Death by Suicide: The End of English Departments and Literacy


“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.

The other English professors and graduate students in the audience nodded in complicit agreement, knowing that to acknowledge his intellectual nakedness would reveal their own. Or maybe they’ve really convinced themselves they’re clothed in real scholarship.

I’ve pretty much given up on obtaining a tenure-track position; the remaining traditional professors I sought out in the early nineties have since either retired or died. Writing a thesis on Paradise Lost and a dissertation on Walker Percy did not prepare me for positions that advertise specialties in analyzing nine (yes, nine) genders or “visual rhetoric.” But since SAMLA had come to me in Atlanta I thought I’d see what was going on. I learned that students can now study their lessons in race, class, and gender with the assistance of pictures.

Graphic novels, those ugly things which now enjoy a special section in college libraries, are to be added to almost any syllabus in a high school or college English class, I learned.

This is how far we’ve come since the 1990s when bitter young men and hysterical women scrutinized “texts” and condemned them as purveyors of imperialism.

The bitter young men read between the lines, hacked away at “texts,” dismissed authorial intention, scrutinized biases, and purged the canon of any male author (or female) who upheld Western notions of meaning.

The young men acted out their neuroses in a Harold Bloom-ian manner with a vengeance, striving to achieve recognition by killing off the literary fathers: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck. Now they can’t even get their students to read their own books unless they’re accompanied by pictures.

But even worse were the “maternalists” who attacked “masculinist thinking” and “phallic logic” (bell hooks).

Displaying typical liberal blindness, Deresiewicz in his Nation column claimed that English departments were moribund and dying because “no major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies.”

No, actually the gender studies theorists were the ones to put the final stake through writing, while viciously accusing it of “phallologocentrism.” They accused writing itself of following the trajectory of male sexual response in its “linear” goal-seeking of meaning. Grammar, logic, and universal meaning promoted the male, imperialist goal of subjugation. Writing, like male sexuality, was inherently rapacious.

As alternative, Elaine Showalter took her cue from Luce Irigaray’s notion of “labial thinking,” and advanced “uterine withdrawal and containment.” “Women,” Helene Cixous insisted, “must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes. . . .”

The madwoman who smears herself with substances has come out of the attic to the lectern. SAMLA “Special guest,” performance artist Karen Finley, who sued the Bush administration over cutting off of NEA funding for her performances that included smearing her naked body with chocolate, claimed to have declined an offer at Georgia State University finagled by old friend and English department co-chair Matthew Roudane. She is now comfortably ensconced at New York University. The contrastive women’s ways of knowing was displayed in the hysterical snit Finley worked herself into, hyperventilating as she recounted how she had a “body reaction to the trauma” to the prospect of signing Georgia’s loyalty oath. “You have to start with an individual, emotional place,” she insisted, describing her principled resistance during the extra long session devoted to “Public Issues, Private Freedoms: Loyalty Oaths, Artists, and the Humanities.”

The plenary speaker on critical issues was Rhodesian-born academic prima donna Anne McClintock who relied appropriately on “fragments,” the now well-known images of prisoners at Guantanamo, to give her little sermon about the alleged human rights abuses by the U.S. Like many historians and literary theorists, McClintock attributes Americans’ fears about attacks from jihadists to a paranoia that came from an “enemy deficit” after the fall of the Soviet Union. She left the enthralled audience with a projected image of a caged prisoner of war extending his hand out to a soldier. Her soft voice dripped with empathy. She is in hot demand, with four books under contract.

Where’s the beef? I wanted to shout, recalling an old advertisement from the 1980s. What does this have to do with books?

Much has been said about the decline in reading, but few outside the walls of academia know how much English teachers and professors are actually undermining literacy. The tenured have the luxury of lecturing on “silent spaces” between panels. The heads of professional organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English expand the definition of literacy to any kind of communication (including the emotive grunt).

But out there in the real world people still need to know how to read. Intelligible instructions must be written to nurses, memos must be sent, directions for electronic gadgets followed. So they give tests to make sure students can search out information in politically palatable passages and then communicate what they know in whatever artless manner.

