Friday, March 28, 2008
William Deresiewicz in “The Nation,” And a “Long Sunday” Blogger’s Response
It’s been said many times that English enrollments have declined nationally because of “theory,” but that’s been shown, I think conclusively, not to be true. (A starting point might be this 2003 ADE report (PDF), which shows that the biggest decline in the number of English majors happened in the 1970s and 80s, though there was some recovery from the losses in the early 1990s—notably, the peak of the culture wars moment. But the ADE’s report also suggests there’s been a general decline in the Arts & Sciences as a whole; more and more students are getting degrees in other parts of the university, such as engineering, business, education, and the life sciences. A much smaller proportion of college degrees now are B.A.s than used to be. In short, the problem is not the turn to “theory” or the “epochal loss of confidence” Deresiewicz talks about, but a structural change in American higher education.)
Then, proceed to Ads Without Products, for CR’s response. The most striking observation for me had to do with the frame—what does it mean that Deresiewicz is publishing this essay in The Nation?
This move on Deresiewicz’s part feels like consummate culture wars base-touching, like he’s filling out the form that a venue like The Nation require those who would write on the literary humanities to complete before proceeding to other issues and arguments. (Why The Nation, ostensibly a left magazine, would implicitly condone or even require this sort of move is a long, long story, and one that is bound up with both micro-histories of the long standing academy vs. grub street turf war that has been going on in NYC for a long time as well as macro-histories of the anti-intellectualism of the American journalistic left… More on this another day…) (link)
Obviously, one wants to hear the “more on this” part, but there’s still quite a bit to chew on here as is.
I was puzzled to see this piece in The Nation, though the essay itself is a species that’s become pretty common. As an Old Guy in a Humanities department, I can tell you that there are a lot of Old Guys—& some Young Guys, too—in Humanities departments who continue to nurse personal grudges against Theory even as Theory morphs into something else. The aggrieved tone is ubiquitous in this sort of complaint. In my own field, the Ur-text is Dana Gioia’s mid-1990s essay in The Atlantic titled “Can Poetry Matter?” (The answer was: Only the kind of poetry I approve of.) The essay attacked MFA programs and celebrated, I don’t know, James Whitcomb Riley and rap* as antidotes to the perceived malaise that had fallen over American poetry because a lot of kids were getting master’s degrees. As a subscriber to The Atlantic since high school, I felt betrayed and never got round to renewing it. I’m having similar thoughts about The Nation.
*What rap CD do you suppose Gioia listens to as he drives to work in the morning?
What attracts students to study poetry?
One answer to this question might be the pleasure that accompanies the contemplation of complex and beautiful speech.
Ads Without Products seems to agree in the comments section, where (s)he writes, regarding the future of the discipline:
I tend to think that what I’m going to say has first of all something to do with the aesthetic, or even the beautiful. And it further has something to do with a changed sense of what it is that we might do (something like moving out of the frames of critique and historicization and toward, well, creation, and the support thereof.
The problem with the sort of critical history that counts as rigor these days is that--and Nietzsche noted this long ago--it tends to undermine the support or creation or admiration of excellence.
I wonder whether allowing and encouraging students to be dazzled by what Stephen Greenblatt has called the “wonder” of a poem--instead of immediately calling attention to the forces surrounding its production and consumption--might allow them to see something noble in the study of poetry that is not easily found elsewhere.
This all sounds incredibly old-fashioned, I am aware; but something like this is the desire I hear voiced, more and more often. It may be that we are witnessing a return to something like a theory inflected aesthetics, or that we are at least evincing some small amount of discomfort with our own ressentiment.
Cross-posted at “Ads Without Products”:
Undergraduate Literature majors become Literature majors because they first and foremost love “stories.” And one of the reasons that Literature majors were often the best and the brightest is that all learning passes through “story”. (All sorts of research on learning and cognition has arrived at this conclusion for quite some time now: story, story, story — even in the teaching and learning of the sciences and technology — story, story, story.)
And yet, “story” is precisely what English departments have primarily abandoned. Rather than have the “stories” of the texts call the tune of the course, the faculty have been doing the “story-telling” — and the stories have been of the faculty’s preoccupations and “literary approaches” and not necessarily the “stories”: the preoccupations of the literary works themselves.
In short, it is the professionalization of the undergraduate curriculum, its transformation by faculty into a pseudo-graduate program (that the faculty wish they could always teach at/in), that has destroyed the Literature major on American campuses.
