Theory today and tomorrow

Literary criticism in the 21st century : theory renaissance - Vincent B. Leitch 2014

Theory today and tomorrow


This interview was conducted by Professor Zhu Gang of Nanjing University, who specializes in American literature and critical theory. He is the Secretary General of the China Association for the Study of American Literature. Here he voices concerns of mainstream Chinese literary scholarship.

Zhu Gang: What is called “contemporary Western critical theory” by Chinese academics started in the 1960s, though “theoretical” approaches to literature could be traced back to the earlier period, for instance, formalism, psychoanalysis, and myth criticism. 1960s is a turning point in intellectual history, both in the West and in China. What is the most obvious connection, in your view, between the intellectual atmosphere of the 60s and the rise of theory thereafter?

Vincent B. Leitch: The 1960s mark a turning point in US culture for a handful of reasons. By the way, we date the “sixties” from 1964 to 1975, the dates of the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the complete withdrawal of US military troops from Vietnam. During these dozen years a great deal happened that positively impacted literary and cultural theory. It’s complicated but there are some key landmarks.

The rise of the new social movements and cultural critique come first to my mind. Among these are women’s rights, black power and ethnic rights, student’s rights, gay rights, and Third World independence movements seeking the right to national sovereignty. These social and political groups—often fractured within, some seeking assimilation into the mainstream, others wanting separatism and autonomy—mainly sought political recognition (rights). Typically, they put arguments for economic redistribution in second place and on hold. The tensions between rights and redistribution haunt criticism and politics to this day.

The women’s rights movement gave us feminist theory, women’s history, anthologies on women’s literature, revaluation of women’s genres like diaries and letters as well as innovative histories of the novel. Many hundreds of “forgotten” novels by women were rediscovered following the sixties. New ways of understanding were quickly developed: Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1977) cast British women novelists as a subculture; Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) depicted female poets and novelists in terms of psychological disturbances generated by patriarchy (agoraphobia most memorably); Judith Fetterley’s The Resisting Reader (1979) advocated cultural critique of misogynistic American classics from Washington Irving to Norman Mailer.

Parallel types of change occurred over ensuing decades, with wider visibility accorded African American, Native American, Hispanic American, Asian American, plus lesbigay and queer literatures. New courses, textbooks, programs, journals, academic press book series, and professional organizations have appeared, all legacies of the 1960s. I imagine Chinese scholars know all this, but it is worth remembering today. Cultural critique came to play an increasingly central role. The canon expanded. Along the way, literature became literatures. I recount the redefinition and reconfiguration of “literature” in a conference paper originally presented in Beijing: “Wenxue de quanquiuhua” (“Globalization of Literatures”), published in Wenxue jingdian de jiangou, jiegou he changgou (The Construction, Deconstruction, and Reconstruction of the Literary Canon), ed. Tao Dongfeng (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2007): 176—191. This paper forms the final chapter of my Living with Theory.

In other much more general terms, the universality of Enlightenment humanism—white male Western humanism—has been broadly replaced in the name of differences of race and ethnicity, of gender and sexuality, of minorities and nationalities. This marks the advent of postmodern multiculturalism, a battleground to this day.

The literature I studied and the methods I learned in the 1960s—shaped by modernist literary aestheticism and critical formalism—were overturned within 15 years. Yet the scrupulous methods of formalist close reading exhibit a remarkable staying power, as do the core canonical literary works. Arguments for restoration continue in the new century.

Other new literary and cultural theory stems from the 1960s. I have not mentioned 1960s and 1970s US imperialism and postcolonial theory, plus cultural studies in response to the proliferation of mass media and popular culture. Nor have I touched on the 1970s rise of free-market capitalism, politically organized Christian fundamentalism, and many backlash phenomena. The way I see it, the impact of the sixties, broadly construed, continues unfolding in the twenty-first century.


Why do you think cultural issues like race, ethnicity, and gender should have become major concerns of literature in recent decades? Do we have more urgent concerns than those focusing on the postcolonial and the homosexual?


US society and universities have since the 1960s opened the doors to women and people of “color.” Gays and lesbians have had some success in getting fair and equal treatment in legal and political as well as social and cultural arenas. American imperial aspirations and ventures continue to deplete our resources and to vex intellectuals, particularly those with roots in other nations and those with cosmopolitan outlooks. So academic research and teaching have reflected the concerns of these groups and activist movements. The majority white population is decreasing in size. The US is undeniably a multicultural society despite the fantasies of nativists. The UK, France, and Germany are all dealing with similar issues of minorities.

