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Should I teach English?
July 25, 2006 4:58 PM   Subscribe

Lit majors - English prof. drops knowledge
posted by vronsky (88 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

What? No mention of english majors selling the best weed?
posted by mischief at 5:06 PM on July 25, 2006

I enjoyed this article. As a lit major in college, I got into English because I loved reading! However, the diff. schools of criticisim and "politicking" of English kept me from going to grad school. I didn't want to end up writing papers about Austen's suppresed Marxism, etc...

There are upper graduate schools where you can study lit/philosophy without the burden of criticism. I ended up going here to continue my studies. Now I'm going to teach 5th grade.

The issues he talks about were very real and I found it to be a damn shame, although I'm sure many posters here may not. It's all becoming social studies now, or cultural studies. A damn shame.
posted by rex dart, eskimo spy at 5:10 PM on July 25, 2006

Graduate school is more than " immersion in a highly politicized and anti-literary academic culture." It's a hideous nightmare of faculty and students obssessed with retarded postmodern theory that cribs - liberally, even - from the harder sciences, taking all of the jargon and none of the accuracy.

I had a few outstanding professors as an undergraduate, and more than a few barely-qualified dolts who thought that Kristeva was Christ returned and Deleuze and Guattari her prophets. If there's anything wrong with modern liberal education, it is them.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:17 PM on July 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

Hard not to see yourself in some if not all of these -

"They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:

Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.

Feelings of alienation from one's peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.

A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.

A "geeky" attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.

Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one's special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.

A transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired "transcendence."

A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.

A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.

A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.

A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.

A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.

An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.

A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists."
posted by vronsky at 5:23 PM on July 25, 2006

Interesting piece. I'd love to know who this guy is.

As someone who dropped out of a lit PhD program, I think it's pretty accurate. At the height of my frustration with trying to get the degree, I even came to resent my undergrad professors who'd managed to instill a love of literature and ideas, and an ability to read, think, and write critically, but hadn't really prepared me the swimming-with-sharks that is getting a doctorate in the humanities.

Of course, he doesn't mention the job problem directly--becoming a tenured prof is truly a crap shoot. I'm not feeling smart enough right now to say definitively whether it's the chicken of over-professionalization or the egg of an anemic job market (being an English professor is not a growth industry--job openings occur, literally, when another English professor dies. Actually, that's kind of a best case scenario--many Universities are cutting back their English programs because they don't bring in the research money that the hard sciences do.), but displaying a naive love or like of literature for its own sake is pretty much a sign of weakness to other grad. students, and a silly little affect from the standpoint of professors. Getting an MA, you learn to swallow that kind of attitude real quick if you want to survive.

Honestly, I just wish the tenure system was more fair. Some really brilliant, great teachers "make it," and I got to study with a decent number of them. But then you get complete cynics who wrote the right dissertation quoting the right people using the flavor-of-the-day theory and, quite importantly, had the right people backing them on their dissertation committee, who get to the top of the totem pole.

But yeah, I taught high school English for a while, and that was really fulfilling as well. Maybe not as sexy as the full-on tweed and brandy snifter experience of college and uni teaching, but more important in many ways.
posted by bardic at 5:27 PM on July 25, 2006

Damn! I meant suppressed! How come you Lit/English majors didn't correct me. I'm so ashamed. I'll go write a paper on the ethnocentrism of Emily Dickinson as my punishment...
posted by rex dart, eskimo spy at 5:27 PM on July 25, 2006

Well, let's not throw the baby out. Critical theory has made literary study rather more than the old format of sitting around agreeing that such and such a novel/poem is great. Not much to say in those classes.

And if it makes people question the authority of all the other "texts" they meet in life, all the better.
posted by A189Nut at 5:28 PM on July 25, 2006

I still remember what a depressing revelation it was when I discovered that English at the graduate level wasn't about literature at all, but about critical theory instead -- and usually applied to wholly non-literary topics. Sure, call them naive, but many undergrads also harbor an unabashed love of the text and for figuring out what makes them work (or not work). I envy them: I don't think it'll be possible to undo the damage that critical theory has done to my enjoyment of literature. Ever.
posted by DaShiv at 5:31 PM on July 25, 2006

But literature isn't just about enjoyment. That's a rather strange rationale for study.
posted by A189Nut at 5:32 PM on July 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

*prepared me for the swimming-with-sharks

And I have to say that for all of the misery (financial and spiritual) of humanities grad. school in the states, I attended some great parties. Threw a few as well. Laughed at friends who committed the supreme faux pas of dating an undergrad. And picked up some professional skills by accident (teaching, a wide variety of part-time jobs to make ends meet, including some journalism and editing and book and music reviewing).

Hmm. Guess I should have been at the library more often.
posted by bardic at 5:34 PM on July 25, 2006

The problem is that English/Lit has become the study of Critical Theory rather than English/Lit. At the worst, it is cultural studies. It's better to read a book, develop your understanding and then go to the critics.

Now, you just read a book about a book. Or a book responding to another critic's book about said book. This went on endlessly. Or it seems to, anyways. I thought this type of critical theory was cool when I initially encountered it.

It does have value, too. But keep your peanut butter separate from my chocolate, please. I wasn't asking for media studies, cultural studies, or social studies.
posted by rex dart, eskimo spy at 5:34 PM on July 25, 2006

Damn, Optimus Chyme! I think you've nailed my own feelings pretty well. Creepy, in fact.
posted by malaprohibita at 5:35 PM on July 25, 2006

Well, I think it might have been too theory-oriented a few years back, but that's not so much the case today - at least not in the UK. My experience of the US is intermittent. And it has contributed to the depth of study - thankfully it isn't possible any longer to read books as just books.

I note that THB isn't brave enough to abandon his nom de plume even though he - or she - now has tenure. That's most interesting.
posted by A189Nut at 5:37 PM on July 25, 2006

"anti-literary academic culture"

This phrase really caught my attention. It makes me think of some of the things (I, of course, cannot remember where) that Harold Bloom wrote about his time at Yale.

