English R1B

Reading and Composition: Practical Criticism

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
13 Fall 2022 Ritland, Laura
MWF 3-4 Wheeler 122

Book List

Sharif, Solmaz: Look; Woolf, Virginia: To the Lighthouse

Other Readings and Media

All other readings will be included in a course reader. These readings will likely include: excerpted criticism and literary theory by IA Richards, Roland Barthes, Cleanth Brooks, Virginia Woolf, Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, John Berger, Terry Eagleton, Susan Sontag, Jia Tolentino, Teju Cole, Maggie Nelson; poetry by John Keats, William Carlos Williams, Solmaz Sharif, Layli Long Soldier; short or excerpted fiction by James Joyce, Henry James. We will also engage with examples of reality television, the sitcom, memes, and social media posts.


What is “criticism”? We wouldn’t be wrong to associate this word with disgruntled critics, snobs, and fault-finders looking for ways to put others down. As Raymond Williams notes, “criticism” comes from the Greek kritikos—“a judge.” “Criticism” also names the general process of interpreting, analyzing, and writing about art and literature. Historically, this aesthetic version of criticism has been associated with elitist taste-making and the valuation of some arts as “high art” and others as “low art.” However, for centuries, people have been finding ways to practice and reinvent “criticism” in ways that orient it towards social equity and democracy, as well as forge its relevance anew to life’s day-to-day joys and trials. In this course, we will take on this vibrant and ongoing project—what we might call the search for a “practical criticism.” We will explore, test, and reimagine ways of engaging with literary and other comparative media to answer the following question: how can criticism be useful as equipment for living? What is a “practical criticism” for today?

The course will take us through some of the major historical schools of thought and techniques of (mostly) Anglophone criticism over the past century—for example, New Criticism, “close reading,” structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxist criticism, and cultural studies. We will trace some of the underlying connections and contrasts between these movements, particularly their philosophical and political attitudes. All the while, we will be thinking about these different criticisms in relation to contemporary politics and culture, as well as contemporary and emergent genres of criticism like the YouTube video essay, the personal essay, and the book review. Though our primary focus will be on literary texts (poems, novels, plays), we will also consider visual art, film, television, advertising, and social media as key objects of criticism. Assignments will involve producing your own unique pieces of criticism, culminating in a longer research essay on a literary or art piece of your choosing.

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