Tag Archives: literature

Pleasure Island

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The kids! The boys! They’re all donkeys! – Jiminy Cricket

Beloit College recently released its annual “Mindset List,” the findings of a yearly survey which attempts to take stock of the cultural touchstones that each generation of college freshman is, or is not, familiar with. Most of the observations are benign: “They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it,” for instance. But, predictably, at least one of the observations on the list is distressing to those of us carrying the fire of the Western intellectual tradition. The List claims that “The Biblical sources of terms such as “forbidden fruit,” ”the writing on the wall,” ”good Samaritan,” and “the promised land” are unknown to most of them.”

Why does it matter if the Class of 2016 is ignorant of the source of these references? Educationally, such unfamiliarity is symptomatic of higher education’s drift, nay, dog-paddle, away from tradition of the Great Books, the time-honored mechanisms for defining and explaining Western thought and virtue, what the 19th century poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.”  In earlier times, we might have taken hope in the university’s liberal arts tradition to remedy this sort of deficit. Currently, however, there is little hope that the American post-secondary system is doing much to stem the tide of ignorance. 

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Common Core Mandates Will Harm Critical Thinking

Jay Mathews is one of the few education reporters who gets it. He understands that the heavy diet of informational reading Common Core mandates at every single grade level for the language arts or English class may decrease, not increase, “critical” or analytical thinking. But how are teachers and parents to know that black is white and freedom is slavery? No one tells us how reading “informational” texts could necessarily stimulate “critical” thinking better than literary reading–or stimulate it at all.

For example, how would the “informational” texts recommended by the National Council of Teachers of English for the secondary English curriculum stimulate analytical thinking more than, say, a close reading of Pride and Prejudice? According to a NCTE volume she co-authored, an Iowa English teacher has assigned her grade 10 students books about teenage marketing and the working poor–Branded by Alissa Quart and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich–to address Common Core’s mandate. Do these books present their “information” in such ambiguous or subtle ways that close reading is needed to figure out the authors’ messages? In contrast, think how much class discussion is needed to help students understand the irony in Austen’s works.

Common Core thinks rigor is addressed by requiring reading and English teachers to use texts that increase regularly in complexity. But, as American College Testing (ACT) notes, complexity is laden with literary features: it involves “characters,” “literary devices,” “tone,” “ambiguity,” “elaborate” structure, “intricate language,” and unclear intentions. Reducing literary study means reducing the opportunity to develop in all students the analytical thinking once developed in just an elite group of students by the vocabulary, structure, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony in classic literary texts.

Some ostrich-like supporters of Common Core claim that there will be no reduction in the amount of literature assigned and studied. Tell that to English teachers who have been told to divide their reading instructional time as Common Core does: 10 reading standards for informational texts, 9 for literary texts. And in grade 12, make it 70% informational, even though Common Core explicitly says English teachers shouldn’t be responsible for 70%. How much they should be responsible for, Common Core’s architects don’t say.

Reading researchers know there is absolutely no research to support the idea that more “literary non-fiction” or “informational” texts in the English class will increase students’ level of analytical thinking. There is every reason to believe they will, instead, lower the level.

Coarse Courses Cause Critical Cries

Enthusiastically aided by Academia, the late 20th century saw such English Lit stalwarts as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the Lake Poets dismissed as passé. In their place came the likes of Alice Walker, Rigoberta Menchu and Amy Tan, some talented, others fraudulent, but all with impeccable credentials: they were neither dead nor white nor male.

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Literature Professors Discover Animals

English professors have long been straying far afield from literary studies, expanding into women’s studies, disability studies, ethnic studies, even fat studies.  Recently they have migrated into animal studies.

An ambitious professor might be working on a paper for “Cultivating Human-Animal Relations Through  Poetic Form,.” a panel scheduled for  the November South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) meeting.  She may have been inspired by the quotation by Alice Walker that opens the panel description: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons.  They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”

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Death to High School English, Thanks to Radicals and Progressives

It’s always amusing to find professors confront the fruits of their ideological views. Ponytailed colleagues who had protested and marched in the grand old 1960s have often shared with me their dismay at the deteriorating writing of students.             

In similar fashion, writing instructor Kim Brooks in a recent Salon column expresses shock and dismay that her students don’t even know how to write a sentence, much less a coherent paper. 
 
Brooks claims that in the 1990s her high-school English classes saved her probably from “hard drugs, or worse, one of those Young Life chapters so popular with my peers.” 
 
