A Copious Summer Term (Part 1): Embracing Literary Disarray in my First PhD Course: ENGL 955 Literary Theory


Glass globe reflecting on beach

I never expected to be an academic scholar, much less a literary one, and now I am one semester (9 credits!) done with my PhD in Literature and Criticism. What makes this program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) exciting, besides the generous hybrid model which allows me to pursue the degree while located now in WV, is that no two classes are identical. Although we take courses with recurring titles such as Women’s Literature or Postmodern Literature, our Professors embellish them with their own specialized topics. I graduated from IUP in May of last year 2023; while I could my fellow classmates who were PhD students at the time took a completely different ENGL 955 Literary Theory class. I took the class this past summer, wanting to start the PhD right away before my brain cells lost momentum due to taking leave away from the scholarly bubble. For this blog, I asked myself: what prompts me to continue reflecting on this class even though it convulsed my brain inside-out? I present 3 significant aspects I learned in Literary Theory which I believe not only benefit not only scholarship but active readers in general.

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1. Expanding and Resisting Conventional, Western/Eurocentric Theory, when Reading Global Literatures

Book on beach

I have prided myself in my abilities as a feminist and postcolonial scholar since earning my Master’s in English Literature and presenting conference papers in this language. These fields have remained at the top of my list thinking dissertation wise; I have found that by examining social discrepancies women and non-Western groups face in a wide variety of literary centuries and authors, we then notice, and hopefully correct them, in our present. Something I did not realize until halfway (so just 2 manic weeks of our summer session), into 955 was the limitations to applying the same “theories” to everything I read; doing so not only erases but misconstrues the voice(s) in newfound literature. Our Professor started our first day of the semester with an article to reposition how we perceive literature; for 955 of course but also for the rest of our coursework. That article was “Toward World Literary Knowledges: Theory in the Age of Globalization” by Revathi Krishnaswamy. Ironically, I read this article before with the same Professor for my first day of class as a master’s student. Although, I did not fully grasp what Krishnaswamy’s critiques until I received my Professor’s feedback on our first two papers.

Krishnaswamy contends for a reformation as readers and scholars to the way we read Global, meaning non-Western European or widely circulated/available, literature. According to them, required readings and collected, convenient anthologies of found in classrooms which involve reading/writing are central suspects of a Western European boundary in terms of worthwhile readings. “A cursory glance at the contents of any standard anthology of literary theory commonly used in college courses across the United States quickly reveals that the field of literary theory is a resolutely Eurocentric high ground relatively untouched by the rising tide of globalization reshaping American academia. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism is exemplary in this respect…” (405). Krishnaswamy identifies the, sometimes overlooked, precedence for biased reading: whether for academic or personal enrichment, we prioritize familiar, natural methods to better understand a text; for those of us from “Eurocentric” places, cultures, and mindsets, doing so results in discouraging, and frankly eliminating, what a “Global” work has to offer. For instance, though the Western/European conceptions of feminism and ecocriticism interests me, they remain a far cry from irrefustable frameworks. In other words, certain literatures require expanding the boundaries besides Hélène Cixous or Frantz Fannon for example to allow for understandings more pertinent and accurate to the literary context in question.

In addition to criticizing appealing, peer reviewwed academic ivory towers, Krishnaswamy exemlifies non-Western cultural actions. They mention how the Sanskrit language overshadows the Tamil language; another example considers “Dalit” authors and artists in India as examples of readings unaccounted for in formal European/American interests in the classroom and esteemed “anthologies”, but there are no doubt numerous literatures which meet their “Global” criteria. Given the digital, high tech access we have now, readers can reclaim formerly displaced writings pending thier presence in a library catalog, audiobook, or more importantly, translation. something new, translation or not, whether through the library, audiobook, paperback, etc. Krishnaswamy uses these Global “literatures” as examples of where the authors and their writings present nuanced ideas on their own. While translations offer many questions of integrity, we as readers always decide how we interpret any author’s words, translation or not.  I learned a hard lesson concerning such choices since my first two papers neglected the author.