When I read about shrinking Classics dept/ or Humanities in general, it makes me sad. I think a lot of it may be due to what this article points at.
posted by rex dart, eskimo spy at 5:43 PM on July 25, 2006

People always talk about English and the humanities, but I wonder if this isn't a problem specific to English. I loved being in my PhD history program, it was hard work but also a glorious intellectual adventure.
posted by LarryC at 5:43 PM on July 25, 2006

As long as we're splitting hairs, my grad. student experience (within the last five years) wasn't so much "read this Foucault and supress your inner Mr. Keating right now!" as something even more complex. The people who seemed to be getting jobs were just doing the (IMO) most esoteric types of research into cultural practices that would have been better suited (IMO) to a history or sociology or anthropology department. English was very much a "catch all" type of department, and nobody knew what our purpose was, beyond having to teach the mandatory freshman college writing course (and there was even some debate over that, if you can believe it. Actually, if you've been to grad. school, you probably can. Being impoverished and taken for granted so often, grad. students enjoy bitching about everything since it's free and it makes them feel like they have a purpose).

I very much enjoyed the theory courses I took as an undergraduate and a graduate student. What I saw being rewarded as "good" English work wasn't so much the uber-theory stuff (although I'm pretty sure it was during the 1980's and 1990's) as it was a competition to find stuff no one had ever looked at (or wanted to look at) and going into painful detail exhuming it (especially if it had been written by a woman or a member of a minority). You had to have you theory chops, of course, but only to fully flesh out your monument to something no one cared about then, and probably shouldn't care about now.
posted by bardic at 5:44 PM on July 25, 2006

I knew I was in trouble when I was reading some criticism on Borges and ran into the word phallacy. That ended my love affair with criticism.
posted by rex dart, eskimo spy at 5:46 PM on July 25, 2006

I was just about to quote this, as well. Check on all counts.
posted by jokeefe at 5:47 PM on July 25, 2006

I love Prof. Benton because he let us have class outside.
posted by staggernation at 5:47 PM on July 25, 2006

to fully flesh out your monument to something no one cared about then, and probably shouldn't care about now.

Isn't that a fine definition of genuine study?
posted by A189Nut at 5:47 PM on July 25, 2006

I tllaught lit for 25 years. Had tenure. It was a living.
posted by Postroad at 5:52 PM on July 25, 2006

A189Nut...this is the problem:

doing the (IMO) most esoteric types of research into cultural practices that would have been better suited (IMO) to a history or sociology or anthropology department

That's bardic, of course, but much better than I would have put it, I think.
posted by rex dart, eskimo spy at 5:55 PM on July 25, 2006

But what is your alternative? Sitting in a circle agreeing that Persuasion is wonderful you can do already.
posted by A189Nut at 5:57 PM on July 25, 2006

I was a critical theory nut for a while, before it was fashionable. I remember talking about deconstruction to my prof, who was a died-in-the-wool structuralist. He'd just been sent a book to review titled 'Does Deconstruction Make Any Difference?'.

"Not to me!", he said, and tossed it over his shoulder like a used Kleenex.

After about three years of it I realized the best criticism of a book was to write a different one, and at that point I stopped being interested in critical theory except insofar as it made me a better writer.

Which it did.
posted by unSane at 5:58 PM on July 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

But what is your alternative? Sitting in a circle agreeing that Persuasion is wonderful you can do already.

This is a really good point. I was a theory nut precisely because I couldn't see what the point of Eng Lit was otherwise.

Personally I think the alternative is to teach Eng. Lit. as a branch of rhetoric, concentrating on how a work (of any literary form) achieves its effects (which may or may not be the effect its author intended) and with the intent of producing people who are skilled in the dissection and use of said rhetoric.
posted by unSane at 6:02 PM on July 25, 2006

to fully flesh out your monument to something no one cared about then, and probably shouldn't care about now.

Isn't that a fine definition of genuine study?

I don't think so. It can be. But it's kind of tough to get someone to pay you to do it for a living. I actually have a lot of sympathy of the "opening of the canon," so to speak, and not a lot of love for hardcore traditionalists like Harold Bloom. Come to think of it, my own tastes in literature run to the obscure (hell, I was working on poetry for God's sake!), but what I saw people working on (and of course this is anecdotal, YMMV) wouldn't really count as literature, on most accounts--films, television shows, magazines, newspapers, etc.

Believe me, I'm more than open to the idea that the high/low cultural divide is often bunkish, and intended to maintain the status quo of dead-white-male hegemony (like I said, I enjoyed my theory courses), but it got to a point in grad. school where I simply couldn't relate to many of my colleagues, not to mention many professors, because from my (admittedly somewhat reactionary) position, I went home or to the library to read books and books about books. Many of them were "reading" movies and magazines and explcitly non-literary cultural phenomena.
posted by bardic at 6:03 PM on July 25, 2006

But English can't be purely a vocational subject - make me a better writer - nor simply an appreciation - let's all agree it is a great work... ok, what's for lunch?

What's so problematic about attaching social and political relevance to works of literature, and in doing so, accepting most of all that aesthetic judgements can't be our sole standard?
posted by A189Nut at 6:05 PM on July 25, 2006

it's kind of tough to get someone to pay you to do it for a living.

Yes, but that's the point isn't it? If education is to be prized that's exactly the point.

Sorry to hog the thread.
posted by A189Nut at 6:07 PM on July 25, 2006

It's not like you're frozen out of the study of literature because you don't have a PhD and a tenure-track position. If there's any study you can pursue on your own, for love, literature is it. It's not like particle-acceleration physics, is it? Where you dam' well better have a faculty position that includes access to a particle accelerator, if you're going to do it at all.
posted by jfuller at 6:11 PM on July 25, 2006

But English can't be purely a vocational subject - make me a better writer - nor simply an appreciation - let's all agree it is a great work... ok, what's for lunch?

What's so problematic about attaching social and political relevance to works of literature, and in doing so, accepting most of all that aesthetic judgements can't be our sole standard?

What is the value of doing this?

The only questions Eng Lit needs to answer IMO are:

1. Is it any good?
2. How is it done?

ALL the other questions are perfectly valid but not Eng Lit -- they are sociology or history or linguistics or eschatology or...
posted by unSane at 6:12 PM on July 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

I knew an English grad student, who, sick of the politicking and theorizing in his department, bolted for the greener fields of Classical Studies. The job prospects were by no means better in his new department; but at least, he said, he actually enjoyed his work. You can still talk about Homer without having to invoke the ghost of Foucalt.
posted by Iridic at 6:20 PM on July 25, 2006

If there's any study you can pursue on your own, for love, literature is it.

Hear, hear!

And yet I am reminded I need to read even more, write more, and take writing more seriously. If only for the love of it.
posted by loquacious at 6:20 PM on July 25, 2006

I know a lot of English graduates. None of them read anymore. They all watch Bravo and the Food Network.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 6:21 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sure, education is to be prized, but the people who run universities aren't stupid. Literally, they can't afford to be.

