Tag Archives: English

Humanities, Pretty Much Dead, Are Mostly a Hunt for Racism and Sexism

A number of prominent liberal intellectuals, such as Leon Wieseltier, acknowledge that the humanities are in trouble. There “really is a cultural crisis,” he said at a recent Aspen Ideas Festival. This is an improvement over the mass denial of a few years ago, when the standard retort to conservatives went something like this: “You just don’t like the direction the humanities have taken” or worse: “You old-fashioned types are angry that the humanities are no longer a Eurocentric dead-white-male thing—get over it.”

But when the politically-correct president of an Ivy League university recounts how far the humanities have fallen at her school, as Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust did at the same festival, it’s hard to dismiss the thesis.  The numbers Faust cited for Harvard are astounding.  Currently, she said, about 14 percent of Harvard undergraduates major in a humanities field.  That’s higher than the national rate, but it’s down from the 25 percent rate at Harvard when Faust started her tenure as president nine years ago.  Most of the withdrawal, she noted, was due to students heading toward the hard sciences (not the social sciences).  When it comes to enrollment in humanities courses in general at Harvard, the trend there is downward as well, a drop of ten percent over the same period of time.

Related: Are the Battered Humanities Worth Saving?

We can add to the testimony of liberal leaders at the administrative level a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about literature professors who think that literary studies have become so cynical and paranoid that they are turning people away.

When English turned into a practice of reading literature for signs of racism, sexism, and ideology, it lost touch with why youths pick up books in the first place, said University of Virginia Professor Rita Felski.  And Duke professor Toril Moi told the Chronicle reporter, “If you challenge the idea of suspicion as the only mode of reading, you are then immediately accused of being conservative in relation to those politics.

And added to that story is the pile-up of reports demonstrating declining majors and enrollments, along with a dreadful job market for recent PhDs (see here, which shows that, in 2014, nearly half of all humanities doctoral recipients —45.7 percent—had no employment commitments:  We can’t dismiss the thesis of decay any more.  We may disagree about the causes of the slide, but everyone agrees that we need to rebuild and reinvigorate the fields.

Related: More Bad Numbers for the Humanities

The San Diego Union-Tribune recently carried a sad story on one attempt to revive the humanities, at the University of California, San Diego. The program foregrounds social themes, not works of beauty and genius.  The photo that introduces the story shows a panel speaking to a room of 30 or 40 people. The caption states the topic: “Challenging Conversations: Race and State Violence. “The question it raises is: Do the organizers really believe that an event such as this one will draw more first-year students into English, Art History, Classics, and French?

The problem isn’t just that discussions of race, violence, and politics have become so predictable and joyless.  It is that nothing in identity-focused discourse steers youths toward the humanities instead of toward the social sciences and fine arts.  If there is a campus symposium on how race played out in the last election, there is no reason to think that a humanistic approach to it will follow.  It sounds more like Political Science or Sociology than English or History.  So does the other event on the “News” page, “Community, Arts, and Resistance.”

The standard response to this disciplinary distinction is to insert humanities materials into the act.  Yes, the professors say, we talk about race and class and other topics traditionally at the center of the social sciences, but in our case, we examine the representations of them in novels and movies and culture in general.  This is not a step away from reality, they contend, because literature, art, music, and media do what is called cultural work.  They shape norms, impart values, construct stereotypes, and reinforce ideologies.  Analyzing humanities works, then, is essential to the understanding of society.

Maybe—but the claim is beside the point.  In this case, that is, regarding the material state of the humanities today, what counts is whether such approaches that foreground social issues in works of art and literature are going to encourage more undergraduates to choose humanities majors and courses. Unlikely.

First of all, if a 20-year-old has a particular passion for racial, sexual, or other identity themes, chances are that he isn’t inclined to filter it through Shakespeare or Wagner or Woolf.  A few of them will, but not because of their identity interests.  History is a stronger possibility, we admit, but when our youth looks at the requirements for the History major, he will find much of it lies outside his interest.  If you’re fascinated with race in America, you don’t want to spend much time on the ancient and medieval worlds.  Much better to choose one of the “Studies” departments.

