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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Disinterested Hats

Posted by Daniel Green on 04/14/05 at 10:59 AM

Responding to my previous post, the weblog Left Center Left suggests

that literary scholars are in fact enthusiastic about literature. They may wear their disinterested deconstructive or historicist hats in their academic work, but you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface (a few glasses of wine help) to discover that indeed the “radical” literary scholar believes that canonical literature is indeed a far more worthwhile pursuit than genre literature and that popular culture (including film) is a lesser art than literature. . .

Two points. 1) I did not and do not claim that “enthusiasm” for literature requires the exaltation of “canonical literature” over “lesser art[s].” I have myself published scholarly essays on film (which I love almost as much as literature), and through my blog The Reading Experience and the contacts it has made for me with other bloggers, I have come to have an increasing interest in “genre literature.” My argument for bringing literature back to literary study is not an argument for re-establishing a previous generation’s disdain for the popular arts. If the current generation surreptitiously shares this disdain, shame on them. 2) It doesn’t do anyone much good for radical scholars to admit while in their cups that they actually do like literature if in their “academic work” they go on ignoring it. One can be a “disinterested” scholar and also believe that such disinterest is ultimately in the best interests of literature--dispassionate analysis often gets us farther than passionate reaction.

Later in the post, LCL adds:

. . .to me the important thing is that scholars are enthusiastic about the intellectual questions of the field, not that the[y’re] enthusiastic about the object of study per se.

I find this statement rather astonishing. If literary scholars are not “enthusiastic about the object of study per se’’--that is, works of literature--but are instead pursuing other “intellectual questions,” then I can’t see why they would still be called literary scholars. They might be acting as sociologists, or philosophers, or political activists, but they’re not acting as scholars of literature. I have no quarrel with sociology or philosophy, and scholars in these fields are of course perfectly free to use works of literature to illuminate “questions of the field.” I simply don’t understand why one would want to take up the study of literature in the first place if one’s enthusiasm for reading particular works is questionable. Historical and theoretical studies of literature and its reception are all well and good, but why bother if you don’t much like the underlying “object” of your study to begin with? It’s a measure of how far from the original project of literary study we’ve come that what LCL calls the “subjective experience of literary art” might be examined in other people, but doesn’t have much to do with one’s own relationship to such art.


Perhaps the problem with literary studies is not that literary scholars derive too little or too much pleasure from literature.  Perhaps the problem is that we waste too much time on back-and-forth, unproductive debates like this one:  inane, boring, and endless.  Less pontificating about what literary studies should be and more illustrations of actual, provocative work in literary scholarship is what we need.  As a tenured professor in an English department, I’ve been hearing these conversations for years; never once have I found them honest (they always involve caricature and resentment) or useful.  The web and blogosphere have served to make them even more circular and self-referential—and dull, which is the worst sin of all, in my book, for either literature or literary criticism.

By profsynecdoche on 04/14/05 at 01:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The original project of literary study"--you mean like philology?

And how does complaining about the complaining help? I’d suggest proceeding by positive example.

By Jonathan on 04/14/05 at 02:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps there continues to be “pontificating about what literary studies should be” because everyone has forgotten what it was supposed to be. Thus very little “actual, provocative work in literary scholarship” is being done because no one knows anymore what it means to produce “literary” scholarship.

By Daniel Green on 04/14/05 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, I found a lot of novel gazing about literary studies to be much more interesting than the actual products.  So there you go. 

Hey prof, do you have any reaction to what the post is actually about, or were you simply dropping by to comment about how boring it all is?

By on 04/14/05 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know how useful it is to ask that a complex body of discourse reorganize itself to fit such a subjective category as “provocativeness.” And scholarship is written for the future. There is no “supposed to be.”

By Jonathan on 04/14/05 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This isn’t necessarily a problem - economists study an awful lot of things besides markets, the supposed underlying “object” of their study.

By Henry Farrell on 04/14/05 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was dropping by to see if there was anything along the lines of Sean McCann’s post on Chesnutt, or the Amardeep Singh post on Bellow.  Those are, to my mind, the productive examples that Jonathan (rightly) calls for.  Are they full-fledged scholarship?  No, they are blog posts.  But they are interesting lines of inquiry that could generate scholarship.

By profsynecdoche on 04/14/05 at 02:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Believe me, I intend to supply “productive examples” like these. You might also visit The Reading Experience for a few.

