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Literary Literacy

From Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 May 1997.
Commissioned "Opinion" piece


The job crisis for English and Comparative Literature PhDs is now a fact of life, but thus far responses to that crisis, as published in various professional journals, have been, at best, cosmetic. They fall into roughly four categories:

(1) Denial. Things, we hear especially from Modern Language Association (MLA) officials, are not really that bad Why, this year there were forty more jobs advertised than last! And besides, why must PhDs in English necessarily teach? Look at the good jobs in Silicon Valley. What these officials don't say is that the "new" academic jobs are almost invariably at shaky institutions in out-of-the way places or possibly in Singapore! And, yes, designing software and websites can be very exciting but does one really need to have spent eight years getting a PhD in English in order to qualify?

(2) Doom and Gloom. In the MLA journal Profession 1996, J. Hillis Miller (Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, UC Irvine) writes movingly about the demise of the great research university, as built on the German model devised by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the early nineteenth century, a model that has "lasted until quite recently, at least as an ideal, in the United States. It is now rapidly coming to an end." "What possible role." asks Miller, "can literary study have in the new "technological transnational university" with its "business-world model of productivity"? All we can do, he concludes sadly, is "to take stock" and "to think out ways to justify what we do in the humanities."

(3) The "How To" Model. In the most recent ADE [Associated Departments of English] Bulletin (Winter 1996), a number of department chairs and deans give practical advice as to how to hold on to faculty budget lines or squeeze new ones out of recalcitrant administrators. How-Toers have oddly adopted the language of corporate management. Thus Carol Christ (Vice Chancellor and Provost, UC-Berkeley) writes, "Another way to maximize leverage for faculty positions is to build on partnerships," and she questions the value of excessive "investment" in graduate programs. And Suzanne Gossett (former Chair of the English department, Loyola University, Chicago) suggests that members of a department who want, to hire, say, a nineteenth-century specialist, are more likely to get a budget line if "they are shrewd enough to ask for someone working in gender studies or cultural studies or the new historicism."

(4) Storming the Barricades. In a number of provocative articles in Academe, Profession, and Social Change, Cary Nelson (Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) has argued that graduate students are now the exploited class; in English, for example, they do a large amount of the departmental teaching for miserably small salaries and miserable future job prospects. They often have no benefits and no protection. Nelson's solution: students must unionize, they must form political action committees, they must attack the MLA and their own university administrations, and the MLA itself must have a new governing structure so it can lobby effectively with state and federal legislators. For Nelson and like-minded radical colleagues, the student movement is the heir to the labor movement of the thirties, and the watchword is "Strike!"

I have a good deal of sympathy for Nelson's position, challenging, as it does, the large-scale inertia of the profession. But, practically speaking, Nelson and his colleagues are whistling in the dark. As recents statistics in the Chronicle remind us,in 1996 prospective English majors constitute less than 2% of entering freshmen. Graduate programs around the country are an endangered species. The idea, then, that legislators will respond to lobbying by the President or other officers of the MLA is wonderfully absurd. If, moreover, graduate students refuse to teach their sections, those same legislators will hire even more part-timers or, in the new cyber-university, will institute computer courses in Freshman Composition that require no live instructors at all.

Indeed, what I find troubling about all of the above "solutions" is their tacit assumption that what we're currently doing is ipso facto valuable, and so we need only convince "them" (hostile legislators, right-wing operatives, technocrats, media representatives) to give it financial support. Accordingly, when Cary Nelson takes up the cause of the oppressed graduate student, he never asks what I take to be the central question in this whole discussion: what is it that graduate students (or their professors) teach and who needs it? What, in other words, is the rationale for our discipline today? What is its urgency? And why should the taxpayer support us?

My own sense is that the time has come to stop blaming "them" and start taking some of the blame ourselves. "Reagan-Bush" is too easy a target (especially now that a Democratic president who claims to care deeply about education has been in office for more than four years!), and so is transnational capital. Rather, it's time to ask why, say, the citizens of California, who once cared a great deal about the strength of higher education, are now so apathetic, especially about what we do in the Humanities. And why, in response to this apathy, do administrators transfer budget lines from English to Engineering or Economics?

It is not enough to say that citizens and educators are motivated by mere greed, that they want undergraduates to learn only practical subjects that lead directly to jobs and hence care nothing for those who teach in the Humanities. For when did an English or Comparative Literature major ever lead to a specific job? No, I think the public is fed up with the contentless curriculum of current literature programs. There is a strong sense that these programs don't teach a particular or coherent body of knowledge and hence are expendable. And there is surely something to this critique.

Enrollment in advanced courses in Economics (e.g., International Trade Theory, Public Finance and Taxation, or Econometrics) is invariably contingent upon successful completion of an introductory course in Economic Principles. The supposition is that the basics must be mastered before one can proceed. The same holds true for Mathematics, Psychology, the Biological and Physical Sciences, and Engineering. Philosophy and History have various prerequisites. But English Literature? In our "discipline," there are either no requirements except numerical ones (so and so many courses), or, as is the case at Stanford, we pay lip service to outmoded notions of "coverage" and canonicity. I say outmoded because the coverage of the various historical periods and areas assures nothing except that a sizable number of books will be somehow "read," and read, moreover, in any order the student chooses. "Taking" a course in Shakespeare or Milton or even Virginia Woolf may not mean what conservative advocates like Lynn Cheney or William Bennett think it does.