The publish-or-perish imperative of scholarship has permeated not only major research universities since the 1960s, but also baccalaureate and Master’s awarding institutions. Doctoral students increasingly try to get “hot topics” for their dissertations and conference papers to be competitive in the fierce job market. Race, class, and gender analyses along with postcolonial and queer theory suit the trends in the profession for publication and promotion. Also consumer capitalism is addicted to bigger, better, and the new. The hunger for the new is voracious in society and in academia. Market vanguardism is alive and well in the university, including literature departments. Multicultural theory fills that need too.


You have promoted recent critical trends moving towards cultural studies. However, cultural studies seems to have experienced difficulties, for instance, the close down of CCCS at the University of Birmingham in the UK. There is also resistance to “culturalization” of literature in China where a number of critics are arguing for a return to literature itself.


Cultural studies has specific histories and profiles in each nation. US cultural studies is separate from Australian, British, Canadian, etc. (Groden; Turner). At the moment, US cultural studies has four or five identities: it is an approach or method; a disciplinary wing; a new discipline (sometimes a department); a dominant research paradigm; a movement. This situation is quite different from the UK.

With the cultural wars of the past three decades in the US came calls to restore the canon of Great Books, renounce “political correctness” (race-class-gender analyses), and return to literature. This ongoing battle summons “literature itself.” In the US that special phrase resurrects the mid-century formalism of early Cold War New Criticism, with its three infamous taboos against the intentional fallacy (biographical research), the affective fallacy (reader response), and the heresy of paraphrase (worldly themes). As a New Critic, you are instructed—commanded—to focus on the work and not on the writer’s biography (intentions), nor on the reader’s response (affects), nor on the paraphrasable meaning of the text. This last point means the autonomous “literary object” must not be reduced to or compete with philosophy, theology, law, science, psychology, politics, etc. The “literariness” of literature, its distinctive aesthetic features, distinguishes it for a formalist from other disciplines. It merits an academic department of its own, a secure home in the university. Moreover, the formalist claim of autonomy for literature descends from the Kantian antiutilitarian Enlightenment tradition as defensively manifested during the 1930s against the bad politicizations of art. Formalism today remains a conservative political defense against the deaestheticization of art. All that said, the concept “literature itself” carries a great deal of baggage. Handle with care is my advice.

Instead of seeing the current culturalization of literature as a threat, I believe it performs a rescue operation not only from dogmatic formalism but also from the rise of popular culture with its antiquation of literature. Against formalist strictures, cultural studies forwards vital postformalist protocols of method. For instance, when analyzing a work or phenomenon, a cultural critic seeks to examine the cultural circuits (production, distribution, consumption). That opens research to biographical and historical inquiry as well as audience response and institutional analysis. It violates the New Critical fallacies, but without renouncing close reading. There are many more modes of close reading than literary formalism. It is worth recalling here that by the late 1960s formalist close reading had become repetitive, predictable, deadening. That is based on my personal experience. In its wake theory and cultural studies have opened new and exciting—life-enhancing—frontiers for research and publication plus, of course, for teaching.

By the way, there are a dozen or more identifiable antitheory factions as well as lone individuals in the US who call for a “return to literature.” Perhaps it’s similar in China.


What difference does theory make to the study of literature? Could we simply read literary texts without reading or thinking in theory? Could we return to a time when critics did only criticism and were unaffected by theoretical considerations? Is theory only a decoration of the ivory tower, inaccessible to general readership? Or is it mainly a proof of sophistication, a pre-requisite for the MA thesis and PhD dissertation?


How to define “theory” and its many facets? “Theory” designates the broad field of contemporary schools and movements. It also signifies principles, procedures, and methods, plus self-reflection. In addition, it labels the toolbox of useful devices, terms, and concepts employed by readers and critics, now and in the past. It names, moreover, professional common sense—what every specialist knows and what goes without saying. In this important sense, everyone has theory. It sometimes means poststructuralism, frequently nicknamed high theory or French theory. To complicate matters, theory designates the historically new discourse or field—a postmodern phenomenon—that assembles and fuses modern disciplines and subdisciplines into a hybrid compound of literary criticism, linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, sociology, history, and political economy. As its critics point out, most contemporary theory is linked with standpoint epistemology, social constructionism, cultural relativism, and popular culture, so it is very much a postmodern formation.