Second, if students do come into college loving Victorian novels or foreign films or Elizabethan drama or Beethoven, it probably isn’t due to the identity content of those materials.  They love Dickens because a high school English teacher dramatized Miss Betsey so well, or because the students identified with David Copperfield (which is a whole different kind of identity-formation than the one academics have in mind when they discuss identity).  It’s not that undergraduates already interested in the humanities discount identity issues.  They accept them as part of the work, certainly.  But those issues are not the source of inspiration.  The first draw isn’t race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc., in American film.  It is Intolerance, City Lights, Ambersons, Vertigo . . .  Students want works of art first, social themes within them second.

And so when the UCSD project breaks the humanities up four areas—Equity, diversity, and inclusion; global arts and humanities; public arts and humanities; and digital arts and humanities—one has little hope.  Why is equity at the top, especially when we consider how much great art emerged out of unequal societies?  Why invoke the bland divisions of global, public, and digital?

Here are the sentences that follow the four-part breakdown on the Institute’s web page: Through these wide-ranging and cross-cutting themes, we view the arts and humanities as a vibrant collection of different fields—including the humanistic social sciences and STEM fields—that interrogate the humanistic enterprise from complimentary [sic] and sometimes disorienting perspectives. The IAH thus values difference, cultivates exchange and prioritizes transformative ways of thinking and working together.

The language here is deadeningly abstract — “cross-cutting . . . interrogate . . . prioritize”—the very opposite of a humanistic turn of mind.  The statement goes on to claim that the Institute offers “exciting programs,” but where in this conception is the excitement of the haunting search for Anna on the island in L’Avventura and the uncanny sequence of images in the last five minutes of L’Eclisse?  Does this ethnic/politics focus for the humanities make space for the grand spectacle of Act II of Aida?  Does it allow for Nietzsche’s fiery words about nihilism in The Will to Power?  Does it respect the dark sublimity of the last paragraph of The Dead?

These are the things that lure students to the humanities and keep them there, not this adversarial social framework that turns the humanities into sociology for people who like art.

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.

The Perils of Student Choice

The release of SAT scores last week gives strong ammunition to proponents of a core curriculum. As reported in the Wall Street Journal , reading scores hit their lowest figure in four decades. Writing scores hit their lowest number since a writing component was added to the exam six years ago; in fact, writing scores have dropped every year except one, when they were flat.

The College Board, which administers the exam, attributes the decline to two factors. One, more second-language students are taking the exam; and two, not enough test-takers follow a core curriculum. James Montoya, vice president of College Board, is quoted to that effect in the story, and he states the case even more strongly in the College Board’s own report. In his opening remarks, Montoya asserts that “students who complete a rigorous core curriculum do better in high school; they do better on the SAT; and they are more prepared for college. This holds true across all socioeconomic and ethnic lines.”

What a contrast to the education establishment, which regards a core curriculum as narrow and authoritarian! Parents are inundated with this argument during campus tours, where backward-walking guides assure them that students have ample license in their coursework. The proliferation of choice complements trendy ideas of student empowerment and student-centered learning that caught on in the 1960s and drifted quickly up to higher education.

However, those who favor a core curriculum now have certified announcements by the College Board against a high-elective approach. They may also take heart from a survey released this week by American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Administered by Roper, the first question asked respondents if colleges and universities should force students to take classes in “core subjects” (writing, math, science, U.S. history, economics, foreign language). Fully 70 percent answered “Yes.” More than half (54 percent) of them agreed that they were “Very” or “Somewhat” surprised that many institutions do not have those requirements. Most respondents (57 percent) also said they believe schools do a “fair” or “poor” job preparing students for the job market, while 46 percent believed that institutions do not give student’s “their money’s worth.”

The combination of dissatisfaction with the overall product plus the endorsement of core curricula marks a timely opening for reformers.

Donors Who Launch New Colleges

      By Evan Sparks, from Philanthropy magazine

Scan the rankings of the world’s best universities and you may spot a few patterns. First, you will probably notice that, in every major survey, virtually all of the world’s 20 best schools are located in English-speaking countries. Next, within this elite cohort, it is hard to miss America’s dominance: the surveys usually place about 15 of the world’s top 20 universities in the United States. (Please see the table below.)