For what is "reading" anyway? If we judge by the scholarly articles and books English professors are currently publishing, the theory-of-the-day (and this inevitably has a trickle-down effect in the undergraduate classroom) is a form of cultural unmasking and exposure we might call "Gotcha!" "Gotcha," the professor demonstrates, "you thought Emily Dickinson was a brilliant feminist poet, but you know what? She was motivated by class interests as can be seen in her lack of concern for factory women!" Or-- gotcha!--the first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, long thought to be a subversive masterpiece, was purposely priced out of the reach of the common reader-- a case of collusion, if ever there was one, between author, bookseller, and capitalist investor. Again, the main interest of Heart of Darkness-- gotcha!-- is that it exposes Joseph Conrad as the imperialist and colonialist he really was! As for that so-called avant-gardist Gertrude Stein--gotcha!"--did you know that in old age she was ready to collaborate with the proto-Nazi Pétain government?

What are undergraduates, especially the 98% who are not majors and may never take another English course, supposed to do with these bits of information, all of which come, by the way, from actual articles recently published in prestigious journals? Since they were not around when Conrad was taught as something other than a colonialist or racist, or when, in the case of Ulysses, the Homeric parallels. symbolist leitmotifs, and rhetorical devices were the object of study, and since they have probably never studied nineteenth-century American history or Victorian and Edwardian politics, much less the situation in Occupied France in the early 1940s, the literary "revelations" in question suggest nothing so much as that the works in question are too objectionable to be worth studying in the first place.

What should be taught rather than this meaningless identity politics model, which will, in any case, be replaced in a few years by other models, even as it has replaced earlier movements from the New Criticism to the New Historicism, is literary literacy. If you don't believe there is such a thing, think of visual or musical literacy. I know how difficult it must be to attain the latter because I don't have it: I cannot discuss a piece of music in any analytic or critical way, although of course "I know what I like." The notion that everyone can read literature just because he or she knows how to read, is, I think, the fallacy that has gotten us where we are (or rather, are not) at the present moment.

My prerequiste course or courses would allow instructors to use whatever literary texts they find most congenial, the more complex and open to interpretation the better, so as to have their students think about basic literary problems. What is a narrative anyway? When and why is narrative more effective than exposition? What is a line break and how does lineated writing, otherwise known as poetry, differ from writing all the way to the right margin? How does one know when the words of a first-person speaker in a given poem are ironic? How are time and space represented in language? Why don't Western poets write epics any more, and what do we make of the resurgence of epic in the literature of emergent nations? And, most important, what is the relationship of literature to life? Are they equivalent? Must literature be "realistic"? And, by the way, what is realism? The openness of that particular question was brought home to me recently when a professor objected to the "blindness" of a set of sequential photographs of automobile culture along the Los Angeles boulevards made by the artist Robbert Flick on the grounds that "There are more people on Pico than he shows! Unless of course he shot those pictures at 6 A.M.!" Is the artist's role, I asked the questioner, to present a given scene "accurately"? And "accurately" according to whom?

Choosing appropriate texts for the introductory course I am describing is by no means equivalent to "anything goes." On the contrary. One can't exactly discuss the meaning of epic without reading some epics, but I would not prescribe which epic must be read. Or again, the question of "realism" with its corollary that "realism" is a convention like any other, insures that the instructor will choose a representative example: say, a novella by Chekhov or novel by George Eliot, perhaps vis-a-vis some "hyperreal" fiction being written today. Again, the analysis of time and space in the novel won't get very far if the work in question is a standard pop novel, selected for its "relevant" subject matter but indifferent to questions of language and form. And the analysis of line breaks quickly teaches students how much skill it takes--has always taken--to create a poetic structure.

The what, in other words, doesn't matter nearly as much as the how. This is why the canon wars of the 1980s have proved to be such a colossal distraction. For even as we have endlessly debated what authors to read or not to read in a given course, we have rarely discussed what "reading" is or does. If a stiff course on the practice of reading and writing-- known, once upon a time, as rhetoric-- were the prerequisite for all further work in the English Department, there would, I believe, be much more interest in our discipline. "Creative Reading," as Charles Bernstein has dubbed it in his SUNY-Buffalo poetry courses, is a discipline that can be taught even though there will be much disagreement as to particulars. I have never, in any case, met a student who wasn't interested in the basic questions I pose above. And students who, for example, go on to law school regularly tell me that studying literary literacy has helped them immeasurably in reading legal briefs and weighing evidence.

I believe the citizens of my state, California, would be much more inclined to vote funds for the Humanities if they felt their children were accumulating such cultural capital. As for the Humbolditian research university Hillis Miller mourns, it may well be that the German model has had its day. That model, after all, was based on a definable corpus of Classical and European literature. Add to that corpus three centuries of American literature, as well as the burgeoning literatures of other nations (beginning with other English-speaking nations like Australia and Canada!), and it becomes clear that no one can "cover" the field of "English Literature," much less of literature in general. Accordingly, once the student has completed the basic prerequiste course or courses, choices should be flexible and custom-made. If student X is writing an honors thesis on Eliot and Pound, a course on Dante will be more useful than one on Piers Plowman. Indeed, it may even be that the study of a new "cutting edge" field like video art (an amalgam of the visual, verbal, and aural) may be more challenging for a given student than, say, a course in the fiction of Victorian England, even when that fiction is dressed up as a branch of Feminist Studies or Postcolonial Theory so as to be "relevant." The study of specific literatures comes and goes, the biggest coming we have seen in recent years being that of African-American literature, now one of the most interesting sites for questions about narrative, oral transmission, and the problems of realism.

But what will never go away, even if we cannot define its exact parameters, is a passion for literature itself. Indeed, the drive to produce as well as to understand the various literary forms cannot be squelched. From discussion groups on the World Wide Web to adult reading groups in every small town in the U.S., from the growing number of poetry cafes to informal theatre groups, people are expressing a desire to read, with a measure of understanding, the great literary works. If we could draw even a fraction of these people back into the classroom, we would have plenty of students and hence, in the long run, a demand for plenty of professors. It is the will, not the funding, that is currently lacking.

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