Also: Philology is not literary study. Philology is philology. Literary study is what replaced it.

By Daniel Green on 04/14/05 at 02:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No, I think that it’s an offshoot and that philology is still around. And good for philology, I’d say.

By Jonathan on 04/14/05 at 02:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On the other hand, screw scholarship, and screw literary studies. 90% of it, anyway.

Fun though it can be to do the Eng-lit thing, I gotta say that maybe 10% of what I encountered has proved to me to have any use (or, at this point, any interest) to me as a grownup.

And I work in the media biz, know book publishing, and have tons of writer friends. Like I say, almost none of what I encountered as a lit-studies undergrad or grad student has proved to have any bearing (or even much of a relationship at all) to what the real world of reading-and-writing is all about.

A few critics sensitized me to some aspects of writing. A few lit historians helped me situate myself. But I encountered almost nothing about the history or business of publishing—you’d think this would be basic. And I encountered no one in Eng lit who knew the first thing about the craft of storytelling. Instead, it was all about fine sentences and fancy intellectual structures. As a friend—a professional book reviewer—once said to me, “professors teach what they find teachable—fancy intellectual stuff. They don’t teach how fiction is actually made or enjoyed, because they don’t know anything about it.”

Come to think of it, I’d say that most of what I was taught actually got in my way. It took too many years for me to shake the crap that was laid on me and start relating more simply and practically to publishing, writing and reading. Which, by the way, has enhanced my pleasure in these various arts and activities, not reduced it.

Nice posting, btw. Thanks for it.

By Michael Blowhard on 04/14/05 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps LCL is making a distinction between the appreciation of, and the analysis of, literature?

And we all, theory-heads and theory-haters and everyone in between, have larger interests than individual literary texts, be it tracing class warfare or narrative structures. Or even just some idea of “good literature.”

I have other problems with the post—the assumptions about the relative merits of canonical and popular literature that you mention, Dan; the apparent assumption in the final sentence that “the Valve” speaks with a single voice—but the section you quote seems unexceptionable.

What I find astonishing is the notion of scholars sheepishly admitting, after a few drinks, that they actually like canonical literature. My experience has been quite the opposite: scholars feeling a need to excuse, explain or theorize their interest in any sort of popular art. Less so recently, perhaps; but it still happens quite a lot.

By Miriam Jones on 04/14/05 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Perhaps the problem with literary studies...”

Perhaps literary studies doesn’t have a problem.

Look, talk about some literature already!

How far back does the interest in literature on the Valve go, anyway? Are you going to talk about the eighteenth century? the Renaissance? the Middle Ages? Classical lit?

There are many things that are important to literary history but that are not particularly enjoyable to read--from the “Hey, I want to sit up late at night and read this until I fall asleep!” perspective--unless you have a rather quirky aesthetic sense. That does not mean we shouldn’t study them, though, does it? And if we can only understand them by understanding the political and religious environment of the period in which they were created (I’m thinking of a lot of eighteenth-century literature in particular), do we just cast them aside?

“It doesn’t do anyone much good for radical scholars to admit while in their cups that they actually do like literature if in their ‘academic work’ they go on ignoring it”

Examples of this sort of behavior would be...?

By gzombie on 04/14/05 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Miriam—Would you mind explaining what the value of analyzing works of literature is? In the way that academics are prone to analyze it, I mean? As far as my experience goes, it’s (99% of the time) got nothing to do with how writing is created, and nothing to do with how it’s consumed/enjoyed. So I question its value. It looks to me like a game lit profs play and not much else. Which I guess I wouldn’t mind, if only a consumer warning were posted on the door of lit classes explaining that what’s being taught in this classroom is good for nothing but pursuing a career in academia ... Instead, the profs seem content to let unsuspecting students believe that they’re learning something of actual use.

By Michael Blowhard on 04/14/05 at 05:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I question the value of what you do. I don’t know what that is, really, and I’m not much inclined to learn; but you have to agree that it’s always struck me as just a game that people like you play to trick unsuspecting people like me.

By Jonathan on 04/14/05 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why does anyone think that film is a ‘lesser’ art when it is the 20th century’s major expressive form?  I would hazard a guess anyone who does express that idea has thought much about the topic.

