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Critical theory, masturbation & anal sex: Investigating an English Lit second year's reading list


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Imagine the scene; you are a second year enrolled at the University of Sheffield studying English Literature. You are presented with a list of lectures for a module entitled 'Critical and Literary Theory', expecting and witnessing a wide array of lecture titles ranging from Marxism to Sociolinguistics. As you read through this list you notice two very perculiar titles that seemed to allude to something very different to what you would expect. This is exactly what happened to me.

As I flicked through the list of critical heavyweights, my attention was immediately drawn to two very interesting lecture titles. The first was entitled 'Theories of (Anal) Sex', and the second entitled 'The Art of Masturbation', both nestled alongside the likes of Sigmund Freud and Roland Barthes.

Immediately a funny, almost incongrous moment arises, when I realise that I will have to listen to a lecture that explains theories of sex and anal sex, as well as journeying on a voyage of self-discovery about 'the art of masturbation', apparently something that as a teenage boy I have not already perfected. There is a feeling of both apprehension and excitement in my gut as my mind wanders about just what these lectures could be about.

Conjuring up all sorts of ideas of witnessing diagrams and demonstrations, my mind wanders back to a level, resonating with the words of my English teacher. "Literature is about sex and death... And not necessarily in that order". It seems that her basic summation of literature has blossomed into these two lectures, focalised upon sex within literature. Maybe these lectures are going to be more serious and analytically useful than I first gave them credit for. 

What develops this more is the reading for 'The Art of Masturbation' includes a piece entitled 'Jane Austen & The Masturbating Girl'. The lecture title now has more scope and meaning to it, as it becomes grounded wholly within the field of literature and is no longer merely a description of what masturbation is or can do.

'Theories of (Anal) Sex' includes reading around AIDs and HIV, with one suggested article asking 'Is the Rectum a Grave?' Here, the seemingly comedic lecture title becomes something contemporary and serious, focusing upon the very real issue of HIV/AIDs and looking towards a cultural analysis through the lens of a very serious medical condition. All of a sudden, two bizarre lecture titles have manifested into serious pieces of study that should be taken very seriously. 

It seems, then, that my lecturers are teaching a very fundamental lesson about English Literature in their lecture titles; do not judge a book by its cover. What we percieve as something incongruous and slightly comedic has become serious and studious, and a lesson has been embedded in the very organisational handouts we recieve at the start of the semester.

Kudos to you, the University of Sheffield English department, I salute you.

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