Now to answer your question head on, literary criticism is entangled with theory in various senses. Criticism is inconceivable without theory, I would argue. Even the non-academic reader relies on theory—knowingly as well as unwittingly. He believes he knows what literature is; why characters make decisions; where men, women, and children properly belong; how to understand people, society, the world; what constitutes well-made as well as poorly constructed literary plots and good literary styles; the conventions of genre. There is no escape from theory for readers. The wish to be before or after theory, to bury theory, is an angry fantasy. It defines theory too narrowly as a political extension of the new social movements of the 1960s, or as French (post)structuralism, or as this ambitious and unmanageable crossdisciplinary field. Those are the usual suspects—the enemies familiar from the ongoing US cultural wars. Yet theory is more than all that.

In the contemporary American university, theory functions as an agent of the new and the cutting edge in the majority of subfields and periods of literary studies. It is a ticket to publication, employment, promotion. It has become especially since the 1970s the air literary academics breathe; it sustains the profession and the mission of the research-oriented university. Not surprisingly, there has arisen the counterindustry of antitheory. In other words, people and projects are defined and positioned in relation to theory. I hasten to add that there is plenty of bad theory (ill-informed, wrong-headed, poorly argued, dogmatic, narrow, mechanical, opaque, jargon-ridden, insensitive, affected, gimmicky, narcissistic, etc.).


Derrida is the father of deconstruction, against which all the other post-structuralist perspectives on literature define themselves. But we know Derrida changed a lot during the last ten years or so of his life. You have read Derrida quite comprehensively. How do you account for this change we find in him? Or is it the same Derrida, but we read him differently?


Jacques Derrida published many books over the course of forty years, beginning in the mid-1960s. None of these works is systematic philosophy as in Kant or Hegel. Most were written in response to situations. They are often haphazard. They frequently meander. It’s a sprawling corpus.

Starting in the late 1980s, Derrida turned for the first time more fully and openly to ethics and politics. We can speculate on his motives. There were, for example, long-standing pressures on him to address politics, going back to the early 1970s. In 1987, deconstruction was put under special suspicion by the revelation of Paul de Man’s links to World War II German fascism. Let’s recall that de Man was Derrida’s colleague and friend at Yale University as well as the leading American deconstructor of the time. Also Martin Heidegger, often favorably referenced by Derrida, had obvious ties to Nazism. What else? The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics went out of existence rapidly starting in 1989, which facilitated the rampant global spread of radical free-market capitalism during the 1990s. As a man of the left, Derrida sensed a threat from triumphant US neoliberalism to France and the European Union. He began to write about these and other current events until his death, becoming a politically engaged public intellectual like other theorists of the time.

A friend of mine, Professor Steven Mailloux then at the University of California-Irvine where Derrida taught for two decades during several weeks each spring, told me in March 2004 that Derrida was sick and would not be teaching that spring. The prognosis was negative. Spontaneously and in mourning, I started composing a retrospective and planning a graduate seminar on Late Derrida. In May, I spent a few weeks in Paris obtaining late Derrida materials. By early October, after eight months of work, I sent my retrospective to the journal Critical Inquiry just a few days before Derrida’s death. The editor took my title, “Late Derrida,” and organized a special issue on the topic (also released as a book), both published in 2007 by the University of Chicago Press. In that work, I sum up Derrida’s late politics and lay out my critique of it.

Looking back now from the vantage point of ten years, the key books in Derrida’s late works on politics for me remain his innovative Specters of Marx (1993) especially and Rogues (2003), along with the extensive information-packed interviews in his For What Tomorrow (2001) and the provocative one in Philosophy in a Time of Terror (2003).