Well, there were too many riots and skirmishes going on in my high school to really focus on literature (and I wish there had been an evangelical group like Young Life there way back then), but I carried over my love of reading from elementary school.  It had been a fight to get into school (I had to wait until first grade despite my protestations to my immigrant parents) and I had to wait until second grade when I got my library card before I could have books at home. 
 
 Like many others, I was saved by books, and by elementary school teachers who believed in maintaining order, presenting material objectively, and rewarding individual accomplishment.  Books provided hours of opportunity to escape.

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How Colleges Mangle Literature and Art

I am currently reading Female Chauvinist Pigs by the fabulous Ariel Levy. Her 2005 book chronicles the raunchy tendencies of modern self-described feminists (which I very much want to call “raunch dressing”). Levy is a fellow Wesleyan alum, and she uses some examples of her time in college to discuss the problems in academia that not only enable porn to exist on the same plane as Flaubert, but also to spread the Ivory Tower anti-art agenda.

The modish line of academic thinking was to do away with ‘works’ of literature or art and focus instead on ‘texts,’ which were always the products of the social conditions in which they were produced. We were trained to look at the supposedly all-powerful troika of race, class and gender and how they were dealt with in narrative–and that narrative could be anywhere, in Madame Bovary or Debbie Does Dallas–rather than to analyze the artistic quality, which we were told was really just code for the ideals of the dominant class.

This sums up every English class I took at the school. We were not allowed to have visceral reactions to literature–we were to see books as archeological evidence of oppression. And if one buys this rationale, there would be very little point in studying that which academia has deemed oppressive, as evidenced here:

I remember a meeting we once had, as members of the English majors committee, with the department of faculty: We are there to tell them about a survey we’d given out to English majors, the majority of whom said they wanted at least one classics course to be offered at our college…It seemed like a pretty reasonable request to me. After I made my pitch for it, the woman who was the head of the department at that time looked at me icily and said, “I would never teach at a school that offered a course like that.”

This subject was taken up by Zadie Smith in the same year (2005). In her wonderful novel On Beauty, Smith has some fun at academia’s expense as she traces the moral, intellectual and personal failings of Howard–an art professor who hates art. In a short but moving passage in the book we see Howard’s class from the point of view of his most earnest student, a young woman who loves Rembrandt and is having a very difficult time not finding his work to be beautiful. Howard uses the language of academia (oh how I do not miss words with “ization” tacked on the end) to bully his class into his mode of thinking, and in many cases it works.

For anyone still in college reading this, you are allowed to love books and paintings and music–even ones created by white men! Yes, it is deeply important to understand how race class and gender work in art (Zadie Smith makes them the major themes in On BeautyMadame Bovary is all about the latter) but that doesn’t mean you can’t understand the meaning, soak in the context, AND love the work.

No Comeback for the Humanities

Here is a story from the Baton Rouge Advocate that confirms the decline of the humanities in the state system (although cuts struck deep into the sciences and education as well).  Officials reviewed hundreds of programs in state colleges and universities, judging them by, among other things, the number of students they graduated each year.  If, on average, they produced less than eight bachelor’s degrees, they received a “low-completer” designation.  The result is the termination of 111 programs, consolidation of 17 programs, “consolidation & termination” of 171 programs, “conditional” maintenance of 106 programs, and “maintenance” of 51 programs (see the Regents’ report here.

A few specifics:

—–LSU ended its undergraduate major in Latin and in German (saving the university $500,000 per year)

—–Southern University, a historically black college, lost majors in Spanish and in French

—–The “Liberal Arts” major was dropped at three institutions

—–According to the Advocate, “no public historically black college in the state will offer a bachelor’s degree in a foreign language once the programs are phased out”

The move is part of a national trend that has been well-publicized in the last year.  If the terminations at LSU do not receive the same withering criticism that fell on SUNY-Albany when it dropped majors in French, Italian, Classics, Russian, and Theater, it means that the humanists have lost the national debate.  Albany took the lead and absorbed the backlash.  Now, foreign language eliminations are an accomplished fact.

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That Smug Article in the New York Review of Books

Last year, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus published Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–And What We Can Do About It, a resounding broadside against campus policies and practices.  They berated the system for producing useless research, creating cushy working conditions, neglecting undergraduates, and reproducing elitism.