Mr Blowhard talks about literary criticisms relationship to “the craft of storytelling”; this neglects that ‘storytelling’ has more aspects to it than just the act of writing a story. He alludes to the reading of the story - but what about the story’s circulation and impact in the broader culture? There is more to that than just ‘writing’ and ‘reading’ stories.

By on 04/14/05 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, perhaps if more unsuspecting American students had training in analyzing literature, and the ways in which language can be used to shape, structure, and create meaning, perhaps then they would have done a better job at decoding the rhetoric and counter-rhetoric of the last presidential election. Maybe more of us would be able to ignore the blandishments of Madison Avenue and not be so deeply in dept that we will never see the sky again (oh dear, I think a personal note crept in there. And that was kind of ... er ... political).

Now I admit that many if not most of my colleagues would be horrified to read what I just wrote, even the liberals; I’m just telling you one of the ways in which I try to justify my professional existence.

Less controversially, I think I’m safe in saying that what we—professors of literature—want, for the bulk of our students, the ones who may never even take another English course, is that they learn that reading can give pleasure. Now I admit that we don’t always—or maybe even often—manage to do this. It’s something my dept. is grappling with right now as we redesign our introductory course (we are moving the standard historical survey to second year, and just trying to draw them in with our new intro. course. Between ourselves we are calling it “the seduction course,” though whether or not anyone is seduced, remains to be seen. We first have to seduce our colleagues in the Faculty of Arts, with the proposal.)

There are also valuable skills to be learnt from the ways in which students are asked to write about literature, skills that they don’t develop from writing up reports or case studies or whatever they do in other courses: skills like abstract, analytic thinking. I’m not saying literature classes are the only place that can happen, but they are one place.

In answer to your previous comment, I would like to invoke Sturgeon’s law (substitute “literary studies” for sf): “Sure, 99% of science fiction is crap. 99% of everything is crap.”

And, I like what Rex Bellator writes about reading stories in context.

By Miriam Jones on 04/14/05 at 06:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"As far as my experience goes, it’s (99% of the time) got nothing to do with how writing is created, and nothing to do with how it’s consumed/enjoyed.”

You’ve had an atypical experience, then, because there are thousands upon thousands of pages written by literary scholars on just those topics.

Are there also pages written about other things? Sure.

Is an English degree a vocational degree? No.

By gzombie on 04/14/05 at 06:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan—Are you a complete dipshit or are you just very good at imitating one?

Rex—There are lots of reasons to read, you’re certainly right about that. But let’s take an example. A kid goes in to a lit class hoping to learn about literature: mainly its history, how it’s made, and how it’s enjoyed/consumed. That seems like a reasonable hope for taking a lit class, doesn’t it? In my experience, the kid’s going to be very disappointed. She’ll learn some (very selective and unworldly) history; will be given a lot of “analysis” that has zero to do with the ways fiction and/or poetry are actually created; and will at best pick up a teeny-weeny bit about how people use and enjoy writing, while being overwhelmed with enormous and multiple crocks about stuff only lit profs care about. Seems like consumer fraud to me. I could put you in touch with many people in the professional writing and publishing worlds who’d agree.

Actually, there are many reasons why this state of affairs has come about. One, amusingly enough, is pure historical accident. As Paul Graham explains, “due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens. With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.” He goes on to explain how the whole writing-essays-about-literature thing came about.

By Michael Blowhard on 04/14/05 at 06:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I believe Andrew Ross was once quoted as saying that he wanted to “radicalize the children of the ruling class [or elite or something similar],” and I think that’s a good mission statement for the Valve, substituting “children of the ruling class” for “blog-readers” when necessary, of course.

By Jonathan on 04/14/05 at 06:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For example (from the Cambridge UP catalogue):

In The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson (2002), Jack Lynch explores eighteenth-century British conceptions of the Renaissance, and the historical, intellectual, and cultural uses to which the past was put during the period. Scholars, editors, historians, religious thinkers, linguists, and literary critics of the period all defined themselves in relation to ‘the last age’ or ‘the age of Elizabeth’. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers reworked older historical schemes to suit their own needs, turning to the ages of Petrarch and Poliziano, Erasmus and Scaliger, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Queen Elizabeth to define their culture in contrast to the preceding age. They derived a powerful sense of modernity from the comparison, which proved essential to the constitution of a national character.

Go! Read! Opinions are fine, but informed opinions are even better.

