Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Down with Professionalization?

Jeff Harrison (see image at left), an English major in my Advanced Reading and Writing Essays class e-mailed me the following article by Bruce Fleming (that's Fleming on the right) because he was curious to hear what I thought of it (I believe he also e-mailed a copy of it to Dr. McMahon, with whom he is taking Critical Approaches to Prose). Jeff gave me permission to post it here and eventually I'll post my response to it in the comments section (UPDATE: I've done it). I invite you to do the same! (Click here to access the original article, published December 19, 2008 in the Chronicle Review.) I have added images and links to the text.

Leaving Literature Behind
The professionalization of the field is turning students off


The major victory of professors of literature in the last half-century — the Great March from the New Criticism through structuralism, deconstruction, Foucauldianism, and multiculturalism — has been the invention and codification of a professionalized study of literature. We've made ourselves into a priestly caste: To understand literature, we tell students, you have to come to us. Yet professionalization is a pyrrhic victory: We've won the battle but lost the war. We've turned revelation into drudgery, shut ourselves in airless rooms, and covered over the windows.

The good news is that we've created a discipline: literary studies. The bad news is that we've made ourselves rulers of a realm that has separated itself almost completely from the rest of the world. In the process, we've lost many of the students — I'd say, many of them men — and even some of the professors. And yet still we teach literature as if to future versions of ourselves — not that there will be many jobs for them. The vast majority of students don't even want to be professors: They'd like to get something from a book they can use in their lives outside the classroom. What right have we to forget them?

Students get something out of a book by reading it. Love of reading was, after all, what got most of us into this business to begin with. We are killing that experience with the discipline of literary studies, with its network of relations in which an individual work almost becomes incidental. But it's the individual work that changes lives.

To read the rest of this article click here!.

My students at the U.S. Naval Academy, for example, mostly male and conservative, scream bloody murder if, as I sometimes do, I ask them to read Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary as part of our introductory course. (Tenured full professors teach freshmen here at Navy.) They come to class the first day — they've read up through Emma's disenchantment with her boring husband, Charles — incensed.

"Sir," they say flatly, "she's a slut." (The women tend to be harder on Emma than the men are.) Subsequent class periods get even uglier. Many of the men admit that they're fearful of marrying and then having their stay-at-home wives cheat on them. For that reason, they say, "you've got to get her pregnant before you deploy." Emma is their worst nightmare. Emma should have been faithful to Charles! He loved her! He was a good provider! What more does she want?

Initially the students have trouble seeing any resemblance between themselves and Emma: In their view, they're free individuals and have chosen to come here to college. The dogma of their upbringing in most cases holds that individuals can make something of themselves if they are motivated enough. They can't imagine being stuck in Emma's position.

You're being too literal, I say. Most of you aren't female, and in any case, you aren't constrained by lack of education, social class, or the expectations of a provincial world. Then I remind them of the constraints that do bind them, as occupants of the lowest rung of a rigidly hierarchical system where the sometimes arbitrary fiats of officers or even upperclassmen rule their lives. If anybody can understand poor, confined Emma, it should be them. Hmm, they say.

Besides, I ask — I'm moving in on them now — Emma has dreams. Don't you remember the dreams that brought you to Annapolis?

Now they are silent. They do remember those dreams: inflated, Hollywood-fueled dreams of heroism on the battlefield, of overcoming Evil Enemies of America, and of swinging swords in their strong right arms, dreams of duty, honor, country. Where are those dreams now? I ask. They're, after all, the military-male version of Emma's dreams of perfect fulfillment in marriage. Perhaps they were never viable? Is it better to let them die completely than to try and keep them alive, as Emma does?

Annapolis, they tell me, is the place dreams come to die in the daily grind of shining shoes and passing inspections. And the verdict of society is as strong here as on poor Emma: There's only one way to do things here at Annapolis — those who think differently have to give in.

The way to stay sane, I suggest, is to have achievable dreams, not unrealistic ones. By the time we move on to other works, they still think Emma is "a slut" (which, arguably, she is) but at least — they admit grudgingly — they understand her a bit better. And that means, in turn, they may avoid the cynicism that invariably overtakes our students when they realize that neither Annapolis nor the military is anything like what's sold by Hollywood. And they may be less eager to marry someone they don't know the day after they graduate from the Academy, something which used to be more widespread. By watching Emma's torture they may — just may — avoid living it out themselves. That is the kind of use to which literature, and its teaching in college, can legitimately be put.

Literary studies split off from reading in the early-to-mid-20th century as the result of science envy on the part of literature professors. Talking about books somehow didn't seem substantial enough. Instead of reading literature, now we study "texts." We've developed a discipline, with its jargon and its methodology, its insiders and its body of knowledge. What we analyze nowadays is seen neither as the mirror of nature nor the lamp of authorial inspiration. It just is — apparently produced in an airless room by machines working through permutations of keys on the computer.