Hacker and Dreyfus sometimes swung their club wildly, it is true, but one had to appreciate their concern.  They had no conservative or liberal axe to grind, and no anti-academic or anti-intellectual attitudes in place.  They deeply believe that higher education has lost its way, its civic virtue, and they launched a polemic to correct it.

One might argue with their evidence and question their assumptions, of course.  Here, however, is how a recent reviewer in The New York Review of Books characterizes them: 

Continue reading That Smug Article in the New York Review of Books

More Defenses of Languages and Literatures

As debates over the fate of French, German, and Italian in higher education unfold, it is easy to feel dismay over the material decline of those languages and the traditions they represent. But there may be a silver lining to the trend. For many years, people in the humanities have considered and reconsidered both the linguistic basic of humanistic study and the centrality of French and German in literary fields. Usually, those discussions proceeded because of ideological and multiculturalist pressures that denounced the demand that students study French and German in order to be conversant with advanced research. Accusations of “Eurocentrism,” which now seem so dated, often decided the matter, as did questions as to whether so many foreign language requirements were necessary for students who wanted to focus on contemporary literature and cultural studies. Participants in those episodes had the luxury of taking sides against foreign languages, particularly French and German, without worrying about any concrete impact their votes would have on department resources.
With cuts at SUNY-Albany and elsewhere, the grounds have shifted. Now, for instance, a change in general education requirements that reduces foreign languages represents a material threat to the departments. In other words, many language professors have discovered that their ideological positions have concrete consequences, distressing ones. This is no longer a matter of principle. It’s about survival.
This wake-up call has, I think, brought a welcome sobriety to curricular understandings in the humanities. One looks back at the anti-traditional and anti-institutional utterances of the 80s and 90s—“Let’s not privilege literature,” “We need to break down disciplinary boundaries,” “We need to get rid of survey courses and philology requirements and historical coverage and do ‘theory'” etc.—and wonders, “What did you think was going to happen? Did you believe that the rest of the campus would respect you if you undermined the integrity of your own field?”

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Will Graduate Work in Literary Studies Have to Cut Back or Shut Down?

The National Science Foundation has just issued an Info Brief on trends in the awarding of doctorates in different fields for the year 2009. (See here) The report contains data going back to 2009 and breaks the numbers down by Science, Engineering, and “Non-science and engineering,” the latter including Education, Health, Humanities, and Professional Fields. For all fields, doctorates jumped from 41,098 in 1999 to 49,562 in 2009, the vast majority of the increase falling to science (20,601 to 25,836) and engineering (5,330 to 7,634). The “non-sciences and engineering” gained only 925 doctorates, most of that gain due to professional fields (2,172 to 2,800).
The humanities at large, in fact, went down, dropping from 5,036 doctorates in 1999 to 4,667 doctorates in 2009. History went up slightly (960 to 989), but foreign languages slid from 626 doctorates in 1999 to 602 in 2009, while “Letters” (which includes English, Classics, Folklore, Comparative Literature, and Speech) dropped from 1,516 to 1,414. That makes for a four percent decline for foreign languages and a seven percent decline for English et al.
How is that possible, though, given that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the total enrollment of students in degree-granting institutions rose from 14.8 million in 1999 to 18.2 million (estimated) in 2008, a gain of 23 percent? With more students going to college, one would expect more graduates proceeding into PhD programs.
There is another odd trend in place. More undergraduates should mean that colleges and universities would hire more teachers, but here, too, the number of slots for recent PhDs runs in the opposite direction. Each year the Modern Language Association publishes its Job Information List, which provides the fullest listing of openings in the field. Recent doctorates look for tenure-track assistant professor positions in the Job List and apply to those that match their specialty.
For each of the last five years, around 1,400 fresh Letters PhDs and 600 fresh foreign language PhDs have completed school and sought a regular position. In the Letters fields of English and American language and literature, the output averages in the mid-900s. What has the job market looked like to them?
Hyper-competitive. According to the MLA’s “Midyear Report on the 2009-10 MLA Job Information List” (here), from 2005 to 2008 the number of tenure-track assistant professor positions in foreign language ranged from 231 to 267, while assistant profs posts in English ranged from 299 to 474. (English reached a high of 606 in 2000, foreign languages a high of 396 in 2001.)

Continue reading Will Graduate Work in Literary Studies Have to Cut Back or Shut Down?

An Omen for the Humanities Everywhere?

