Yale Presents a Free Online Course on Literary Theory, Covering Structuralism, Deconstruction & More

It’s been a hall­mark of the cul­ture wars in the last few decades for politi­cians and opin­ion­a­tors to rail against acad­e­mia. Pro­fes­sors of human­i­ties have in par­tic­u­lar come under scruti­ny, charged with aca­d­e­m­ic friv­o­li­ty (some­times at tax­pay­er expense), will­ful obscu­ran­tism, and all sorts of ide­o­log­i­cal crimes and dia­bol­i­cal meth­ods of indoc­tri­na­tion. As an under­grad and grad­u­ate stu­dent in the human­i­ties dur­ing much of the nineties and oughts, I’ve wit­nessed a few waves of such attacks and found the car­i­ca­tures drawn by talk radio hosts and cab­i­net appointees both alarm­ing and amus­ing. I’ve also learned that mis­trust of acad­e­mia is much old­er than the many vir­u­lent strains of anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism in the U.S.

As Yale Pro­fes­sor of British Roman­tic Poet­ry Paul Fry points out in an inter­view with 3:AM Mag­a­zine, “satire about any and all pro­fes­sion­als with a spe­cial vocab­u­lary has been a sta­ple of fic­tion and pop­u­lar ridicule since the 18th cen­tu­ry… and crit­ic-the­o­rists per­haps more recent­ly have been the easy tar­gets of upper-mid­dle-brow anti-intel­lec­tu­als con­tin­u­ous­ly since [Hen­ry] Field­ing and [Tobias] Smol­lett.” Though the barbs of these British nov­el­ists are more enter­tain­ing than any­thing you’ll hear from cur­rent talk­ing heads, the phe­nom­e­non remains the same: “Spe­cial vocab­u­lary intim­i­date and are instant­ly con­sid­ered obfus­ca­tion,” says Fry. “Reac­tions against them are shame­less­ly naïve, with no con­sid­er­a­tion of whether the recon­dite vocab­u­lar­ies may be serv­ing some nec­es­sary and con­struc­tive pur­pose.”

Maybe you’re scratch­ing your chin, shak­ing or nod­ding your head, or glaz­ing over. But if you’ve come this far, read on. Fry, after all, acknowl­edges that jar­gon-laden schol­ar­ly vocab­u­lar­ies can become “self-par­o­dy in the hands of fools,” and thus have pro­vid­ed jus­ti­fi­able fod­der for cut­ting wit since even Jonathan Swift’s day. But Fry picks this his­to­ry up in the 20th cen­tu­ry in his Yale course ENGL 300 (Intro­duc­tion to The­o­ry of Lit­er­a­ture), an acces­si­ble series of lec­tures on the his­to­ry and prac­tice of lit­er­ary the­o­ry, in which he pro­ceeds in a crit­i­cal spir­it to cov­er every­thing from Russ­ian For­mal­ism and New Crit­i­cism; to Semi­otics, Struc­tural­ism and Decon­struc­tion; to the Frank­furt School, Post-Colo­nial Crit­i­cism and Queer The­o­ry. Thanks to Open Yale Cours­es, you can watch the 26 lec­tures above. Or you can find them on YouTube, iTunes, or Yale’s own web site (where you can also grab a syl­labus for the course). These lec­tures were all record­ed in the Spring of 2009. The main text used in the course is David Richter’s The Crit­i­cal Tra­di­tion.

Expand­ing with the rapid growth and democ­ra­tiz­ing of uni­ver­si­ties after World War II, lit­er­ary and crit­i­cal the­o­ries are often close­ly tied to the con­tentious pol­i­tics of the Cold War. Their decline cor­re­sponds to these forces as well. Since the fall of the Sovi­et Union and the sub­se­quent snow­balling of pri­va­ti­za­tion and anti-gov­ern­ment sen­ti­ment, many sources of fund­ing for the human­i­ties have suc­cumbed, often under very pub­lic assaults on their char­ac­ter and util­i­ty. Fry’s pre­sen­ta­tion shows how lit­er­ary the­o­ry has nev­er been a blunt polit­i­cal instru­ment at any time. Rather it pro­vides ways of doing ethics and philoso­phies of lan­guage, reli­gion, art, his­to­ry, myth, race, sex­u­al­i­ty, etc. Or, put more plain­ly, the lan­guage of lit­er­ary the­o­ry gives us dif­fer­ent sets of tools for talk­ing about being human.

