Some months ago (in a sabbatical far, far away) I wrote here about the question of whether grad students in rhetoric need a "methods" section in their dissertations. The full argument is here, along with alternative but convincing points of view in the comments. Fast-forward to this semester, and I'm now teaching a grad seminar called Advanced Critical and Historical Methods. There's that word again...
We had our first class meeting yesterday. While doing all the introductiony, what-this-course-is-about stuff I heard myself say, "This is a methods course where I don't want to talk about methods." I hope the students saw that I was being a bit hyperbolic, but I also meant what I said. I'm trying something of an experiment this semester and focusing more on strategies for working with different kinds of critical objects: single texts or artifacts; groups of texts or artifacts; controversies; etc. After some initial readings in the history of debates about criticism and some preliminary work on description, contextual analysis, and historical research (including some concrete talk about archives), this focus on critical objects will constitute the meat of the semester. I think the focus on critical objects will be really useful for students, particularly in helping them identify good models for their own projects. Privileging critical objects may come with particular drawbacks, though. I admit that right now I don't have a sense of what those might be (I have thoroughly persuaded myself regarding the merits of this approach), but I'm sure I'll uncover them as we move through semester.
I have other colleagues who are thinking about similar approaches; Jim Jasinski's thoughts, both in print and in our many conversations about teaching criticism, have been particularly helpful as I sorted out my plans for this syllabus. I'd love to hear more about what others are doing on the criticism front.
In the meantime, stay tuned for occasional updates on how things are going. And any students who may be reading this? Don't worry. I won't name names here. What happens in seminar stays in seminar.