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Assessment design and critical (literary) theory

Once again I have been wrestling with the difficulties of a module designed to introduce students to critical theory.  This is particularly difficult on the degree course I teach, because English only constitutes 50% of the course - so however I try to fit critical theory in, it needs to be done effectively enough so that students have a confident grasp of it before they hit their final year, where an understanding of the relationships between text and theory become pre-supposed.

I have been trying to grapple with this challenge for many years now, and have variously gone through phases of:

  • questioning the value of critical theory altogether, and asking whether we really need it? (I eventually came to the conclusion that we do).

  • embedding critical theory in modules, rather than having a dedicated standalone module (but this led to repetition and confusion).

I have mucked about endlessly with the mode of delivery of the module - exploring whether to apply different critical theories to a single text, or each theory to multiple texts

Here, then, is the latest in my eternal quest for the golden bullet of critical theory teaching.  It involves thinking about delivery and assessment as synchronous processes which build gradually in depth and complexity.

I have come to the conclusion that it is far easier to apply different theories to a single text - and the simpler that text is, the better.  It seems to me that the purpose of a critical theory module is essentially to help students understand how critical theory can be applied to texts - and therefore it is helpful to have a core text which makes that application as clear and straightforward as possible. 

For this reason, the text I have chosen is the Grimm's 1812 version of Cinderella - a quick and easy read, with tons of different possible interpretations.  Another reason for choosing this text, is it means that the module can begin fairly simply by using Bettelheim's psychoanalytic interpretation of Cinderella - the first stage therefore being to follow how a critic has applied theory to text, and to critique that application, rather than having to come up with an original interpretation.

This establishes a structure in which the assessment can be scafolded - broken down into separate tasks which require a basic understanding of each critical theory, and which build in complexity.

The final assessment can then be a more advanced application of a single theory - a chance to practice a fuller, and more in depth exploration of a text using theory.  This final assessment would be difficult using Cinderella without the risk of repetition, so instead this task will be based on a different set of texts - each one chosen because they enable a more complex application of theory, while remaining relatively simple (ensuring that the focus remains more on the application of theory to the text, rather than necessarily on the text itself).

Here is the assessment guidelines  - as ever, comments would be welcome...

Critical Theory Assessment Guidelines

A portfolio containing 5 pieces of work:

•    A 400wd analysis of the Cinderella story using psychoanalytic theory.
•    A 400wd analysis of the Cinderella story using Marxist theory.
•    A 400wd analysis of the Cinderella story using Feminist theory.
•    A 400wd analysis of the Cinderella story using Postcolonial theory.
•    An essay applying ONE critical theory studied to one of the texts considered in the module (1400 words).

A 400wd analysis of the Cinderella story using psychoanalytic theory.

For this exercise you will be provided with a chapter from Bruno Bettelheim’s 1979 book The Uses of Enchantment, in which he explores the story of Cinderella using Freudian psychoanalytic theory.  You will need to:

1)    Offer a brief definition of psychoanalytic critical theory

2)    Explain Bettelheim’s interpretation of Cinderella, and how he uses psychoanalysis to interpret the story

3)    Consider how convincing you find Bettelheim’s interpretation. Is such a view still valid?  Are there other interpretations which psychoanalysis could reveal?

A 400wd analysis of the Cinderella story using Marxist theory

For this exercise you will be given two chapters: One an introduction to Marxist criticism from Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh, the other a chapter from Terry Eagleton on ‘Political Criticism’.  You will need to:

1)    Offer a brief definition of Marxist critical theory, using the two chapters to support your points

2)    Provide a brief analysis of the Cinderella from a Marxist critical perspective, interpreting the story through the filter of Marxist theory

A 400wd analysis of the Cinderella story using Feminist theory.

For this exercise, you will not be directed towards specific essays but will need to find your own sources to support your argument.  You can do this using online sources, Athens or library resources, and it might be worth focusing on names like Cixous, De Beauvoir, Moi, Kristeva, Showalter, Todd, etc..  You will need to:

1)    Offer a brief definition of post-second-wave feminist critical theory.

2)    Identify some impressive-sounding sources to support your points and your interpretation.

3)    Outline an interpretation of the Cinderella story using a feminist critical perspective, and your sources.

A 400wd analysis of the Cinderella story using Postcolonial theory

For this exercise, you will be asked to explore the Cinderella story by focusing on the themes of difference, otherness, hybridization or similar theories which have emerged from postcolonial critical discourse.  You will be asking questions about how the characters react to otherness, or how they react to being different – whether that difference is cultural, economic or gendered. You will need to:

1)    Offer a brief definition of the concerns of postcolonial theory.

2)    Identify some impressive-sounding sources to support your points and interpretation, thinking perhaps especially of figures like Edward Said, Homi Bhabha and N’gugu Wa Thiongo. 

3)    Outline an interpretation of the Cinderella story using a feminist critical perspective, and your sources.

An essay applying ONE critical theory studied to one of the texts considered in the module

The final assignment – a 1400 word essay – is an opportunity for you to extent your use of ONE of the theories studied, and to develop an interpretation of a more complex text using that theory.  So, for example if you found Feminist theory to be the one which you found the most engaging, you will have the opportunity to apply that theory to a specific text.  The texts which will be used for this assignment are as follows:

•    Psychoanalytic theorySestina, by Elizabeth Bishop
•    Marxist theory: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
•    Feminist theory: The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
•    Postcolonial Theory: The Children of this Land, by Wole Soyinka

You should think of this essay as an extended version of the shorter exercises.  Remember to keep a balance between the

Definition: Ensure you define your theory in a way which is relevant to the argument of your essay.  In other words, don’t write an interpretation of The Children of this Land which argues that it expresses a negative view of hybridity (which is Bhabha’s theory), but begin the essay with an explanation of Edward Said’s Orientalism (which is a different type of postcolonial theory).

Interpretation:  It is vitally important that you determine before you start writing your essay what your interpretation of the text is going to argue.  For example:
•    Are you going to argue that Sestina shows problems of attachment caused by grief? 
•    Are you going to argue that The Hunger Games shows the role of media as a form of social control? 
•    Are you going to argue that The Yellow Wallpaper is a warning about the dangers of social protest?

Your main argument needs to be the central organising focus of your essay.  It is what determines your structure.
Sources:  Remember that you need to be supporting your points as much as possible with secondary critical sources.  This will demand that you use cognitive skills of evaluation and synthesis, because it is unlikely that you will find essays which offer a direct example of what you are doing.  Therefore, you will need to find things which have been written by critics, and determine how they relate to what you are saying.
Is there a connection between your interpretation of the text, and what Althusser said about how individuals are absorbed into society’s dominant ideologies (Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, 1970)?  Or what Judith Butler said about how the ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ are socially constructed (Gender Trouble, 1990)? What Melanie Klein said about the how we construct internal phantasies from external emotions (Personification in the Play of Children, 1929)?  Or what Ngugi wa Thiong’o says about how colonialism decimates the cultural identity of a people (Decolonizing the Mind, 1994)?

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