By gzombie on 04/14/05 at 06:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Miriam—I see a lot of kids coming out of prestigious literature programs, and if you’re suggesting that they know much about reading and writing (as opposed to knowing-what-college-profs-expect-of-them) I think you’re fooling yourself. If you’re suggesting that Eng-lit studies prepare them to make more sense of the world than other people, then I think you’re really fooling yourself. And if you think that writing essays about literature is a good way to develop clear-thinking skills ... Well, I really don’t know what to say. Incidentally, selling kids on the pleasures of reading sounds great, more power to you, as does setting reading in context. So why not include a “history of publishing” module?

Gzombie—I’ve got a fancy-enough grad degree in English and have read a fair amount of literary scholarship. I work in the media, and have spent many years hanging around publishing and writing. I enjoyed reading some litcrit, and got something out of reading some lit-history too. But most of what I encountered as a student not only had zero to do with the actual world of reading-and-writing as most people experience it, it was actually harmful to my understanding, and took much time to cast off. I’ve got nothing against lit-studies so long as it presents itself truthfully: a sign on the door, perhaps, saying “The stuff you encounter in here will be of longterm interest to you only if you’re going to pursue an academic career. It will, however, be a hindrance to your understanding of the larger world, including the actual (or non-academic) world of reading-and-writing.”

By Michael Blowhard on 04/14/05 at 06:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is it possible that the reasons you have these beliefs are more contingent upon your personal experiences and thus less universalizable than your emphatic assertions might suggest? Do you have any arguments about the so-called mystifying aspects of English Department instruction? Is this based on an English grad attempting to use the word “aporia” in draft Pitfall manual? I demand to know.

By Jonathan on 04/14/05 at 06:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"the actual world of reading-and-writing as most people experience it”

Reading and writing have changed so much throughout history that one would be hard pressed to make any general assertions about their universal, ahistorical qualities. I’d recommend the work of Robert Darnton as a starting point if you wanted to learn more. Check out his great collection of essays, The Kiss of Lamourette. Or take a look at <a href="http://www.otal.umd.edu/~mgk/blog/archives/cat_technologies_of_writing.html">this set<> of blog entries from Matt Kirschenbaum.

If a student wants to know strictly about contemporary practices of reading and writing, she or he could pursue a degree in education (a field which attends to contemporary issues of literacy) or creative writing.

It seems you’re arguing against the value of studying literature at all unless it helps a student get a job.

What, exactly, are you arguing in favor of?

By gzombie on 04/14/05 at 06:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael:  I have some sympathy for much of what you say, but you keep bringing up this “history of publishing” thing. Why would anyone be interested in that? Why would this be any less deadly than the litcrit courses you have no patience with? For my part, I can’t think of anything less relevant to real reading and writing.

By Daniel Green on 04/14/05 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Damn, I just wrote a more-than-5000-word response and lost it all ...

Anyway, Gzombie, thanks for posting the passage from the “Age of Elizabeth.” I’d say it proves my point, not yours, but we’ll probably have to disagree about that. I’m a big Robert Darnton fan myself—he’s one of the few lit scholars I know of who discusses reading-and-writing like someone who actually knows a thing or two about the field. I also agree that the reading-and-writing thing has morphed over the centuries so much that few generalities can be made about it—which is why I’d argue that it makes sense to get much, much more particular about the specifics than, say, the passage from the “Age of Elizabeth” does. Talk about deriving a “sense of modernity” just doesn’t mean much of anything: did anyone really walk out of a production of “Volpone” saying, “Wow, I sure derived a powerful sense of modernity from that!” Learning which jokes worked best; whether Johnson wrote in a study or in a theater; whether he revised the play after trying it out in front of audience; how he made his money and promoted his work, etc—that kind of thing strikes me as much more helpful.

BTW, I’m not arguing that studying literature is of no use unless it helps the student get a job. I am arguing that it’s of no use if it doesn’t help the student understand something of what the actual world (or actual worlds) of reading-and-writing is like. What, for instance, did you actually get out of that the passage from the “Age of Elizabeth”? To me it seems like so much orotund hot air.

Daniel—Why wouldn’t you be interested in the history of publishing? The business (or activity) of publishing is one of the most important factors that gives rise to whatever it is we think of as literature. If we’re interested in understanding reading-and-writing in context—and I certainly am—publishing is maybe the bit of context that’s most immediately context-setting.

