Thinking about Theory

If you're an undergraduate English major at Fordham, you have to take a theory class. In fact, it's the only specific class that we require as part of our major. All your other requirements--from "Texts and Contexts" (which precedes the major) to the "Historical Distribution" requirements for classes on literature before 1800--can be fulfilled by a range of different electives. Students often call the Theory class the most challenging and intense course in the major--and for many it's the most intellectual rewarding. At the very least it's the experience all English majors share. 

Professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins of Pomona College recently published an article about reading, learning, and teaching theory at the undergraduate level. Titled "We Aren't Here to Learn What We Already Know," it's thoughtful, provocative, and interesting--worth reading by any undergraduate who is taking a theory class, will do so in the future, or has done so in the past. And by any faculty member who might ever teach a theory class, too. Not every student (or professor) will agree with everything she says in the article, but there can be no doubt that she raises important questions worth thinking about. Plus she includes a link to a handout she's compiled, "some notes on how to ask a good question about theory that will provoke conversation and further discussion from your colleagues," that includes useful and practical advice. 

Is Tompkins's advice useful to you? Do you have stories about your experience in courses on theory that you'd like to share? Pieces of advice you'd like to add to hers? Feel free to share them in the comments section.