Science has its objective world, the entirety of what is. The world of texts is the objectivity of literary studies. Thus we can insist that there's no objective world outside texts — as the impish Derrida claimed. (But how un-impishly he was echoed in the halls of American academe for so many decades!) And we can also get some mileage out of insisting that canons, the choice of what texts we take down from the library shelves to teach students, are merely "constructed." Of course they are — every reading list is limited. What we really mean is that our own pet author was forgotten when the canon was formed. The door shut too soon. If our boy or girl were inside the door rather than out, the fact of "construction" would be trivial. Teach my author! we cry. Not that one! What if who's taught, or isn't, doesn't end up mattering to the students, who don't share professorial concerns? To us it matters, and we're the ones in charge.

We're not teaching literature, we're teaching the professional study of literature: What we do is its own subject. Nowadays the academic study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the more rarified a college you attend, the less literary studies relates to the world of the reader. The academic study of literature nowadays isn't, by and large, about how literature can help students come to terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes, and victories, and pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that make us human and fill our lives. It's, well, academic, about syllabi and hiring decisions, how works relate to each other, and how the author is oppressing whomever through the work. The literary critic Gerald Graff [see image at left] famously told us to "teach the conflicts" [that last one was a shameless self-promoting link to an article I've written on the subject-ed.]: We and our squabbles are what it's all about. That's how we made a discipline, after all.

You wouldn't think we'd so focus on the power of written works with the United States engaged in regime change using guns and soldiers — some of them my students. That, it would seem, would be real power. But of course, it's a literature professor telling the story; this skewing of reality makes perfect sense. At least to other literature professors.

Nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who've just touched down on Earth. We professional storekeepers explain the vegetable section, the dairy section, the meat section, note similarities and differences among our wares, variations of texture and color, the fact that there's no milk where the applesauce is, and perhaps the fact (which we bemoan) that there are no papayas. We're teaching the store, not what's in it. We don't presuppose visitors know anything about where the things on display came from; if they do, it's because we told them — that can be our work too, speaking of the world before it ended up in the grocery store. But we're the ones who decide whether or not to include that world outside, and how much. We just want to rack up sales. All this fixation by the storekeepers on the store misses the point: People grow food in order to eat it. Similarly, books are meant to be read. Reading is the point of a book, not integrating it into a discipline.

In graduate school, professors learn to specialize, for which the justification is that we're contributing our bit to the realm of Knowledge about literature. Students, it's been noted, rarely share our passion for the tiny bit of the field we cultivate. That has led to the widely discussed gulf between graduate studies and undergraduate courses. Universities have bridged that gap by giving undergraduate classes to the younger, less professionalized professors. But those young people who teach the young often cannot make clear the larger issues, the things that can actually be of some use to undergraduates. (Plus, they're learning the jargonized speech of the priestly class, and they tend to try it out on their charges.)

All this is harming our students. Reading literature can change their lives — and ours. The thing is, we don't quite understand how this process works — nor will we ever understand. Certainly we can't predict it past a certain point. That's why reading literature can't be a discipline. I, a straight white American male, can see myself in a black character or a female one, understand a point made by a dead Russian or a living Albanian, meditate on an abstract point made by an anonymous author. But that equally means that an X reader (say, black, gay, Albanian) need not read an X author (or character?) to get something from a work. Reading literature doesn't require us to check our list of identifying adjectives to see if we'll understand. Instead, we just have to dive in. Maybe we'll sink, maybe we'll swim. Nobody can tell beforehand. That's the beauty of books.

Interaction with literature can never be the basis of a systematic undertaking: It's all too scattershot. All we can do is describe the sense of looking up from a page full of little black and white squiggles with the feeling that suddenly we understand our own lives, that names have been given to things that lacked them, and that the iron filings that hitherto were scattered about have configured into a clear pattern. Things are different now — somehow. Maybe that will cause us to act differently, maybe not.

Literary study in the classroom nowadays offers views of the work of literature rather like the views of Mt. Fuji in Hokusai's celebrated spring series on "100 Views of Mt. Fuji." In each view, the mountain, while present, is frequently tiny and in a corner, viewed (in the most famous print) beyond the crest of a wave whose foam seems to make fingers at the edges, or (in another) through a hoop that a barrel-maker is shaping.

Those are not the front-and-center shots on a postcard. They foreground the angle of the mountain, its treatment, much the way a literature professor does with a funky viewpoint that got him or her tenure. Of course the postcard shot has its own point, but in a real sense it's more neutral than the angled treatment. It doesn't push our noses in its approach: It defers to the object it is depicting. We're far more conscious of the treatment of Mt. Fuji in an artsy Hokusai print than we are in a postcard shot. And that means, we're all but compelled to see the mountain the way it's presented, rather than being able to work on our own presentation. That's why literary studies is intrinsically coercive.