By Michael Blowhard on 04/14/05 at 07:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In my opinion, the history of publishing (especially in the United States) is mostly the history of clueless people doing their damndest to destroy any semblance of a literary culture. I suppose that’s a useful thing to know, but you don’t need to take course in it.

By Daniel Green on 04/14/05 at 07:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Robert Darnton is a historian, actually, not a “lit scholar.” He’s been incredibly influential among scholars of language and literature, however, so to say that he’s an exception is inaccurate.

As for Lynch’s work, may I humbly suggest you read the book before forming an opinion?

Plenty of people write about the kinds of questions you ask regarding Jonson (not spelled Johnson, by the way); such questions have been a really active area of study for the last 10 to 15 years as part of a growing field referred to loosely as “book history,” a field that, yes, includes the history of publishing. In fact, I taught a class called “Histories of Writing, Reading, and Publishing” last semester. Here’s the course homepage.

By gzombie on 04/14/05 at 07:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel—You’ve certainly got a point! On the other hand, there is no literary culture without publishing. In my opinion, “literature” (whatever that is) would do well to open up to the crudeness of business and publishing—it’d touch ground a little more often, and might pick up some zing from doing so. But we probably disagree about this.

Gzombie—I’m glad to hear that some scholars are beginning to pay more attention to the history of publishing. That’s a nice change, and may the field prosper. “Incredibly influential” strikes me as a bit of a stretch, though, given how few (as in zero) recent lib-arts grads I’ve ever met who’ve heard of Darnton, or who know anything about how publishing works, or the history of the book. By comparison, nearly all of them are familiar (at least in a superficial way) with the many Theory deities. Perhaps you’re talking about your neck of the woods? But it’s good to know Darnton isn’t a total secret.

Where, by the way, did I try to pass judgment on the book you cited? Oh: I called the passage you quoted from it “orotund hot air.” Well, if you’re going to be prissy about me misspelling Ben Jonson’s name, I’ll be prissy about you scolding me not to judge a book when I was clearly discussing the passage that you yourself supplied.

As for my judgment of the passage, I think it’s more than defensible. They all (all?) “defined themselves” in relation to the past age?They “derived a powerful sense of modernity from the comparison, which proved essential to the constitution of a national character.” Maybe yours isn’t, but my bullshit-o-meter is ringing loudly.

By Michael Blowhard on 04/14/05 at 08:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Henry Farrell rightly writes that economists study a lot of things besides markets.  I wonder what economists might say to someone who argues that in order to understand markets, one ought to restrict oneself to studying Wal-Mart, Microsoft, IBM, and the rest of the canonical, successful stocks, and teach appreciation for them.  (’Surely those companies made it in the market because they’re good, so why study market forces and all that stuff?’). 

There being so many interesting things to understand about literature, many of which are intimately related to History, so many rich relationships between literature and the wider culture, I wonder why there is so much derision towards the study of literature for the purpose of understanding the dynamics of culture.  It seems to me that some of the soundest ideas--New Historicism, for example--in literary studies are under constant attack, while it is people who earnestly believe that making opinionated judgments about the relative quality of books is good scholarship who should be on the defensive, trying to explain the usefulness, the purpose, and the intellectual value of their subjective aesthetic judgments, as well as the legitimacy of the culturally conservative idea of English scholars as ministers of high-culture.

Sure, there may be wonderful things to be said about Pynchon and Roth that haven’t been said, and I think it would be great for people to write them.  But there is no reason to be astonished that some people might be more excited about studying representations of race in the Renaissance than about passing on admiration for great books.

By on 04/14/05 at 10:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By all means study representations of race in the Renaissance. But don’t call yourself a “literary” scholar in the process if ultimately you don’t have much use for literature except for its utility in this endeavor.

By Daniel Green on 04/14/05 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t call myself a literary scholar. (I’m a mathematician.) But I don’t believe it is up to *you* to narrowly define the term.

By on 04/14/05 at 11:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pedro—Has someone tried to prevent you from studying representations of race in the Renaissance?

By Michael Blowhard on 04/14/05 at 11:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good one, Michael B.  The answer is of course no.  I’ve learned a tiny bit from my wife, who is an English scholar.  Of course, she doesn’t *only* have a use for literature as a means to understanding Renaissance culture (who does?).  And she is very enthusiastic about good literature.  (So am I, though my A-list of good books includes many that are very hard to find in English translations.) But it is one thing to love literature and good books, and another altogether to think that one’s duty is--above all things, and especially above cultivating a scholarly interest on the relationship between literature and culture--to educate the literary taste of students.