This is not a defense and illustration of specialisation by periodisation (Xth century literature, etc.) but rather a pleading for a return to the texts of literature (written and visual and auditory), a return to reading and seeing and hearing, a return to their attendant pleasures and, often, their pain.
American students would kill to become Literature majors — if only we’d let them.
Blood Meridian, indirectly, led me to a very apt word: argology. (He was not the first to westward ho “argonaut.")
It really all comes back to Virginia Woolf’s commentary on the arrogance of the teaching of English (in “Three Guineas"), doesn’t it?
AHA, I’d love to know when this golden age of college English went down, when men were men and English professors taught the love of stories.
Classical literature training was always about grammar, history, and rhetorical training. (See Graff for great examples of how rote and superficial this could often be.)
New Criticism was barely about story. One of the critiques of the New Criticism that has stuck was its inability to deal with, and hence its neglect of, long fiction.
Ironically, it was Theory that brought to the Anglo-American world many of tools we still use to talk about story. Kenneth Burke and Wayne Booth and Northrop Frye all pushed in this direction, but none of them stirred the sort of “mass movement” that Theory did. Russian formalism, dialogism, structuralism, *S/Z*, narratology: all of these focused explicitly not only on the formal nature of fiction but on the types of fictions that were possible at during periods. Props to Propp.
To argue that English departments should cater simply to the students’ “love of reading” is like saying math departments should just be about solving textbook math problems. Or that vet school should just be about the love of animals.
English departments do need to remember that they are not training hundreds of future literature scholars. They are training teachers, lawyers, journalists, copywriters, editors, and so on. Which is why attention to how language works; how history affects styles and ideas; how the genres have risen and changed throughout the centuries; how a writer builds a significant form; etc. is necessary. Art appreciation ain’t gonna do much for the aspiring lawyer.
wj suggests that we may be “witnessing a return to something like a theory inflected aesthetics”; this is something like what Ronan McDonald proposes in his recent (rather tendentious) book The Death of the Critic. Though I’ve been skeptical of academic fads myself over the years, I thought both McDonald and Deresiewicz gave too little (namely, no) credence to the possibility that scholars actually believe in what they are doing:
Deresiewicz, for instance, in arguing that the “profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers,” apparently does not entertain the possibility that departments might be genuinely embracing the priorities he sees reflected in the latest wave of job ads, rather than cravenly appeasing their undergraduates. McDonald similarly attributes most changes in critical practice to everything but the conviction that the method in question might have intrinsic merit, as when, discussing the establishment of English “as a university discipline” in the early 20th century, he says that the critics of the time “sought to imbue [English] with some procedural and disciplinary muscle” (89). No doubt showing that English could have “procedural and disciplinary muscle” was crucial to proving its academic credibility, but McDonald repeatedly implies the primacy of self-interest over scholarly commitment--a move which in turn bespeaks a hermeneutics of suspicion on his part to match any he might point to in ‘cultural studies.’ Both of these writers, in other words, seem to consider their colleagues and peers singularly unprincipled and opportunistic--or (a bit more generously, as they might prefer to be interpreted) they see them as particularly susceptible to fads because they lack foundational commitments (Deresiewicz) or have tried too hard for too long to appear what they are not, namely scientists (McDonald). (more here if you want)
A theoretically informed aestheticism seems something like what Denis Donoghue has called for (in The Practice of Reading, for instance). But I don’t know what to make of McDonald’s call for more “evaluative” criticism. It reminds me of a game my kids and I play that we call “Which do you prefer?” It’s only really interesting if we have to give reasons (Mary Poppins or The Wizard of Oz? Ratatouille or The Curse of the Were-Rabbit?)
Well, the English Department of the pre-coed Yale spawned graduates like Alexander Smith Cochrane (a wealthy, gentleman’s-C student) who, inspired by his Shakespeare course with William Lyon Phelps (I hope I’m getting all the details right, here—it’s been so many decades since I was chair of the club’s admissions committee), collected first editions around the world (First Folio, quartos, etc.), bought a house on the edge of the Yale “campus” and established/endowed therein the Elizabethan Club and those vaulted textual treasures—where, said he, student- and faculty-members could drink tea every day and have “free and unaffected conversation” which he felt was lacking at Yale.
So, even in the “good old (boy) days”, the English literature students missed “free and unaffected” discussion about literature.
