Teaching Critical Theory Today

It's best to teach it with a healthy dose of self-awareness about what sort of shifty, sometimes shady, field it is, writes Christopher Schaberg.

February 13, 2019
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Jacques Derrida

When I was hired at Loyola University New Orleans 10 years ago, the job ad for my position was listed as “Contemporary literature and critical theory.” My doctoral exam period had been 20th-century American literature, and my designated emphasis at the University of California, Davis, was in critical theory. It seemed as if the job was made for me.

Loyola’s English program, like many undergraduate English departments, had a theory requirement. Even my own undergraduate institution, the Great Books-based Hillsdale College, a campus-size rebuke of cultural relativism and postmodernism, offered a critical theory course for the English majors. I distinctly recall seniors shaking their heads as they left class, dragging their heavy Norton anthologies behind them. (I avoided that class.) Looking back, the fact that critical theory had made its way into the conservative bastion of Hillsdale was striking. It was indicative of how such a hybrid subfield -- part philosophy, part psychology, part history, part literary studies and more -- had woven its way into the grain of higher education in the United States by the late 20th century.

When I started my job at Loyola in 2009, the theory requirement meant that majors had to choose between one of several courses. There was a course called Critical Theory to 1900; there was a 20th-century course featuring the usual suspects; there was even a course in semiotics. From the outside, it was an impressive roster for a relatively small department. I was eager to offer any and all of these courses.

But by the end of my first year teaching at Loyola, I had made a motion to my department to get rid of the theory requirement for our majors. We scrapped the semiotics course from our course listing. I still teach a course called Interpretive Approaches, which gives students exposure to theory from Marx and Freud up through poststructuralism, postcolonialism and queer theory. I love teaching that class, and my students seem to enjoy the challenge of ranging across such an eclectic array of thinkers -- digging into the prose around buzzwords they’ve run across in previous courses and readings. So why then did I get rid of the theory requirement in my department?

In short, I felt that theory had become something akin to an elite club -- which went entirely against the critical impulse of what was best about theory. Not only that, the elite club had splintered and had become multiple factions constantly trying to one-up the others in terms of who had the master concept, the code to ideology, the key to subjectivity. In seminars and at conferences, I saw peers and mentors alike bullied or sneered at for uttering an out-of-fashion phrase or citing an obsolete thinker. With a few exceptions, professional associations and journals balkanized and refused to converse with one another. Theory had started to reproduce the very patterns and habits that it was supposed to help us think about and change.

I want to be careful here to not sound anti-intellectual or hostile to the kind of scholarship, writing and teaching that -- when done with care and sincere interest in the world -- goes by the name critical theory. My own experiences with critical theory started in two energetic college seminars: one on 20th-century continental philosophy and another on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. In those courses, I didn’t even know I was studying “theory” as such.

As I made my way through two graduate programs, my interest in critical theory both broadened and was focused, and most of my encounters with this heterogeneous area of inquiry were positive and generative. I funneled epiphanies and obscure findings into my own writing, and I used snippets of theory in the undergraduate classes I taught. I could tell that some of my peers were not enamored with reading or writing about theory, often because they detected the rhetorical power plays at work. And I recognized that some of the more adamant professors of theory seemed a bit full of themselves, inspirited by specters of Marx or … whatever. But by and large, my graduate seminars in theory were scintillating and creatively inspiring, cumulatively giving me the confidence to write a dissertation and teach imaginative courses. And the mentors who taught those graduate seminars were wonderful people, supportive and grounded.

While I did witness manipulative dynamics and even the occasional exploitation of graduate student labor, on the whole, I found theory to be something we rallied around and put to use -- making anew and “making it real” (as my undergraduate philosophy professor at Hillsdale always demanded). That said, I also heard horror stories from friends in other departments or at other universities, and I was privy to dramas and infighting that made me realize that theory was far from an innocent, much less heroic, intellectual pursuit.