Incidentally, you may be right to say that English departments aren’t doing a great job of preparing students for jobs outside of Academia.  Lord knows Math departments do a lousy job at that.  But I’m not really qualified to talk about the shortcomings of English departments.  If I jumped in, it is because I dislike the rhetorical move of defining a field narrowly, so as to exclude people whose interests are in line with the evolution of the field.  This sort of bullying is not exclusive to English, of course.  In mathematics, some people exclude set theorists, logicians, or applied mathematicians, perhaps in the vain hope that, by the magic of rhetorical exclusion, the vibrant communities of set theorists, logicians, and applied mathematicians will somehow stop producing the stuff they do.  Fields grow, the evolve, and the enlarge.  And this is rather fortunate.

By on 04/15/05 at 12:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s wrong with educating the literary tastes of students?

By Daniel Green on 04/15/05 at 01:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gosh, I’m not going to prescribe anything.  There’s already too many people telling the generality of English scholars what to do, and what not to do.  I simply wish to point out that there are good alternatives to the education of taste.  Some people may be more enthusiastic about teaching students different tools, ways of reading texts, ways of connecting literature to the wider culture.  And certainly some people may feel uncomfortable taking on the role of ministers of ‘high culture’, in light of what they know about canon-formation.

By on 04/15/05 at 01:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Just visiting from a link at http://mthollywood.blogspot.com/

Interesting here. Enjoyed Pedro’s posts.

By Stephen M (Ethesis) on 04/15/05 at 09:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Again I ask: Why does there need to be an “alternative” to the “education of taste”? What’s wrong with this? Who says it amounts to becoming a “minister of high culture”? How about just an educator, as in any other discipline?

By Daniel Green on 04/15/05 at 09:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s a sincere question: How does one prepare a lesson plan that does nothing more than teach students to appreciate Book 4 (my favorite part) of Paradise Lost?

By gzombie on 04/15/05 at 10:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Pedro—I have no interest in being anyone high commissar of culture, or in dictating how scholars should be spending their research (and debating-with-colleagues) time. I don’t even have much interest in debating the whole “what is literary scholarship” question. Scholars will do what they do, and I left academia almost 30 years ago partly to get away from all that. Perhaps Gzombie’s scholarship is wonderful—how would I know?

I do feel, though, that I can discuss whether college lit departments are doing a good job of preparing kids not just for professional writing-and-publishing lives, but for any kind of life that includes an interest in culture. I haven’t done any studies of this. On the other hand, I’ve got a grad degree myself, I have prof and writer and editor friends, I work in the media and know publishing, I know lots of arty people generally, and I also know a lot of civilians with interests in the arts. So: a fairly broad set of personal experiences.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, English departments are doing a perfectly lousy job of preparing kids, and in a variety of ways. The main failing is, though, that they’re (very broadly speaking) given a lot of very unrealistic ideas about how the arts arise. Daniel may disagree, but I’ve gotten a lot more out of learning a little something about the history of copyright law, for instance, than I ever got out of passages like the one Gzombie quoted above. Copyright law isn’t irrelevant to how and why Mark Twain, for instance, led his writing life the way he did. Understanding the history of paperback strikes me as vital if you’re going to get a grip on why there was such an explosion of hardboiled literature in the post-WWII years. Understanding the history of this weirdo thing called “literary history” isn’t irrelevant either. Reputations rise and fall; a new generaton reshapes the canon in its own image ... What kind of role have critics and historians played? When did people start reading Shakespeare as though he wrote “literature” and not plays? And how does the current publishing world work? As someone who’s spent a lot of time in it, I can assure you that you aren’t really going to able to make a lot of sense out of contempo debates about writing if you don’t understand the history of superstores, of conglomeration, of the Harvard axis, of how the New York Times and the New York Review work, of the post-WWII development of academic writing programs ...

None of this is “vocational” training—there are publishing programs kids can go to if they want that. On the other hand, none of it’s irrelevant to understanding the arts either. And being realistic and informed doesn’t conflict with a deep and rich enjoyment of the arts. Instead, what the kids seem to emerge from fancy colleges with is a half a dozen “strategies” obviously derived from Theory, and almost no background in literary history even of the most narrow sort. They’ve clearly been given “texts” to “analyze” (incidentally, no one “analyzes” “texts” except academics—it’s an activity and skill of no use to anyone), and they’ve licked the handful of tricks it takes to do that. Meanwhile their heads are seething with all kinds of unrealistic expectations and fantasies.

