work, too. We didn’t have a tutorial on setting up a blog before I assigned it; rather, I wanted to see how they would go about it, where the problems were, and whether they could discover how to overcome those problems–whether through trial and error or by looking up an online tutorial, asking questions of friends, and so on.
It occurs to me that this presents an opportunity to connect some of the theoretical issues to a very practical, very everyday context. If form is meaning, and meaning is form, then what are some of the meanings generated by the particular formal features of Marymount’s WordPress install? What habits of reading will be created? How will those habits of reading–and of writing–be reinforced, limited, or enabled by the formal features of the tool? One starting question to ask would be: “what do you have to do, physically, to read a peer’s blog and comment on it?” We can take a few moments to do it, then reflect on how the formal features of the install are canalizing our behavior.