This semester I’m teaching for the first time our department’s intro-to-the-major course, which is fairly new to us. (Previously we tended to assume that our majors got all the intro work they needed from the surveys. We no longer think that’s true.) It’s a dog’s breakfast of a course, mixing “how to write” with “how to read closely” with “oh, right . . . you should have heard of some theory, in at least a practical sort of way, if you want to be able to read contemporary academic criticism successfully.” (A big if, to be sure, but I guess it’s often required.
The texts we read in the course don’t matter too much–the point instead is to work on the idea of reading–as long as there are multiple genres. There’s a mini-tradition of using Great Expectations as the novel, hitting as it does a sweet spot of length + critical industry around it. (Thus making it possible for people to write on it from any one of the theoretical views we cover, and being sure to find scholarship about it.)
So, we’re a week or so into Great Expectations, and we’ve covered New Criticism and reader-response theory in our theory book. (Monday is theory day.) I can say I’ve learned two things already:
1. Boy, New Criticism teaches a treat. You can see why it was so influential in classrooms for so long.
2. It’s hard to teach a novel in a class like this. When teaching Great Expectations in my Victorian Age course, or my Victorian Novel course, or my Dickens course, certain kinds of readings come to the forefront. But here, none of that really matters in an obvious way. Do I bring in Newman’s discussion of the gentleman? Does the novel’s re-mixing of David Copperfield matter?
We can close-read passages all day long, but articulating those readings together in a coherent way is . . . well. We can also simply disband the idea of gaining any understanding of the novel, and simply churn through a set of disconnected formal analyses, but that’s not much more appealing.
(Mercifully, no matter what we can also watch the South Park adaptation of Great Expectations, which is both awesome and surprisingly accurate. Don’t miss Herbert Pocket’s tutoring Pip about London manners.)