Flip that Theory: Cultural Studies as a Foundational Course in the College Literature Curriculum

Cammie M. Sublette and Lindsy Lawrence, University of Arkansas – Fort Smith

Cultural studies offers one way to teach students a broad swath of literary theory in an engaged and applied fashion. By making it a required course for our English majors and minors and placing it early in the literature curriculum, we have essentially flipped the theory component of our undergraduate program. Like most undergraduate programs in English, we used to reserve theory until late in our students’ programs, assuming that the level of difficulty of doing theory mandated its placement as a junior or senior-level course. However, we kept coming up against the same problem: because students were taking most of their other literature courses before they took their theory course, they had limited ability to analyze literary texts beyond basic close-reading. Some professors in our program expressed concern that, in upper-division classes, they were spending most of their time explaining basic theoretical concepts, detracting from students deepening their knowledge of the literature in hand. Thus, we made the decision to move the theory course to the front of our students’ program, and we have had great success with the course as a foundational sophomore-level offering. The trick, we believe, is that we use a cultural studies theoretical umbrella, and we approach the class from a pedagogy warmly embracing popular culture. We find that lower-level undergraduates can do theory well under the right circumstances. We also find that after taking the required lower-level Cultural Studies course, our students in their upper-division courses are able to apply theory without refreshers, allowing professors to focus on the literature of the course and any deep theory that they wish students to study.

This introductory course begins with a basic discussion and interrogation of cultural studies. The class is situated at the 2000 level, meaning that students entering cultural studies have taken the two required courses in composition, but they will more than likely have experienced no other literature or writing courses on the college level. Many students take the required textual research methodology class and a general education literature offering alongside cultural studies, but it is in our Cultural Studies course that students are introduced to the fundamentals of interdisciplinary work in literature studies. While we introduce students to the central task of exploring cultural studies, we also move quickly to applications of cultural studies theories and methodologies.

The task of introducing students to cultural studies involves explaining how this field differs from their conception of the traditional literature classroom and reassuring them that they can both understand and master cultural studies theory. As Jay Clayton claims, “Cultural studies is an increasingly prominent critical practice that attends not only to popular media but also to everyday life and material culture” (15). A cultural studies approach draws on student strengths and knowledge of their own cultural experiences and interests; thus, theory is applied to texts students already are familiar with versus students mastering a body of fiction as well as theory. While literature and popular media are taught alongside theoretical texts, students are using these texts as a testing ground for the application of theory with a text of their choosing. Student choices have ranged from Breaking Bad to Disney Princess movies, The Help, Grey’s Anatomy, Girls, The Walking Dead, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Moreover, no one text lends itself to every cultural studies lens, which allows the course to introduce students to a range of canonical and popular texts. We think that a cultural studies framework allows a great deal of flexibility in text selection, and we embrace the convergence of more typical literary fare and new popular examples.

We begin by asking students to consider what they think the word “culture” means as well as providing students with an overview of the interdisciplinary nature of cultural studies. Although we insist, along with John Storey, that “we make culture and we are made by culture” (5), we also emphasize the fact that there is no simple definition for cultural studies. Indeed, given the differing national inflections of cultural studies and its interdisciplinarity, cultural studies is not easy to define. ((The Library of the University of Indiana provides a good bibliography of work done in cultural studies. See Franks, Courtney, and Melton. For accounts of the differing national trajectories of cultural studies see P. Brantlinger (1990), A. Easthope, (1991), G. Turner, (2003), and G. Turner (1993).)) The cultural studies highly influenced by Marxist theory in Great Britain does not always resonate with the French poststructuralist bent, nor does it entirely jibe with American attempts to grapple with the “popular” in popular culture. In addition, all of these theoretical approaches are heavily influenced by gender studies and race theory, and all are influenced by generational and broader historical changes. Indeed, one of the most important theorists of cultural studies, Stuart Hall, has noted, “‘Cultural studies is not one thing…. It has never been one thing’” (qtd. in Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler 3). In short, if cultural studies had a Facebook page, its relationship status would be “it’s complicated.” It’s the universal disclaimer for anyone embarking on the study of cultural studies. This explanation of cultural studies is accompanied by our own narratives of why we are cultural studies practitioners and how we struggle with theory as well. Stuart Hall likens the process by which we come to understand a theoretical writer to “wrestling with the angels” (281). This emphasis on the struggle of coming to understand a theorist helps students, who often feel that they need fully to grasp all a text—theoretical or literary—has to offer on the first reading.

The course then unfolds according to the specific areas of cultural studies selected for further study. Typically, we select from amongst the following:

  • Class Studies
  • New Historicism
  • Gender Studies
  • Queer Theory
  • Race Theory
  • Postcolonialism
  • Mass/Popular Culture and/or Fan Studies
  • Disability Studies
  • Trauma Studies
  • Cyborg Studies
  • Ethnography
  • Pop Culture Pedagogy

In any given semester, we can only adequately cover five to seven of the above cultural studies areas. In order to lend unity across the course sections, then, we agree to cover the following in each offering of the course: Gender Studies, Race Theory, and Disability Studies. The rest of the course curriculum varies by instructor and semester. However, the course learning objectives remain the same, as do the major assignments and the approach. Moreover, our separate specializations in twentieth-century American literature and nineteenth-century British literature mean that we each design the course with a different national inflection, even though there is some crossover between our sections in texts for application and assigned readings.

Any lower level undergraduate course on theory, such as the Cultural Studies course our program instituted as a foundational requirement of all English majors and minors, necessarily begins with a certain amount of student fear and anxiety. This fear and anxiety amount to more than just impediments to learning. As Dianne F. Sadoff explains, a common student response to theory is “‘frustration, depression, intellectual and emotional overload … [and] anxiety’” (qtd. in Johnson 100). Students often find theory off-putting because it is difficult in both concepts and jargon, and many authors of theoretical texts drop names of theorists and schools of theory without pausing to explain or contextualize these details. With little knowledge of the discourse community, students feel adrift, easily disengaging from the material. Students’ “resistance to theory” is renowned amongst educators, with the dread litany of student complaints typically registering one or more of the following, notes Brian Johnson: “theory is too difficult; theory is too abstract; theory is boring” (99). Marrying theory to popular culture alleviates all three of these complaints, for bringing popular culture into the classroom makes theory enjoyable, concrete, and familiar. Students’ familiarity with popular culture allows them to consider the old forms through a new lens, and contrary to some beliefs, students typically do not resist performing analyses of popular culture texts. They have to be coached a good deal at first regarding the particular methods of analysis, and they still have to struggle to master difficult theoretical concepts and terminologies. However, their knowledge of popular culture provides them with solid footing for theoretical applications.

What follows is an explanation of our approaches to teaching cultural studies, including two different reading schedules and sample assignments. Our student learning outcomes for the course include:

  • Identify significant Cultural Studies theories and theorists;
  • Analyze canonical texts via the many lenses of Cultural Studies;
  • Analyze popular texts via the many lenses of Cultural Studies;
  • Analyze specific ways that Cultural Studies reflects and responds to historical, cultural, social, and geographic locations;
  • Develop research projects within the discipline;
  • Perform scholarly research within the discipline;
  • Produce a polished Cultural Studies project.

Both courses outlined below require the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms as well as a writing handbook on grammar, style, and source citations. The readings below are either provided to students as PDFs or located through use of the library databases. We feel that having students locate these texts in the databases gives them crucial familiarity in database use that helps them in developing their research practices. All of the readings listed are not assigned every term. We have put together lists of texts that we have felt students responded to well or found illuminating. Students also read our own introductory commentaries for each unit, and most of the clips linked are watched together in class.

We feel like these materials will help others in structuring their own approach to teaching cultural studies to lower-level undergraduates. In taking stock of the material written about cultural studies pedagogy, we found, as Julie Rak did, that pedagogy is an underdeveloped area of cultural studies scholarship. Rak argues that “The tradition in cultural studies of taking stock of the discipline and even questioning its foundations has not spilled over into a discussion about what teaching and pedagogy mean in a practical sense in classrooms where instructors have a serious commitment to teaching this kind of approach” (55). We hope that this essay and these assignments can begin a larger conversation about teaching from a cultural studies perspective. We both have found the experience of teaching cultural studies theory to students at this level to be invaluable, both in our own scholarly and pedagogical development. Theory does not have to be reserved for advanced or graduate students.

Course Outlines (American Studies Emphasis and British Studies Emphasis) and sample assignments: Course Materials

Works Cited

Clayton, Jay. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. Cary, NC: Oxford UP, 2003. Ebrary Reader. 30 Jul. 2013.

Franks, Sara, Angela Courtney, and Rob Melton. “Cultural Studies Bibliography.” English and American Language and Literature. University of Indiana. 2010. Web. 2 Aug. 2013.

Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, eds. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies.” Cultural Studies. Eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992. 277-94. Print.

Johnson, Brian. “Beyond the Lure: Teaching Horror, Teaching Theory.” Fear and Learning: Essays on the Pedagogy of Horror. Ed. Aalya Ahmad and Sean Moreland. London: McFarland, 2013. Kindle AZW file.

Rak, Julie. “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Anthology! Adventures in Teaching Cultural Studies.” The Renewal of Cultural Studies. Ed. Paul Smith. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2011. 45-52. EBrary Reader. 9 Jan. 2013.

Storey, John. Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture. Second Edition. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2003. Print.