Problems in Teaching Literary Theory & Criticism – Alok Mishra

problems in teaching literary theory and criticism Alok

During the days of my graduation, I could not understand the tenets of literary theories very well. Mostly, it was just about reading the texts provided in the book by Enright and Chickera and followed by the notes (or commentary) by one of my professors that I had to pen. Out of 100, 50 was the number – if I measure the effectiveness of this method of teaching today – after 7 years. It wasn’t the best method; it isn’t the best method. Teaching literary theories to the students of English literature (especially in India) is a tough (or very tough) job which the professors try to do in the best possible manner but still, that lacking part ruins the whole game and both the sides playing for victory end up in a cruel tie. So, am I criticising my learned professors? Am I raising questions on the literature professors? Am I trying to suggest some improvements? No! I am just trying to extend my opinion and if the learned friends in the academics find it useful, we can discuss something.

In graduation, when students are supposed to study the literary theories, the first confrontation is something like a Yogi or a Sanyasi or a Bramhachari (celibate) trying to understand the depths of erotology without having any interest in the erotica! Students are relatively new to studying literary theories which are something of more complex nature compared to studying a piece of prose or verse. As a matter of fact, in most of the universities in India, students are not even introduced to ‘literary theory’ before they actually start studying it. They are taught the complex theories of Marxism and Feminism without knowing the purpose of these studies and this is, sadly, wrong. Though some institutions have different papers for Literary Theory and Literary Criticism, still, that won’t help unless the professors develop their interest in studying these things. First, there should be a formal introduction to the basics and the very concept of these two ideas – literary theory and literary criticism. There MUST be a formal distinction which the students do need to know before they actually get into the studies. Otherwise, even after they have finished, 60 out of 100 would not tell you what is the difference between theory and applied criticism. And, not to mention, that’s sad!

I have studied the English Honours syllabus of one of the premier universities in India – Delhi University. It is planned very well and I can see the urge in the authorities to make the students well-versed not only in the course itself but also many other things which makes literature ‘job ready’. A noble and much-needed concept, I must admit. I am also satisfied with the literary theory and literary criticism part but with certain reservations that I have. I will point it.

Let’s take a look at the following part of the English Honours syllabus of the Delhi University (obtained from their official website):

The East and the West
Questions of Alterity
Power, Language, and Representation
The State and Culture
(in the Literary Theory part)

Summarising and Critiquing
Point of View
Reading and Interpreting
Media Criticism
Plot and Setting
Citing from Critics’ Interpretations
(in the Literary Criticism part)

These things are supposed to be taught or introduced to the students as “Suggested Topics and Background Prose Readings for Class Presentations Topics”. Though I am not very clear what does it mean in its entirety, I get the point that the professors will be introducing the students to these concepts before they actually start teaching “literary theory or/and criticism” to them. The suggested books are by the authors off the shore, not any Indian was able to make it to the list on the list of “suggested readings”. Now, what’s the point of “the point of view”? The concept of ‘local’ and ‘alien’ will not be there before the students to understand that perspectives change when we change. Moreover, the books which are suggested or prescribed for the students are rather contradictory (for the Literary Theory part). Those who know what kind of writings does Eagleton produce will know what I mean by this. To the starters, you can surely go with Peter Barry but going with someone as moody as Terry Eagleton will surely harm the understanding of the students and their ‘free thinking’ will certainly be affected.

The simple point that I want to covey in simple terms minus galericulate is that you need to let the students know what they are dealing with. This is not something that I only ask or demand, in fact, I impetrate this from the teachers who deal with this part. Please enlighten the students first about the very idea of ‘theory’, ‘criticism’, the requirements, the obligations and the implications and application part should be the last. Once they understand the basic idea, they will be perfectly ready to understand what is the Marxist (supposed) view on literature and what’s the Structuralist manner of viewing a work of literary art. And this is not something that I am saying all by myself. I have met many students; I have talked to them; I got the idea and then finally I decided to write my views on the current situation. Derridean text and educing something out of it will be purely vapid for the students if they don’t know why at all they are doing it and why it is related to their beloved ‘literature’.

What would be my way?

If I am to teach literary theory and criticism to the students of graduation, I will start with the very idea of it. Teaching them something about anything will not yield any favourable result unless I let them be familiar with the topic itself.

What is literary theory?
What is literary criticism?
Are these both related? Are these both dependent on each other or one is dependent on the other or what?
Since when did the concept of literary theory come into existence?
Does literary theory or something like this have an importance today?
Why do we study – for the course or for actually learning something?
What are the applications of literary theory?

And then, their interest (if the basic questions are answered in an interesting way) will be locked and as a person there to teach, I will have my students ready for the complex things to follow.

And at last, it’s wonderful reading literature or even writing the ones which involve theotechny but teaching does not have that luxury. It is the effort of the educator which can make things easy for the students and making the environment in the classroom actually exciting for study and transfer of ‘knowledge’ is certainly important. Letting someone know the (forcefully or in an uninteresting way) how important a particular thing is without telling why is that thing so important will only bring a shallow result. It should be denied!

I welcome the suggestions of the readers and I am looking for better ideas always.


Alok Mishra