The premodern classroom — up until, say, the New Criticism, that first critical application of modernism — never denied that each individual student might be making his or her individual "View of Mt. Fuji" from the postcard shot the professor was supposed to be presenting. But those views were individual, and no claims were made for them beyond that. The power of the professor in the professionalized classroom — and the pressure on students to conform — is thus exponentially greater than it was before people started thinking that the point was the "View of Mt. Fuji" rather than Mt. Fuji viewed. If you want a good grade, you adopt that viewpoint. That's what's being taught, after all. Several generations of students have by now learned to give in to the power of the literary-studies professor — and hated every minute of it.

There is a point to college or university guidance of literature. Most people never read serious literature at all without a guide. Too, people get more sophisticated as they have things pointed out to them, or as they read more. And many people just don't know what they may read to begin with. So there's a reason for teaching. We professors just have to remember that the books are the point, not us. We need, in short, to get beyond literary studies. We're not scientists, we're coaches. We're not transmitting information, at least not in the sense of teaching a discipline. But we do get to see our students react, question, develop, and grow. If you like life, that's satisfaction enough.

Bruce Fleming is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. His most recent book is What Literary Studies Could Be, and What It Is (University Press of America, 2008).
http://chronicle.comSection: The Chronicle ReviewVolume 55, Issue 17, Page B14


  1. Ken Hada writes: Interesting, but I certainly disagree. Most students get very little from a text (in my 20 years experience at least) without the aid of a so-called specialist offering them various ways to see. This seems to be more of the false dichotomy between critical reading and personal reading. I appreciate things better the more and various ways I understand.

  2. I disagree, too, Dr. Hada. For me, part of the magic of reading literature is that it opens a door into a world of conversation non-readers have no access to. When I was an undergraduate English major, we never read literary criticism and were even discouraged from reading it (so I've lived Fleming's dream, I guess). It was not until I began to read literary criticism that I finally felt that I was entering into a world in which I could fully explore my thoughts and feelings about the value of the imaginative literature I had read.

    I reject Fleming's notion that “literature” is superior to criticism because it’s closer to the “real world.” That’s the same kind of thinking that produced the old saw: “those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach.” Once you accept that criticism is literature’s dim shadow, you are on your way to accepting that literature is but a dim shadow of the real world. So why read when you could be out doing something?

    But as I see it, an afternoon spent with a work of literary criticism is just as real as an afternoon spent mowing a lawn. And a good work of literary criticism has the same power to change lives that a work of imaginative literature does.

    Some literary criticism is drudgery. I’ll give you that. But some imaginative literature is drudgery, too. Bad writing is bad writing.

    Though I’m as opposed to “the jargonized speech of the priestly class” as the next guy, not all literary criticism is polluted with jargonized speech. And not all professional jargon is pollution. To blame literary theorists for coming up with terms that make literature courses hard is like blaming Einstein for making physics hard. Sometimes sophisticated thoughts require sophisticated terms. If some teachers teach their classes in a way that makes no sense to their students, don’t blame literary theory. Bad teaching is bad teaching.

    And that brings me to Dr. Fleming. It sounds to me like he thinks an English class should operate like a traditional Sunday school class: open the Holy Scripture, read a parable, reflect on its relation to your lives, seek a moral lesson, and return to the “real world” resolved to be better people.

    But who decided that Madame Bovary was Holy Scripture? And who decided that it should be read as a morality tale? And how in the world did Dr. Fleming get the idea that he was the one to tell the rest of us what the moral of the story is?

    These questions—how should Madame Bovary be read? why should we read it? whose account of it should be believe?—are the questions asked by literary critics and theorists. They are also the questions Fleming scorns. Apparently, not only does Fleming think English classes should be like Sunday school, he thinks there should be only one church. His. And he wants to kick “we and our squabbles” out of the temple.

    Well, I’ve got a message for you, Naval Academy: “we and our squabbles” is not just what English departments are about; it’s what life is about. And when you argue about the meaning of a book (that is, when you enter the world of literary criticism and theory), you may very well be living your life to the fullest.