Theory as a Wall

By the time I finished my Ph.D., I had cultivated a wary and somewhat ambivalent attitude toward theory. I was beyond excited to have landed a job where I could teach theory but equally alert to the ways that it could go wrong. Likewise, while I still cite thinkers and theoretical ideas in my writing, I’ve tried to keep an increasingly sharp eye on when theory becomes Theory: a wall over which readers must climb, and one which most people have no wish to even begin to ascend. And for good reason: what often seems to academics to be the most incisive and nuanced explanation of something all too often ends up sounding like gobbledygook to the general reader. Neologisms can be useful, and even playful and mind expanding. But jargon-filled prose -- the writing of it, the adoration of it -- does a disservice to everyone involved. (Ugh, here comes the Sokal affair, back to rear its ugly head.)

I didn’t want to be in a department that contributed to or perpetuated an atmosphere of intellectual obfuscation or antagonism, not to mention haughtiness. If my students wanted to spend 75 minutes discussing Julia Kristeva or Jacques Derrida, great -- I was all on board. As long as it wasn’t for the theory requirement. As long as this sort of class wasn’t perceived as the zenith of humanistic inquiry or the class that everyone needs to get into grad school. Down that path lies … something not good. Something myopic, and something that can become toxic when taken too self-seriously.

I have continued to teach my Interpretive Approaches class every two years or so, but I find myself questioning the umbrella categorization of this class as “theory.” I was especially alarmed when my friend shared a job ad stating, among other impenetrably linked qualifications, that applicants should be “fluent in critical theory.” What could this possibly mean? Is “theory” such a language that one can master and deploy as if a … native? In this requirement lurked the feeling of an elite club again, or really myriad sects vying for priority and attention. For we know that to be “fluent in critical theory” is really code for being fluent in a theory: a particular set of words, forebears and philosophical targets.

Self-Awareness Over Self-Seriousness

What is critical theory today, and how should I teach it? Should I teach it at all?

Of course, I’ll teach theory as long as my students want me to, and as long as a majority of my colleagues think it’s worthwhile for our students. But as long as I teach theory, I want to teach it with a healthy dose of self-awareness -- as opposed to mere self-seriousness -- about what sort of shifty, sometimes shady, field it is. How it is not immune to conflict or scandal, and how the ideas the circulate in the texts we read are of use only in so far as they can be translated to, and get traction in, our day-to-day lives. This is no small task, but neither is it too much to ask.

But should I still bring Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book into my next theory class as an interesting example of formal experimentation? What about Slavoj Žižek’s smart reading of Bartleby, the Scrivener? Can we discuss it, given Žižek’s provocative defense of the election of Donald Trump? Will my students engage Žižek’s ideas or just scoff at the very idea of taking him seriously? I certainly can’t show Louis C.K. clips any longer to illuminate certain theoretical insights. Even Judith Butler is in a hot seat these days.

Obviously, those are very different cases, thinkers and performers. And it’s not as if we’ve never experienced crises in theory before. Heidegger has been a tricky one for a while, but we’re more used to that quandary. Teaching Freud always requires the obligatory caveats.

But now we’re dealing with thinkers who are still alive -- thinkers who have written good things and then sometimes said or done not-so-good things. And they leave us questioning. How are we to teach contemporary thought with full knowledge that a star today might be sunk tomorrow? How can we -- can we? -- divorce groundbreaking ideas from their ground-bound authors? Is this the same dilemma as separating the art from the artist and the risks therein? I’m not sure, but downplaying the role of “theory” (along with that of the “star”) is an important first step.

The humanities are not really ablaze. They smolder on, with most of us just continuing to just do the work, day in and day out. Even as new academic hoaxes seek to question or discredit emerging domains of inquiry -- and as field-changing thinkers shift into the evenings of their careers -- most instructors are marking papers, preparing for discussions and working on books and articles in progress. So today’s sunset is tomorrow’s sunrise, when the students will show up for class again. And I’ll be there to teach them, at least for the oncoming, uncertain years.


Christopher Schaberg is the Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book is The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth.


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