No one doubts that knowledge of rhetoric and the powers of verbal and written language are what English departments should foster—but, heck, they have deliberately ghetto-ized that function in the adjunct faculty who staff the “writing programs” and have reserved “literature” for the “happy few”, the tenure-stream-lined, the arrogant....
No, clearly, the question remains: “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Three Guineas’?”
What’s puzzling is that an ostensibly left magazine would apparently cast around for every possible explanation other than an economic one.
Oh, there’s economics all over the original article in “The Nation”. The word is even explicity used to describe the “practical” major which more/most Yale students appear to be choosing. And there are sprinkles of the economic issues facing universities—little bits of frosting—here and there, and everywhere.
Indeed, the article starts the analysis of the condition of Literature with the “MLA Job List”. (If that ain’t economics....) But if the reader isn’t familiar with that publication, s/he will not know that the evolution of the demographics of those job advertisements presents complexities that the author refuses to raise. Yeah, the majority of those positions aren’t even in literature (why is that, old boy?)—but are they even tenure-track, or full-time, or do they pay a real, living wage? Not a word.
In other words, the author presents the “history” of all Literature departments as the history of English departments as the history of formal approaches to literary analysis (i.e. criticism). From this article, you’d never know that Literature could exist outside of an English department (oh right, that’s another completely different “MLA Job List"). Or that “Literature” itself is a multi-lingual, multi-media phenomenon and an evolving collective noun....
The article is full of that arrogance that Virginia Woolf decried...in full bloom (pardon all the puns).
The “idea of literature” is facing perhaps its greatest challenge in all recorded history today in the Internet age—as new genres are born seemingly every other minute, as languages are globalizing and nations are balkanizing essentially at the same time, as literacy is now not only linear but spatial as well—yet the author of the article gravely proclaims that the whole profession has nowhere to go but the graveyard.
Yeah, English departments are dying all right; it’s economics, but it’s the economics of self-righteous arrogance in the 21st century.
English departments insist on starving in the midst of a garden of linguistic plenty—and so, starve they will. For they want life only on their old terms, their own terms, their solipsistic, exploitative-of-contingent labor terms.
Where is “faculty collegiality” in that article about the job list? “Collegiality” not in the sense of civility but its etymology: “bound together"-ness? From the Ivy-ory Tower, the professor bemoans above all the loss of literary critical paradigms—with the new (Kuhnian) inter-cultural paradigm shift evident all around him.
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him think....”
“The King is dead. Long live the King!”
But I don’t know what to make of McDonald’s call for more “evaluative” criticism.
Inertia? Lack of imagination? It was an issue when I was an undergraduate back in the late 1960s. I mean, I’ve got my complaints about the discipline, but I get tired of hearing “Theory” criticized in terms similar to those that an older generation used to complain about whatever it was the proceeded Theory. Makes me wonder whether or not these people are actually thinking in any serious way.
Undergraduate Literature majors become Literature majors because they first and foremost love “stories.” And one of the reasons that Literature majors were often the best and the brightest is that all learning passes through “story”.
Here’s CP Snow, reporting to us from that Golden Age of college English:
I think you can romanticize students’ reasons for not going into science. Largely its very hard work. Very much harder work than any arts subject except a difficult language. You really have got to spend most of your student life thinking about what you are doing. Well people don’t like that. Much easier to do English, or Sociology, or something where there is no hard content.
(Incidentally, for all that research on learning and cognition has arrived at this conclusion for quite some time now: story, story, story — even in the teaching and learning of the sciences and technology — story, story, story. it remains nevertheless true that it hasn’t been students of stories who have cured polio, built airplanes, discovered antibiotics, built artificial hearts, vulcanized rubber, created nylon, developed the transistor, invented the laser, or put a man on the moon. Not that there is anything wrong with studying stories. Some of my best friends have Ph.D.’s in literature.)
Here are some excerpts from Edward O. Wilson on “The Power of Story” (and, incidentally, on C. P. Snow) from American Educator, Spring 2002, 8-11:
“Science consists of millions of stories like the finding of New Jersey’s dawn ants. These accounts—some electrifying, most pedestrian—become science when they can be tested and woven into cause-and-effect explanations to become part of humanity’s material worldview.”
“With new tools and models, neuroscientists have joined cognitive psychologists in drawing closer to an understanding of the conscious mind as a narrative generator. Working on the same questions from different perspectives, neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, and even evolutionary biologists are converging on a common theory of the brain: It develops stories to filter and make sense of the flood of information that we are exposed to every day. [...]
