The Theory Scare: Teaching Students How to Grasp Abstract Ideas

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Polina Dimova, Comparative Literature

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2008

Meant as an introduction to literary theory, my current comparative literature seminar “Picture Theory” studies the discourse about words, images, and visuality in critical theory. Early on in the semester, students were excited to read and discuss Martin Jay’s introduction to visual culture but kept twisting the ideas. The text was above their heads, and they could not figure out whether Jay’s argument was that visuality reigned supreme in the twentieth century, or that an anti-visual strain pervaded contemporary thought. Contradictions proliferated. Students told me after class that the material was fascinating but too dense and abstract. The confusion and imprecision of thought sounded an alarm. I needed to teach my students to trace complicated theoretical arguments and pinpoint and articulate the concepts that underlay them. I had to empower my students through theory and not let them despair by succumbing to the theory scare, to their assumption that theory is just too tough and they just don’t get it.

I decided to present the material on multiple levels: the properly conceptual and theoretical level; the level of literary application; the level of synthesis; and the creative level. Respectively, students had to summarize theoretical arguments and identify and define key ideas; to apply theoretical concepts to poetry and art in class and in their papers; to relate new ideas to ideas they had encountered before by comparing, for instance, the concept of the Gaze across various theories; as well as to draw their own creative pictures on theory. I developed a strategy of reiteration and cross-reference to help student internalize the material and attain solid knowledge.

I first implemented my idea of overlaying the conceptual, literary, and creative aspects of theory when discussing ekphrasis, the verbal representation of visual representation, along with Lessing’s “Laöcoon: An Essay on the Limits of Poetry and Painting” and Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in The Iliad. Initially, students reconstructed Lessing’s verbal and visual oppositions, which I arranged on the board so as to create a theoretical framework. Then, we examined the validity of Lessing’s theory about the separation of temporal poetry and spatial painting based on the verbal representation of Achilles’ shield. Last, I asked six small groups of students, each to draw the shield. This creative assignment was met with cheers, giggling, and hesitant questioning: “Do we really have to do this?” “But I can’t draw.” While working the students alternated among hilarity, focused examination of the text, and serious theoretical discussion.

Next class, I handed out copies of all the drawings and asked each group to explain their artistic conception. Some drawings divided the shield into multiple sections, each of which captured a particular moment in Homer’s narrative; thus, students proposed ways of overcoming the visual arts’ inability to narrate and convey actions contra Lessing. Other drawings resorted to signs and symbols to evoke non-visual concepts; for instance, songs were expressed through music notation. Finally, a concrete poem SHIELD arranged dozens of the word “shield” in the form of a shield. Occasionally, a noun punctuated the verbal SHIELD to highlight the non-visual music or actions in Homer’s description (“song,” “flutes and lyres,” “dance”). Still, the concrete poem was never disrupted by verbs, which belonged to the temporally progressing poetic medium, as the Lessingian artists explained. A student from a different group added that the words in the concrete SHIELD cease to function as readable verbal signs, but rather expect us to view them only as ornaments.

The highly sophisticated discussion of the images in their relation to the Homeric text and Lessing’s views on poetry and painting gave my students the confidence that they could handle and understand the material, voice theoretical opinions about it, as well as create art challenging the word-image opposition. In this way, students built the foundation for the visual-verbal discourse we were to pursue during the course, while self-reflexively and creatively enacting picture theory. In their final synthetic exercise, my students completed a “Picture Theory Table,” by briefly describing each theorist’s view on each of the main concepts in our course. The level of precision and synthesis my class had achieved over the semester was impressive. Students had made picture theory their own.