The news circulating among humanities professors across the country is the decision by SUNY-Albany to close programs in Classics, French, Italian, Russian, and Theatre. (Judaic Studies, too, has been virtually eliminated and journalism will be cut in half.) The general dismay is palpable, but faculty members should prepare for more of the same in the coming years. It’s easy to attribute the decision to bean-counting administrators who don’t respect the humanities, but we should keep in mind how much pressure the leadership at SUNY-Albany must have felt in order to take a drastic step that they knew would evoke indignant protest and piles of bad PR.
The email sent out by President George Philip (reproduced here) spells out the financial state of affairs:

This year’s State Budget reduced the level of State assistance to our campus by nearly $12 million. In fact, over the past three years, the campus has cumulatively suffered more than $33.5 million in State tax support reductions – more than a 30% decline. Since 2008, we have addressed these reductions to our revenue base through the elimination of approximately 200 vacant lines resulting from resignations and retirements, a soft-hiring freeze, reductions in non-personal expenditures and temporary service, reductions in graduate student support, a moratorium on non-essential travel, energy savings, operational efficiencies and more.

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The Suicide of English

In The Weekly Standard, James Seaton has a review of the new edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism that illuminates a basic mistake the discipline of literary studies committed many years ago. Here is the second paragraph of Seaton’s review:

Despite its length, the new NATC is most revealing in its omissions, the most significant of which occurs in the title. The NATC claims to deal with ‘theory,’ not with ‘literary theory’ and with ‘criticism,’ not ‘literary criticism.’ One cannot help but be impressed by the effrontery expressed by the deletion of the qualifying adjective. The strategic omission of ‘literary’ intimates (without explicitly declaring) that English professors who use the NATC are equipped to provide guidance to all those who employ any sort of theory, presumably including their colleagues in the social sciences, and even in physics and chemistry. Such pretension has not been seen since the heyday of the Hegelian system, which claimed the intellectual authority to give the law to every particular science and discipline, from physics to history and everything in between. ‘Theory’ with a capital ‘T’ deserted philosophy with the demise of Hegelian idealism early in the 20th century, but it seems to have reappeared in the unlikely precincts of the English department.’

The point gets to the heart of how literary studies changed over the course of the 1980s and 90s. In a word, much of the field stopped being “literary”—or at least it claimed such. English professors branched out into media, cultural studies, popular and mass culture domains, and several other non-literary fields, and they pursued non-literary themes of race, sexuality, imperialism, the environment, etc.

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Amen to Bard’s Reading Program, but…

President Botstein’s portrait of Bard College’s summer reading assignments in the context of the college’s curriculum and larger educational aims is winsome and compelling. The college leads its students astutely into reading important books. It attends to the order in which such books should be read—Virgil before Dante. It is mindful of the need to challenge students with books that demand their full attention.

The reasons Botstein offers for colleges to offer summer reading programs, however, don’t track very closely with what most of the colleges in the NAS survey say they are doing. According to Botstein, these programs are founded on the need to rouse high school grads from their summer torpor; to introduce them to general education; and for the institution to make a good first impression on its sometimes skittish and prone-to-transfer new students.

But the colleges we surveyed say something else. Many of them say some version of the idea that they want to “build community” on campus by giving students a “shared intellectual experience.” Kalamazoo College, which we quoted in the report, says its:

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Summer Reading for Freshmen—Arrggh!

What books do colleges and universities ask incoming freshmen to read over the summer? “Beach Books,” a study by the National Association of Scholars, has an answer: it turned up 180 books at 290 institutions and concluded that the book choices are unchallenging, heavily pitched to themes of alienation and oppression, and overwhelmingly reflect liberal themes and the sensibilities of the academic left.
The selections are mostly books published in the last decade and “generally pitched at an intellectual level well below what should be expected of college freshmen…. It is hard to find anything on the list that poses even a modest intellectual challenge to the average reader.” The chosen books tend to be “short, caffeinated and emotional” and seem grounded on the premises of Oprah’s Book Club.
Many colleges say the selections are intended to start conversations and engage new students in intellectual reflection. But assignments based on this goal seem to betray some unstated anxieties, among them that “students are so lacking in shared intellectual experience as to have little to talk about with one another—or little beyond television, music and sports.” The “present-ism” of the selections, the report concludes, reflects an underestimation of the students’ ability to discover connections between the past and the contemporary world. Colleges ought to push students toward making such connections rather than assume that students won’t get it.”
The report wonders whether the colleges are aware of the political slant and triviality of the books pushed on freshmen. It tentatively concludes: “Our guess is that they do not.” Sixty of the 290 colleges selected books in what the report calls the multiculturalism/immigration/racism category. Other totals are environmentalism/animal rights/food (36 colleges), the Islamic world (27), new age/spiritual philosophy (25) and holocaust/genocide/war/disaster (25). On the whole, the books offer a distinctly disaffected view of American society and Western civilization. On the left-right spectrum the reports says that 70% of the books lean liberal, 28% neutral and 2% conservative.