But as far as both the reception and the multifaceted critical legacy of Derrida go, they have been from the start immensely productive and contentious in the US. His work positively impacted centrist as well as leftist American deconstructive theory, as with the careers of J. Hillis Miller and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. It contributed to African American and Native American theory (Henry Louis Gates and Gerald Vizenor), plus feminism, postcolonial theory, psychoanalysis, and queer theory, most notably in the work of Barbara Johnson, Homi Bhabha, Eve Sedgwick, and Judith Butler. It helped buttress structuralism and semiotics as in the instance of Jonathan Culler, and also speech-act theory in the projects of Shoshana Felman, for example. Beyond literary studies, Derridean deconstruction fruitfully impacted American philosophy, theology, law, and cultural studies. I hasten to add that the “late Derrida” maintained his interest in literary figures, publishing a half dozen books of literary criticism during the last 15 years of his life. Yet my favorite literary exegeses remain those textual analyses in his early book Dissemination, particularly the extended critique there of Plato’s dialogues.


You published American Literary Criticism from the 1930s to the 1980s in 1988. A new edition appeared in 2010. When you revised, what changes or corrections did you make to previous chapters and what did you add for the theory of very recent years?


In the first edition of 1988, I offered 13 chapters covering the main schools and movements (Marxism, New Criticism, Chicago School, New York Intellectuals, Myth Criticism, Phenomenology and Existentialism, Hermeneutics, Reader-Response Criticism, Structuralism and Semiotics, Poststructuralism and Deconstruction, Feminist Criticism, Black Aestheticism, and Cultural Criticism). Incidentally, I do not consider psychoanalysis a school or a movement like the others: it has a pervasive and continuous history since the 1920s. So I weave it into the accounts of the schools and movements, ultimately giving it more space than all the others. In any case, I added a new chapter to the second edition. It discusses New Historicism, Postcolonial Criticism, Queer Theory, Ethnic Criticism (especially Chicano, Native American, and Asian American), and Cultural Studies. I also updated the earlier chapters. The biggest change was recontexualizing the Cold War era, which had not ended until 1989—1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Part of my argument in the second edition is that the schools and movements method of organization does not work for the twenty-first century. Nor does it work for earlier centuries. What we have since the 1990s is the ongoing disaggregation of the field of literary criticism and theory into “studies” areas (many many dozens of them). I am thinking of transatlantic studies, whiteness studies, body studies, popular culture studies, narrative studies, animal studies, performance studies, etc. Most of these subfields operate under the extremely broad banner of cultural studies. So another part of my argument is that the field has become vast, disorganized, and not masterable. A proper microhistory of recent decades would in my view have to be collectively constructed and narrated. This would be a new mode of writing the history of theory.

In narrating the history of American literary criticism from 1988 to 2010, I found as significant as the new fin-de-siècle schools and movements and the rise of many new studies areas a set of related events. Here I have in mind the fall of Paul de Man; the debates about postmodernity and globalization; the culture wars and the reemergence of the public intellectual; plus the rise of the corporate “university of excellence” with the massive casualization of professors and the proliferation of student debt.


As the general editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, what are the principles and the assumptions you hold in compiling such a volume?


During the two-year revision process for our second edition, the five editors and I went through a half dozen overlapping phases or rounds. No one ever talks about this process so I want briefly to shed light on it in order to reveal principles, assumptions, etc. To start with, let me mention numbers. We dropped about 20 of the original 148 figures. Then we lightly trimmed selections from 12 existing figures. After that it was swaps and enhancements affecting 15 figures. For examples of the latter, we cut 10 pages from Derrida’s lengthy “Plato’s Pharmacy,” while adding that many pages from his Specters of Marx. We enhanced the materials from Pierre Bourdieu with a piece from his Rules of Art on the social status of various literary genres to supplement the introduction to his Distinction. To the introduction of Edward Said’s Orientalism, we added a section from his Culture and Imperialism, which offers an exemplary postcolonial reading of Jane Austen’s fiction in relation to the British Empire. In the next, the fourth round of revision, we chose new figures and texts—15 in all. Among them are Franco Moretti, Judith Halberstam, Paul Gilroy, Lisa Lowe, Andrew Ross, N. Katherine Hayles, and Slavoj Žižek. A fifth round involved “reconsiderations,” that is, a few last-minutes final cuts and restorations. For instance, we discovered we could not have an anthology on the history of theory and criticism without Matthew Arnold’s “Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” We initially thought we could simply drop it.