The whole justification of having academics, English or otherwise, is that they have a relative amount of stability (an office, a paycheck) and access to resources (libraries, equipment, and other things that cost a lot of money) in order to do their oh-so-important work. If you take the "literature" component out of English departments (for example, it's my understanding that Cultural Studies is kind of its own thing in England, but it's very much competing with resources with and within English departments in the states), why should a uni Regent or President really give a damn about paying these people any longer? If the history of the canon is so much dead-white-male bullshit, and these people really want to watch anime and analyze Britney Spears videos, they really can't claim that they need university resrouces any longer.

Thing is, I'd argue that a lot of American universities did call their bluff about ten years ago, and if you ask people in the know, there's a reason why English departments often aren't taken very seriously any longer. Their purpose, methods, and hiring standards (someone who can quote any Shakespeare play? Someone who might be the next Judith Butler? Someone who's technically competent enough to help the library digitize parts of their collection?) are so hopelessly muddled that I'm sure many uni administrators would be happy to drop them all together and replace them with five or six writing instructors they could pay 30K/year. Hell, not even that--get some grad. students from the history or econ. department to do it (which is exactly what was happening when I left grad. school. Administrators were looking for ways to save money, and English professors were literally publishing papers as to how elitist and unnecessary the whole notion of "English" and "literature" were. I can laugh at it now, but at the time I was incredibly angry that the people in power (tenured profs) were so cavalier about kicking the chair out from underneath my own professional hopes. Dare I say it? It was rather Kafkaesque.).
posted by bardic at 6:23 PM on July 25, 2006

What? No mention of english majors selling the best weed?

Stop looking at me, dude. I don't even know you.

Come back in half an hour. Bring papers.

I switched away from an undergrad English major when I saw that the grad students seemed never to read anything but books about books. I'd rather just read books.

Of course, my valuable liberal arts education (which remains unfinished, thanks for asking) has taught me little more than how to be sparkling at cocktail parties and to rule at Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit. I like to think I'm a fuller, more well-rounded person, but on the other hand, if I'd been an engineer I might actually have built something that would make people's lives better, and then had the money to buy more books.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:26 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I really don't know what to say. Did everyone who is complaining forget to find out what graduate level Lit courses are like? I attended four during my undergrad studies and got a pretty good feel.

Even failing that I find it hard to understand what you'd think you'd be doing at a Phd level other than reading 'books about books.' They don't do re-enactments in the History department and they don't go native in the Antropology department, do they?

If you decided to study something at that level without looking into to what it was all about first then I'd have to say that it is your fault. And if you landed a class with someone who loved Deleuze (which sounds delightful to me) without talking to the prof ahead of time and doing some research into what your graduate program was about and what the prof you scheduled to take a class was all about then what do you expect? You don't shop for groceries with a blindfold on, do you?
posted by n9 at 6:26 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

jfuller writes: It's not like you're frozen out of the study of literature because you don't have a PhD and a tenure-track position. If there's any study you can pursue on your own, for love, literature is it.

Entirely true. I'd even argue that doing literature for a living can sort of corrupt any "pure" enjoyment of it. Then again, it's nice to be paid for doing what you like. Or as Robert Frost wrote:

"My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight."
posted by bardic at 6:27 PM on July 25, 2006

An appropiate Onion article.
posted by Iridic at 6:29 PM on July 25, 2006

A189Nut: "What's so problematic about attaching social and political relevance to works of literature, and in doing so, accepting most of all that aesthetic judgements can't be our sole standard?"

If that's all critical theory was, then it would be fine. And if all people did before critical theory was sit around and agree that Persuasion is great, then critical theory would have been a great saviour. But it's more complex than that. Was there really a lack of rigor before critical theory came into popularity? It might have been, in certain quarters, but it's just as easy to be unrigorous and be 'critical.' That's the criticism, right? Attaching relevance only works when the connection is real and established. The cynical disgust which so many pour on postmodern readings of literature is often justified precisely because those reading bring ridiculous and tangential words of ambiguous meaning into it. It's not that, for example, Jane Austen is totally unrelated to 'post-industrial feminism;' it's that, first of all, it's very difficult to discuss Austen in those terms, and requires a hell of a lot more work than critical theorists seem willing to put into it; and that, second of all, the words that critical theorists use are generally pretentious anyhow.

In short: we shouldn't be sitting around saying, "gee, this book is neat." Neither should we be sitting around making up words to make ourselves seem erudite. We should be discussing things carefully, rigorously, unpretentiously, and honestly.
posted by koeselitz at 6:30 PM on July 25, 2006

Reading great writers under the instruction of someone who really knows what they are talking about (almost certainly having read books about books) is truly one of the greatest things that I've ever done. A literature class that is taught well is so rich with things you really need to know but might never realize... and beauty, and ways of thinking and seeing that are so different and wonderful....

My handful of great classes were all lit classes and I learned more in them than I learned from every other class I've taken all put together.
posted by n9 at 6:32 PM on July 25, 2006

The funniest thing about that Onion article is that anyone who's ever taken deconstruction seriously does exactly that with fast food menus every time they eat in one of those places, before they even know what's happened.

Well, that is, to say, I do.
posted by unSane at 6:33 PM on July 25, 2006

I find it hard to understand what you'd think you'd be doing at a Phd level other than reading 'books about books.'

Writing them.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:37 PM on July 25, 2006

Another data point: one of the reasons I originally became interested in crit. theory. was because I came from a math background (transferred after a year of undergrad math) and I had very little knowledge of the canon. Discussing critical theory allowed me to riff on lit without actually reading too much. I eventually realized what a waste this was and mended my ways, but it was scary how little else you had to read if you could quote Kristeva and William Jameson.

I attended exactly one lecture in my entire three year undergrad course and came out one alpha short of a first. I think that tells you something (about the Oxford Lit. environment in the late 80s, not me).
posted by unSane at 6:37 PM on July 25, 2006

Writing them.
posted by BitterOldPunk

Bdoink. Thank you.
posted by unSane at 6:38 PM on July 25, 2006

posted by bardic at 6:41 PM on July 25, 2006

Sorry. Frederic Jameson. Shows you how much I remember.
posted by unSane at 6:44 PM on July 25, 2006

Do you think anyone writes for the Onion who is not a literature PhD?
posted by staggernation at 7:03 PM on July 25, 2006

Sadly, Mr. Keating's efforts at liberating his students result in the suicide of a boy whose father insists that he abandon his love of acting to study medicine at Harvard.

