Critical Approaches to Literature Are Not for Undergraduates

Lee Larsen, undergraduate English major
at the University of Northern Colorado

fter discovering that I had just completed Critical Approaches 
to Literature (an English course at the University of Northern 
Colorado designed to expose students to the underlying theories 
of various types of critical analysis), someone in the English 
Department asked me what I thought of the course.  I did not 
realize at the time that the inclusion of this course as a 
requirement for English majors was controversial, so I flippantly 
answered, "It gives me a headache."  We discussed the merits or 
lack of merits of this course for a few minutes, and the 
conversation changed to other subjects.  However, I have since 
spent some time deciding what I really do think of Critical 
Approaches to Literature.  That I found this course challenging 
and intriguing is undeniable, but I do not think that is the 
crux of this issue.  In the controversy that surrounds the issue 
of requiring English majors to take Critical Approaches to 
Literature, it is not important whether the course is academically 
justifiable, but whether requiring English majors to take it is 
justifiable.  By thinking about this issue in this way, I have 
concluded that Critical Approaches to Literature should not be 
required of English majors.

The main reason for including Critical Approaches to Literature as 
a required course for English majors is to incorporate a sense of 
multi-culturalism and feminism into the English major.  I would be 
the first to agree that writers such as Toni Morrison, Langston 
Hughes, Beth Bryant, and Sherman Alexie should be required reading 
for all English majors at some point in their education because 
these authors and their works do bring a dimension of multi-cultural 
appreciation and feminist understanding to the student's literary 
background.  However, the Critical Approaches to Literature class 
that I attended did not teach me to appreciate the literature of 
other cultures; instead, it taught me how to analyze Western 
Literature as if I were a sociologist or psychologist.  In this 
class, I began to feel that there was a hidden agenda imbedded 
within the course's objectives.  This agenda was to destroy the 
literature, which I am familiar with, of the culture I have grown 
up in, and to force me to appreciate the literature of other 
cultures along the way.  It did not work.

By saying, "It did not work," I do not mean that I have no 
appreciation for the literature of cultures other than my own.  What 
I do mean is that if I had not already possessed an appreciation for 
Multi-cultural and Women's Literature, Critical Approaches to 
Literature would not have conveyed this appreciation to me.  I firmly 
believe that the poetry of Maurice Kenny is some of the most powerful 
poetry that I have ever read, and Duan Niatum's love-poem "Round Dance" 
is comparable to the best poetry that Western Literature has to offer.  
These are authors I know and love not because I have taken Critical 
Approaches to Literature, but because I have read these authors' works 
in a Native American Literature course.   

This is one reason why Critical Approaches to Literature should not be 
required of English majors: Multi-cultural Literature and Women's 
Literature are taught to the English major in courses that are currently 
required, and these courses are designed to teach an appreciation of the 
cultures that they represent.  Rather than attempting to destroy the 
literature of Western culture, the Multi-cultural and Women's Literature 
course strives to integrate a forced appreciation of the literature from 
another culture into that of the Western Culture.  Many critics of 
Multi-cultural and Women's Literature courses will say that I am wrong 
because these courses do attempt to destroy an appreciation of Western 
Literature.  Because the people who are critics of Multi-cultural and 
Women's Literature courses are usually against the inclusion of Critical 
Approaches to Literature in the curriculum for English majors, I will 
not directly address their allegations.  My experience with Multi-cultural 
courses has taught me that not only do the Multi-cultural and Women's 
courses teach an appreciation of all literature, but these courses teach 
this appreciation in a way that Critical Approaches to Literature is 
incapable of doing.  

While attending a local community college, I took a course in Native 
American Literature.  I enrolled in it because the professor who was 
teaching the course was having difficulty finding enough students to 
fill the class and because he asked me to take it.  I was not excited 
about taking this course because I envisioned it as a survey of Native 
American mythology.  I could not have been more wrong.  The professor 
for this course did an excellent job of exposing his students to amazing 
works of literature and giving them enough historical background to aid 
their understanding of those works.  Without this course, I would never 
have read literature by Vine Deloria Jr. or N. Scott Momaday; I would 
never have smiled at the irony of Sherman Alexie, and I would never have 
gained the understanding of Native American Literature that Paula Gunn 
Allen gave me in her essay "The Sacred Hoop: A Contemporary Perspective."  
This true appreciation of the literature from a culture other than one's 
own is what the Multi-cultural course teaches undergraduate students, not 
some vague notion of "ecriture" as Critical Approaches to Literature does.
 
I have also been told that this course offers the English major a 
"different way of looking at literature." If this different way of looking 
at literature meant the end of refusing to let students construct an 
educated analysis of a work and forcing them to memorize a stock analysis, 
I would support it wholeheartedly.  However, in the class I attended, I 
was exposed to the way that anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers 
look at literature and language.  I do not think it should be the job of 
the English Department to teach me how literature is viewed by other 
disciplines (Does the Sociology Department teach its undergraduate students 
how to render a liberal humanist analysis of a literary work?).  More 
important, I do not understand when this type of criticism will ever be 
of use to me.  

Throughout the course, I found myself continually asking, "When will I 
ever use this information?"  I found the "discourses" of Louis Althusser 
and Gayle Rubin interesting and enlightening.  However, Jacques Lacan and 
many others were impossible for me to understand.  I even became adept at 
"interrogating" the text and discovering that what was "problematic" was 
the way in which the text "fragmented" in supplying a "sign" for the 
"signifier," but the reality is that none of this information contributes 
to making me a good English teacher.  As a future English teacher, I do 
not see myself ever exposing my students, who are toiling to understand 
grammar or attempting their first analysis of Hamlet, to the theories of 
Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida.  A historical background of the 
literature that is studied is useful in helping students understand how 
literature contributes to and is a reflection of the culture which 
produced it, but concepts that deal with the author's function and question 
one's ability to understand language at all would be counterproductive 
in teaching the secondary English student.  Teaching secondary students 
the type of theory that I learned in Critical Approaches to Literature 
would be a waste of their time.

I can say this with conviction because it was a waste of my time!  As a 
secondary education major, I have spent two years of my academic life 
meeting general education requirements.  I am now left with approximately 
two years to learn everything about the field of English and education 
that I will need to teach secondary students so that they will have the 
necessary skills of reading and writing that life will require of them.  
It is more important for English majors to learn how to conjugate a verb 
in all aspects and both voices, how to punctuate for clarity, how to 
write well, and how to produce understanding from a close reading of a 
literary work than it is for them to understand how LÚvi-Strauss analyzes 
mythology.  I do not want to become one of those teachers who fail their 
students because they as undergraduates never learned the information 
that will give students the life skills that they will need in the future.

I do not feel qualified at this point in my education to comment on the 
quality or the validity of the type of literary criticism that Critical 
Approaches to Literature teaches, but I do feel qualified to assess the 
value of this course to the undergraduate student.  Not only is this 
course redundant and unnecessary, but also the concepts used to explain 
the theories that are integral to the course are beyond the comprehension 
of the average undergraduate student.  I know that the professor of the 
class I attended felt that Critical Approaches to Literature should be 
higher than a 200-level course.   Several times, he told the students in 
the class that he knew the material was difficult to comprehend and that 
they should try to get what they could from it; then, he would tell them 
what that day's readings meant.  Clearly, this is not an example of 
learning.  If a course does not serve the purpose it was intended to 
serve, if it presents unnecessary information to the student, and if it 
fails to teach the student, then that course should not be a degree 
requirement.  All of the above statements can be applied to Critical 
Approaches to Literature, and these are the reasons why this course 
should be dropped as a requirement in the undergraduate English program.