Chasing the English Department

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Mark Bernstein writes, concerning William Chace’s article in The American Scholar and in reference to a relevant tweet on knowledge about books and, in addition, “whether there could be a single correct answer to any of the important questions that one might ask of an English professor:

Harvard and Tufts and BU and Brown and Brandeis are right down the street, and they all have English departments who, in principle, know a lot about the structure of books. Or maybe not.

This uncertainty has a deeper consequence for students: if any answer might be defensible, if the whole question is how adeptly you defend your position, then grading is arbitrary and capricious.

Stacy Mason has also weighs in on the article and subject with a narrative response. She writes:

And, indeed, there is a prejudice against “soft” degrees. My parents were furious when I decided to abandon a stable future as a programmer to pursue English. Luckily, that programming background has served me well in the pursuit of electronic literature, and these days I’m proud that I ended up with an English degree.

At the College, we’ve been working on establishing content areas we think are shared by most of the literature courses we teach (in our English Department, we do literature and composition). These subjects fall into broad categories: history, analysis (critical processes), aesthetics, and genre. We struggled with the notion of critical theory but felt that critical approaches, rather than setting them off as a subject category, fit better under the analysis region or rubric. We want to provide some measure of a floor plan in literary studies for students wishing to pursue this later in their educations. Of course, from a practical and biased point of view, I urge students to consider double majoring.

Furthermore, we’re asking lots of questions: how significant is form; how much should we lean on figures of speech; how significant is innovation in genre and style; what are the significant texts? Does anything go? I don’t think so. In graduate school, I made the decision to avoid seeking a Ph.D. Instead I took my MFA, computer science, history, literature, and science background into the work and teaching world in Connecticut. I wasn’t a great fan of critical methods in my literature courses as I wanted to pursue literary sources not philosophy or theory. I didn’t want to study critical theory (neither did many of the faculty, which they would admit to me personally in their offices). When DeMarinis chastised us for writing like literary critics, I understood exactly what he was talking about and had to shake my head (at myself).

My primary educational influences were not in the English Department, though, but rather in Creative Writing (which should be in Art Departments) and the Western Cultural Heritage program at the University of Texas at El Paso, under the tutelage of Lawrence Johnson and Robert Wren, where we worked early on with computer forums in instruction. WCH was a comprehensive program of study in ancient to present day influential texts, from the Enuma Elish to A Short History of Time, and emphasized critical reading and study in a range of disciplines and their relations and significance in shaping human institutions and culture. How influential was Augustine? What about Aristotle and Lucretius? Thus I’m not the best to ask on the state of the English Department as Chace views it even though I teach in one. Nor do I think Chace evolves problems beyond those already examined by Edward Said in his interesting Humanism and Democratic Criticism, which, in my mind, is required reading. I really don’t see the logical connection Chace suggests between championing books and students’ perception of economic goods in the job market context. Chace writes:

. . . at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.

How would such a solution affect the economic situation for the Major directly if, hypothetically, championing books increased the graduation rate? As a whole, Chace really doesn’t really address this issue as internal changes to the framing of the English Department would do little to affect the job market, even the market inside the College or University. I’m not disagreeing with the merits of reading Shakespeare. I disagree that English Department curriculum can adjust real opportunities in the market place.

To be fair, later in the essay, Chace explains this championing:

No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform.

Chace is correct, I think, to address the question of philology and expresses fairly his experience in school. He concludes the first part of his assessment with a taut summary of external causes of ED decline, then leads into part two

These, then, are some of the external causes of the decline of English: the rise of public education; the relative youth and instability (despite its apparent mature solidity) of English as a discipline; the impact of money; and the pressures upon departments within the modern university to attract financial resources rather than simply use them up. On all these scores, English has suffered. But the deeper explanation resides not in something that has happened to it, but in what it has done to itself.

What has the Department done to itself. Chace writes,

Amid a chaos of curricular change, requirements dropped and added, new areas of study in competition with older ones, and a variety of critical approaches jostling against each other, many faculty members, instead of reconciling their differences and finding solid ground on which to stand together, have gone their separate ways. As they have departed, they have left behind disorder in their academic discipline.

Chace continues with a more imagistic lament:

. . . it turns out that everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture; the “clean slates” are endlessly forthcoming. Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and déclassé. The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind.

What would a return to presumed coherence do, as I suggested above, to the nature of the University or College as a whole and its mission? What might expansion of the Canon do for the Department, as Chace I think confines scope to American and English literature? What about Lucretius? Note the very name English Department is just bizarre. These are interesting questions, as I feel that still English Departments are struggling to define their scope beyond the practice of “theory,” a term I’ve never understood in relation to the Humanities and critical studies.

As a final observation, I disagree with Mark about the notion of uncertainty. I think he would agree that the kind of analysis one might bring to proving via proof 2+2 is different than addition as a matter of a pure solution and that applied mathematics is loaded with interpretive approaches. I agree: some things need to work, but a poem works for often unfathomable reasons, and often upon abilities that are impossible to learn in a classroom. Despite that, we know that poetry comes with lots of fun and interesting objective and concrete elements, such as lines, form, and image, which, to me, are just as important as interpretation.


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