But as the art decays so does practical ability. As literature is consigned to the dust heap, literacy declines. Conversations with nurses, pharmacists, and business managers support what the surveys show: We are becoming an illiterate nation.

We can blame the professors.


15 thoughts on “Death by Suicide: The End of English Departments and Literacy

  1. Not to “undermine literacy,” but if you think that students should still be learning to read by the time they get to university you should reconsider calling yourself an “instructor.” I suggest that if you are having trouble getting a ‘tenured position’ it is because you are not qualified to be an academic–that would require putting intellectual integrity over your own bitter inventions. Maybe Rupert Murdoch can find a “job” for you, if he stays out of prison long enough.

  2. Great article! We re-posted it (with credit, of course) on
    It’s particularly relevant because Campus Reform is designed to help students who find themselves stuck with exactly the sort of poor quality professor mentioned here — and then graded down for disagreeing with the teacher’s radical ideology.
    The site is a great resource if someone you know (or you, of course) is experiencing this sort of thing at their college — or if they simply want to get involved in conservative or libertarian student activism.

  3. I dislike the unthinking liberalism of much of academia (though I think it is more like leftist authoritarianism than real liberalism), but it is all the more depressing to read an article like this, which makes it clear that the alternative to unthinking liberalism is unthinking conservatism.

  4. To quote Neil Gaiman, who is all of a NYT bestselling novelist, Newbery Award winner, and writer of comics which have won literary awards: “That was mainly, I suspect, because the comic books that you were reading were intended for children, and I don?t see any reason why comics have to be for children. Stop and think about it: You have pictures. Pictures are great, adults like pictures, pictures hang in art galleries. And you have words, and words are wonderful things. You can get the Nobel Prize for Literature just by using words. Somehow, as soon as you put them together, you are perceived to be doing something that?s either for children or for subliterates, and there?s no reason for that. Words and pictures are magnificent, wonderful things, and they can work together, they can work in ironic counterpoint, and you can use them in pretty much any way you like.”
    And for what it’s worth, I know or have met a large number of extremely intelligent people who either learned and/or first really enjoyed reading due to comics and/or continue to read comics as an adult. Ironically, while ripping on folk who ignore actual work, the writer herself shows her own blind spot by ignoring an entire actual medium that includes literary expression.

  5. “Who are you kidding?”
    In English, that would be”Whom are you kidding?”
    I was born & reared in a part of the world that had been ruled by the British for 200 years. English was the white man’s language, and the best we could do was to make an attempt to emulate him. When I came to this country, I was under the impression that English was spoken here.
    It did not bother me at all that the coloured folks could not speak the language; after all, we were not expected to do so. But my world – view was upset when I found that the even the white man could not speak English. My reflex reaction was to correct them on every occasion.
    And their response was to get madder than a hornet.
    I quickly realised that I was getting nowhere; there were a quarter of a billion of them (it was indeed a quarter of a billion then, not a third of a billion as of now), and that as they say “if you can’t lick ’em, you jine em”!
    At a later time, I did find that English is spoken in this country: in the Appalachians of Eastern Kentucky and (presumably) West Virginia. And it is also spoken (albeit with their distinctive accents) by recent immigrants from former parts of the British Empire such as Nigeria, British Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, etc. – before they have had a chance to unlearn English.
    If you lie down with the dogs, you rise up with the fleas. Hopefully I have accumulated enough fleas to be a part of the crowd.
    What I used to regret, but have slowly come to forget is what is missing in McEnglish: the now-imperceptible nuances, shades of meaning and idea that make English such a rich language.

  6. Now I know why I majored in Science versus the “Arts”. No wonder people are confused and easily led by a media created and produced “Messiah”.

  7. Is William Deresiewicz a radical feminist anti-capitalist who opposes white supremacy and imperialism, with a central commitment to creating a sustainable human presence on the planet?

  8. “What is it that is inherently more valuable about a novel or poem compared to a film or a graphic novel?”…the examples of “analysis” that Mary provides would be no more meaningful/useful when applied to a film (for example) than they are when applied to a novel or poem.
    One thing I’ve noticed in business is that there is a certain kind of bad executive who is much more interested in increasing the *scope* of his job than in doing it well. The same seems to be true of the English departments being discussed.

