'The Art of Constru(ct)ing':

Practical Criticism and Research Methodology


“Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing.

Interpreters do not decode [texts]; they make them.”

 ~Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class?


ENGL 3000-04 (Practical Criticism: Research and Methods)
Fall Semester 2011
T/R 2-3:15 pm / HUM 208


Mitzi McFarland    

Office: PAFF 317

678-839-4859 (voicemail)          

mmcfar@westga.edu (email)   

http://www.westga.edu/~mmcfar (webpage)

Office hours in Paff. 317:  M/W 8:15-9:30am; T 8:15-10:30am; Th 12:30-1:45pm

and by appointment

Writing Center Tutorials: M (10-12pm) and W (10-11am)


Course Description:

“Deconstruction” is a word that gets used in Newsweek.  A British pop group, Scritti Pollitti, publishes its lyrics under the copyright of “Jouissance Music,” borrowing a term that French critic Roland Barthes used to describe the pleasure of reading. Critic Thomas McLaughlin even recalls a time when he overheard a basketball coach say that his team had learned to “deconstruct a zone defense.”


Just what is all this theory talk? And why should we study it in a literature course?  


Whether we are aware of it or not, resist it or welcome it, theory is absorbed into the fabric of our cultural and literary discourse. It is inherent in human perception, in our presuppositions and attitudes toward life. Even the most resistant reader makes theoretical decisions – conscious or not – about what kinds of texts to value most, how to read and study literature, what elements of plot, character, and language to focus on (or to overlook). We make theoretical decisions all the time that seem so “obvious,” so self-evident, that they’re not always recognized as theoretical or as decisions.


This course takes as its basic premise the idea that theory is inextricable from practice. Like it or not, we are always already “in theory.” In all our discussions, then, we will give attention to questions raised by contemporary literary theory: Why read? What should we read? How should we read? However, our central focus on “practical criticism” will involve the application of various approaches and methodologies to the explication – that is, to the interpretation and understanding of particular texts. This course is essentially a process course, where students can gain ample practice – through written and oral reports – in research methods, critical frameworks, and the close examination and analysis of texts. Hopefully, through the process of articulation, we will deepen our understanding of the aesthetic, literary, psychological, and socio-historical facets out of which texts are both generated and interpreted.


·         Parker, Robert D. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. Oxford UP, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-19-533470-8.

·         Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th ed. MLA, 2003. ISBN: 0873529863.

·         Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street (Vintage P). 0-679734775.  

·         Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese (First Second). 978-1-59643-152-2.

·         Highly recommended: Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford UP, 2004. ISBN: 0198608837.


Learning Outcomes: 1) Students will cultivate skills in reading, writing, and critical analysis appropriate for the advanced English major; 2) Students will understand major critical approaches that are employed in the field of literary studies; 3) Students will be able to read, discuss, and analyze literary works using a variety of critical perspectives; 4) Students will articulate how these perspectives both inform and direct our understanding and appreciation of literature; 5) Students will develop competence in literary analysis from the following critical perspectives: formalism, reader-response, historicism, psychoanalytical theory, Marxism, feminism, cultural criticism, and poststructuralism/deconstruction; 6) Students will organize and complete a substantive research paper that demonstrates the ability to engage effectively in critical research and writing; 7) Students will demonstrate in both oral and written work a discipline-specific critical facility through convincing and well supported analysis of course-related material; and 8) Students will demonstrate their command of academic English and of the tenets of sound composition by means of thesis-driven analytical prose.


Relationship of Course to Program Goals: 1) Oral and written communication will be characterized by clarity, critical analysis, logic, coherence, persuasion, precision, and rhetorical awareness (Core Curriculum learning outcomes I); 2) Cultural and Social Perspectives: Cultural and social perspective will be characterized by cultural awareness and an understanding of the complexity and dynamic nature of social/political/economic systems; human and institutional behavior, values, and belief systems; historical and spatial relationship; and, flexibility, open-mindedness, and tolerance. (Core Curriculum learning outcomes III); 3) Aesthetic Perspective: Aesthetic perspective will be characterized by critical appreciation of and ability to make informed aesthetic judgments about the arts of various cultures as media for human expression (Core Curriculum learning outcomes V); 4) This course fulfills an Area F requirement for English majors (all tracks) in the core; 5) This course is required for the major in English as a prerequisite to upper-division study. It is designed to prepare students for their work in the major; 6) This course will contribute to the larger goal of equipping students with a  foundation in literary theory, research, and methods, with an emphasis on the issues surrounding literary study in contemporary culture; 7) Students will develop the analytical, oral and written skills to pursue graduate study or careers in teaching, writing, business and a variety of other fields; 8) Students will be able to define and pursue independent research agendas; 9) This course contributes to the program goal of equipping students with a foundation in literary history and the issues surrounding literary study in contemporary culture; 10) This course broadens students’ desire and ability to take pleasure in their encounter with literature.


Course Evaluation: Active participation in class discussions; in-class writing/editing assignments; in-class presentations; reading quizzes; 3 analytical essays, representing different theoretical approaches; midterm and final exams on theoretical terminology and methods, and a final 8 page research paper (with prospectus). Note: you must have a C average (70 minimum) on all graded essays (three critical essays and the research paper) in order to pass this class with a C or higher.


05%     Quizzes and Oral Reports

15%     Critical Essay I

15%     Critical Essay II

20%     Critical Essay III

10%     Midterm Examination

10%     Final Examination

25%     Research Paper (8 type-written pages minimum).

