Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Things You Should All Read: Preamble

Since I started at Bristol in 2005, I've always taught a unit to first-year undergraduates called 'Critical Issues', which is one of those hair-tearing-out 'Theory In Ten Weeks' courses, which goes, like, Week 1: Feminism. Week 2: Psychoanalysis. Week 3: Postcolonialism. It's a challenging course to teach for me, because I'm one of those people to whom theory speaks with a kind of hair-raising immediacy: I remember sitting in the Bodleian Library when I was doing my undergraduate degree, reading an essay on writing in Euripides' Hippolytus which drew on the work of Derrida - the first time I'd ever come across him - and just staring at it, going But this is my life! This is my LIFE! And then I went to Leeds to do an MA in Cultural Studies and stayed on for a PhD, to work with Barbara Engh, so not only do I have an immediate I-need-this, this-will-save-me click with theory, but I have spent the last ten years working on and with and in it, so that the ideas of Derrida and Barthes and Benjamin and Adorno and Butler are just absolutely intuitively given for me now.

Meanwhile, my students have never been exposed to any of this stuff really or rigorously: some of them are repelled by it as intuitively and strongly as I was attracted, though most of them aren't - but all of them are, like, what? Things that are (now) part of my basic orientation towards the world are absolutely new and strange and profoundly challenging and difficult to assimilate for almost all of them. (And they were for me, once, of course, but I somehow knew how much I was going to get from them, so the challenge and the difficulty were exciting, not threatening.) So there's an interesting gap between me and them, which I guess is the gap where pedagogy happens, but it's been an interesting time figuring out how to measure and use that space-between.

All of which is actually tangential to my point, which is that, for some of those reasons, the unit can be quite an intense experience: it involves a kind of learning which (I hope) connects up with bits of experience and headspace and thought and affect that other units don't reach. And I think it's for that reason that I was very happy and tickled when one of my students last year asked me for recommendations of more books to read: I felt like I was being asked for a particular kind of book, books with that kind of edge to them, books that connected to and articulated those inchoate, itchy experiences and insights that mainstream culture, the most readily available formulae for reading and thinking, doesn't give you the resources to think about, to formulate, to work with and on.

So anyway, since then I've been vaguely thinking, in the back of my mind, about the books and stories that I would like to recommend. And since I've had at least one email from a student about this blog, I thought I might as well stick the list up here for future reference, in case anyone else ever asks me for it. I'll put it in a separate post from this preamble, and link it from the sidebar.