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ENG 201: Art of Interpretation - Fall 2012: Start

What is this About?

Though this course is a wild ride through theoretical appoaches to reading literature, we also wanted to reserve some time to consider how those theoretical approaches are published and circulated, how primary literary texts and scholarly analysis flow through different publication streams, how libraries organize themselves (and why the past sometimes muddles up the present), and how published literary criticism is not so much something you seek out and consume (as you might a new phone or a pair of boots) but traces of an ongoing conversation. In short, we're hoping to avoid "how to find" and dig deeper into the ways we talk together through published records.

The Conversation

Because the Web has grown up in a commerical age, we tend to think of databases as a kind of shopping platform, a place to find and consume texts. But scholars rely on tracing the conversation through references, using the online platforms mainly to locate things they have heard about. Conversation is much better metaphor for research than shopping is. A philosopher put it this way:

"As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages . . .

Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occassions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance."

Michael Oakeshott. The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind: An Essay. London: Bowes & Bowes, 1959, 11.

Welcome to Burke's Parlor

Burke Philosophy of Literary FormKenneth Burke described the way we talk about ideas as an unending conversation. When we arrive at a party in progress and try to join a conversation that started before we got there, we first have to listen and try to figure out what’s going on. At some point, when we’ve picked up enough context, we can join in. And when we leave the parlor, we leave the conversation still in full flow. This is what research is like - confusing, a little scary at times, socially awkward at times, but ultimately a rewarding exchange of ideas, an ongoing event to which you are an invited guest.

Eavesdropping on the Conversation

Students very often begin with a Google search to get a sense of what's out there and what different approaches are being taken to a given topic. Wikipedia articles are often useful. Even better is Google Scholar or a library database that covers publications about your topic - or simply finding where the books on your topic are shelved and browsing. The following are some shortcuts for getting an overview of the conversation.

Search Inisde Books

Thanks to mass digitization projects, you can dig into the contents of books online if you want to see a sample or search for a particular page. Here are some options.


Julie Gilbert's picture
Julie Gilbert
I love meeting with students and faculty to talk about your research, including any issues you have - or even if you just want to brainstorm. There are lots of ways to reach me. Email me with questions or use the old fashioned phone number below to contact me. Or stop by my office hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10:30 - 11:30 (Library 215 - ask at the front desk if you need directions).

The Elegant Variation Blog

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