Participation: Because this is a writing- and reading-intensive course, student participation is both essential and mandatory.  As much of this class is discussion and workshop oriented, your presence, careful preparation, and active participation are crucial to your success. Students should come to class prepared ready to contribute to class discussion, listen attentively and critically to others’ comments and questions, respond collegially to others’ views, and generally conduct themselves in a professional manner. I expect you to take your work very seriously, preparing for each class by carefully reading each assignment, reflecting upon that reading, and thinking about the implications of the reading.  Readings and other assignments posted in the daily syllabus should be completed in advance of each class. NOTE: Please turn off all cell phones and pagers before entering class. Please click here for classroom etiquette and protocols: Rules for Classroom (N)etiquette.

Attendance Requirements: Improving your understanding of literature—as well as your critical thinking and analytical writing skills—requires commitment and concentrated effort. Therefore, careful preparation and active participation are crucial to your success in this course. I expect you to be present and on time for all class meetings. If you are going to be absent from class, you should let me know in advance. My policy regarding turning in work late is listed below. Failure to follow these guidelines will result in a zero or grade reduction for work not submitted on time. Please note that if you are absent you will not be able to make up missed in-class assignments, and you will not receive credit for these assignments under any circumstances. If you find it unavoidable to miss class, be aware of the following guidelines:


1) Four (4) absences are allowed during the semester.  Additional absences will result in an automatic administrative withdrawal, regardless of the nature of the absence. Be aware that no distinction exists between excused and unexcused absences, so you should use your allotted absences wisely.  In addition, students should be aware that if the withdrawal date falls before Friday October 14th, the student will receive a ‘W.’ If the withdrawal date falls after October 14th, the student will receive a ‘WF’;


2) Class roll will be taken at the beginning of every class. If you arrive late, it is your responsibility to let me know immediately after class or you will be counted absent. It is your responsibility to keep up with your absences and tardies;


3) Entering class late and leaving class before it is over will count as an unexcused absence, unless you have a documented medical excuse for doing so. Reasons related to outside employment or work in other classes are not legitimate excuses for leaving class early or arriving late.

Critical Essays/Evaluation: Each essay will focus on a thesis-based analysis of a literary work covered in this course.  I will post specific guidelines for each essay on the course website prior to the due date. All essays must be typed. Essays will be assessed on the basis of an argumentative thesis, organizational structure, interpretive content, use of supporting evidence from the literary work, grammar, MLA paper format, and writing style. Faculty who teach major-level English courses evaluate all written work in accordance with specific guidelines that we have developed and agreed upon as a department: Click here.


NOTE: Please make a xerox copy of all written work you turn in to me, in case it is misplaced or lost. Save your work on a flashdrive! I will not give you credit for work you claim to turn in but that I do not have in my possession.


Final Research Essay (25%): The final research paper (a minimum of 8 pages of research-based literary analysis with a strong, argumentative thesis) will represent the culmination of your study in this course. Along with the final research paper, you will be expected to submit a proposal and an annotated bibliography. I will provide you with more specific details about these requirements in the weeks ahead. The final draft of the research paper is due on the date listed in the syllabus.  Papers turned in late will be marked down one letter grade for each day they are late. I will be glad to meet with you outside of class to discuss specific research topics. The project is a formal academic assignment and will be assessed on the basis of structure, content, grammar, writing style, proper paper format, and documentation of sources.


Late Essay Policy: All late essays will be penalized one letter grade per day late and are no longer accepted for a grade past one week of the deadline. Essays are late when they are not submitted to me at the beginning of class. I do not accept assignments sent to me via email unless approved by me in advance.


Conferences / Essay Consultations: I will be available to meet with you prior to the essay deadlines to discuss paper topics, possible ideas for a thesis, and other questions you may have about the writing process. While I will not proof-read drafts of your essays, I will answer specific questions that you might have about drafts of any of your essays, if you arrange to meet with me in advance. Please note that I will not be able to offer any substantial assistance if you wait until the last minute to write your draft/essay or request to meet with me the day the essay is due. Advance planning on your part is essential. My office hours are listed above, but I will be glad to meet with you at other times, if we arrange a mutually convenient time in advance.


Special Needs: If you have a registered disability that requires accommodation, see me at the beginning of the semester. If you have a disability that is not registered through the Disabled Student Services Office, contact Dr. Ann Phillips in 137 Parker Hall at 678)839-6428.


Plagiarism & Academic Dishonesty: Plagiarism and Academic Honesty: All work you turn in for this class (from quizzes, writing prompts, to out-of-class essays) must be your own original work, with all outside reference sources properly cited and acknowledged. The English Department, in adherence with the University’s code for academic honesty, defines plagiarism as “using the words and/or ideas of another without properly giving credit to the source(s)” (http://www.westga.edu/~engdept/Plagiarism/pladef.html) and offers the following descriptive list: submission of material that is wholly or substantially identical to that created or published by another person or persons, without adequate credit notations indicating authorship; “false” attempts at paraphrasing and/or documentation (as in making up sources); substitution for, or unauthorized collaboration with, another individual (excessive collaboration is considered plagiarism). It should be noted that unintentional plagiarism is plagiarism nonetheless.   


This is a no-tolerance policy, not open to negotiation. If caught and substantiated, plagiarism results in an F for the course and will be reported to the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs for possible probation or suspension from the University. Click here for the University’s policies for handling Plagiarism and Academic Dishonesty: http://www.westga.edu/~vpaa/handrev/ and http://www.westga.edu/handbook/. See also Preventing Plagiarism link in my website’s “A Writer’s Archive.”