Tuesday, October 26, 2010
When “English” Isn’t Literature
This video is going around under the title of “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?” It probably has some relevance across the liberal arts, but the piece is more narrowly about the declining role of traditional literary scholarship in English studies, a topic I’ve written about before.
I’m particularly interested because I’m heading my (English) department’s curriculum committee this year and surveying student reaction to concentrations we’re considering. We haven’t even finished collecting responses, but it seems clear that many students from a wide variety of majors remain interested in at least some areas of traditional literary study for personal interest, or to fulfill a distribution requirement.
But when you ask what interests might lead students to make the larger commitment to a minor in English, or a major, the picture tilts. So far, science, business and other humanities majors say they are most likely to consider a minor in English in a diverse set of fields that I would characterize as either a) involving the production of texts, ie, writing or b) the intersection of disciplines.
I think we often miss the forest for the trees when we look at student interests: unless they’re an English major, we see our other students under labels that seem to clearly parcel them out into different camps: creative writer, business communications student, first-year student in composition.
But when we strand those various interests together under a single heading--writing or textual production, we start to see that these groups are often the same people--just with a writerly orientation to English, rather than a readerly one.
It’s actually quite common for non-majors, including business and science students, to take creative writing classes. But what offerings would lead them toward the further commitment of a minor in English?
As it turns out, these generally also involve textual production: writing in digital environments; business, scientific, legal, and medical writing; communication for advocacy, public discourse and social change.
Not surprisingly: students whose primary interests are science, business, or another humanities field are less likely to name literature and cultural studies concentrations as an incentive to consider an English minor or major.
When they do, however, so far in this limited study, the most popular seem to involve interdisciplinary subjects: film, women’s studies, spirituality and literature, digital culture.
I’m just starting to think through this particular survey and what it might mean for just one department.
One working hypothesis might be that we can count on a certain, slowly declining level of enrollments in individual classes and the major based on the love of literature. Students still find literature interesting, some passionately enough to major in it, pursue graduate study, etc--only fewer and fewer every year.
One strategy to build enrollments might be, as the MLA has--in my view, rather ridiculously--to sell literary studies as a nostrum for all that ails you. My guess would be that this approach won’t work (because it’s been tried, and usually fails, except where it serves as the justification for a set of requirements). In any event, it lacks intellectual credibility, at least in the form MLA has tried.
A better approach might begin by acknowledging that “literature” is an increasingly poor description of the interests of faculty and students in English.
Much of the most interesting faculty work for decades has been on writing that doesn’t easily fit within the traditional meaning of literary studies per se. As I wrote in the earlier piece, some of the most interesting work in my own department is being done on economic writers; Pacific revolutionary discourse; nineteenth-century elocution and reform; contemporary management theory; self-help, leadership, and spirituality; eighteenth-century sermons and other religious speech, and headmistress memoir—and evidently headmistresses with the souls of accountants, not poets.
In practical terms, this could mean that the figure of writing plays a larger role in the way we present and organize our curriculum, with less and less privileging of a specifically literary history.
Getting to the point where an English department can comfortably say “we’re all interested in writers and writing” might make a big difference in how we value each other, how we distribute resources, and in our reception on campus and beyond.
I think the increasing relevance and popularity of rhetoric, creative writing, and cultural studies in English departments has been obvious since the 80s, maybe longer, but I guess it never really occurred to me that would have to correlate with a diminishing interest in literary studies. I mean, I assumed the tent would get bigger. And maybe it did: I wish you had a survey from 1980 to find out whether the number of students interested in minoring in English has increased overall.
I’m not saying it’s likely, but the truth may be that your department’s appeal is now larger even though university administrators never noticed and kept the faculty size the same, more or less accidentally enforcing an economy where literary studies declined as more interests were accommodated.
Do students planning to teach in schools not take English courses? That’s interesting.