Fry tells Yale Dai­ly News that “lit­er­a­ture express­es more elo­quent­ly and sub­tly emo­tions and feel­ings that we all try to express one way or anoth­er.” But why apply the­o­ry? Why not sim­ply read nov­els, sto­ries, and poems and inter­pret them by our own crit­i­cal lights? One rea­son is that we can­not see our own bias­es and inher­it­ed cul­tur­al assump­tions. One osten­si­bly the­o­ry-free method of an ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars and poets who reject­ed lit­er­ary the­o­ry often suf­fers from this prob­lem. The New Crit­ics flour­ished main­ly dur­ing the 40s, a fraught time in his­to­ry when the coun­try’s resources were redi­rect­ed toward war and eco­nom­ic expan­sion. For Fry, this “last gen­er­a­tion of male WASP hege­mo­ny in the acad­e­my” reflect­ed “the blind­ness of the whole mid­dle class,” and the idea “that life as they knew it… was life as every­one knew it, or should if they didn’t.”

Fry admits that the­o­ry can seem super­flu­ous and need­less­ly opaque, “a pure­ly spec­u­la­tive under­tak­ing” with­out much of an object in view.  Yet applied to lit­er­a­ture, it pro­vides excit­ing means of intel­lec­tu­al dis­cov­ery. Fry him­self doesn’t shy away from satir­i­cal­ly tak­ing the piss, as a mod­ern-day Swift might say. He begins not with Coleridge or Keats (though he gets there even­tu­al­ly), but with a sto­ry for tod­dlers called “Tony the Tow Truck.” He does this not to mock, but to show us that “read­ing any­thing is a com­plex and poten­tial­ly unlim­it­ed activity”—and as “a face­tious reminder,” he tells 3:AM, that “the­o­ry is tak­ing itself seri­ous­ly in the wrong way if it exhausts its rea­son for being….”

Intro­duc­tion to The­o­ry of Lit­er­a­ture will be added to our list of Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es, a sub­set of our meta col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Quick Intro­duc­tion to Lit­er­ary The­o­ry: Watch Ani­mat­ed Videos from the Open Uni­ver­si­ty

How to Spot a Com­mu­nist Using Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism: A 1955 Man­u­al from the U.S. Mil­i­tary

Hear Roland Barthes Present His 40-Hour Course, La Pré­pa­ra­tion du roman, in French (1978–80)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Nishat says:

    Great tim­ing .We are doing post colo­nial stud­ies this semes­ter for the Mas­ters Course in Eng­lish at our dept.

  • Zahra Kandeh Kar says:

    I’ll be thank­ful if you send me online free cours­es on lit­er­a­ture and lit­er­ary crit­i­cism

  • Jim McCue says:

    The asser­tion that “the­o­ry” dif­fers from phi­los­o­phy because it is scep­ti­cal about its own bases should lead to a rush to the exit.

  • Charles Hoppins says:

    You can thank Aaron Berkowitz

  • David Comdico says:

    It’s disin­gen­u­ous to claim that it is only talk show hosts and the benight­ed hoi pol­loi that find lit­er­ary crit­i­cism and the­o­ry prob­lem­at­ic. Suf­fice it to say that this pow­er game result­ed in lots of degree hold­ers in Lit­er­a­ture who have read very lit­tle of it. The ram­pant char­la­tanism, obfus­ca­tion, mor­al­iz­ing, and Ressen­ti­ment it cre­at­ed and man­i­fest­ed is no one’s else fault, no mat­ter how much the sophists try to wran­gle out of respon­si­bil­i­ty.

  • Nishat says:

    Lit­er­ary The­o­ry can only make sense if one has read lit­er­a­ture exten­sive­ly and learnt to ana­lyze. Not all crit­i­cal the­o­rists make mean­ing­ful state­ments, but those who do help the ana­lyt­i­cal rea­son­ing to devel­op in the read­er. Of course you or any­one else is free to counter with your own views. But again there needs to be a content/cogitation/thought that can be artic­u­lat­ed. I would not call crit­i­cal com­men­tary a pow­er game. True many sen­si­tive writ­ers have been seri­ous­ly affect­ed by adverse crit­i­cism like Ten­nyson and ear­li­er, Pope. But while the for­mer retreat­ed into a shell for 7 years, the lat­ter chose to reply, and with bit­ing sar­casm.

  • Mark says:

    It was shared on the ‘Phi­los­o­phy Mat­ters’ Face­book page

  • Feroza says:

    So how do we sign up? Access the mate­r­i­al? Do we do home­work?

  • william kashitiana says:

    i am inter­est­ed in this course

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