The English department has in the past offered a course entitled English 200: Introduction to Literary Theory. For reasons both practical and conceptual—among them the seeming absurdity of articulating with certainty its very object, literary theory—this course is no longer in the general catalog. Our department is not an exception; a quick glance through graduate handbooks on other campuses suggests that the notion of “fundamentals” is no longer in vogue, at least in the disciplinary imaginary. Nonetheless there are implicit and often quite explicit assumptions about what it is that professional scholars in the field ought to know. Asking academics to agree on such an archive—we can call it a canon—might seem to be a hopeless exercise, but we can at the very least have a conversation about what it should entail. Indeed the whole assessment apparatus of graduate study (think of the exam lists) relies upon the notion that in principle there are such things as basic texts, even if an accounting of them tends toward the innumerable. (The modular approach to examinations has been one way to make such expectations manageable.)
The profession of literary studies seems perpetually to be reflexively contemplating its own value and positioning: it begins in the 19th century with anxious assertion of its importance in relation to classical languages and literature and seems ever since to have been to some degree uncertain about its place in the institutional landscape as well as unsettled about its object and methods of study. Crisis then is the de facto operational mode, but in the way that the present always seems to hurt more, the crisis now feels particularly acute because, it has to be said, it is. One argument about why this might be the case holds that the discipline has evolved into multiple disciplines. If in the past “English” was the big tent that could hold together diverse cultural objects and national-literary-historical periods, now we have to ask, with perhaps more urgency, what are we about; what do we do; and who exactly is the “we.” More specifically, is there something like a common language—common concepts, tool kits, ways of reading—that we could all be said to share? And if we are unable to find such a shared frame of reference, can we at least identify some of the shared references?
The premise of the course, as you might surmise, is that the discipline does indeed have an operative set of expectations, even in the moment that has been pronounced to be post-theory. I thus set myself the task of considering what a foundation, or canon, for advanced research in literary studies would necessarily include. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this is less prescriptive (what every graduate student should know) than it is descriptive (what do I think is expected that they already do know). Such a project is again in some respects absurd, if not contestable, and indeed there is a well-developed discourse on the question of literary canons and the politics of representation. But I nonetheless maintain that it is possible to take a provisional (and small) snapshot, in a particular time and place and from a particular situation, that would begin to answer the question of what it is the profession thinks everyone knows.
Introductory courses do not exist in a vacuum of course and my design of the syllabus will be absolutely informed by its institutional context. In other words, it will seek not to duplicate conversations that you may have been having, or will have, in other graduate seminars. An introductory course offered at UCSB in Spring 2019 would necessarily look quite different from one at another UC campus, much less one offered in 2009, and indeed I cannot entirely promise that I will not be reconfiguring the contents up until the first day we meet. Still this will not be a wholly arbitrary syllabus and I will on the first day present the rationale for the selection of texts. This will be a reading seminar, with short précis assignments rather than a longer term paper, and the syllabus will be distributed as soon as I am able to regard it as complete.