An Unusually Cheeky Summer Assignment

Many colleges assign incoming freshmen a book to read over the summer. The original idea was to give new students a shared taste of what intellectual life is like. Over the years, the books came to reflect the dominant faculty obsession with race-class-gender group grievance and the idea that America is a grossly unfair nation—Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, for instance, was a popular choice. And as students seemed to grow more averse to serious reading, the assigned books got shorter and simpler, and often included upscale comic books like Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus.
Now The University of California at Berkeley has assigned freshmen a non-reading task instead of a book—they are to return a cotton swab with cells from the inside of their cheeks. The university is doing this, according to Inside Higher Ed, because “a reading assignment didn’t make sense for something as cutting-edge and personalized as genetic analysis.”
But of course that analysis will be done in labs by non-freshmen. Instead of spending hours on a book, each student will have to commit three seconds or less to the assignment—a major time-saving gain for busy high-school graduates. Alix Schwartz, director of academic planning for the undergraduate division of the university’s college of letters and science, sees another advantage for a cheek swab over a book: “If we assigned them a book, it would be out-of-date by the time they read it.” Last year freshmen were assigned Michael Pollan’s account of food chains, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was pretty good at the time, but sadly out of date now, along with Plato, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Ehrenreich, comic books and oh so many other once-pertinent works.
Schwartz said the freshman swabs are a one-time thing in the freshman program. “Who knows what creative thing the deans will come up with next?,” she said. We have no idea, but we certainly hope it will further reduce the summertime intellectual demands made of new students.

What Future for English Lit?

Many critical observers of humanities education believe that various left-leaning trends such as multiculturalism and cultural relativism become stronger the higher you rise on the education ladder. In graduate school, the focus is relentless in one seminar after another, with students composing thousands of dissertations each year that presume group identity outlooks as a matter of professionalism. Step down to the undergraduate major and the focus thins out a bit, although special topics courses and senior seminars gravitate in the same direction. Freshman comp classes often follow left-wing themes, too, but the nuts-and-bolts practice of fixing commas and revising verbs usually prevails. Drop down to high school and fashionable relativist postures diminish even further as teachers struggle to get 11th-graders simply to understand the opening section of a Faulkner novel.
This map is largely correct, except for the leadership of organizations representing each group. At the CCCC conference, for instance, you find more trendy topics and edgy left-wing theses represented than are represented in actual classrooms across the land. And in publications of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), which represents English teachers in middle and high schools, you find the same thing. Most high school English teachers go into the field because they liked their 12th-grade English class and discovered a particular aptitude for teaching literature. They love Emily Dickinson poems, and they enjoy passing them along to 17-year-olds.
For NCTE, however, such motives are not so simple and praiseworthy. In fact, the preference English teachers in general have for Shakespeare. Austen, Whitman, and Fitzgerald is downright questionable.

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Death by Suicide: The End of English Departments and Literacy

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“Who are you kidding?” I wanted to get up and ask the English professor who was giving a talk at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association convention in November. He was analyzing a graphic novel, the spaces between panels, the line widths of the panels, the lettering inside the “speech bubbles.”

Maybe he was trying to keep his job in a field that by job postings indicates increasing irrelevance. Students are leaving English departments in droves. “This is a profession that is losing its will to live,” proclaimed William Deresiewicz, former English professor himself, in 2008 in the pages of the Nation, no less.

It’s been a death by slow suicide. The reference to “spaces” coming from the podium was the same kind of self-abusive parsing, I had seen applied by deconstructionists in the 1990s when I was a graduate student. The depressed patient, failing to see any worth in his work, had leveled the greatest works to “texts.” Reading between the lines of “text” has evolved into reading the gaps between panels: “Lots of stuff happens in that silent space,” said the professor.

