Over the past few days I've been making some headway on my long-deferred project of giving myself a crash course in literary theory, a subject largely and mysteriously absent from both my undergraduate and graduate training. My goal is modest: basically, to learn enough not to reveal myself publicly as an idiot.
I have a few textbooks and anthologies spread out on my coffee table (thanks partly to recommendations by Sisyphus and Horace), and I'm picking through various schools and theorists, reading all the headnotes and a good selection of essays. As I expected, it's been a deeply pleasurable activity. Much of what I'm reading is exciting in its own right, and some of it beautifully expressed, but my pleasure derives at least in part from the discovery that I know more than I thought I did, and in some ways what I'm really acquiring is a better context or frame for that knowledge.
It's satisfying to learn where certain terms that I've long understood and sometimes even used actually come from, or seeing how Thinker B was influenced by Thinker A. I recall having had a similar "a-ha!" experience late in my junior year in college, when I'd taken enough literature classes that I finally felt I had a general sense of the whole--how all those disparate periods, genres, and authors fit together.
In this case, though, I'm not just fitting things into a historical or intellectual progression, but realizing that I've already been (however un- or semi-consciously) trained in much of this. That stuff that I do with texts? There's a method to it! Or there could be! I haven't just been fumbling along, making shit up.
This, in turn, makes me think about the way we teach our students to read and work with texts. Obviously, I don't teach theory qua theory, but I do expect my students to be able to ask certain kinds of questions about the works we read, and to approach them in ways that produce meaningful analyses and richer readings. Those questions and approaches aren't my approaches, of course--they reflect the ways that I and most literary scholars of my generation have been trained--though I may be guilty of having too readily assumed that they're the obvious or only ones.
Still, much of what we do in the classroom is similar to my own project over the past few days: not teaching students new things so much as showing them what they already half know. There are, of course, things that have to be learned from the ground up. But the older our students are the more likely it is that we're teaching them to focus or reorient skills that are already there; we're just helping them to be more thorough and more self-aware about the process.
Is that wishful thinking? Well, maybe. But even if it's not true for every student, it's surely pedagogically useful to conceive of literary analysis (both its acquisition and its exercise) in these terms: as "discovery" in the old sense of dis- or un-covering something that was there all along.