Continue reading Donors Who Launch New Colleges

The Terrible Textbooks of Freshman Comp

Norton Reader.jpgFreshman composition class at many colleges is propaganda time, with textbooks conferring early sainthood on President Obama and lavishing attention on writers of the far left–Howard Zinn, Christopher Hedges, Peter Singer and Barbara Ehrenreich, for instance–but rarely on moderates, let alone anyone right of center. Democrats do very well in these books, but Abraham Lincoln–when included–is generally the most recent Republican featured.

Take The Norton Reader, for instance. Someone sent it to me, presumably because I teach freshman composition myself. Much of the volume is made up of popular writing by ideological writers of the left and political speeches that strain the traditional standards of rhetorical worthiness. Among the latter is the instant classic, Barack Obama’s “A New Beginning” speech delivered in Cairo in 2009. It drew quite a bit of criticism, especially over historical inaccuracies. Yet none of this was mentioned. Topic questions were also embedded to trigger predetermined responses from students.

Lincoln, King and Obama

With my curiosity piqued by the obvious bias, I decided to look at other textbooks. What I found was the widespread promotion of Obama, thinly disguised by claims about his rhetorical skills. (Entering college freshmen are likely to have already been exposed to a lot on Obama, much of it from Scholastic, which offers a teachers’ workbook, as well.) Other than one or two columns by a token conservative, like David Brooks, the rich array of conservative writing was ignored.

The Norton Reader, like most, is divided thematically. Interestingly, Obama’s speech is not included in the section, “Politics and Government,” where Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” appear. It shows up in the “Spoken Words” section that is made up of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Eleanor Roosevelt’s “On the Declaration of Human Rights,” William Faulkner’s “Nobel Prize Speech,” and Al Gore’s speech, “The Climate Emergency” that became the basis of the film and book, An Inconvenient Truth. While acknowledging that Gore’s speech was given during the 2004 presidential campaign, the editors treat his data as undisputed scientific fact. For example, topic question 4 asks the student: “Gore gives three leading causes of the climate emergency: population growth, technology, and our way of thinking. List the kinds of evidence and examples he uses in this part of his speech, and suggest how the diversity of evidence and examples helps him communicate with his audience.” There is no hint that there is disagreement on the issue. None of the five topic questions allow the student to dissent from any part of Gore’s argument.

Similarly, Obama’s claims in his Cairo speech are presented without any skepticism. CBS News, hardly a conservative organ, reported that praise for the speech usually focused on its “delivery,” but noted that even the Huffington Post marked the “lack of substance in the words.” William Bradley’s column there claimed that the speech’s arena itself was reason for its success: “The positions [Obama] laid out are positions he had in his campaign. But he did say it all at once, and quite well.”

Obama’s historical inaccuracies in the speech go unchallenged, like attributing the invention of printing to Muslims (it was the Chinese) or crediting Morocco with being the first to recognize the United States (No–Russia, France, Spain and the Netherlands did it earlier). And again, there is no mention of criticisms of the speech, many of them well-founded.

Two of the four topic questions require the student’s uncritical affirmations. Question 2 refers to the seven “specific tensions or issues affecting the current relationship between the United States and Muslim nations.” Were the enterprising student to select one of those as instructed and examine it in detail, but with outside evidence, he would then be faced with the next part of the question: “How does Obama develop his argument so that it will appeal to various audiences?” The assumption that Obama does appeal to various audiences gives the lie to the usual claims about making students “critical thinkers.”

Just Obey the President’s Call

Obama speaking.jpgUsually the last topic calls for a more open, creative response. For Obama’s speech we have: “Obama concludes with a call to action directed especially toward the world’s youth: ‘And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country–you, more than anyone, have the ability to re-imagine the world, to remake this world.’ Write a paper in which you discuss ways you personally might respond to this call.” Disguised as a question, this is a not-so-subtle request to obey the president’s call.

There is not only lack of balance in terms of political representation, but also in sources of the essays. While the anthology does contain a smattering of classics from Emerson, Thoreau, Orwell, and the like, modern selections make up the bulk of the volume. Most come from general interest publications, but it seems the editors never heard of National Review, the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, or New Criterion. Yet, The New Yorker, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s offer numerous excerpts each. A number also come from American Scholar and Georgia Review. There are multiple offerings by the likes of Anna Quindlen, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Joan Didion. The “Ethics” section contains an offering by Peter Singer, by an abortion clinic nurse, and from several animal rights advocates, but nothing from a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective. Bedford/St. Martin’s too includes Obama in several textbooks. A Memorial Day speech at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery provides the sole presidential offering in Making Sense. The 2012 edition of The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings offers Obama’s election night “Grant Park Victory Speech.” (The previous, 2009, edition that contains an excerpt from Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father apparently went to press before the election. Dreams must have been assigned widely, for endotes offers help to students, as does BestEssayHelp.com for the Inaugural Speech.)