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Great Books In Texas

Matthew Levinton, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote us with some encouraging news about a new book club at that school, which he currently serves as President. Read his account:

Last fall at the University of Texas at Austin, a new great books program began its mission to realize Thomas Jefferson’s vision of educating citizens and leaders to understand the meaning of liberty and to exercise it wisely. In the spirit of this charge, the Center’s new book club, which began last spring with a reading of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, was formally organized as the “Jefferson Book Club,” and opened the fall semester with a reading and discussion of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
The book club’s events, which have included the discussion of such things as Leo Strauss’ essay “What is Liberal Education”, will continue with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography when classes resume in the Spring. Plans for the new semester also include readings and discussions of Rousseau, Shakespeare, St. Augustine, Solzhenitsyn, and a viewing of the classic Spartacus. The film event will compliment the Center’s lecture to be held in March on Spartacus by Classical historian Barry Strauss.
Events organized by the Jefferson Book Club serve the Thomas Jefferson Center as an informal gathering place for students and faculty, and provide opportunities for those who realize and appreciate the value of great books to come together and learn from each other. Furthermore, the club has caught the interest of students from outside of the liberal arts as well, and provides individuals from other colleges that may not formally study the great books in class with an opportunity to become involved in discussions that may otherwise be absent from their studies.
The book club is establishing a blog to use for communication among club participants regarding suggestions for readings, and ideas for when discussions may take place. I am serving as the book club’s president, and the process of working with the Center’s directors and faculty to bring the club together, and to help make it something for students to enjoy and learn from has been a very meaningful experience for me. I look forward to our plans for the New Year. When I explain the book club to my professors, or talk with those who are involved with it, they are always very supportive of the club and the opportunity it presents to students to learn from meaningful discussions outside of the classroom. The events held last semester have generated much interest among students and faculty, and I expect the Jefferson Book Club to become a strong part of the great opportunities to learn at the University of Texas at Austin, and I am honored to be a part of it.

English Lit’s Poor Job Market

I have the print copy of the October 2009 Modern Language Association Job List, the annual publication in which English departments in research universities and major liberal arts colleges publicize open positions. It doesn’t contain every job opening in English literature at every institution of higher learning, but it is the main source for people looking for tenure-track openings. For graduate students, lecturers, and adjuncts in the traditional fields of English literature defined by historical periods, it’s a depressing document. Thousands of AbDs and recent PhDs long for a tenure-track post, or even a renewable lectureship in Old English, Medieval, Renaissance, and so on up to 20th-century British literature. Last year, the entire MLA Job List postings dropped 21 percent from the previous year, “the steepest annual decline in its 34-year history,” InsideHigherEd.com reported. This year looks no better. In particular, if candidates wrote a dissertation on Milton, Dickens, even Shakespeare, the odds of getting an interview look bad.
Here is the breakdown of all jobs across the entire country in the following areas:
—–Old English 1 position
—–Medieval 8 positions
—–Renaissance (or Early Modern or Shakespeare) 14 positions
—–17th Century 1 positions
—–18th Century 7 positions
—–Romanticism 6 positions
—–19th Century 7 positions
—–20th Century 11 positions
Think of what this means. For the whole field of Old English, Beowulf and the rest, United States universities offer a single open slot, as they do for 17th-century English literature. Indeed, for the entire history of English literature (not including drama or American and Anglophone literature), we have a total of 55 positions advertised in the MLA Job List. How many thousands of graduate students and non-tenure-track teachers and independent scholars crave a shot at one of those plums?

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The Poetry Wars

Last semester, in an unguarded moment, I did what literature teachers should never do. I told a student her interpretation of a poem was wrong. From that moment I was regarded as an enemy to freedom.

I invited my students to engage with me in online debate on whether an interpretation could be wrong. What follows is their side of the argument. My arguments failed to dent their belief that a poem means whatever a reader thinks.

The debate erupted with Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi,” where Browning, impersonating a Renaissance painter and with much complexity, presents his artist’s credo.

My students resolved that complexity by leaping to conclusions. One young woman found the poem disgusting because the wayward monk enjoys a night out with the ladies. For her, this poem was just another male pleasantry purchased at women’s expense. That was her personal feeling, and therefore, the class argued, a perfectly acceptable account of Browning’s poem.

Another student, who disliked religion, saw Browning’s objective to expose the monk’s hypocrisy. Religion – he was ecumenical in his contempt – was a lie, and Browning showed how true this was.