Paging Red "Dumbass" Forman.
posted by ericb at 7:04 PM on July 25, 2006

Some of you may be familar with Andrew Delbanco's great essay on this very topic. He summarizes the sorry state of literary study and the place of English Departments and the ideal of liberal arts in the university-cum-marketplace. I recently finished my PhD in Renaissance Literature, having had the same experience Benton and Delbanco describe. I think LarryC might be right that there's something about English programs as opposed to other grad programs, and Delbanco hits the nail on the head. English departments have failed to come up with a rationale for their own legitimacy in a market economy; they've internalized criticism of literary study as insignifcant as compared to Science, for instance, and have circled the wagons and adopted this elitist, jargony, theory-based attitude -- thereby ensuring their own inconsequence, because nobody except seven other scholars in same field has any idea what the fuck they're talking about.

What English departments seem unable or unwilling to articulate is that the study of literarture is valuable because we ALL need to be better readers and thinkers, especially now. The study of literature provides you with valuable tools for life, no matter what you end up doing: teaches you how to read and gives you practice in how to think, rather than schooling you in what to think. History, philosophy, and other liberal arts disciplines will teach you the same. Will anyone pay you for it after graduation? Meh.
posted by butternut at 7:05 PM on July 25, 2006 [4 favorites]

See also this Onion article, while we're at it. We had this posted in the copy room of our grad student office.
posted by butternut at 7:09 PM on July 25, 2006

I got a PhD in literature because I love reading and history, and like critical theory. Why did I leave the field? As interesting as critical theory is, I don't have any faith in it. I'm not against any of it, I think it taught me something important. I just can't commit to any school of it. It feels like a what if game that gets old before it's played out.

That and I hated dissertators-- bitter, bitter people bent on suffering more than those around them. I handed in my diss before it was really done and walked out the door before I hated it all. And actually, I really would do it again.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:17 PM on July 25, 2006

Crappy FPP. Single-link post to an opinion-piece. Flagged!

kidding, just kidding. loved the post, love the discussion. good job.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 7:19 PM on July 25, 2006

You know, it's not like all this "English Lit." stuff was written without attention to questions of justice, gender, religion, aesthetics, or whatnot.

The line between literature and theory is hazy, but crossing back and forth between markedly literary texts and other kinds of writing can make both more illuminating, useful, and rewarding.

In the present moment, when political interpretation itself is broadly under attack, that point is much more important than the narrower question of whether some English Profs were overly parochial about Kristeva or Foucault in the early 90's.

(ok, yes, I just linked to my own comment. This is because I am a bad man.)
posted by washburn at 7:19 PM on July 25, 2006

Butternut, that Onion article made me laugh out loud. Thanks.
posted by LarryC at 7:21 PM on July 25, 2006

I dropped out of college (as an English major) in 1973 when I realized that I was being taught how to become an English professor. Not a job I wanted. If I had forseen the arcane twists lit cirit was about to take, I would have been even more disenheartened.

Unfortunately, my only skills and loves were in reading, writing and music. So that left out most other majors.

I ended up, after years in factories and bands, as a H.S English teacher - a job which I had strangely never considered - and love my work.

I would hate university life, though. I do keep up with what has happened to literary theory in the last few decades.
posted by kozad at 7:25 PM on July 25, 2006

Here is an interesting by-product of the treatment of Eng-Lit-as-Rhetoric, phenomenally useful. (Disclaimer, long ago former girlfriend is one of the authors).

I do agree that Eng Lit has hit a crisis in the marketplace of ideas precisely because (at advanced levels) it struggles to validate its own techniques in the wider context. When you look at the careers which undergrads tend to go on to (jounalism, authorship, PR, advertsing, teaching etc) then bringing back at least part of a (more sophisticated) vocational bent seems crucial.
posted by unSane at 7:37 PM on July 25, 2006

Here's a little secret about getting a P.H.D. in any discipline that they don't tell you about: it's hard fucking WORK. It's not a romp through the idyllic twilight days of adolescence, and it's not a rose-tinted, Joan-Collins-vaseline-on-the-lens "coming of age". It's not about finding yourself. It's not about growing up. You kind of need to have taken care of that shit already.
posted by slatternus at 7:42 PM on July 25, 2006

I have an MA in comparative literature--got into the field b/c of its implicit promise of emotional and even physical freedom, at least in my naive mind. The terrible irony of pursuing a degree in literature beyond college is that it limits your freedom in most cases, rather than expanding it. Most grad students, upon finishing their degrees, find themselves financially immature in comparison to their peers, limited as to what options are open to them, given their specialty, which is often seen as quaint (Oh, great; you can write our lame-ass newsletter), and worst of all, they are often emotionally immature after a decade of squinting and hand-wringing in their library carrels. The lit programs exist now simply b/c they have existed since the end of the 19th century, not b/c we need them, and they sustain themselves by selling a myth, a la The Dead Poets Society, churning out disenchanted, dessicated people with degrees who once were kids with a lot of verve and moxy. I do think there is a reason for programs in literature--to train people to become good readers of their own lives and of their world, but that is not the focus or mission of graduate programs; in fact, I don't know if most graduate programs could elucidate a convincing reason for their existence. The field has indeed become that lame. C'est dommage (see, I have a degree in comp lit!).
posted by Il Furioso at 7:46 PM on July 25, 2006

What English departments seem unable or unwilling to articulate is that the study of literarture is valuable because we ALL need to be better readers and thinkers, especially now.

What's an "English department"? Do you mean "English departments at doctoral-granting institutions," "English departments at four-year elite liberal arts colleges," or "English departments at comprehensive colleges"? I'm sure that I've harped on this string before, but a department's receptiveness to both theory and esoteric subject matter really does differ across the Carnegie classifications. Once you get outside the 100-odd schools that grant doctorates, not to mention the super-expensive liberal arts colleges, the course offerings (not to mention the assigned readings) start looking very...unlike. I've taught at #1 and now teach at #3, and let's just say that the differences are astronomical--the kinds of classes that will make enrollment, the kinds of books you can assign in those classes, the kinds of skills your students already possess...

Then again, none of my colleagues expect me to quote Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, or Foucault while I discuss Victorian anti-Catholic sermons written to commemorate the tercentenary of the Reformation, which is a major plus.

Benton, incidentally, isn't anonymous--he's this man. (I'm not outing him--he lists all of the Benton articles on his website.) And if you look at his publications, you'll see that he's not exactly an anti-theory crusader.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:46 PM on July 25, 2006

I'm finishing up an MA in Spanish and Latin American lit, and the word from the best professor in the program was that cultural studies is on the way down. Which is good, good news.