Not a good state of affairs. So I conclude that the kids are being ill-served by their education. I conclude as well that the arts are being ill-served by this kind of education. But as to whether a given prof is doing good research or not, I’m not qualified to say. I don’t really care much, to tell you the truth. I do care, though, that I was given a lousy Eng-lit education, and I do care that kids seem to be still given lousy Eng-lit educations, if of a somewhat different nature than the one that was laid on me.

By Michael Blowhard on 04/15/05 at 10:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think a straw man version of “appreciate” is being put forth here (see the “nothing more” qualifier in gzombie’s question).

I don’t think Dan is advocating an uncritical “thumbs up or down” notion of appreciate here, but rather that one can appreciate a novel by having some sense of its poetics--that is, how the work is constructed, how its parts are crafted to tell a story, how it works to convey meaning and cue emotions in the reader, and (at least I would add) how the work fits into both literary history and also culture in a broader sense.

At least this would be my take on what is in involved in “appreciation.”

By on 04/15/05 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"No one ‘analyzes’ ‘texts’ except academics—it’s an activity and skill of no use to anyone.”
--Michael Blowhard

Dear God.  If the first part of this statement is true, I’d say we’re in serious trouble.  In fact, I’d say that much of what’s wrong with contemporary American culture has to do with the fact that not enough people are analyzing texts in a smart and skillful way.

We’re bombarded with texts (or as MB perfers, “texts") every day-- advertisements, television shows and movies, news reports, editorials, political speeches, nasty blog posts.  Those texts have certain functions in society-- they encourage us to buy things or to think that we “need” those things, they attempt to convince us to vote for certain candidates, or to give our consent to bogus wars, or to demonize or pathologize those who are different from us (Muslims or gays for example).  Words have political, ideological, real-world functions and consequences.  We shouldn’t think about those?

When I teach Shakespeare, I encourage my students to think about literary history, and the role of critics and canonizing Shakespeare, and the question not just of “When… people started reading Shakespeare as though he wrote ‘literature’ and not plays,” but of what that transition meant.  And they do think about the conditions of productions-- how MacBeth spoke to King James’ fascination for Scottish history, or how Richard III worked to legitimize the reign of his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth… but that involves analysis of text as well as the recitation of facts.

Maybe MB is just speaking a language that’s very weird to me-- but if MB left English studies without an understanding of why ‘analyzing’ ‘texts’ is important, than he received a very lousy education indeed.

By zipzap on 04/15/05 at 02:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

okay, apologies for the typos before someone calls me on them.

productions rather than production
than rather then,
whatever else there is.

And I want to say that the questions about the production of literary texts that MB raises are interesting ones.

I might also mention that my department has a “Writing” track as well as a “Literature” and “Education” track, so we do try to equip students with skills they might need should they go into the publishing world.  Nothing like this when I was an undergrad-- I think the change is a good thing.  But that doesn’t make literary analysis obsolete for students who won’t go to grad school in English.

By on 04/15/05 at 02:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zipzap—Great to hear your school does writing as well as lit. Sounds like a very sensible innovation. I hear from some prof (and writer) friends that it isn’t uncommon for kids who like reading-and-writing but who get turned off of what’s become of lit studies at some schools to go into creative writing programs instead. That way they get to read and write and be practical, and they get to skip all that time-wasting (and irrelevant) Theory.

I certainly don’t advocate not thinking about words or writing. Anything but. On the other hand, I do think it’s a mistake to automatically equate “what academics do with texts, and encourage kids to do with texts” with “thinking clearly,” let alone making sense of the cultural world. Maybe sometimes the two activities overlap, but maybe sometimes they don’t.

Actually, in my small part of the real world, they seldom do. For one thing, people in the real world aren’t dealing with these things called “texts.” They’re rushing through life, busy with other stuff, taking in bits and pieces of this and that, some of which may cohere and some of which may not. They may have the chance to pause for a few minutes over some item or other, but it’s as likely to be the op-ed page (or the what-to-buy page in a fashion mag) as it is to be anything literary.