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Once Bronte, Now Dan Brown: Summer Reading

High schools appear to be steadily dumbing down summer reading assignments, if this Boston Globe report is any indication. One teacher:

..created a cheeky list with titles like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Our Dumb World by The Onion. The former is a spoof on the Jane Austen classic that has the Bennet daughters more concerned with self-defense than marriage, and the latter pokes fun at Americans and, well, everything.

Unfortunate, but not really any surprise, if you’ve paid any attention to college summer reading assignments lately.

Why Read In Advance? Professors Don’t.

I don’t know who coined the phrase “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage” as a pedagogic principle, but when I ran the words through Google, I got 196,000 links. The adage is the cornerstone of the teaching style variously known as “cooperative,” “collaborative,” “interactive,” or “student-centered” learning—part of the educational philosophy of “constructivism,” which holds that teachers don’t teach things but rather, that students “construct” their own knowledge out of what they already know. The idea is that a teacher who lectures or otherwise imparts material from the front of the classroom creates an atmosphere in which the students are passive robots whose job is to “regurgitate” (the vomiting metaphor is ubiquitous in the scholarly literature) their lecture notes on the final exam. Far better for a teacher to be just a coach, gently nudging students along the path of learning on their own.
Cooperative learning is responsible for that now-ubiquitous classroom command, “Now let’s break up into small groups,” that even seventh-graders (as University of Wisconsin English lecturer Mike O’Connell noted in a biting 2007 critique of the guide-on-the-side philosophy in the Chronicle of Higher Education) quickly figure out is a cue to goof off, letting the smart kids in the group do all the work—or, conversely, letting them take the grade hit for substandard work performed by the lazy kids. Cooperative learning is also responsible for its advocates’ devil-may-care attitude toward actually imparting substantive knowledge in a classroom. As Bruce Saulnier, a professor of information systems management at Quinnipac University, put it in a scholarly article last year, “Content… is used as a vehicle for students to develop their learning skills and strategies.” He explained: “There is simply too much knowledge in the world today for students to learn everything they need to know.” One of the classroom teacher’s main jobs instead, wrote Saulnier, should be “modeling” the learning process by absorbing the material alongside their students. The idea behind modeling, is that, instead of directly instructing students in, say, how to solve a physics problem, teachers should “model” the process of solving the problem, which the students then can imitate.
Cooperative learning (along with modeling) is now a staple of elementary and secondary-school teaching. (Click onto this coop-learning website to see a cute Sage-on-the-Stage-Buster logo and a description of the approach as helping to “enhance student satisfaction with their learning experience,” “develop” their “social skills,” and “promote” their “self-esteem.” During the 1990s it began to work its way into college classrooms, helped along by a 1993 article in the journal College Teaching, written by California State University education professor Allison King and titled—guess what!—“From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side.” Pushing for wholesale adoption of constructivist pedagogy at the post-secondary level, King wrote, ” In contrast to the transmittal model illustrated by the classroom lecture-note-taking scenario, the constructivist model places students at the center of the process–actively participating in thinking and discussing ideas while making meaning for themselves.”

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Latest Vanished Requirements: Harvard English

You say you’re an English major—but you’ve never read a word of Chaucer, you don’t know which century Dickens wrote in (wasn’t he the author of “Scrooged”—or was that Bill Murray?), and you think “The Rape of the Lock” is about a guy with a sexual fixation involving keyholes.

Guess where you go to college? Harvard! Or rather, you will be the kind of English major Harvard is likely to churn out in the future if the university’s education policy committee approves a plan approved by the Harvard English department that aims to do away with a required year-long survey course of British literature from Beowulf to Seamus Heaney or so. This traditional-style introductory course known as English 10, which teaches the leading works of literature in chronological order, at least ensures that Harvard’s English majors have a smattering of exposure to, say, Paradise Lost and Middlemarch and won’t commit such bloopers as confusing Samuel Johnson with Ben Jonson or Keats with Yeats.

