Smells Like Teen Spirit?

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.

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12 Responses to Smells Like Teen Spirit?

  1. Yeah, I agree, the blunderbuss approach to the “higher eclecticism” – to use Holbo’s phrase – is of little value. There are deep issues here, and this sort of complaint does zilch to address them.

    One issue has to do with just what the discipline is supposed to do. Aside from the teaching of writing & speaking skills – which is a big aside, as those activities loom large in the teaching load of English departments – what’s the point? The point of the canon, it seems to me, is to preserve those texts as living presences in the culture, to keep alive the values embodied in them – something like that. It’s about transmitting “culture” to the next generation.

    That’s one kind of activity, and it’s the kind of activity where you really do want to separate wheat and chaff and keep the chaff out. So teaching pop culture of any kind, etc. threatens the central mission. No movies, comics, genre fiction, of any kind. That stuff is not worthy.

    But, one can also assume the stance of the Martian anthropologist who wants to know why those earthlings behave and believe as they do. To answer that question you need to pay attention to what they, in fact, do; and lots of them go to movies, read comics, etc. So you need to study those things. QED Of course, the Martian anthropologist can also study the canon, but is not necessarily going to assign any privilege to it.

    These are very different points of view and, I believe, both are worthy. And both should be served. How do you do it? Can they be done within the same curriculum?

  2. Neb Namwen says:

    The point of the canon, it seems to me, is… about transmitting “culture” to the next generation. / But, one can also assume the stance of the Martian anthropologist / Can they be done within the same curriculum?

    Good thoughts, and a good question!

    My first thought is that, where the humanities are most as their critics claim (however widespread that is or isn’t), they do neither of these things, because they mainly serve to advance a canon that nobody outside of the discipline actually reads, and which therefore has little effect on culture outside of the activities of those same academics.

    My second thought, in answer to your question, is no, they cannot be done in the same curriculum (although they could be done in parallel curricula of which a well-rounded student of the humanities would study both). However, there is a middle way which partakes of both, and that is to define a canon not of text but of method, a way of extracting “worthy” insight from “unworthy” content.

    To some extent, that’s what has already happened, only the canon of method has (in some cases) turned inward and become the self-contained discourse I mentioned before. I’m thinking more of a canon of method that would be useful to people who are trying to engage with culture as participants, rather than to deconstruct it (not to say that participation cannot be deconstructive — it often is). So students would learn how to read the texts of their culture in order to best understand and contribute to that culture.

    This is a modified canonicalism — it refuses to define a “best culture”, but defines a most skillful mode (or modes) of participation in culture, implicitly measuring cultures according to the extent to which they afford participation in those modes. Of course, there could be more than one such canon, and they might not get along any better than rival canons of the original sort.

  3. Neb Namwen says:

    On another note, I found the second Deresiewicz essay linked (the one on erotics) deeply moving — it speaks very much to my sense of vocation, which is to teaching more than to research. The essay which is the subject of this post is indeed dull and petty in comparison.

  4. k8 says:

    One of the most frustrating parts of the article (for me) was the assumption that my part of the discipline, composition and rhetoric, is merely concerned with service courses for undergrads. The author not only ignores over 2000 years of the study of rhetoric, but also misunderstands the relevance of undergraduate and graduate instruction in rhetoric and writing. I’m not really sure how the study of Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero, among others, became non-canonical authors.

    As for his issue with children’s literature – I’m not sure I would be a comfortable with hiring an English education major not well-versed in both canonical and new titles, authors, issues, etc. Granted, this is a secondary area of study for me.

    But it’s his misunderstanding of the non-literary studies portion of English that ultimately detracts from his argument. Studying the production of texts is as important as studying texts produced by others. This isn’t merely an issue of teaching students skills for the workplace. Instruction in writing and rhetoric also teaches us how to read others’ texts, whether they be part of the canon, a business report, or a political speech.

    I realize I don’t need to convince anyone here that these things are important, but this is at the heart of my complaints about that article.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I didn’t even bring that up, but I agree that it’s yet another problem. The old version of the English Department that he’s pining for was one that took composition and rhetoric seriously as part of its intellectual responsibility, not just as a kind of service learning.

