Physician Heal Thyself

Many academic bloggers responded to various essays in the New York Times magazine devoted to colleges and teaching two Sundays back. I’ve been meaning to get around to this myself, specifically to Mark Edmundson’s essay “Geek Lessons”.

Edmundson basically reprises the complaint of “Why Read?” again. The problem I had with “Why Read?”, as I have with a lot of similar axe-grinding from other critics, is Edmundson’s lack of curiosity. I have a problem with a complaint against the conformity of an establishment that ends up wanting to replace one supposed monochrome with yet another. I have a problem with someone who takes their own pedagogy, preferences, interests and style as a standard without much exploration of their own limits and fallibilities.

I have no problem at all with much of Edmundson’s message about the academic humanities. I was talking with a friend earlier today about our common feeling that the humanities need to strip away a lot of the dead, cheerless weight that is the consequence of overspecialized scholarly writing in this domain, that we need to work back towards a more common-sense engagement with literature, art, cultural expression of all kinds. We need to speak to and inform a wider public while also persuading them that there is unguessed-at beauty, possibility, meaning in human culture and practice that they can and should learn to see and appreciate. In this sense, being “old-fashioned” about the humanities is very appealing to me.

It’s just that I don’t think any of Edmundson’s cranky old-man hand-waving about them kids today and their crazy machines, or about all them scholars with their cultural studies crap, is at all necessary for that project.

Edmundson’s essay is concerned first and foremost with the value of teaching, with what he calls the “Bangsian” (for Lester Bangs) professor, the person who isn’t afraid to be uncool, unhip, old-fashioned in his teaching style.

I agree that good teaching at its core comes down to some kind of dialogue with students, some primal ability to connect with them, that the best teachers would be able to teach if you put them on a desert island with students, shorn of all props save a coconut or two. There are as many ways to make that connection as there are individuals in the world, however. Edmundson allows that some teachers do well with an unorthodox style, but the limits of his allowance extend to Wittgenstein terrorizing his undergraduates.

Once you start to build up from an idealized Socratic scene where professor and students all huddle around one another in their togas, what’s an allowable prop? Would Edmundson use chalk and board? Publications that he assigns? Handouts? Maps? What kinds of references to the world around us are ok, and which are wretched signs of conformity to being “cool”? What are the narrowly approved “alternatives” to the mainstream that Edmundson will approve as such, and what makes them so?

Part of the problem here is with a generation of literary critics who are sure about what they like, sure about what “literature” is, sure about what should be taught as literature, and yet who are consistently inarticulate when it comes to defining and prescribing those boundaries in such a way that others might follow along (or take issue). These critics don’t have any kind of fully worked-out answer to the attack on canons or any way to systematically rebuild a high/popular distinction. In a way, they almost concede the argument of the historicists, or of Bourdieu, that the high/popular distinction was first and foremost a social distinction, a product of a time and place, arbitrary. So either they drift off into loosely Neil-Postmanesque reveries about building a bridge back to some favored past era, or they simply assert what they cannot be bothered to argue. They know literature when they see it, and they know junk when they see it.

If you’re Edmundson, you know what pedagogy makes someone a worthless conformist witlessly pursuing the “cool” and what pedagogy makes someone an authentic, fully Bangsian teacher. You know what tools are proper to teaching and which are not. You don’t even have to go and look at anybody else’s practice yourself: you just know that somewhere out there are computers and light-shows and gadgets and 3-D glasses. None of that is “unorthodox”, none of that calls students to the cultural alternatives (or raises critical questions about the mainstream). None of that works as Edmundson thinks teaching should work. He doesn’t have to go see it or experience it. He just knows that you can’t have a computer around.

Edmundson wants to challenge the complacency of students, but I don’t know how much more complacent you can get than some of his own armchair survey of the teachers and scholars around him. The first and worst sin for a humanist as both teacher and scholar should be a lack of curiosity, a unmoveable certainty about people and practices that we ourselves don’t know or don’t use.

If you want a sign that someone isn’t directing much scrutiny at themselves, it’s when they cite Groucho Marx with the certainty that Groucho is making fun of the other guys. Edmundson also admires Lester Bangs’ ability to “mock himself”, put himself in proportion to the exercise of criticism, but he doesn’t exactly strive to reproduce that part of the Bangsian formula.

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9 Responses to Physician Heal Thyself

  1. scratchy888 says:

    ah yes! right wing mysticism (the mystique of the perfect teacher) meets left wing mysticism (I know good literature when I see it) and fails to collide head on!

  2. fridaykr says:

    I have been out of academia for close to eight years now, and what strikes me about the essay is how little has changed. If Edmundson is representative, a significant segment of academic production in the humanities is still driven by reactionary impulses–a resistence to both pedagogical and theoretical changes, and a reclaimation and reinvestment in a range of traditions.