I was a physics undergrad, and I picked up a minor in English because of an excellent overlap in interests and courses that counted for credit. My university offered both Fantasy Literature and Science Fiction Literature classes, and the science fiction professor was also the head of the creative writing department. Those two classes, two fiction writing classes, and a journalism focused editing class and I had a minor.
I think the larger avoidance/lack of draw of the literary classes is that it isn’t readily apparent that the courses or the English degree which requires them will necessarily prepare a student for a job, and the aspect of the degree which does sell is the part which teaches the student how to write various kinds of texts. Knowing the influence of Christianity on Dostoyevsky or Thomas Hardy’s interpretation of British morality is interesting, but they aren’t exactly easily marketable bits of knowledge.
The idea that we should be focused on the kinds of things Bousquet lists as the most interesting work in his department seems odd. The problem facing english departments is less a declining student interest in literature than the ridicule to which the interdisciplinary efforts of english professors are treated in most departments outside english, and in the public at large. Does Bousquet think we will siphon students off from economics by our own ‘writing about economists’?Judging by book sales and enrollments in the universities I’ve worked at, there is a robust public interest in literature. The challenge for us is to find new models and strategies for projecting the worth of our scholarship and teaching.
Isn’t it possible that your own department shows the reasons why students are frustrated with English departments? As far as scholarship goes, the kind of training needed to properly understand/analyze “economic writers,” “Pacific revolutionary discourse,” “contemporary management theory,” or “self-help, leadership, and spirituality” appears to be training in economics and history, rather than literature. And that students who are interested in “producing texts,” or hell just writing better, would be best served by classes in expository writing?
One question I have, as a scholar who (uncomfortably) combines a very traditional interest in canonical literature with much more practical interests in rhetoric, writing and cultural studies is how to combine those interests in a literature class. My usual experience is that most literary scholars’ research is more cultural-studies-ish than their teaching. But the teaching of literature evolved that way because (frankly) it’s easier (and doable) to teach close reading, and much more difficult to acquaint students with a cultural studies discourse.
English departments should no longer define themselves primarily as departments of literary interpretation; they must instead define themselves as departments of writing studies. Even if, as one earlier commentator claims, there is a “robust public interest in literature,” it is a fallacy to argue that the way to capitalize on this interest is to try to preserve traditional modes of scholarship and pedagogy. There are many more ways to approach literature than through the narrowly hermeneutic lens that most literary scholars have employed since the early part of the twentieth century. Literature is a kind of writing, but it is only one kind among many. The richest way to understand it is within such a context. Rather than trying to preserve or defend the moribund and myopic ways of academic literary interpretation, English departments need to reinvigorate the study of literature (and of other kinds of writing) by phasing out many of the traditional courses in literature and expanding their offerings in rhetoric and creative writing.
I actually think students would feel more allegiance to the English major if there were a limited number of required books, however traditional, that everyone read.
It’s hard (and lonely) living in a culture where you can never talk to somebody about a book because everybody’s read something different.
Then English becomes a skill, not a field. And a skill that does not belong to it alone, since presumably historians and those in many other fields also know how to write expository prose.
Regarding the assertion that a writing-centered version of English studies “becomes a skill, not a field”: Such a claim is rooted either in ignorance or in intellectual bigotry. The fact that writing is a skill does not preclude it from also being a field of study. Decades of solid scholarship in composition and rhetoric stand as ample evidence of that. And those “historians and those in many other fields” who can write for very narrow purposes and highly specialized audiences are not--simply by virtue of that fact--experts in writing. Like the academic literary critics who dominated English departments throughout the twentieth century, they are practitioners whose (often unarticulated) assumptions about writing apply only to very narrowly circumscribed rhetorical situations.
My comment was a bit laconic. This is what I meant:
The field of composition studies, of which I am well aware, is based on the teaching of a skill. It is an inherently cross-disciplinary skill too. There is no inherent reason why composition and rhetoric should be part of “English” as opposed to communications studies departments, or autonomous departments of rhetoric, or departments of linguistics, or cultural studies. If English departments redefine themselves as composition and rhetoric departments, they will be in the role of service departments for the rest of the university, abandoning a lot of their claims to being a distinctive field of study.