  9. I think this is a rather weak article, no more than a rant really, and an overly played out one at that.
    First, Grabar conflates literacy (the ability to read and write) with literary criticism. True, there are some rather far afield “schools” of critical thought whose currency ebbs and flows, but a failure to appreciate Shakespeare is hardly a harbinger of societal decline nor a cause of illiteracy.
    Grabar’s criticism, and those of some LRs here, seems hung up on medium. What is it that is inherently more valuable about a novel or poem compared to a film or a graphic novel? We might scoff that these are all referred to as “texts”, but when it comes to literary criticism, the importance of the thought or point to the story is what is often being analyzed and for the purpose of deriving a deeper understanding of the artist, the art, and the time in which the text is placed. Why aren’t these things valid in different media?
    Sure, there are really bad movies and vapid comic books out there, but there are also tons of trashy novels and bad poetry that is self-involved drivel. So why can’t we find the potential for literary value in alternate media? The pursuit of that in higher education doesn’t prevent us from teaching the basics of reading and writing in elementary school and beyond.

  10. Wonderful commentary and analysis. Once again, one wonders why parents (and students for that matter) would go into debt to study such garbage. Charles Murray is correct in his analysis of the relevance of higher education in the US. These English departments, professors and their students are far, far less useful to society than a trade school.

  11. Great article.
    I believe that there are two parts to English:
    1) the mechanical – grammar and spelling. This is the framework that allows for clear passing of information.
    2) the intellectual – actual thoughts that are communicated.
    With the absence of #2, #1 is of no great importance. Indeed when trying to communicate the absurd, the less clear the better.
    Picture books are excellent for teaching the illiterate to read, especially if the mental level is six years or less. Lack of pictures requires stretching the mental ability to consolidate information to create a mental image. To put it another way, coloring books only teach a limited concept of art to the very young (mentally). Actual art requires a blank media and a mental image to be placed on the blank media.
    Continue with your fight. There may be fewer to reach, but hope is lost if those few are not reached.

  12. Well written, and well put! As an ex-English major, I can do little but echo Prof. Grabar’s sentiments–would that any of the people who ought to heed them were likely to read them.
    Still, I should offer a qualified defense of modern-day comic books and “graphic novels” against the blanket charge of ugliness. They certainly don’t merit a place in the university curriculum, but the best of them are frequently marvelous genre pieces, and don’t much suffer in comparison to works by creators like Haggard and Burroughs–genre writers who also don’t rate a place in universities, but who produced cracking good reads that are well crafted and nothing to be ashamed of on their own terms.

  13. “Teaching literacy is just another form of neo-colonialism.” That’s what I’ve heard again and again while obtaining my MA in English at NMSU. Then there’s the litany of the usual “evils” — capitalism, industry, science, etc. Since we are supposed to be anti-literacy I think suicide is the appropriate word to describe such English departments. It’s very odd and pointless.

  14. What makes us human? The distinction that we walk upright? Over the years the desire to excel in science and mathematics robbed budgets that resulted in robbing the humanities, and honor the lowest denominators of the human animal. Music programs were easy cuts. So called philosophy that attacked traditional thinking was everywhere.
    The animal instincts are strong and don’t need to be encouraged, or we will see even more of the vulgarity, selfishness, and growing depravity of humanity taking the streets and the campus.
    It is too complex for regulations; and too important for each generation’s random experiment. The best is revealed in the writings and stories that are being removed.
    Thank you Professor Grabar for courageously speaking out.

  15. Brilliant! My son-in-law was just up-in-arms about a FB conversation he had with my niece. She is a HS senior and quite intelligent and yet she was unaware that she should have used “too” instead of the “to” she actually used in a post. I repeat, SHE WAS UNAWARE! We really need to get rid of tenure and start firing teachers.
    I’m currently reading The Land Of Ulro by Czeslaw Milosz and thought he pegged the problem perfectly:
    “A teacher nurtured on the Freudian-Marxian-Chardinian dregs, though able to read and write will be an illiterate and a corruptor”

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