Margaret Soltan linked to an essay by William Deresiewicz, and somehow it got under my skin. I’m having one of those weeks where my to-do list is like the hydra, blossoming items faster than I can accomplish them, so I don’t really have the energy to patiently reply to the Deresiewicz essay itself. It’s a surly little essay. Deresiewicz complains that the teenagers have taken over the English Department. I don’t accept the complaint, but even if so, better that than the kind of prematurely curdled old fartism that he’s serving up.
I’ve found some of his commentary in the past better than this piece, particularly his interesting essay on the erotics of teaching. I think he personally can do better if he wants to complain about the state of academic literary criticism, even in a short article.
I don’t disagree that English as a discipline (and the humanities in general) are in intellectual disarray, and that many departments are adrift in terms of where to go next, or how to distribute their resources. The answer to that problem has got to be something other just turtling back into the high literary canon.
Deresiewicz arrives at a diagnosis of deep disorder though the usual lazy survey of job ads and paper titles. He says he’s “taking the temperature” of the field, but you’d know you had a quack for a doctor if your doctor took your temperature and diagnosed cancer from that alone. You can’t criticize the teaching and publication of a scholar by looking at the language of the job ad that led to that scholar being hired, but that’s what Deresiewicz does. He compiles a list of fields that he finds trendy or worthless merely by name, complains that the optional extras at the end of some job ads are intellectually incoherent. Oh my no! he exclaims. Someone wants “digital humanities” in the English Department, and my god, someone out there is trying to hire specialists in science fiction or children’s literature. What have we come to? Children’s literature! Like the kind of thing those dreck writers Mark Twain and Charles Dickens wrote. Science fiction! How ridiculous.
He does admit that most of these ads are attempts to add competencies or subjects that aren’t represented in the departments which are searching. This might suggest that the writers and subjects which he thinks of as core areas of literary competency are still core areas. He also knows as well as I do (I hope) that the little laundry lists of optional extras at the end of academic job ads are usually a political exercise, an accommodation of different pet interests and desires among the faculty in any given department. They’re never coherent even when they come at the end of an ad which is soberly focused on traditional literary subjects in American or British literature. Those little sentences often aren’t philosophically or theoretically coherent even when they come at the end of a job ad in a sober, internally unified discipline like economics or physics. (This is why I prefer it when departments write much more minimalist ads, even if that often draws a larger pool of applicants.)
Deresiewicz invokes Gerald Graff at the beginning of his essay. Graff has been very sensitive in his writing to the problem of disciplinary and epistemological drift in academic curricula. It’s true that the humanities have a problem with people who are teaching and researching from fundamentally different perspectives who don’t talk to one another or bother to try and construct a dialogic relationship between their disparate practices, the kind of relationship that is a bridge for students who are moving from one classroom to another. The solution to that problem isn’t superficial ridicule of a laundry list of topics and areas of study: it only makes the problem worse. Why should anyone who doesn’t share Deresiewicz’ own practices or interests sit down with him to talk about what they do if all he can offer in return is scorn and the axiomatic belief that his own interests represent the once and future core of a properly composed English Department? (Or in reverse: why should someone with Deresiewicz’ interests sit down with someone who categorically hates the very idea of the canon?) If faculty in the humanities are drifting away from one another and from any conception of a shared discipline, it is precisely because the prospect of sitting down to work out a shared vision seems to be full of risk and hassle with little prospect of success.