Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Foundation Module: Critical Theory - Essay Tips

There are a number of ways to conceive of the Critical Theory essay. The simplest is to choose one of the set authors or topics and write on that with suggestions from the relevant tutor.


Slightly more ambitious is to compare and contrast theorists especially if there is a debate between them or one has criticised the other and there is an implicit or explicit dialogue between them. There may be topics where literary or other texts and readings of them have been deliberately built into the syllabus, e.g. readings by Baudelaire and Benjamin of Poe’s ‘The Man in the Crowd’ or Freud’s analyses of dreams and symptoms. Here you might give an account of the readings of these texts and how they are motivated by the theoretical premises and feed their own contributions to or disagreements with those readings into the discussion of the relevant theoretical frameworks. More ambitiously, and perhaps only to be attempted by the more theoretically confident students, is to select a literary or cultural text and generate a reading within a given theoretical framework or in relation to certain theoretical issues.


In both the last two options it must be stressed that this is a critical theory essay, not just an essay on a literary text, and the readings of the latter are there only to forward the discussion of the theoretical issues being addressed and should be organised to confirm, complicate or query the terms of the relevant theoretical issues and frameworks. We don’t want an essay that is mainly just a reading of poem x or novel y (you have other modules in which to do that).


The bottom line here is that students should be able to analyse the work of one of the theorists studied, to be able to explain their key terms, how they operate and the problems they are addressing. The more ambitious will want to play different theories off against each other and consider the limitations, blindspots or weak points of the theoretical frameworks being addressed. The starting point should be the texts read and discussed in the seminars, while the more confident will move a bit beyond them. However, the essay is only 6,000 words and that doesn’t leave much scope for too much ranging around. The essays should be focussed on particular theoretical essays and chapters and the structure of the argument as laid out there. You should think of yourself as giving an account of or arguing with particular theoretical texts and the arguments and terms deployed in them. Sweeping generalisations about Marxism or Psychoanalysis or Deconstruction should be avoided in favour of textually focussed argument.


Most importantly all students must have a discussion with the tutor responsible for each module and agree a topic and especially a title in advance so that we have a list of agreed titles (even if these may evolve in the writing process). This is an opportunity to get some guidance as to reading as well as to the formulation of the topic and title, and it should have happened by the end of the term in which the module is taken.