Following Krishnaswamy’s article, our readings contained a slew of poetry, mixing Wordsworth and more obscure poets, according to a Western/Euro-Centric view that is. Our Professor gave us a tame assignment, especially in a literary theory class; we were asked to comprehend  lesser-known, especially according to our library databases, poetry including Tamil Love Poetry, Arabic Odes, and Kabballah, by treating the poetry as “theory”. Instead of following through, I remained hesitant to incorporate a different, new kind of theory. I found myself going back to my drawing board of feminist theories and citations, rather than unraveling what the poetry insinuates, throughout my first two papers covering Tamil and Wordsworth. As I continue reading more, (everyone should be reading as I outline in another post here), I realize that hesitancy towards authors or “literature” unfamiliar to us is a natural reaction. “Global”, non-Western literature are not the only culprits either, consider authors such as Jane Austen or Shakespeare whose jargon intimidates, literary scholars and smitten fans excluded. Our expansive, 955 literary theory course proved this “uncomfortable” feeling only multiplies when implementing authors or cultures typically absent from one’s implicit bias such as the Western/Euro-Centric classroom. However, by pushing through the discomfort, I, and hopefully others can, broaden the insinuations of literature beyond an innate familiarity or likeness to our own customs.

2. Remembering the Meritocratic Personal Gains of Literary Investments

Secondly, as a current PhD Lit and Crit candidate, I easily allocate time for reading or writing apart from an academic mindset. Sike. This feeling reflects the relentless efforts to contrive original perspectives, establish comparison between authors, not to mention the screen fatigue since electronic texts are more economical. (Those who take advantage of VPNs and websites with multiple backup links know what I mean by the last point). Formalized incentives for writing persist outside of the humanities culture too. Thus, partaking in the forbidden “other duties as assigned” in a professional tenure may require writing on behalf of outstanding stakeholders; on the contrary, my partner is a med student and science fields entail their own peer reviewed, academic rigor. Their primary sources (living patients), however, grant plausible responses next to say an inaccessible, out-of-print book or a perplexing author. One day I’ll attempt a defense of Gertrude Stein and her partiality towards her own grammatical and figurative order unlike rigid authorship.

For students, evolving our work from the humble preliminary abstract stages to full-fledged manuscripts represents an important process. Sharing work not only brings relief, but hopefully better job offers, relocations, and other benefits from adding to our CVs/resumes our insights from our niche interests. Reading also contains informal purposes besides earning renown and monetary value; we also obtain access to social circles and conversations where acceptable responses translate to knowing the latest bestselling book, business deal, film, whichever matches the setting. Once we feel “in”, we earn the chance to network and eventually share your own personal background. These feelings become addictive but induvial aspirations deserve credit too.

I already discussed my problematic papers in the first half of 955, but I also sacrificed another option for our second paper. During our Wordsworth unit, we had a creative option inspired by the MFA degree holders in our cohort: the option involved writing a poem based on his writing style, accompanied by a reflection on the process. I just started an assignment too for my memoir class I’m in this Fall term where you have to write a “mini-memoir” so that we get a sense of the other side, meaning what goes through an author’s head when they write. Creative writing seems intimidating when I only have a few times but thought I could do better; it especially sounded daunting for me as someone feels utmost confident in analyzing a story. While I did not participate in this creative option, I understood why this option was important for self-reflection purposes as I read other’s iterations of the assignment (some classmates shared them with the rest of the class requesting feedback). Unrestrained writing exchanges the looming anxieties stemming from merit, instead, favoring something else. This something else refers to subjective revelations, perhaps inexplicable to others. Regardless of the writing style we try on for ourselves, we discover our most personal perspectives we hardly find elsewhere. Despite carrying the opportunity to engage an audience pending one’s bravery to share them, they still contain benefit. As cliché as it sounds, uninhibited writing creates a therapeutic, even playful, space unique to our scribe selves. Writing often incorporates certain expectations thanks to the distribution of grades, promotions, etc. To partake in the act in a gentle method releases other fulfilling possibilities. Unpacking the pent-up emotions, redeeming a favorite characters who were wronged in the source material, better yet, envisioning unprecedented storylines represent merely a few options verging on the personal versus marketable range.

Consider the following passage taken from Wordsworth’s renowned prelude.