The analogous thing in my field would be if all Spanish departments were departments of 2nd language acquisition. You don’t have to a bigot to see that if research in the field is oriented toward teaching college students a set of skills, then there will be certain disciplinary consequences. You keep rhetoric and abandon poetics, and see what happens.
And speaking of bigotry, “the moribund and myopic ways of academic literary interpretation” is insulting language. Yes, we need more creative writing courses for students who don’t read literature! What exactly are they going to be creating?
I’ll concede that my earlier characterization of literary studies could be construed as insulting. For that, I apologize--though I would also be quick to point out that anyone who works in composition and rhetoric has likely been insulted routinely by literary scholars who believe literary scholarship is an inherently superior activity to work in composition. And such insults are often couched in the language of “skill” and “service.”
I actually agree that there is no inherent reason for composition and rhetoric to be part of English studies. “English” is as much a political and bureaucratic construct as it is a “disciplinary” one.
With that said, I don’t think the teaching of writing automatically ties English to a skill/service orientation. Why can’t it be a scholarly field *and* a skill-building enterprise? Many rhet/comp scholars have been fighting against the “service only” understanding of the field for some now. If we add creative writing to the mix, as part of writing studies, perhaps this becomes an easier fight to win.
And I certainly wouldn’t want literary reading to disappear from English studies--or writing studies. What might change are the *reasons why* we and our students read literature.
Arguments/knee-jerk reactions that want to discount off-hand the suggestion that English departments and curriculum might change and grow along with the rest of the world probably tell us all we need to know about the character of intellectual activity one finds there.
Is this what one learns from extended study of literature: reject immediately anything that is different or makes one feel uncomfortable?
I am quite certain that isn’t the case, but nonetheless we need to recognize the disconnect here between our inability to develop as a discipline and the kind of open-minded inquiry we ask of our students.
I agree that Comp and Rhetoric is a legitimate field of inquiry. I was on some doctoral exam committees as outside faculty member when I taught at Ohio State (I was teaching in the Spanish dept) and was impressed by what I saw, despite the occasional dig at literature which I didn’t appreciate. I think the origin of the prejudice has to do with the development of the field out of a service and pedagogical imperative. Of course, rhetoric has always existed, but composition studies arose out of the self-reflective practice of teaching composition.
Literary analysis and writing go hand in hand, at least from what I’ve experienced teaching 12th graders. I teach writing as a critical response to another text experienced by the reader. And there is an ART to that as well.
Wasn’t there an article in American Scholar not too long ago that posited the disappearance of English depts due to the fact that the departments THEORIZED themselves out of existence?
I humbly submit any grammatical issues in the above statement to the editing trolls…
I thought that one of the strengths of the traditional literary analysis based English major is that it involves large amounts of writing - pretty consistently throughout 4 years - and the writing is judged on its style and rhetorical quality and not just on whether the correct facts are put down in the correct order. That’s how I remember it anyway.
Also re: Shelly -
I was an English major in the early 90s, and despite all the noise about the Canon Wars our curriculum was pretty traditional. Chaucer, Langland, the Elizabethans, Pope, Swift, Dryden, the Romantics, the Victorians & etc. &etc. Yes there was also Beloved and Their Eyes Were Watching God (Yes 2 African American women in 4 years! Get the smelling salts for Mark Bauerlein!). But we basically read and wrote about a lot of standard canonical texts. My impression is that most of the “the profession has lost its way” arguments concern what goes on at the graduate level and beyond.
Has the undergraduate English makor changed that much since the early 90s?
makor = major of course.
My ability to proofread has evidently declined since the early 90s.
It was hard to read Marc Bousquet’s “When ‘English’ Isn’t Literature” as other than a continuation of the script of that video.