I find that criticism can be incredibly rewarding, if it's done right. It can provide structure to a discussion, and help figure out just what works, and why. Narratology has some good points, for example. And occasionally you come across a paper that completely changes the way you view a work, for the better. (This happened to me with Unamuno's Niebla today; I read an article and suddenly it was hilarious instead of being pseudometaphysical claptrap.) But I originally got into literature as a side to pure math, so I really like zany intellectual games. I'm going back to the math, though, primarily because it's too easy to abuse literary criticism. There are way to many people who just use vaguely scientific terms and string them into long complex sentences and call that criticism.

It's a shame, though, because I feel that literary analysis should draw on other fields, at least to some extent--after all, literature is about life, and we developed science and philosophy to help us understand life. So there should be a bit of overlap. That said, once I discovered that I could write stuff I hadn't even convinced myself of and get A's, I decided that I don't have the patience to get a lit ph.d.
posted by matematichica at 7:48 PM on July 25, 2006

Thanks to butternut for the link to the Delbanco essay. Great stuff. My only argument would be the glancing reference to the importance of teaching English to the next generation who will write English, which seems to me to be central.
posted by unSane at 7:55 PM on July 25, 2006

That said, once I discovered that I could write stuff I hadn't even convinced myself of and get A's, I decided that I don't have the patience to get a lit ph.d.
posted by matematichica at 7:48 PM PST on July 25 [+fave] [!]

What oft was thought
But ne'er so well expressed
posted by unSane at 7:59 PM on July 25, 2006

I should add that countries like France don't have quite the same problem with literary studies in the academy (correct me if I'm wrong), mainly, I think, because France, as a culture, values ideas and a shared concept of cultural affluence, whereas America's anglo-bent culture respects concrete things, such as production of items that benefit the world, e.g., pharmaceuticals and bombs and big shitty cars. Literary studies in a country like France have cultural value and cache in themselves. French men and women who read and write about literature don't have to continually reinflate their punctured egos or justify their seemingly strange career choice. They can discuss abstractions ad nauseum and ad absurdum, which they do, and everyone thinks they're just A-OK.
posted by Il Furioso at 8:04 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Words/phrases used by me, English major 1976, this week to alternately obfuscate, confuse, misdirect, villify, confound, and demonstrate to others: "I need a new amanuensis," "Tom, enjoy the schadenfreude," "It was ostensibly approved," "Your intaglio is my petroglyph," and "You are feckless Sybarite." It is a good major.
posted by wallstreet1929 at 8:41 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

the idea of having to work or live in holland, mi should be enough to scare anyone out of being an english professor
posted by pyramid termite at 8:55 PM on July 25, 2006

The best thing I ever did was take English lit in university. The smartest thing I ever did was drop out of the PhD program.

If you love books, you're probably better off in a creative writing or publishing program. All the people I know who did those programs work in the industry in some form or another now — writers, publicists, editors, book designers, etc. — and most are happy. Can't say the same for all the grad students I knew.

If you love theory, though, hey, power to you.
posted by showmethecalvino at 9:20 PM on July 25, 2006


Oh dear.
posted by Wolof at 9:29 PM on July 25, 2006

Even PhD's use spellcheck one in a while.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:34 PM on July 25, 2006

once. heh heh.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:34 PM on July 25, 2006

a competition to find stuff no one had ever looked at (or wanted to look at) and going into painful detail exhuming it (especially if it had been written by a woman or a member of a minority). You had to have you theory chops, of course, but only to fully flesh out your monument to something no one cared about then, and probably shouldn't care about now

Brilliantly put, Bardic! That pretty much sums up my feelings about just about every liberal arts PhD, or even Honours or Masters thesis these days.

This is no reflection on the students, faculty, or disciplines themselves, but more on a personal notion that worthwhile or interesting research areas are drying up at the same time as more and more students are embarking on theses. Finding a gem of a topic is no longer an option, so finding an obscure, untouched, but ultimately irrelevant topic is the best that students can aim for.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:41 PM on July 25, 2006

And for those who liked the Onion article linked above, I present to you Alex, the Postmodernist.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:47 PM on July 25, 2006

I never resolved the creative aspects of english lit and the technical challenges of comp sci. Rather than a master's in either I ended up with a bachelor's in both.

What I can say about the literature background, the keen instincts for structure, reference, the extraction of trope and means of (valid or not) distinguishing the author's voice I learned in those undergrad and grad literature courses contribute enormously to my success in programming today.

Consider the progress of ideas in computer science, specifically in programming, which I'm treating as a "text." The mechanics of the science are quite abstract from the ways we express those mechanics in a form both humans and machines can comprehend.

Criticism of any text is a tool to understand it. Any jackass is capable of using a general-purpose tool to draw illicit conclusions about a shallowly-understood text. Whether that's Marxist criticism against Winnie the Pooh or counting the number of exceptions per unit of code, I am comfortable with lumping it into the "ineffective" bucket and concentrating on the good stuff.

Criticism-the-tool, when applied both creatively and consistently against a text can reveal what technologists might call "design patterns." Usually, the reason to apply such a tool to a text is when that text "works" and we want to understand more about a) how to make other things work and b) how to avoid the parts which we might intuitively say hold it back from "working" better.

At the risk of facile comparison, I will suggest that what makes literary criticism powerful (as stated many comments above) is the way it guides your reaction to previous works into the creation of new works in answer.

The text of computer programming is written almost exclusively for the same reason -- most problems I solve have been solved (in whole or part) dozens of times before. I am solving the same small problems in pursuit of some larger goal which can only loosely be called a "solution." In the end, the particular setting I inhabit, the problems it presents, the ways I address them (not always solving them) constitute my text created in response to the texts which have come before and my understanding of the valid criticisms they have required.

Does all this criticism belong in a cultural studies program of some sort? I don't believe so -- the canon is important for what it codifies; what it has succeeded at and where it consistently fails. It does exist in the language in question, and English has been undeniably successful in staying alive and evolving in the modern era. Does that mean something magical about it? Only until we create the critical tools which release the deus from the machina and spread its fire around.

That, I say, is where criticism excels.

As for PhD's in it: I mourn their inevitable decline.
posted by abulafa at 10:25 PM on July 25, 2006 [3 favorites]

I knew I was in trouble when I was reading some criticism on Borges and ran into the word phallacy. That ended my love affair with criticism.

Really? I'm hopelessly enamoured of wordplay like that, even if litcrit makes me nauseous.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:41 PM on July 25, 2006

> Only until we create the critical tools which release the deus from the machina and
> spread its fire around.