I put the word “text” in quotes (as I put “analyze” in quotes) because, as academics use the word, it’s a jargon term. It sounds neutral, but it’s a loaded view of written-or-printed stuff. It suggests that these materials don’t fully exist until they’ve been analyzed, for one thing. (In fact, many of them are meant to be experienced. And any analysis—without quotes—that doesn’t take into account the experience of the experience, if you will, is going to be misleading.) In the real world, kids often need to be shaken out of their overschooled determination to “analyze” “texts” before they can actually begin to function. They need to learn how to connect with their instincts, their guts, and their tastes, and they need to learn how to connect those up with a variety of practical skills. “Analyzing” “texts” in the academic way might get you A’s in school. But it isn’t going to be of much use to you as a person in publishing, writing or the media. And it isn’t of much use to people who read for pleasure and information either. It’s—a lot of the time, anyway—just something academics do.

By Michael Blowhard on 04/15/05 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read this thread and feel like I’m suffocating.How do you lit-crit people do this without drowning.
Try this for a nostrum:

And try to be nice to eachother, that way I’ll know that all this literature meant something.

By on 04/15/05 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael B, I think that one of the things that gzombie does study is the history of publishing and the way books and literature get out in the community and what they do there.

I have my own beefs with Theory, etc., but gzombie is not really the person to take them to (as I found out a couple of days ago). He represents something different.

Some of his tone come from the fact that he’s just tired of seeing English departments be the whipping boy. lurking behind all this is a lot of the David Horowitz / Ward Churchill type uproar.

Some of the attackers of academe won’t be satisfied until evolution is made optional in biology departments (and maybe dissection too, if the animal-righters sign up), so maybe our pissing and moaning should be moderated to a degree. Nobody can bitch like I can, but I’m wary of making the wrong kind of friends.

By John Emerson on 04/15/05 at 05:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Minstream makes the best point yet ...

John—I often find it impossible not to talk at cross purposes when I yak with many academics. They go on about their research, which I wish well but generally couldn’t care less about; and about the glories of the intellectual life; and about the evils of those who think ill of academia. (Academics have got their straw men too.) None of which really concerns me. I’m 30 years out of academia, glad to be gone. And a college board member I know tells me that the institution of tenure isn’t going to last much longer, so even my vindictive side feels at peace.

What does concern me is how badly kids coming out of college seem to be educated, and how poorly prepared for life they are. I’m consumer-centric: what kind of service are academics rendering to the rest of us? If they’re mal-educating kids, if they’re filling kids’ heads with lots of zanily unrealistic ideas, and if they’re equipping kids with skills that are hindrances rather than helps, then why not say so? There are no doubt wonderful teachers who are performing miracles against heavy odds, and gzombie and Zipzap are probably two of them. But they don’t seem to have gotten to many of the kids I run across.

I dunno: out in the private sector, we don’t generally turn every conversation into an argument about principles, the way academics do. We try to be grateful for feedback, and to do our best to learn from it ...

By Michael Blowhard on 04/15/05 at 07:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I think a straw man version of ‘appreciate’ is being put forth here”

Oh, there are lots of straw men being put forth in these conversations. No need to single me out, as flattered as I am by your doing so. ;-)

By gzombie on 04/16/05 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael B., much as I sympathize with most of your point of view, even out here in the private sector, when I hear “feedback” that consists of hostile generalizations (actual quote: “It doesn’t seem like programmers actually _do_ anything for a living"), I frankly just try to ignore it.

G. Zombie, I’ve done wrong by letting my exasperation keep me from publicly agreeing with you on your basic points: Literary scholars manage to produce some wonderful work under very difficult conditions, and most complainers about the state of literary scholarship don’t show much evidence of having tried to seek that work out. (As I wrote at C.T., though, it is exasperating to try and to be blocked.)

For whatever it’s worth, I think our core intent (in most cases) is not to attack literary scholarship, but to make its conditions less difficult. I admit it’s not terribly clear that arguments like these help, though. Their main appeal seems to be that they’re easy to get into.

Dan, this is very late down the thread to make this comment, but Left Center Left is a “political and cultural” weblog by a film studies major. It’s probably not a great place from which to draw conclusions about the state of literary study. (I have seethingly hostile opinions of my own regarding academic film studies, but those can wait. Indefinitely, probably.)

By Ray Davis on 04/16/05 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray:  Perhaps, but I would maintain that much of what I’ve said about literary study applies to film study as well.

By Daniel Green on 04/16/05 at 01:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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