The Victory Speech’s salvific message is enhanced by its placement amidst accounts of the inherent hopelessness of life in America by the same authors (Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Barbara Ehrenreich, Peter Singer). Again, no balance is offered. What might be useful is Ronald Reagan’s short speech on his landslide victory that is marked by humility, in contrast to Obama’s insistent proclamations of the historical significance of his election as “the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful….” Topic questions at the end ask students to connect this speech to the Gettysburg Address (!) and MLK’s “I Have a Dream.” The editors seem to be aware of crossing a line, however, for in the instructor’s manual they acknowledge that Obama is “the focal point of a great deal of emotion on either side of the political spectrum.” They therefore advise limiting class discussion to the speech’s “persuasive power.” The attempt to mask such cheerleading is further betrayed by the inclusion of other selections, like John Edgar Wideman’s “Street Corner Dreamers,” which is about what the Victory Speech means to the hitherto hopeless denizens of our nation’s cities. Wideman asks, “Do I glimpse that change in the way they walk and talk, the way they occupy space and flash looks at one another, urgent exchanges of joy, anger, longing, understanding, impatience, solidarity, challenge, like the undeniable, irrepressible reality embodied in singer Sam Cooke’s voice when he promises change that must come–music that might be in the general air now or playing just around the corner in the voice of Barack Obama?”

(An accompanying photo announces, “Barack Obama plays basketball with local youths in Chicago’s Southside, where he launched his career in public service as a community organizer.”)

Wideman continues the rhapsody: “Not Barack Obama singing, but Barack Obama in charge, calling the meeting to order. Putting a finger to his lips: Quiet, everybody, please.” The section includes an essay by Howard Zinn, the late over-the-top historian who is simply described as “professor emeritus of political science at Boston University . . . known both for his active involvement in the civil rights and peace movements and for his scholarship,” however, strains credulity regarding simple rhetorical criteria. The editors list Zinn’s numerous publications and say only about his political allegiances that he argued “that perseverance [sic] in the face of opposition is essential.” Topic 1, though, asks, “Explain what Zinn means by what Leon Trotsky called the ‘natural selection of accidents’ (paragraph 2) preventing true depictions of war, class, and race from appearing in films.” Topic 3 then directs students’ attention to Obama again: “‘What steps do you believe President Obama will take to improve your life? (Possible answer: he could lose in November.)

‘Hearts Bursting with Love and Pride’

Another Bedford anthology, America Now: Short Readings from Recent Periodicals, does not include speeches or book excerpts. Yet, a thematic section focuses on “Barack Obama: What Does His Election Mean to America?” The head note introduces the readings with the claim that Obama’s election “filled the country, from left to right, with a momentary euphoria.” In this section are two essays from Essence, one the aforementioned Wideman essay, and one by Diane McKinney-Whetstone on “The First Family” (“When the crowd surged forward, hearts bursting with love and pride, the lens shifted and altered the world’s view of the Black family,” with topic questions driving home the point that racism had hitherto stymied the black family); an essay from Tikkun that the editors explain is a criticism from the left, “arguing that [Obama] represents a continuation of the conventional policies of the Bush administration, policies [the author Christopher Hedges] believes are determined and orchestrated by a corporate oligarchy”; and a student essay titled “Obama–President for All” (“while Obama embodies a milestone in America’s history as the first African American president. . . .”).

Hedges, an unusually angry senior fellow at the Nation Institute, who wrote what is described as a “call to arms” for the first issue of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, claims that “the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country.” Obama is simply, in Hedge’s estimation, a new brand of the unlawful President Bush, for he refuses to “dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws and restore habeas corpus.” The editors’ footnote explains only, “habeas corpus: The principle that an accused person should be allowed to know the charges against him or her exactly; the Bush administration suspended it during the War on Terror.”!

