Studies in Literary Criticism and Theory : Future of General Theory: The Case of Critical University Studies

Course Number: ENGL 236
Prerequisites: Graduate Standing
General Education Areas Fulfilled: Check on GOLD
Catalog Course Entry: ENGL 236
Quarter: Winter 2013
Instructor: Newfield, Christopher
Day(s): T
Time: 5:00 - 7:50 PM
Location: SH 2617

Content of the course will vary from quarter to quarter and these courses may be repeated for credit with consent of the chair of the departmental graduate committee.

Historically, literary and cultural theory has been most influential when it offers intellectually deep answers to major sociocultural problems. This course asks: how can literary and cultural theory confront a central issue of our time, the future of higher education? The fates of the college humanities and, more broadly, of the U.S. as a middle-class society, are also at stake. There are many examples of theory’s operation as an answer to sociocultural blockage. Here’s one progressive genealogy: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle can be seen as creating the epistemological conditions of non-authoritarian public life. The British and American Romantics redefined culture as an alternative to capitalist industrialization. American pragmatism took back collective agency from corporate capitalism and redemocratized it. The New Criticism created a methodology to introduce mass student populations to literary meanings that at the college had largely been taught to elites. Post-structuralism marked the essential assimilation of large philosophical problems into literary theory such that theory could present itself as a research field on the model of big science. Literary Marxism tied language and aesthetics to the Marxist preoccupation with artificial restrictions on human capability. Feminism, race studies, and post-colonial studies de-provincialized the canon and restored personal identity to a central place in literary and cultural theory. Cultural Studies inserted the analysis of communication and media into humanistic conceptual frames. Queer studies showed how the repression of multiple sex-gender formations and relationships blocked the satisfaction of existential and physical needs.

This is a very incomplete list of the way social and intellectual transformations have driven one another. But it suggests how much of general theory has been propelled by social movements even as general theory in turn redefines and applies these movements in diverse cultural and intellectual domains. But now that general theory’s institutional framework—its public universities and humanities departments--are threatened with decline and degradation as never before in their modern history, how can it respond?

Carnegie-Mellon English professor Jeffrey Williams has proposed one response. In a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Deconstructing Academe,” Williams announced “the birth of Critical University Studies,” and described its twenty-year genealogy. The books Williams invokes, including one of mine, include works of intellectual history, philosophical critique, institutional and policy analysis, science policy, and labor studies, often combined. To refocus the question posed above into two related questions:

  • How does literary and culture theory inform Critical University Studies?
  • How can theory help Critical University Studies rebuild the college humanities as a centerpiece of the future university?

To answer these questions, we will read a selection of especially pertinent work from the department’s General Theory MA List. We will also read a number of core works in the “canon” of Critical University Studies, as well as a couple of dissents. The primary theory readings will be grouped under standard classifications as they are for the exam. An additional thematic issue will be attached to each.

Final projects will involve a paper that considers a major issue in general theory in the context of the evolution of Critical University Studies. Jeffrey Williams and I are about to launch a book series with the Johns Hopkins University Press on Critical University Studies. Members of the course could translate coursework into a role in shaping the series, identifying topics on which works should be commissioned, and even draft a collection for submission to the series.

We will read significant parts of the following books, which will be in the UCSB Bookstore. Note that I have ordered the Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory rather than the David H. Richter volume used for the departmental General Theory MA Exam, but there is extensive overlap, and the Norton is much more complete.


Bok, Derek. Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Princeton University Press, 2007. 0691136181

Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York: NYUP, 2008). 0814799752

Collini, Stefan. What Are Universities For? Penguin Press/Classics, 2012. 1846144825

Leitch, Vincent B., William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second ed. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 0393932923

Masse, Michelle A., ed. Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces. State University of New York Press, 2010. 143843202X

Mirowski, Philip. Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science. Harvard University Press, 2011. 0674046463

Newfield, Christopher. Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Reprint. Harvard University Press, 2011. 0674060369

Noble, David F. Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Eduction. Monthly Review Press, 2003. 1583670920

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Harvard University Press, 1997. 0674929535