  6. meburste says:

    The complaint about children’s lit is a real head-banger, because those of us at comprehensive colleges/universities usually have massive populations of students preparing for teacher certification. And most certification programs require children’s lit (and increasingly, for secondary certification, YA lit). Of course we need a specialist in children’s literature–we usually offer two sections per semester, and they’re frequently overloaded!

  7. cmd2245 says:

    I agree with everything above that others have said. But at the very end of his essay, he does make a fair point about the lack, or even absence of any encouragement extended to talented students to pursue graduate study. I count myself amongst that group; I actively try to discourage any of my students who express interest in graduate study. In fact, much to my department’s chagrin, some years ago I put together a 50-page packet of essays and articles, including Tim’s famous essay, about the job market in the humanities and the culture of academe and graduate school. I’m proud to say that in eight eyars, I’ve only lost one to a graduate program in English — and she is poised to drop out and has told me many times that she wishes she’d taken my advice.

  8. aaron says:

    I think you guys have been too easy on this piece. The idea that an emphasis in some strange, eccentric, funny-sounding specialization makes it any less a dissertation on Dickens is just stupid. Putting ketchup on a hamburger doesn’t make it into a tomato; neither does the fact that Deresiewicz himself once taught a class on “Contemporary South Asian Fiction” make him any less of a Conrad scholar. It’s also pretty rich for a guy with the words “Jennifer Aniston” in the title of his book to make snide remarks about “kids nowadays and their film studies.”

    But, as you noted, he’s just weirdly sloppy here. After all, if so many departments are trying to hire people in “minority” literatures, why couldn’t the fact that the demand has outstripped supply be as easily explained by the fact that there are still very few teachers teaching them and, as a result, few students take such things up (less supply rather than increased demand?). If he had to look at actual rules on course requirements or how examination fields are structured, after all, he’d have to notice how little those “canons” have actually changed. Plus, the whole “there are a lot of jobs you’re not going to get” section of the essay just makes me cry him a river. The job market has been mindbogglingly bad for some time now and undergrads are recognizing that an English degree and a dollar fifty will get you a cup of coffee, but that’s somehow the fault of the ten percent of people who study a minority literature? Whew…

    I also love how we end the essay with the idea that nothing has changed since 1990, even though everything has gone to hell since then, too.

  9. Thanks for all the visits, everyone. Be warned: this is a sequel.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    I noticed his book subtitle too, Aaron. I was thinking of mentioning it, so thanks for doing it. It’s interesting that he taught a class with that title. This is an interesting kind of careerist sub-strategem: posture at being postmodern, postcolonial, what have you while you’re a junior scholar, then chase a different reward system afterwards by playing at being a traditionalist curmudgeon. A certain amount of the disaffection at that point almost has to be read as confessional, as in “I was trendy, I was shallow, I was inauthentic”–but much as in the confessional subculture of addiction, the addict has to argue that everyone’s an addict, everyone’s like him–thus deferring indefinitely the possibility that maybe the only inauthentic, calculating person in the room is the person confessing, nor have they come clean at all by putting on another pose, another posture, another rhetoric. They’ve just looked at the marketplace of ideas and decided to invest in another position. If all that this amounted to was, “I had to hide my real self, and now I can do close reading of modernist novels and drop all the other stuff”, then all that would follow is the close reading of modernist novels; if it was “I wanted to love literature, but the historicists and theorists wouldn’t let me”, then what would follow is the love of literature. Instead what follows is “English/academia is bad and corrupt”, which is a pretty odd response to achieving the freedom to study what one always wanted to study.

  11. aaron says:

    That’s a better narrative than anything I’ve been able to come up with; the entire essay is like a sculpture made of ashes: touch it and it falls apart. Or deconstructs itself, or something. Though it seems to me that there’s always room for hating on the discipline, once you’ve got tenure. How can it hurt him? An odd response, yes, but one that allows him to have and eat his cake at the same time.

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