By the way, the Norton is the only theory anthology put together by a team. Most are edited by one person. The team has members from two generations and no one party line. It tries to be broadly representative of the interests of literature professors working in the US and UK. The publisher—W. W. Norton (an employee-owned firm protected from buyouts)—surveyed in a detailed manner 200 users of the original 2001 anthology. That produced many recommendations for change while representing the broad concerns of theory teachers. The second edition has new thematic foci on ethics and literary criticism, globalization, new historicisms, and antitheory. We also have new translations and editions of canonical texts by Plato, Augustine, du Bellay, Sidney, Vico, Kant, Benjamin, etc. Our last round of revision, the sixth, involved us in selecting four non-Western representative theory texts from contemporary Arabic (Adūnis), Chinese (Li Zehou), Indian (C. D. Narasimhaiah), and Japanese (Karantani Kōjin).

To address your question in theory terms rather than narrative retrospection, the criteria for choosing a text include some combination of significance, influence, uniqueness, poignancy, pertinence, readability, teachability, length, and resonance. This mantra is my editorial touchstone, dating from the early planning stages. In deciding on canonical as well as cutting-edge contemporary selections, we juggle these criteria. Another principle is that we prefer complete or self-contained texts (essays, chapters, poems, prefaces, letters) rather than snippets. Also at least half of the six editors have to agree on including each selection. And of course our primary readerships—undergraduate and graduate literature students—shape our sense of readability and teachability. Last but not least, the criterion of “resonance” means we seek to create mosaics not strings of isolated pearls. We are on the lookout for thematic clusters, like ethics and literary criticism, theory of globalization, new historicisms, etc. It is a matter of attending to arguments and putting them in touch with one another across the headnotes and in a multifaceted Alternative Table of Contents.


Some of the critical concerns in the West have become global, such as postcolonial and environment issues. Has this happened, as far as you can see, the other way round? Have issues of developing countries become literary concerns of Western critics?


The terms of this question pose a problem. The difficulty arises with the concept of the West versus the non-West. All across the West—in the US, UK, France, and Germany, for example—there reside large non-Western “Third World” populations within developed countries, increasingly so since World War II. The concerns of these populations have infiltrated mainstream cultural as well as political agendas of advanced Western societies. Among the most obvious topics of contention coming from non-Western populations within the contemporary West are the status of second languages, religions, dress, minority literatures, and separatist versus integrationist philosophies. Other issues include differences between generations of immigrants, nondiscriminatory public education, racism, citizenship, equal rights. What else? Most notably, economic opportunity and justice, that is, fair distribution of resources (food, shelter, clothing, water, money, energy, credit, etc.).

Insofar as North American indigenous groups (550 Native American tribes, for instance) remain internal non-Western colonies, they constitute special cases of developing nations residing inside developed ones.

There is more. On the literary level, the very recent spread of globalized language-based poetics within the developed Western countries injects the lifeworlds of developing countries inside Western university literature curricula. I am referring to Anglophone, Francophone, and Hispanophone literatures where the conditions and concerns of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East come front and center. On the one hand, such formations appear like alien viruses but, on the other, they are subject to the hegemonic order. Here we come face to face with the mixed blessings of cultural recognition. Many English Departments today teach Anglophone literature alongside national literatures (American, Irish, English, etc.). French and Spanish departments reflect analogous realignments.


You have talked in recent pieces about your own life experiences, which seem to have made your personal commitment to theory appear quite natural and even inevitable. This personal involvement in a social and historical context congenial to theory is shared by many established theoreticians of your age. However, as the personal experience of and the social context for the young generation must be very different from yours, the inevitability of theory does not seem to exist today. This relates to the question of the justification of theory. So on what grounds do you believe that “theory still matters”?


My fusion of theorizing and life writing derives from several sources, namely feminism, the academic memoir boom starting in the 1990s, and the premium put on everyday life by cultural studies. bell hooks provides a well-known exemplary blend of close reading, ideology critique, cultural critique, and personalized theory, that is, intimate critique. I come from her generation.

As is so frequently the case with the arts, generations matter. The generation of early American baby boomers born between World War II and the Vietnam War came of age during the 1960s. We experienced the transitions from critical formalism to poststructuralism to cultural studies that distinguish the closing decades of the twentieth century. This period was marked by the triumph of popular culture, the expansion of literary canons, and the proliferation of literary and critical approaches. It was followed by backlashes against the new social movements, secularism, and the Welfare State. And it culminated with the declaration of a New World Order, confirming the hegemony of radical laissez-faire capitalism and the resurgence especially after 9/11 of American militarized imperialism. 24/7 proliferating media increasingly magnified all these events, particularly the Great Recession starting in 2008. No doubt, this constitutes a very particular generational experience.