Lets not. Bonfires in the darkness are better than boring little flamelets sputtering uniformly everywhere.
posted by jfuller at 6:34 AM on July 26, 2006

I'm a graduate student in English literature, teaching and writing my dissertation, and to be honest I don't recognize anything from that article in my own experience. It's just one data point, obviously, but my own time in graduate school has been rich, rewarding, not at all faddish or "politicking," and unbelievably enjoyable. Hard work, yes; a job, yes; but an amazing job.

My graduate coursework (now over) was incredible: genius professors, great primary and critical reading, and a good mix of historical, new critical, theoretical, and interdisciplinary approaches, with a large element of plain old appreciation thrown in. Now my dissertation process--working with a committee of four committed professors on a project I find really interesting--seems like a dream come true. Yes, my dissertation is being shaped, in part, by the different intellectual commitments of my advisors; but I chose them because I like their work, and their intellectual differences are legitimate and interesting. I've never had to pass any political 'litmus tests' in recruiting advisors or advocating my project; and I've felt no pressure to be esoteric or fashionable in my work--only to be interesting and rigorous.

Teaching is great. Next year I'm leading sections in two courses, one on the American novel after Dreiser, and one on Joyce and aestheticism. I'm also teaching two tutorials of my own, one on Finnegan's Wake and one on science and literature in the twentieth century. Our department has some theory courses, which are explicitly labelled as such, but theory hasn't taken over the other course offerings. Undergraduates are rarely made to read criticism (to my mind, the only, and a slight, pedagogical weakness of the department); meanwhile, at the graduate level, the more theoretically inclined graduate students seek out the more theoretically inclined professors, and that's that.

In terms of teaching at the graduate level, i.e., the teaching the tenured professors do: the main challenge has been moderating the theory backlash. The way it's taught here, it's almost as though theory is over; it's historically contextualized. What was going on, intellectually, historically, culturally, in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, that helped form these theoretical ideas? The intellectual challenge of teaching literature 'after theory' is often explicitly addressed. Theory is far from the medium in which we work and think; it's one (respected and useful) tool among many for thinking, writing, and teaching.

In short: graduate school in literature has been great; my English department is healthy and vigorous; I love books more than I did before; and I'm a sharper, more interesting thinker than I was when I started.

Again, it's only one data point, and yes, the job market is crazy. I honestly feel, however, that, in the worst case, if I don't get a job after my doctorate and have to do something else, graduate school will still have been worth it. Maybe I've just lucked out, but the English department is still part of the center of intellectual life at my university, and rightly so.
posted by josh at 6:58 AM on July 26, 2006

I read that article when it first posted on ALD and it seemed like just another in a long line of cliched but possibly accurate anti-theory articles. So it seems silly to just raise our hands in agreement and agree that theory itself is bad. I'm more interested in the conditions of the applicants themselves. I like Il Furioso's analysis about the financial and social immaturity of graduate students, something I've seen myself. Being a grad student seems like being in a leisured class in terms of time but not in terms of money. It's like a parody of critiques of authenticity, where you have infinite time to explore your interests but zero sense of community in which to invest non-private meaning. One thing I've heard from some grad student friends of mine is how they're surprised by how everyone is a fanatic. I'm worried that grad school is seen as a way to stave off the fearful, banal realities of normal life. People who don't like it seem to look at it as an extension of undergrad rather than a professional training program. Has anyone read Michael Berube's books on this? Summarize!

Also, I want to take issue with this dichotomy between an important but phony critical theory and an endearingly humanist but useless pre-theoretical tradition. Obviously theory is useful and has really seeped into the general culture in good ways as well as bad. Think of how easily one thinks of gender/racial stereotyping, for example. And before theory, I don't think it was the case that lit professors were simply book reviewers only concerned about value, as opposed to, say, meaning. Before New Historicism there was Historicism. And the New Critics invented a lot of the assumptions that theory relied on--for example, the idea that the author's intention is not dispositive on a work's meaning. (Walter Benn Michaels's book has a lot of referencing to Cleanth and Brooks.) The new LRB has a great article on Empson's letters.
posted by kensanway at 7:18 AM on July 26, 2006

I'd add that the way English is taught can really, really fuck up your ability to write. I was an English major because I loved writing and wanted to do it for a living; after graduating, I spent a year working on a novel that had no plot at all and a handfull of cutout characters. But it had themes! And hidden meanings and clever metatextual elements! When I couldn't sell it, I figured that it must be because it wasn't clever and metatextual enough, so I put another year into something that was even more of an unreadable formalist mess.

A big part of the blame for all that falls on my own limitations as a writer, of course, and the fact that I did all of this in my early 20s was certainly a factor. But a big part of it was that for three years it'd been hammered into my head that all I should care about with regards to books was how cleverly they were constructed, what sort of meanings could be extracted, etc.
posted by COBRA! at 7:27 AM on July 26, 2006

What? No mention of english majors selling the best weed?

I heard it was the fine-arts guys...
posted by pax digita at 8:55 AM on July 26, 2006

What? No mention of english majors selling the best weed?

Doesn't anyone go to a school with a good jazz program?
posted by kozad at 9:50 AM on July 26, 2006

God, that was a terrible article. The writing was stilted and the whole notion of a real point was strikingly absent. Maybe if the author had spent less time getting all wrapped up in the romance of literature and more time appreciating criticism, he would have ended up with writing that was better than functional. Anyway . . .

I went to a school that separated out theory from English proper and ended up getting my degree in theory, with a focus on literary (as opposed to feminist or media or whatever people think of as extra-English theory). And it wasn't so much that I thought Butler or Foucault or Althusser were so much more brilliant than Austen, but that I knew how to read a book the way the English department wanted you to read it and figured it was better to spend four years learning to read in different ways. I didn't feel like theory disrespected traditional English methods or even literature: methods were just options, the way readings are options.

Overall, the author strikes me as someone who is still trying to hold on to adolescence instead of accepting that love changes as it ages and old love isn't just a pale shadow of lust.
posted by dame at 10:55 AM on July 26, 2006

"My graduate coursework (now over) was incredible: genius professors, great primary and critical reading..."

Josh, you are one of the few, only, people I know who have enjoyed the experience of contemporary English graduate training. I'm genuinely glad to hear that your school may have maintained some vestige of enthusiastic and virginal intellectual pursuit. That type of meaningful eperience can perhaps only be held in the highest rooms of the Ivory Tower in America, far removed from the reality of day-to-day life in this pragmatic, brass-knuckled culture.

