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Ryan P. Randall

Instruction & Outreach Librarian at the College of Western Idaho ∴ Literary, media & cultural studies ∴ Web Editor at In the Library with the Lead Pipe ∴ Sous les pavés, la plage ∴ We are, as always, stubborn, stoked, and petrified - GY!BE

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Earlier today I saw a few #critlib threads swirling around on Twitter—here’s one and here’s another. The ones that caught my eyes mostly had to do with how open #critlib twitter chats & their participants seem to critique or criticism, the extent to which critical theory has to do with social justice, and what critical theory does or doesn’t include.

That’s a lot to think about, particularly on the first truly summery Friday afternoon of the year. Good thing we’ve got a “critiquing #critlib from within” coming up on June 30th, right?

Another person’s comment mused something along the lines of “What’s interesting to me [as someone with a science background] is that I thought people in the Arts were better prepared to talk about critical theory, but it seems like that might not be the case.” I suspect that thinker might have removed it out of fear of being seen as snarky, but I believe they were very much onto something.1

So, all this tweeting has me thinking about how we teach method in (parts of) the humanities.

In my experience, I encountered many theories in my literature & film courses but this was almost always to apply or debate them, not discuss their genealogies.2 Even though we’d discuss or situate each theory’s history briefly, theories chiefly were lenses to apply, not subjects to study of themselves.

My memories of undergrad are somewhat clouded by having taken MA courses with many of the same faculty, but it feels like my undergrad experience was pretty theory-heavy (perhaps due to my own interest in it). Oddly enough, I don’t remember having a proper “methods” course.3 Later, as a PhD student, I enjoyed the opportunity to TA for a “senior seminar” on various critical (Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, etc) theories for comparative literature majors, as well as TA for a couple “writing on art” courses for art history & studio arts students. But even though these courses did excellent work of exposing students to theory & interpretive methods, I believe their final papers were to apply multiple theories to various literary or visual texts, not to evaluate various methods of making truth claims. Having learned more about pedagogy, I think it’s seriously worth considering the results of these decisions.4

I think this leads humanities majors—with the likely exceptions of history & philosophy, who I believe focus on method earlier—to do two main things.

First, I suspect that many humanities degree holders feel quite uncomfortable discussing “critical theory” as an entity, and will equally avoid situating various theories’ relationships to each other. We know in our bones that they’re complicated, contested, & possibly even interlocking, intersectional, or some kinda interpenetrating—but at the undergraduate level we have never been tasked to do much more than select among them & apply them to texts. Certainly we haven’t been asked to consider at length or trace the evolution of different strains of thought as they became genealogies of knowledge spanning multiple years, schools of thought, contested keywords, etc., etc. This makes it difficult to feel equipped to appraise something as nebulous, sprawling, and challenging a beast as “critical theory”/ “Critical Theory”/ “are you talking the one with capital letters? does it matter?” later on, even though we recall having been handed appropriate tools for thorny considerations of age, class, complexion, dis/ability, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, region, sexuality, et. al. as well as many of their possible permutations and combinations.

Second, more unsettlingly, I fear that we rarely feel equipped to discuss knowledges, practices, truth claims, ontology, epistemology, or similar sorts of method-focused concerns. This might well be why so many humanities & liberal arts graduates emerge with enormous facility with argumentation, empathy, historical specificity, etc., but simultaneously stumble when asked to give a succinct answer to explain their “reason” for choosing a humanities major or what it offers them throughout their lives. Constructivist pedagogy suggests that we learn by doing. I believe that most of us have applied critical theory routinely but in a somewhat piecemeal fashion and never really evaluated their various ways of making and practicing knowledge.

Since most readers will be coming to this with a background in library & information science, critical pedagogy, or perhaps digital humanities, I’d love to hear your experience of your own undergraduate coursework with regard to method, or of how you teach method to undergraduates if you do so in any capacity. Does this Friday evening musing ring true with you? Is it different in social sciences or science?

What might we do to help foster a bit more critical understanding of method in arts & humanities courses? Does it seem like social justice, critical theory, and/or critical information literacy can be woven into discussions of method for arts & humanities courses?

Until I sort out whether/how to put comments on this blog, I guess the best way to have a conversation with me would be through Twitter if you use it. Perhaps you might write a post of your own & link me to it? Maybe you’ll join in the critiquing #critlib from within conversation in a few weeks?

  1. Seriously, thanks, Twitter friend, for spurring me to think about this more! 

  2. In case you’re morbidly curious, I ended up with an English major, a film & media studies minor, and a “philosophy” minor that really was primarily focused on 20th century critical theory/continental thought. Among other things, this what happens when you (a) start out wanting to do philosophy but then start to wonder why these are the only courses that don’t approach the diversity present in the syllabi, faculty, and classrooms of your other arts & humanities courses and (b) have the historical privilege of relatively affordable in-state tuition at an amazing, open-minded state institution in the 1990s. I seriously doubt I’d financially or emotionally afford to wind my way through what’s effectively an expanded cultural studies degree were I attending undergraduate anywhere with today’s tuition rates. 

  3. This may have changed for later students when my English department became more regimented. Among other things, I vaguely remember them instituting required prerequisites for upper- vs lower-division courses rather than treating them more as fluid guidelines. 

  4. Iowa State University has a page I’ve found very useful when I want to revisit Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which is a classic when discussing educational tasks like applying or evaluating. 

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