While I believe the experience of each generation, each intellectual cohort, is singular, there is much continuity also. Tradition lives on not only as vestigial but as dominant. Education counts on that. The generation of older professors ahead of me and the two generations of younger professors behind me have much in common. Our differences seem less weighty, however intensely felt. We share an archive plus a professional and cultural unconscious.

Still, there is more to consider. Most literature departments in the US offer three standard theory courses. They have been doing so for a century: History of Theory, Modern Theory, and Introduction to Theory. History covers Plato and Aristotle to Marx and Nietzsche. Modern usually means twentieth and now twenty-first century (from Freud, Saussure, Eliot, and Bahktin to Fanon, Foucault, Said, and Jameson to hooks, Butler, and Žižek). Introduction to Theory generally explores key concepts and terms such as genre, authorship, interpretation, canon, discourse, representation, modernity, subjectivity, narrativity, etc. When I was an undergraduate student, I took both History of Theory and Modern Theory. There was no introductory course at my university. One picked up the basic terms and concepts in the required literary survey courses, genre and period offerings, and great writers courses. In any case, my argument is that theory permeates the literature curricula informally as well as formally. It is inevitable. I don’t see this changing.

What I do foresee changing is whether theory courses and questions will be required or optional, not to mention popular or unpopular with students. In order for theory to be life enhancing, productive, and popular for students as well as professors, they must have a personal stake in its issues, figures, texts, movements. Of that I have little doubt. But even if the popularity of theory declines and it becomes the possession of a coterie, that has its advantages too.

There is nowadays a market in theory, which your question suggests. “Investors take care where you invest your resources.” This is how we talk and think today, emphasizing short terms and big returns. So I continue to proclaim: things look good on the theory market, both for today and tomorrow. Theory provides cultural and professional as well as personal capital.


You have been teaching theory and literature courses for years. What is the relevance of theory to literature, especially for undergraduate literature courses? In a much-changed world, how will you convince young students that theory still has its value?


I recently offered a course in cultural theory that examined the closing decades of the twentieth century. The course got excellent enrollment: students were very interested evidently. What I did was focus single-mindedly on blockbusters—complex and influential books (famous contemporary classics)—that I judged to be life-changing. This is one way to make theory of value to students. You broaden and unsettle their worlds. You get them to grapple with pressing critical questions and problems. You have them engage celebrated major works.

This course was designed primarily for upper-level undergraduate literature majors, although five graduate students enrolled along with the 15 undergraduates. We explored bell hooks, Outlaw Culture; Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth; Edward Said, Orientalism; Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, vol. 1; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble; Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism; and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire. Students were required to write critical review essays and take turns leading discussions on these works. Insofar as the matrix or main paradigm nowadays for US academic literary studies derives from major texts of cultural theory, this course provided students detailed familiarity with the topics, concepts, and questions of most concern to teachers and scholars. It also provided them memorable reading experiences. The course earned unusually high student-teacher evaluations.

When I recently taught a second iteration of this course, I dropped the second Foucault book and the Butler text and added Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, and Halberstam’s Female Masculinity. It’s a matter of experimenting. Also I profited here from students’ recommendations, which I always solicit.

In addition to teaching literary texts and literary history—which I do regularly—we literary scholars, critics, and theorists have other obligations to students, graduate as well as undergraduate. In our programs we must inform them about the history and structure of our discipline’s concepts, taxonomies, and main concerns, plus the reigning critical approaches and theories of the day. Moreover, we have to teach students how to not only recognize and apply, but also assess and criticize contending critical approaches, whether formalist, deconstructive, cultural studies, or Marxist, psychoanalytical, feminist, postcolonial, etc. Also we have an obligation to make them aware of the vital explosion of subdisciplines and new fields of the past few decades. And insofar as students, especially graduate students, frequently wonder “what is going on?” and “what is the latest thing?,” we have an additional obligation to help professionalize students as critics and to provoke while satisfying their curiosity about their field.