I think the question though is not whether some people enjoy the lifestyle that graduate school in literature affords--a few do--but rather, what is the function of critical literary endeavor in our society? It's sort of a pathetic question, I guess, given the marginal nature of the study, but it is a matter of curiosity (and self-inquiry) to those drawn to it or those who have gone through it.

The original intent of these departments, having risen during the era of Western nationalism, is, thankfully, long dead (although Rumsfeld might catch on and lit depts will rise again!). What then is the purpose, in the United States, of graduate study in literature now? It certainly is not to hold up the torch of humanity expressed in great works of literature (give us a break), and it can't be the onanistic culture that has sprung up around a series of rarified fads such as "the body" and "post-colonialism," which in the end are often anti-intellectual substitutes for genuine inquiry and deep personal reading. I don't have an answer for my own question, other than that literature is a great way to train your mind, to become a good reader, and that's an important skill for people in a democracy to have.

My ex-department does not have a mission statement. Here's what the home page states; it's the closest thing to a mission statement on the site: "Comparative Literature involves the study of literature from an international perspective. The Curriculum focuses on the study of literary texts accompanied by systematic exploration of genres, themes, styles, movements, literary theory and literary criticism." That's pretty unsatisfying and pretty damn weak, to put it bluntly, but it's a testament to the state of the field. But what to do?
posted by Il Furioso at 11:18 AM on July 26, 2006

it can't be the onanistic culture that has sprung up around a series of rarified fads such as "the body" and "post-colonialism," which in the end are often anti-intellectual substitutes for genuine inquiry and deep personal reading

Do you know people who actually have done work on these topics? Because I have to say, my fellow students were nowhere reflected in that absurd description. What is it that makes people so bitter about theory? That you don't love it?
posted by dame at 12:13 PM on July 26, 2006

Most students must write utilizing a defined critical lens or template, whether it be a feminist reading or new criticism or what have you. I don't hate theory; it's often edifying and useful when employed mindfully; I just think it has resulted in much trendy, pointless, and absurd scholarship. And that's part of the problem in the field.
posted by Il Furioso at 12:24 PM on July 26, 2006

I meant to write "new historicism," not the outmoded "new criticism." Got to brush up on my theory chops.

I'd hate to think that I sound bitter about the state of literary criticism in America. I've seen a lot of people while away the better part of their 20s in a field that has little to give back to them, and I do feel empathy and outrage. Maybe exasperated, but not bitter.

But I would like to see the US become a nation where pursuits such as the higher study of literature could be valued, b/c most people know, on a gut level, that there is something deeply valuable in literature and that a healthy nation of people would honor that by honoring those who pursue it (and there is something heroic about these kids who turn their backs on law school, med school, and the other professions that promise and more or less guarantee the status coveted by our parents’ children—I had not thought death had undone so many).

I guess that's the bone I'm picking. It's got nothing to do with theory or with the departments themselves, but with a cultural environment that cannot find anything but disdain or indifference for those who study what its most sensitve writers have to say. It’s a sign of soul weariness or sickness, or something grand sounding like that.
posted by Il Furioso at 1:22 PM on July 26, 2006

I'm a English Ph.D. "quitter" -- after years of agony I finally followed my therapist's advice, and made the right decision to quit. It saved my life, because I was well and truly ready to off myself. I learned many things in graduate school, true, primarily that nearly any "discipline" that indulges in the mental masturbation known as "critical theory" isn't worth shit.

I hated literature for years afterward, hated reading novels or poems or plays, hated every bit of the subject that I had loved so much as an undergrad. It was all a sham. Mostly, I hated myself for being such a naive idiot. I hated my old lit profs who should have warned me off. Of course, they didn't really know, having been out of the field for long enough to have missed the rise of Derrida, Krsiteva, Foucault, and all the rest of their ilk. Ah, let bygones be bygones.

I can read novels again, now. I'm reading more now than I have in years. And now, if I saw a literary theorist dying on the street, I'd cross over to his or her side and kick the living shit out of 'em. Just cuz that would be fun.
posted by mooncrow at 8:57 PM on July 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Why do I keep returning to this thread? I guess b/c I imagine a young student reading this, trying to answer the question, Should I go to grad school in Literature? What's it really like?

These are the questions that I couldn't get answered, and when I read previous posts like mooncrow's just above this, I am moved to write down my experience and the experience that others have relayed to me in the hope that someone who can benefit from this information will find it.

Mooncrow, I would say that approximately 90 percent of the people I knew in literature graduate programs were depressed, miserable, or experiencing one form of exquisite identity crisis or another. Perhaps that just comes with a population of people in their 20s, but it also comes with enlisting yourself in a culture that couldn’t give two squirts about you. The US has no use for lit programs, and the lit programs absorb that lack of esteem into themselves, and it manifests itself in a variety of ways: a need to overburden graduate students with incredibly rigorous degree programs in an effort to prove the department’s value; it manifests itself in a grasping for French abstraction (i.e., theory) in an effort to seem supererudite and inscrutable so that normal readers can no longer grasp what the hell you're saying and point a finger and cry, "See, you are useless." And it manifests itself in a disdain for itself and a disdain for the graduate students who so foolishly continue to enroll, when the chair of the department, the professors, and the entire field of professionals keep the secret to themselves—it’s a dead-end road; it’s a racket. We’ll take your money; we’ll exploit you for your next-to-free labor, for your youthful 20s, but we won’t give much or anything back to you, and we won’t share this dirty secret with you either, but you’ll figure it out soon enough...

So here’s my advice to anyone who’s looking. Identify as precisely as you can in this stage of your life what you want to get from graduate school and where you want to be in ten years (be realistic, and give yourself 7 to 10 years). Do you want to be a professor? Are you 100 percent sure of this? Do you know what being a professor is really like? If so, then grad school in literature is for you, and be prepared to work like a dog and get nothing but scraps of recognition for it.

Do you enjoy literature? Bzzzzzz. Thanks for playing. Stay away from graduate school. Do something else and read on your own, educate yourself in literature and retain your love of the thing. Do you associate study in a graduate program with reading great works of literature, with high-flown thoughts and feelings, with becoming a great poet or novelist, with gaining an insight into life’s mysteries, with perhaps the warm and fuzzies of a year or two spent studying abroad in college? Bzzzzzzz. Oh, I’m sorry. The answer is, What the hell are you thinking about? Graduate school is professional training for scholars; it’s not for adventurers, not for travelers, not for writers, not for risk-takers, not for people who like to experience their bodies, certainly not for people who "love" literature (if you love literature, this is your cue that grad school is not for you) or want to have well-rounded lives or win friends and influence people. Your lit program will give you this; it will train a scholar; as a side benefit, it will isolate you, and it will turn you into a quivering brain. Some people find this exciting. Most people understand that this is not for them. It's a rarified specialty. It's only for the few who truly are wired this way. It has little to do with intelligence or talent. It has nothing to do with undergraduate study of literature, with love of literature, with experiencing life more fully. These are illusions dashed upon the rocks of the first days of grad school.