In contrast, the scientific method is not natural to the human mind. [...]
The reason, again, is the innate constraints of the human brain.”
“So, how can we make science human and enjoyable without betraying its nature? The answer lies in humans’ innate capacity to understand narrative.”
“Because science, told as a story, can intrigue and inform the non-scientific minds among us, it has the potential to bridge the two cultures into which civilization is split—the sciences and the humanities. [...] This split is a huge problem. It is, if you will permit a scientist a strong narrative-laden metaphor, the central challenge of education in the 21st century.”
“Because science, told as a story, can intrigue and inform the non-scientific minds among us"
No doubt true.
Nevertheless, Wilson is not saying that you can *do* science through story-telling. That requires, as CP Snow hinted and EO Wilson here elaborates, the very hard work of training your mind to strategies of learning that aren’t innate and aren’t narrative.
Furthermore, I don’t exactly see how EO Wilson’s remarks do anything more than re-emphasize my slightly snarky point. Anyone can do the things that are innate. But it may take the best and brightest to manage those ways of learning and knowing the world that aren’t innate.
Or did you mean something else by the passage?
Innate? So scientists have transcended their human nature while the rest of us are mucking about with nothing but our instincts? Boy howdy, I have heard me some scientism in my time, but that’s pretty much the most reductive version of the tendency I’ve seen.
Yeesh, so much work for so little a snark.
Read it how you like, but if doing science were natural and “innate” (Wilson’s words, brought to us approvingly by the Anti-Hypocrisy Advocate) we’d have had it as long as we have had language and stories, dontcha think?
Take as much offense as you like.
Offense? Snark? Trying to keep the tone light, actually. Just making an observation. I don’t think arguments that appeal to innateness take us very far. And what such arguments have to do with the subject of the post is, well, puzzling. And I can’t tell what A-HA is arguing, honestly. But then I tend to not take very seriously comments by people who post under pseudonyms dripping with self-regard, especially when those people don’t have the courage to even leave a live email link.
Chronicle Careers article (3/31/08):
“Why I Prefer to Remain Anonymous”
I’m familiar with the reasons for anonymity online; when combined with your pseudonym, however, anonymity becomes, rhetorically, a stance of moral superiority. The tone of your posts confirms the suspicion engendered by pseudonym. You want to stand outside the discussion & comment without consequences. So, perhaps your job or social relations would be endangered by revealing your true identity (though we know you were the admissions chairman of a specific club at Yale “decades ago”—unless you’re making that up as well). Fine, use your anonymity as cover, but forgive me for not taking you seriously. And for ignoring you in future. Anonymity has advantages & confers a certain power. It also puts the reader on notice that the writer will bear no responsibility for his or her words.
[Since my last posting (which is also about what E. O. Wilson has to do with this thread) got lost in cyberspace, let me try it again....]
Perhaps another excerpt from E. O. Wilson might be of interest (one of the [...] from the above-cited article: “The Power of Story"):
“One way of teaching science, which I adopted during 40 years of teaching at Harvard, is to begin with the big topics that mean something immediate and important to students. These are the same topics that great works of literature and philosophy attempt to address. For example: What is life? What’s the meaning of life? In the case of Joy Hakim’s story of the atom that follows, what’s our world made of? How do we find out? And so on. Once you’ve got the attention of the audience, then you break the big questions down into stories, little dramas, that expose the trial and error process of science and the ideas that animate and move it forward.
Most educated people who are not profssionals in the field do not understand science and technology, despite the profound effect of these juggernauts of modernity on every aspect of their lives. Symmetrically, most scientists are semiliterate journeymen with respect to the humanities. They are thus correspondingly removed from the heart and spirit of our species. This split is a huge proglem. It is, if you will permit a scientist a strong narrative-laden metaphor, the central challenge of education in the 21st century.”
Reading an “anonymous” posting means never having to say you’re sorry....
If you’re a gay teenager or an untenured assistant professor, go ahead & post anonymously. Otherwise, it’s BS.
There’s a difference between pseudonymity and anonymity. There’s a lot of problems when people post anonymously, especially when they change their “name” each time. There are a lot of people with long-term pseudonyms, which generally isn’t a problem. “Rich Puchalsky” isn’t a pseudonym, “Luther Blissett” is (well, actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that), but I don’t see any difference between how people would deal with posts from one or the other.