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10-15 Minute Daily Warm-up: Examining Cultural Objects/Subjects

To get students primed for fruitful discussions about readings and questions regarding writing practice I designed this warm-up activity for the first 10-15 minutes of a 60-90 minute class session. It is designed for the first to second year college student but can be modified for graduate level study. I find this to be good practice for writing papers of all kinds and practicing critical reading skills in a low stakes atmosphere. Reading culture is a key competency students learn in their introductory humanities courses, so this activity is grounded in that idea.


Literary/critical theories are the body of ideas and methods we use in the practical reading of literature. By literary theory we refer not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean. Literary theory is a description of the underlying principles, one might say the tools, by which we attempt to understand literature. All literary interpretation draws on a basis in theory but can serve as a justification for very different kinds of critical activity. It is literary theory that formulates the relationship between author and work; literary theory develops the significance of social positions for literary study, both from the standpoint of the biography of the author and an analysis of their thematic presence within texts.

Literary theory offers varying approaches for understanding the role of historical context in interpretation as well as the relevance of linguistic and unconscious elements of the text. Literary theorists trace the history and evolution of the different genres—narrative, dramatic, lyric—in addition to the more recent emergence of the novel and the short story, while also investigating the importance of formal elements of literary structure. Lastly, literary theory in recent years has sought to explain the degree to which the text is more the product of a culture than an individual author and in turn how those texts help to create the culture. [Adapted from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

This daily activity will prepare students to:

Define critical and literary theories including: New Criticism, Formalism/Structuralism, Class-conflict, Critical Race, Gender, Poststructuralism/Deconstruction, New Historicism, Postcolonial, hybrids/others as they arise.

Deploy critical and literary theories towards expressions found in culture (music, visual art, literature).

Think critically about forms of culture while engaging with multiple forms of communication (visual literacy, written, spoken)

Clearly express critiques which are rooted in careful planning, research, and existing academic discourse.

Experience discussions in a professional context to learn what is expected in careers.

Supplementary Worksheet Content

Below is the supplement students receive on the first day of class followed by a tutorial and discussion spanning two course sessions.

List of Literary Theories to utilize for course discussions

Formalism/New Criticism: These theories are in the same family and rely on a “close reading” of art forms without reverence for the cultural context they were created in. When utilizing these theories you will be examining the formal elements of a text--think “art for art’s sake” and literary elements. These theories assume all the answers to the meaning of a text are contained within the text itself not outside of it.

Cultural Materialism: People are the result of their social environment and class position which influences all the choices they make, especially the choices for a text. This theory is commonly applied in regards to important civic issues and civil rights causes and is the lens of class consciousness.

Structuralism: A partner to “systems theory,” structuralism is a wide reaching sociological lens which assumes texts are part of overarching social “rules.” The text shows an insight into culture and we can pinpoint what that is by following its social cues, rhetoric, and symbols.

Psychoanalysis: This field of study was popularized by Sigmund Freud and its discourse contains many assumptions about human psychology with corresponding terms and definitions. Psychoanalysis deals with archetypes, unconscious fears and desires, and human psychological development.

Gender: Theories of gender (and race, as you will see) explore the vein of embodiment, or, how differences of the bodies we inhabit influence the ways we navigate the world, how we are gazed at by others, and how we contend with forces/institutions which have calcified bodily difference. Gender theory’s namesake (versus feminist theory) regards the investigation of all genders as essential to the project of gender equality.

Critical Race: Another theory dealing with embodiment, critical race theory highlights the unique experiences people of color face in institutions and society. Postcolonial theory is closely related to this field as we deal with colonization of bodies whether through psychological means or literal sequestration (i.e. incarceration) and an essential piece of critical race theory is politics of respectability.

Post Structuralism/Deconstruction: Breaking down structures and forms which are found in formal discourses to reveal something hidden, new, or taken for granted is a theme of deconstruction.

Reader Response: This theory deals with audience and the idea that the person reading a work will view it from their own subject position. (“The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction” by Walter J. Ong)

Ecocriticism: Nature writing, ecological disasters/apocalypse stories, and to an extent magical realism are part of this theoretical lens. There is usually an activist element to these works and emphasis on connections with other theories--specifically critical race and feminist theory (ecofeminism, indigenous rhetorics).

Postcolonialism: This scholarship underscores imperialist conquest and the colonization of vulnerable populations through global conflict. Postcolonial theory is also where we attempt to locate the experiences of “the other” and unearths the ways they are often first exploited or cast out and events happen in reaction to these practices.

Queer Theory: “Difference” is a key word here as queer theories are about examining the idea of “norms” in epistemology. Not just a discussion of people who are homosexual, queer theory is also an uncovering of other divergences from social mores. From queer theory we come upon the theories of disability and intersectional theories which seek to understand individual idiosyncrasies.

Instructive Passage for Students

When you arrive to class, pull out a piece of paper. I will introduce (or reintroduce if it is posted on BlackBoard [or similar learning platform]) the cultural object we will discuss for our warm-up. Write down your initial impressions (think “brainstorming” or “prewriting”--does not need to be whole paragraphs).

After you have taken down some impressions based on both reader response and critical theory lenses we will regroup as a class and write our collective thoughts on the board.

Questions to consider: What literary/critical theory can you use as your “lens” to view this work we will discuss? What evidence do you have to make your claim? How does this work use rhetorical devices to engage the audience (to what ends)? How will you approach your interpretation eloquently so your classmates can follow you and engage with your ideas?

Samples from Real Classes

Cultural Object:

Bjork "Human Behavior" [music video,1993]

Sample student response [two sections of English composition]:

Cultural Object:

Frida Kahlo "The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth, Myself, Diego and Senor Xolotl" [painting,1949]

Sample student response:

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