Literature and the World

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2006

This project at The Valve sounds like an interesting series to follow. I don’t know Franco Moretti’s work, but I find the subject interesting.

Given events over the last few months at Tunxis, I find myself growing more and more concerned about literary studies or, more to the context, English Departments, the study of literature being one part of the work. I recall a class discussion when I was a student. A colleague of mine asked the professor if he could write about a particular author. The prof said no because the student wouldn’t be able to find any scholarship on the subject because the author under question was too new. I found this response–now and at the time–rediculous and naive.

But to the point. I’ve never really been interested in the Canon as a thing to take all that seriously, but the professors where I went to school did. The student who had an interest couldn’t pursue it, therefore in the context of the course. Perhaps he would have generated some scholarship if given the chance. But he didn’t have the chance. I can understand a foundational series of studies that introduce students to a tradition–these are the kinds of courses I teach. But what is the breadth of the tradition? Numerous authors, thinkers, and prophets influenced human experience and expression and they should be read. Chaucer, for example. But I have no problem using Bacon in British Lit since his ideas form a trail and a surface that had an impact and form an important topology of questions that keep coming up.

What I’ve seen are potential faculty coming out of English Departments with a Canonical view of the landscape: what I call the English Geek. But landscapes change. If a student wants to focus on Chaucer, that’s fine by me, but what’s the reason to do it? What about the definition of a landscape or “not” defining it at all? Why isn’t Michael Joyce and the “other Joyce” a part of the breadth of experience in upper division courses or in graduate school? What is the breadth of experiencial space in the English Department that can go beyond “culture studies” or “theory”? (I never understood the use of this term in either Composition, literature, or literary criticism.)

I think studies in the English Area should be intensely interdsciplinary. I don’t know if this is part of Moretti’s program–I aim to find out. Conceptually, it should invite digital cameras, scripting, science, religion, and anything else that’s part of the human lifeworld into its metabolism and be flexible enough to grow its boundaries or, to lift a term from physics, its degrees of freedom.


One response to “Literature and the World”

  1. Josh says:

    An excellent post. One definite experience (and frustration) I had from high school is that teachers couldn’t teach. The best teachers I ever had were the ones that allowed the class to dictate the day (to an extent). We usually learned far more about the material and ourselves than when the teaching was formulaic.

    I’d be interested to know if this canonical view is something unique to American education, or if its a worldview.