    There is alot of sloppiness in the essay published in the NYtimes magazine, housed under a general manichean scholarly world view. It’s not hard to glean from the essay that Edmundson thinks we should be teaching the great books, mining them for their antinomian views, inculcating Socratic skepticism in students, and maintaining high grading standards. In contrast, popular taste, cultural studies, and technologically-driven pedagogy–conveniently lumped together–are associated with faddishness and pseudointellectualism.

    what’s interesting is the way Edmundson conflates his grievances. Clearly he resents the pressure to give high grades and boost enrollment in the humanities, and he links these trends with certain pedagogies and subject matters, as if grade inflation cannot–and does not– occur in more traditional courses.

    But perhaps what is most disappointing about the essay is the reduction of pedagogy to a superficial, jejune use of technology incapable of sustaining intellectual engagement. I have no doubt that Edmundson can cite examples of this, but what is missing is a fuller, more intellectually engaged account of the institutional and cultural pressures that are being exerted on the humanities classroom.

    But in the absence of that historicizing, I infer from the essay that professors should keep teaching the material they read in graduate school, in the way they read it in graduate school, because they read it in graduate school—all the while keeping their grading standards high, in order to signal to their students that they don’t care that the university may no longer be an ivory tower anymore.

  3. It’s funny that he poses a choice between “Bangsian” (“anticonventional” and “anticonformist”) schooling and schooling that “help[s] to socialize people… [and] make them more fit to make their ways in existing society.” His options are like two traffic pylons that my quaint little liberal-arts could slip through like a mack truck. He alludes to the stuff in between as “acquiring negotiable skills and knowledge,” except that in my case you’d have to scratch “negotiable.”

    The article got me thinking about the college classes that left the biggest impression on me when I was studying physics at Reed College in the early 80s. There are two standouts, both from my sophomore year. One was quantum mechanics. The professor was exceptionally clear, well organized, and attentive. He kept us busy with a steady stream of problem sets and must have kept himself even busier, because he had no grader and yet they came back copiously marked within a week. It was a no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts class, and I came out with a pretty solid understanding of the fundamentals of quantum mechanics as well as a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The other big class that year, a seminar on Music in the 20th Century, was the one that changed my life. Again the professor was outstanding, but what made the class transformative was the material. If it had been 18th or 19th century music I’m sure it would have been a great class, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect.

    What worked well for me won’t work well for everyone, and in fact another problem with Edmunson’s article is that it’s about “students” and “good teachers,” which radically collapses the huge range of what students need, want, and can absorb as well as the almost-as-huge range of what teachers need to convey and have the capacity to convey. To have a really gifted Bangsian teacher now and then is a wonderful thing, but I’m not sure it would be so great to have them all the time, and I’m pretty sure that having a lot of aspiring Bangsians without the gift would be a real drag.

    You’re absolutely right about how narrow-minded and short-sighted the blanket rejection of “cool” is. Whether you’re talking about subject matter or technique, the business of drawing firm lines between what’s pedagogically right/good/productive and what’s wrong/bad/counterproductive is silly. That’s been my experience on the frontier of cool in (some) music departments, teaching popular music.

    And I couldn’t agree more about the glaring absence of curiosity–we’ve touched on that before. It’s seemed obvious to me for as long as I can remember that curiosity is the wellspring of authentic scholarship, grandiose as that sounds. I’ve been assuming that most academics feel that way. Am I wrong about that? Or is it just that it’s something that’s set aside when they editorialize?

    A key point about curiosity–and I wonder how widely accepted this one is, too–is that value judgments are its enemy. One of the things I’ve most wanted to do in “music appreciation”-type classes is to show students how much more interesting things can be if you suspend judgment and just listen for a while. ‘Course that may be as pie-in-the-sky as anything Edmunson says.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    This really does become very clear when you think about actual classes you’ve had as a student, doesn’t it?

    I can think of one of the worst classes I had as an undergraduate, taught by a professor of English whom I feel very certain could have read Edmundson’s cri d’coeur and said, “By gum, that’s my situation exactly!” Meaning he would both agree with Edmundson’s scorn about many things AND he would have the same self-complimentary certainty that the subject he taught was important and that he was teaching it in exactly the correctly ‘uncool’ way.

    At the time, he did anything but convince me that the subject was important. And I was a *voracious* undergraduate: I gobbled up all sorts of stuff with gusto. I was not hard to teach, and not hard to draw in. I had another class that was just absolutely stunningly good on medieval law and dispute resolution in Iceland, and I can remember thinking, “There is no way this is going to work”. Well, it worked. But this other class? Holy god, it was a bore.

    Now as a practicing scholar, I’ve gone back to some of what we read in that class–Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year; Addison, The Tatler and the Spectator, and so on, and it electrifies me. So what’s the difference? It’s possible that it is just me. A friend of mine who is now also a professor took classes with the same professor and she liked his pedagogy better than I did, and was able to connect better to the work being taught. But I really do think some of it was the professor, and specifically, that he had the same sense of settled entitlement as Edmundson–a certainty that he was working with material whose value and canonicity was an established fact, and that he only needed to steadily pass it along to us.

  5. I was talking with a friend earlier today about our common feeling that the humanities need to strip away a lot of the dead, cheerless weight that is the consequence of overspecialized scholarly writing in this domain, that we need to work back towards a more common-sense engagement with literature, art, cultural expression of all kinds.

