Edward English, Assistant Director to the Writing Center
Years back, I began my freshman year at The University of Oklahoma knowing I would be an English major. Why not? English classes were my favorite in high school. I did well analyzing literature, waxing philosophy during class discussions, writing compelling essays about how Rasknolnikov’s struggles to combat guilt were not too unlike my own teenage worries that I wouldn’t find a prom date.
But as I began my college-level courses, something emerged in my English classes which I felt ill-equipped for—literary theory. Literary theory was, and still is, difficult for me for a number of reasons. While a single piece of literature may have little to no variance in its written composition, the theoretical framework(s) we use to extrapolate meaning from that same text can be seemingly infinite. So where do you begin? And which theoretical lenses are worth valuing and why?
What’s more, the philosophers/theorists canonized in contemporary literary criticism frequently appeared to me little more than a random amalgamation of scholars from various fields at numerous historical periods used to propagate particular political interests. Not to mention that many of these writings are incredibly dense and difficult for a beginner to absorb. I can recall making my way through the deconstructionists and thinking I might as well be reading a foreign language.
In time though, my disposition towards literary theory has shifted dramatically. As a current graduate student in English here at the UofL, it now feels like half of my life revolves around geeking out with my friends and colleagues about various theoretical takes on a piece of writing. There is one resource, however, that I wish would have had in my undergrad (had it been available): the YouTube channel The School of Life.
With relatively short videos (5-10 minutes), this channel entertainingly distills the main ideas of various literary theorists, as well as explicating the life and writings of specific famous writers. Watching these videos can be helpful on several levels. Maybe you’ve read through some literary theory but want to know how well you understood a given theory. Perhaps you’d like to prime yourself beforehand with an overview before you jump into the denser theory itself. Or, could be you just want to watch an engaging, and often silly, video that will expand your mind on how you can read a text. Either way, check them out! They are well worth your time.
Some of the major literary movements, theorists, and authors available on The School of Life: