Teaching theory: fast and slow

In preparation for the start of classes, I have revamped my syllabus for a Critical Theory course (syllabus posted on my academia.edu page – here). I’ve previously taught it a few times, as a kind of survey of Frankfurt School and (post-)structuralism. I liked the variety that offered: students come out with at least a passing acquaintance with Marcuse, Horkheimer & Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Baudrillard, Jameson, and a few others that happen to be catching my fancy that year (Giorgio Agamben, Jane Bennett, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Slavoj Zizek…) It is a combined senior undergraduate/MA course, so I don’t feel the responsibility to give them really solid understanding of any particular theorist or school; it is more about whetting their appetite.

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But the new version is different, focused more resolutely on the Frankfurt School, and specifically on undertaking a close reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment. We’ll read that book (about 200 pages) over 5 weeks, or 15 hours of class time. About 4 minutes per page if we get to the “Notes and Sketches” section at the end, or a little over 5 minutes per page if we don’t.

After we finish Dialectic of Enlightenment, we move to more contemporary critical theory, and start reading at a pace that is perhaps more appropriate to “fast capitalism.” Four books (each fairly short) in four weeks. I know that today we need to be able to assimilate written material quickly, and assigning a lot of reading material so that they learn how to skim texts effectively can get them to learn how to do that.

But before getting to that point, I want us to consider the idea that something important is lost in the drive to process information ever more efficiently. “Thought must consider itself” is perhaps the central message of Dialectic of Enlightenment (“the necessity for Enlightenment to consider itself” – p xvii in the Jephcott translation). And consideration, much less reflexive consideration – “thinking about thinking” – doesn’t happen if we don’t make time for it.

A number of years ago, I was at a conference where a senior political theorist advised that: “However much reading you are planning to assign for your course, cut it in half.” His point was that good texts (like canonical works of political theory) repay deep reading. And that students will rarely engage in deep reading unless the course is structured to encourage or even demand it.

The other story I am keeping in mind going into this course, is one told to me by Bill Leiss, who graciously attended a workshop I organized in 2006, and who had been a student in a graduate seminar taught by Herbert Marcuse, on Hegel’s Phenomenology. What was Marcuse like as a teacher? Certainly Leiss recalled the class, and Marcuse, with a great deal of affection. Marcuse’s approach was to start the class by asking a student: “Read the first sentence, and then tell me in your own words what you think it means.” Then another student for the second sentence, and so on. I can’t imagine that the class got through the whole book, whether they had a whole semester or a whole year. But reading and talking about a book at that pace and in that way is about the closest thing to a guarantee that students will understand it. Certainly the way that the experience was retold, some four decades later, shows the impact of that kind of teaching. Now, who has time for that?

 

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One thought on “Teaching theory: fast and slow

  1. Pingback: Adorno: A Reading List | andrewbiro

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