    Well, I’ve no objection to stripping away necrotic intellectual tissues, but I’m not sure what common-sense engagement gets you. As you know, Tim, I’ve spent a lot of time working with the newer psychologies and applying them to literature, film, and music. Some of that work is pretty abstract and arcane, though quite different in style and substance from Theory. It’s not common-sense. Now, I can imagine that, when enough of that kind of work has been done, that it would be possible to write simplified summaries and syntheses; but we’re not there yet. And we may never get there. Despite some interest in that kind of work over the past decade, the profession may well decide it doesn’t want to go there in a big way. Now, I don’t see where else it can go unless back to the past. But what’s the point of going back to doing literary studies in a way that led to the dissatisfactions that brought on the 1966 structuralism conference at Hopkins, which in turn led to . . . so that Hillis Miller could lament the eclipse of deconstruction in 1985 . . . .

    Of course, we can’t really go back. The lessons of historicism, feminism, ethnic studies, and so forth, won’t disappear. But I’m not sure we can dispense with some kind of intellectually sophisticated structure for organizing further inquiry. Just what that’s going to be, that’s not obvious.

    At the same time we do have to address the general public in a more effective way, and we’ve got to capture the interest of undergraduates. I hear calls for a return to evaluative criticism and to ethical criticism, both of which were abandoned by the academy early in the past century. I’m not willing to take those calls at face value. But, I will note that one of my Valve colleagues, Rohan Maitzen, has called my attention to Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. I can see that something might develop out of that.

  6. alonzo says:

    Perhaps it is only because am only a poor benighted non-academic, but I didn’t see the jackbooted thuggery in Edmundson’s piece, I don’t get what could work up a famously measured and reasonable blogger into a froth of sneering ad hominen attack. And I would think if you want to attack someone for lack of curiosity you might demonstrate the virtue yourself. Start by reading the essay carefully enough to tell Wittgenstein’s gradeschoolers from undergrads — just like you tell your undergrads to do. Do you really think a man who makes “Almost Famous” his key reference is interested in rebuilding a high/popular distinction? Why lump him in with those who do? He is a romantic, a Sixties radical, a left Emersonian, not a conservative, reactionary, or traditionalist. There is an interesting overlap between those, but far more difference. A curious person notices such things. And a curious person knows you can’t go around always signaling curiosity and self-criticism with every damn thing you write. You read in good faith and understand that people put their points strongly and simply for reasons of communication, not because they are fascists or have delusions of grandeur.
    I admit bias here. Mark Edmundson was my favorite college professor. With him I studied Wordsworth, Freud, Nietzsche, The Rolling Stones, Nightmare on Elm Street, Blake, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Marcuse, Jane Austen, Schiller, Ken Kesey, Foucault, Shelley, and life and thought. He seemed like a curious guy, though you never know. He didn’t seem like a Big Ole Meanie hatin’ on the poor oppressed computer lovers and culture studiers. He was very much a Cool Prof — in the best way I think — and that is where his concern about the cool and hip comes from — self-criticism. He probably is overgeneralizing; most professors are in no danger of being hip.
    My main thought, reading his essay — “But Lester Bangs was soooo cool!”

  7. Timothy Burke says:


    I see the specific thing you’re saying about his comment on Wittgenstein. but if you don’t think that essay was “hating on computer lovers and culture studiers”, I think we read different essays. I appreciate that you liked him and that he seemed a cool prof. Maybe he would to me too if I knew him from something other than his complaints. I don’t find him a reactionary in the political sense, not at all. But he’s not unlike others (some of whom are also romantics or radicals in a similar fashion) who are unhappy with a kind of bugaboo vision of countless other literary critics, computer users, cult studs, etc. that they really can’t be bothered to deal with in the specific.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    To put it another way: if I were going to talk about how much I appreciate good teaching, and agree that good teaching can be, ought to be, unorthodox, and that good teachers should call students to the “alternatives”, then I think I’d have more than one or two flavors of teaching in mind. There just seems to me to be a very big tension between the call for a thousand flowers to bloom in that appreciation of teaching and the really narrow range of things that he seems to find acceptable (as well as the sweeping range of the many many things he doesn’t like).

  9. Alonzo’s comment reminded me of something I noticed in my own reaction. If I’d just picked up the Times magazine, without Timothy’s input, I don’t think I’d have given Edmondson’s piece a second thought. As Sunday entertainment, it works well–it’s fun to read and kind of provocative but free of challenging ambiguity.

    A more specific purpose and message is hard to pin down, though. If it’s supposed to be a critique of teachers or teaching, it’s a remarkably useless one–it leaves me as a teacher nothing to work with except some blanket prohibitions, and there’s no sign that those reflect any attempt to look beyond the particular material he teaches and his personal taste. If it’s supposed to be one teacher’s personal narrative of success or enlightenment or whatever, it ought to make some contact with his actual teaching, even if it’s just anecdotal. I think it would have been a stronger and more honest essay if it consistently signaled an awareness on Edmondson’s part that it’s not a birds-eye view but the way things look from where he sits.

    One thing I don’t know is what Timothy’s referring to when he mentions “the complaint of ‘Why Read?'”. Whatever it is sets his reaction apart from mine. So what’s that about?

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