But chronological order is now out of fashion in literary studies (it’s too “linear”), as are lecture courses, which are supposed to be pedagogically inferior to small, intimate classes in which professors and students get an opportunity to bond. So the Harvard English department plans to dump English 10 in favor of four core “Affinity Group” seminars titled “Arrivals,” “Diffusions,” “Poets,” and “Shakespeares” (pluralizing everything, including the Bard, is ultra-au courant in today’s academia). Within these broad parameters (“Arrivals” is supposed to deal more or less with the Middle Ages and Renaissance and “Diffusions” with more recent centuries), the professors assigned to oversee the seminars will be free to teach whatever works of literature, and even non-literature, that they like. Can’t stand The Faerie Queene? Skip it. The nineteenth-century novel doesn’t float your boat? No worry—you can substitute a pamphlet written by or about “exiled convicts,” “economic migrants,” “colonized indigenes,” or “transported slaves,” as a departmental document leaked to the Harvard Crimson states Harvard’s English concentrators may graduate with only a spotty exposure to English authors and a hazy conception of exactly what happened, literarily speaking, over the centuries (even the “Shakespeares” seminar need not force its students to read much Shakespeare, since the emphasis is supposed to be on the “cultural pressures” of the time that “produced heterogeneity within and between Shakespeare’s plays”). But that’s all right with Harvard’s English faculty. “We are diminishing the role of chronology as the absolute, as the only organizing rubric…to combine it with genres and with geography as equally viable ways of thinking about literature and studying literature,” Daniel Donoghue, director of undergraduate studies for the English department, told Inside Higher Education.

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A Real Freshman Reading Assignment

We’ve documented the foolishness of most “Freshmen Reading” assigments in the past. Looking through the dreck, Charlotte Allen discovered a ray of hope in Cornell’s assignment this year of Gary Wills’ Lincoln At Gettysburg.

Now that the assignent is completed, what did Cornell students think? The Cornell Daily Sun reports:

“I thought it was awful and the book was torture,” said one freshman. “The book was like a history textbook and was dry and hard to understand.”

“Everyone realized in 5 pages or 30 that the book is full of shit and we just stopped reading it,” added Edward Kim ’12.

This is what matriculating Ivy League students think of a work by a popular and well-respected historian? If they thought that was boring, what do they possibly think lies ahead of them?
Some responses were more encouraging:

“I especially enjoyed the first part of the book, which gave the background of the Gettsyburg Address,” Christina Conway ’12 told the University. “Garry Wills talks about what the times were like, and how transcendentalism played a part in affecting Lincoln’s way of thinking. There are parts of the Gettsyburg Address that are similar to classical speeches, and the author shows what each part of the speech accomplishes.”

However dim-witted some of the Cornell recruits seem to be, it’s enheartening that one school still sees fit to challenge their students from the start, and that some students welcome this. Bravo Cornell.

How English Is Your Department?

The Harvard English Department appears on the verge of changing its official name, from the “Department of English and American Literature and Language” to the “English Department.” This sounds like a good thing, a bucking of a trend that started nearly 30 years ago toward renaming university English departments in order to make them appear more hip and relevant (in 1981, for example, the Georgia Institute of Technology restyled its English department a “School of Literature, Communication, and Culture”). A recent editorial in Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson, praised the proposed new name as promoting the precision of diction that George Orwell (not to mention countless freshman English teachers) had pinpointed as crucial if a language is to preserve its meaning. “The Department of English and American Literature and Language is not actually in the business of teaching English and American literature and language,” the Crimson editorialist noted. “Rather, it teaches about the structure and works of the English language.” Anyone who has read the novels of James Joyce or Joseph Conrad – two masters of English prose style who were neither English nor American by origin – would have to agree.

Nonetheless, the decision of Harvard’s English faculty to give their department a more succinct and accurate name may deserve only two cheers instead of three. Harvard’s move may actually signal a desperate effort to entice more undergraduates to major in English by expanding the curriculum to include just about everything except the study of works of English literature. The name “English Department” is on many campuses nowadays a catchall home for courses in gender studies, “postcolonialism,” movies, television shows, and whatever else seems trendy or likely to induce young people who would rather not plow through Ulysses to sign up. The number of English majors at U.S. colleges and university has been in a state of free-fall since the 1960s, and now, according to the Department of Education, only 1.6 percent of the nation’s 19 million undergraduates choose English as their major.”

Surveying advertised job openings at universities for holders of Ph.D.’s in English in his widely publicized article in The Nation about the moribund state of literary studies, Yale English professor William Deresiewicz wrote, “There have always been trends in literary criticism, but the major trend now is trendiness itself, trendism, the desperate search for anything sexy. Contemporary lit, global lit, ethnic American lit; creative writing, film, ecocriticism – whatever. There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children’s literature, even in something called ‘”digital humanities.'” (Yale itself is a case in point of declining student interest coupled with faculty flailing; the number of English majors at Yale fell from 238 in 2001 to 157 in 2007.)

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