The substitution of “person” for “citizen” and the refusal to describe Hedges’ real position is, of course, irresponsible. The fact that this textbook is aimed at the student with a low reading level, one who would be least likely to know this information on his own, suggests a goal that has very little to do with education. Nor do the other volumes for that matter. They want to tell students what to think, not how to write.

Will English Departments Begin to Fade?

The executive council of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the leading organization for English and foreign-language professors, issued a statement on Wednesday decrying the rising debt levels of college students. Well, sure, who isn’t against student debt? But I think that the MLA statement is more than just pious boilerplate. It’s a statement of panic–that pretty soon both undergraduates and graduate students in language departments and elsewhere in the humanities are going to realize that their degrees are mostly worthless, especially when financed by mountainous loans. The MLA seems to realize that sometime very soon the bottom is going to fall out of all those English departments with their course offerings in such subjects as “Theorizing Intersectionality” and “Insecure: The Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism.” Students will simply vanish from humanities classrooms (many are leaving already), and departments will implode.

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What Fiction Do English Professors Assign?

The influential website Campusbooks displays a roster of “Popular Classics Textbooks” in fiction. The list offers an aperture into the minds of University English departments:

  1. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  4. The Rum Diary by Hunter S.Thompson
  5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
  8. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  9. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  10.  Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  11.  Maus by Art Spiegelman
  12.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  13.  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R.Tolkien
  14. The Stranger by Albert Camus

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The Decline of the Novel and the Fate of English

English departments have diversified.  Forty years ago, just about every faculty member defined himself or herself in literary historical terms.  One was a Medievalist, one a Shakespearean, one a Romantic scholar, one a philologist.  Large departments might have someone who does film plus a creative writer-in-residence.  Today, click on any faculty roster and the expertises amble far into social and psychological areas–critical race theory, cultural criticism, gender and sexuality, imperialism, etc.

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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.

Continue reading Death to High School English, Thanks to Radicals and Progressives

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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Writing Teachers: Still Crazy After All These Years


After spending four depressing days this month at a meeting of 3,000 writing teachers in Atlanta, I can tell you that their parent group, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, is not really interested  in teaching students to write and communicate clearly.  The group’s agenda, clear to me after sampling as many of the meeting’s 500 panels as I could, is devoted to disparaging grammar, logic, reason, evidence and fairness as instruments of white oppression. They believe rules of grammar discriminate against “marginalized” groups and restrict self-expression.

Even noted composition scholar Peter Elbow, in his address, claimed that the grammar that we internalize at the age of four is “good enough.”  The Internet, thankfully, has freed us from our previous duties as “grammar police,” and Elbow heralded the day when the white spoken English that has now become the acceptable standard, will be joined by other forms, like those of non-native and ghetto speakers.

Freed from standards of truth claims and grammatical construction, rhetoric is now redefined as “performance,” as in street protests, often by students demonstrating their “agency.” Expressions are made through “the body,” images, and song–sometimes a burst of spontaneous reflection on the Internet.  Clothes are rhetorically important as “instruments of grander performance.”  

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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.)

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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.

“Feelings” Education—It Starts in Ed School

The teenage girl standing with her father in line behind me at Kroger was clearly annoyed with her teacher. “I just gave her some b.s.,” she said.

They were discussing the school day, and a writing assignment. Her father asked her what the topic had been and between loading my items onto the conveyor belt I gathered that the assignment had involved a journal entry regarding feelings about family and living arrangements.

“Well,” her father replied, “you could have answered that with fewer than twenty words: ‘My parents went through a ten-year custody battle and now I live with my father.'”

“Yeah,” the daughter replied, “she has no business knowing about that stuff.”

I cheered her on inside, for her resistance to an intrusive English teacher.

When I started teaching college English as a graduate teaching assistant in the 1990s, I dutifully assigned the journals that were recommended in teaching workshops and instructors manuals. Such prewriting was supposed to free up the student’s creativity.

But the journaling ended up producing exactly “b.s.” Still, my colleagues lug around heavy piles of spiral notebooks with emotive scribblings of college freshmen. They also assign topics from the required textbooks.

I did too. In response to one topic that asked students to describe a learning experience, I received essays about first jobs, joy rides in parents’ cars, and joyful births of out-of-wedlock children.

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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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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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