“Ye Presences of Nature, in the sky

And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills

And Souls of lonely places! can I think

A vulgar hope was yours when Ye employ’d

Such ministry, when Ye through many a year

Haunting me thus among my boyish sports,

On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills,

Impress’d upon all forms the characters

Of danger or desire, and thus did make

The surface of the universal earth

With triumph, and delight, and hope, and fear,

Work like a sea?” (Book 1 lines 490-501)

By confiding in idyllic nature rather than public environments, he illustrates the empowerment of self-acceptance. I understand these benefits in a different manner where I neglect time for my own insights besides academic ones: ones suspended from tense work requirement or stylistic obligations guide. The passage illustrates an apt reminder; one that I find applicable for anyone who succumbs to notably for anyone who succumbs to an overt self-fashioning for what renders them marketable, in other words, fixated on the insatiable pressure to earn the public’s approval through their superb perceptions. Wordsworth demonstrates the worthy investment in casting aside, at least for a portion of our time, such insecurities so that we equally sustain our own emotions which our professional personas exclude.

3. Gracious Versus Discontented Authorship

Finally, my 955 theory courses reinforced the bond that sincerity and writing share. I allowed my disagreement with Wordsworth and Stein critics to ultimately compromise my own writing voice. I dedicated myself to false judgements, as a result, causing my own, groundbreaking argument to vanish. I could have, instead, reviewed where the previous scholars were heading, then prioritize my deviations.

Another Professor taught me a timeless metaphor to ponder when constructing any scholarly argument and essay: they suggested we call scholars into a conversation with one another. To put this into a nonacademic metaphor: we overthink or gossip over our texts, emails, remote meetings. Imagine the difference if we upheld patience rather than suppressed other’s voices. their voice out, or worse, becoming more vocal with your suggestions until their voice gives out. Therefore, a productive “conversation” avoids misrepresenting another’s view for the sake of disagreement. My Professor reminded us our class to exert caution when outright renouncing other authors: “if you are going to be angry with another critic or author, do so in the footnotes”. Although humorous, his notion cautioned us against forfeiting our inviting essay positions to frankly trivial slander. Vocabulary positions a reader in terms of tone and citing other’s is meant to be a careful, respectful process.

Take the following composition example. Whether presenting newfound, or even contrary evidence (naturally the correct one henceforth in scholarly terms), respectfully introducing other writers depends on phrasing. The phrases “fail to mention” or “neglected” for instance convey an inherent negative connotation; however, the same meaning as they “did not mention” except adding unnecessary tension against them. The same applies if I were to right that my interpretation of a book is “better” or “more correct” instead of opting for a term such as “alternative” or “different”. Although these differences may seem subtle, they reflect a willingness and openness to other’s opinions even if we may disagree with them, which is a fundamental skill outside academic writing when thinking of workplace, family, or any other disagreements where negative, hostile language becomes a tempting baiting trap.

I pose an essential question to writers including myself to ask no matter their project: will my criticism and “argument” encourage collaboration or isolate? Without acknowledging their perspectives and equally rigorous efforts with respect, how could you expect them to do the same? As the golden rule states, we should treat others how we expect to be treated; while this advice sounds agreeable, writing sets up the possibilities to either exclude or traverse gaps between other’s opinions and our own.  My 955 theory course swayed me towards the latter upon self-reflection. Fields including but not limited to science, humanities, etc. instill fundamental improvements to make people’s lives better. This action takes vulnerability and knowing when we are wrong, but more importantly, maintaining accuracy of another’s perspective despite animosity. By turning writing and synthesizing of ideas into feasible group projects, boosts progress more so than considering ourselves absolute.

Conclusion

The ENGL 955 Literary Theory taught me these academic and practical reasons to uplift and respect other authors. Being unfamiliar with or fixed to insufficent perspectives when encountering writing unknown to our repetoire leads to natural, adverse reactions; but, as readers, but we always possess the choice to either decode other’s “languages” or “literary knowledges” or entrust no one’s knowledge except our own. I hope to continue this discussion which demonstrates why merging reading empowers people’s multifaceted cultures, backgrounds, and overall well-beings. My next posts will recall ideas I cannot seem to outrun from my other two summer classes: Digital Literacy and Literary Theory for the Teacher and Scholar. 

Photo credits

https://unsplash.com/@countchris

https://unsplash.com/@rvignes

https://unsplash.com/@iambrettzeck

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