If you’re not 100 percent sure of what you want from grad school in literature, here’s what you can expect from years of graduate study in a reputable program: a refashioned mind, an ability to think very keenly about pretty much whatever you want to think about; you might even be a more interesting person, which will be noticed and appreciated by yourself and maybe one or two others. You will be a little more isolated given your big brain and its boredom with bromide. You will be older. You will be more realistic. You will wonder why you devoted so many years to speed-reading literature while others were perhaps doing more interesting or pragmatic things, and now you don’t have a desire to read anymore, and perhaps you’re temping or working a job that has absolutely nothing to do with what you love or loved, but that helps pay off debt, etc. You will very likely be considered a “financial loser,” unless you just pull an Evil Knievel 180 in midair and get into banking, investing, computers, or something lucrative. This is bleak, but it’s realistic. It can take years to right yourself from a program that preys on those in the years of life when most others are becoming real professionals.

And me? What happened to the seeming cynic who is writing this? I should probably give an account since I've cast such aspersion. I’ve had a good many jobs in the six years since finishing my MA in comp lit, one permament job in a corporation, which was a joke; took them about six months to figure out I cared less about them than they about me. I am a self-employed documentary photographer, a job that I love. It's interesting and promising in a variety of ways, and it's satisfying. My grad training comes in handy every single day. It's an asset. Period. I hated it, though. Did I mention that?

Am I glad I went to grad school? I met my wife there. My mind is very well trained now (in a Western, linear way). I am overeducated and can relate intellectually to only a certain percent of the population. I still have not addressed my college debt. So yes, in the round and in understanding that it cannot have been any other way than it was, I can say I’m glad I went. I would never put myself through it again. It was the least exciting, interesting, and rewarding phase of my life. It didn’t have to be that way, but that’s they way most departments are. They take something that is magical, and they squeeze it till its something manageable and small and in their control. But then that’s the job of a scholar, isn’t it?
posted by Il Furioso at 6:55 AM on July 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

Someone needs to send those undergrads over to library school.

Then again, the MLS is problematic, but it is quicker to get than a PhD.
posted by QIbHom at 10:44 AM on July 27, 2006

This thread seems more or less over, but I'll follow up to my previous post anyway in case anyone ends up reading down here in the future.

I disagree with you, Il Furioso, in your sense of doom and gloom. Yes, there are lots of bad departments out there. There are, however, lots of vigorous and healthy English departments. If you're considering going to graduate school, look at the work of the professors in the departments to which you're applying. Don't try to find some average graduate school experience. Look at the course catalog of the departments you're considering; read one or two books by professors in your department; email graduate students there and talk to them. I love literature and my professors love literature as well. This is obvious in the writing and speaking they have done throughout their careers, and that writing and speaking is available for public inspection.

As for the "purpose" of literature departments, it seems very straightforward to me. It's two-fold. On the one hand, the department is there to teach. Once you start teaching, it becomes obvious that undergraduates--who are only 17 or 18 years old when they arrive--haven't yet read many books. You are bringing your greater facility as a reader, and your greater understanding of many contexts (aesthetic, historical, intellectual, philosophical, and so on) to bear on their relative inexperience. There is real value in this; everyone who has taken a good literature class has experienced it.

The other purpose is to do critical work. And the large quantity of mediocre-to-horrendous critical work doesn't in any way invalidate the absolute excellence and value of great critical work. It's a mistake to assume that, because a great deal of bad or wrong thought goes on in a given discipline, no good work in that discipline is possible or meaningful any longer.

Thinking about this thread yesterday, it occurred to me that, in some ways, the intellectual project of the university is required to be tolerant of wrongness. Many disciplines have been consistently and disastrously wrong for long periods (e.g., urban planning), and have worked to combat that wrongness. Others are actually built around "wrongness" in the very structure of the discipline (as in the hard sciences described by Thomas Kuhn). Wrongness is the price of real intellectual work. It's important to the structure of scholarship that previous generations seem wrong to new generations. And in fact English is far from the only "wrong" discipline at the moment; there are huge movements in cognitive science, biology, evolutionary science, and so on, to show how the standard social science model is "wrong" and has led astray whole disciplines in social science (look up Tooby and Cosmides' excellent essay, "The Psychological Foundations of Culture"--it's in Google Scholar). To the extent that there are currently intellectual excesses in literary studies, it's because literary studies was, at one time, pointing out the wrongness in fields like history, anthropology, psychology, and sociology. It's normal for disciplines to go astray and to correct each other. We're currently exiting a long period in which literary and cultural studies has been (often rightly) critiquing the assumptions of other disciplines, and now the tide is (also rightly) turning and resisting overcorrection. The same thing has happened in many disciplines many times.

Wrongness in English might seem a lot more objectionable than wrongness in, say, political theory or sociology, probably because literature is more vulnerable than social phenomena or politial processes to being immediately and violently assaulted in the teaching process. But at root this wrongness is normal and expected. It seems to me a perfectly regular byproduct of intellectual life--more that than the result of economic, cultural, or extra-intellectual pressures on English departments. That's why for all the bad work in the theoretical style, there's a lot of good work. It's odd to me that the Delbanco article above singles out Paul de Man as an example of "bad" theory; he's a very smart writer, and the fact that a lot of bad work came out of his good work in no way invalidates his achievement. There is always bad work in every discipline. Not every experiment works out; not every theory is right; not every history is accurate; not every artwork is good; not every work of criticism is going to be exciting and illuminating.

Graduate school and the profession of English are, from my perspective anyway, not monoliths. They're real and diverse arenas for intellectual work, and they contains, as a result, both excellent and uninteresting scholars. English is also--no matter how much other disciplines, or even English professors, want to single it out as aberrant and weird--part of the larger intellectual life of the university, which is what all these articles and books critiquing it show. I just don't get the pessimism. If you want to go to graduate school, go! Just go to one where the scholars are excellent and where you'll be able to do the work you want to do.
posted by josh at 7:20 AM on July 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

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