  3. Jennifer McMahon writes: I found the article, “Leaving Literature Behind” thought-provoking; however, I think Fleming overstates his case. In particular, I do not believe that the phenomenon he describes is as pervasive as he contends. It certainly is true, particularly at the graduate level, that literary studies have become increasingly abstract. Many programs have shifted away from encouraging students to examine the truths that literature has to tell and the way it affects audiences, and instead urge them to engage in highly specialized linguistic analyses of texts. To the layperson, these analyses may seem unnecessary and even elitist to the extent they typically presume familiarity with literary theory and its special terminology. However, when one considers literary criticism more broadly one sees that, at bottom, the various theories simply represent different ways of looking at literature. Some focus on the internal features of works and how they interrelate. Some focus on how the work expresses and reinforces certain values. Others examine how a work might reflect its author’s interests or convey insights about the period in which it was written. Contrary to Fleming’s suggestion, studying different ways of looking at literature doesn’t necessarily kill the passion that students have for it. It can be undertaken in a way that enhances the excitement that students have for literature. It opens new avenues of discovery for students. Indeed, I think that most would argue if you are doing it right, encouraging students to look in different ways at literature compels them to look more deeply at it. This heightened attention should not only enhance students’ passion for literature, but also their understanding and appreciation of it.

  4. I'm not sure I can add much to the insightful comments that have preceeded mine, but this article certainly deserves discussion. On the one hand, I understand what Fleming feels, since in graduate school there is a tendency to focus more on the discipline rather than the subject: I remember PhD's in literature who took pride in not reading "literature" (that is, works of fiction, whether poetry, prose, or drama) seeing them as too "easy." And there is tremendous pressure to respond to the complex web of commentary on Lacan or Foucault rather than build a comprehensive body of knowledge of a historical period of literature (which, ironically, we had to declare a specialty in). But as Jennifer says, I'm not sure how pervasive this issue is at the undergraduate level, and I question his overall thesis: have we really forgotten why we got into this in the first place? On the contrary, I (and most professors I know) profoundly love BOOKS and IDEAS. And I don't think you can say that "literature" has more of a monopoly on ideas than so-called literary theory. Both are literature in the sense that they offer perspective on the world and challenge how we see what we thought we saw.

    A case in point is his story about teaching Madame Bovary: he made them see the "real world" implications of a bored, isolated woman living in provincial France in the 19th century. But in so doing, he is offering what he knows of literary theory by emphasizing the fruits of feminism--the lack of choices and roles for women to play at that time, dreams that must lay fallow, and ambitions that any man could realize but a woman must store away, watching herself waste away in the mirror. Far from taking away from the "conflicts," relevant literary theory simply offers another perspective at what many students wouldn't see; they would simply dismiss her as a slut or a bitch. As Hada says, undergraduates may love literature, but they need help to see all the possibilities of a single text: the more you see, the more you appreciate, admire, and (in my case) love. When I first read Shakespeare, I certainly liked him, but I had trouble seeing past the story...I couldn't see what motivated the characters (the conflicts), nor could I see the conflict of the language itself. Reading criticism, theory, and simply reading other literary works of the same time (Marlowe, Johnson, Webster, Marston, etc.) helped me "see" Shakespeare's context, the dynamics of power, and the possibility of language. What I admired as an undergraduate I began to salivate over in graduate school. It didn't create a pseudo-study of works about Shakespeare; on the contrary, it always pointed back to the source (which itself is simply a perspective on real people in real, but imagined worlds). Greenblatt's great book, Shakesperean Negotiations, floored me when I read it, since it interpets Shakespeare through his historical period, bringing in travel writing, exploration, and New World conflicts into the text as "living" ideas. When I later began to see how Feminism, Queer Theory, and even more importantly, postcolonialism could influence a text (profoundly in the case of The Tempest), I was hooked. Now it began to make sense…and now I was really “reading” the book.

    So to me the issue is how do we start students on this journey? Certainly not by removing tools from our toolbox. I may use theory very lightly in a survey course, but I always bring in ideas and perspectives informed from reading it. I think it’s an utter fallacy to simply tell students to read and find whatever they find and call it a day. Often, they will return unimpressed—as in the case of one student who, on an informal response last semester, wrote “I just HATE poetry!” So what would you suggest for such a student? “Sorry, I can’t deviate from the book—either you see it or you don’t”? What I would do is reach for my formalist training (invoking an unfashionable but still (for me) beloved name, Cleanth Brooks) and ask them to look at the language: discuss the connotations of words, the sounds, the relationships, the pauses, the inflections, the question marks. While New Criticism may have started the downward trend for Fleming, I guarantee it will open up this student’s understanding of poetry, as it questions how they are supposed to read it in the first place. Indeed, I would challenge Fleming NOT to use some sort of theory or critical approach in teaching anything. How would that be accomplished?

    Maybe what he means to say is we need to avoid indoctrinating students in our professional squabbles, and making them learn our research rather than learning to read for themselves. In graduate school, goodness knows I took a class or two which was solely about that professor’s perspective (i.e. their dissertation or book(s)), and deviation from this reading was not permitted. Obviously, this is counterproductive and goes against the grain of teaching in general. And I also remember bewildered TA’s going into a Composition & Literature class and passing out Derrida or Kristeva since that’s what they were reading at the time, so why not make the kids read it, too? Again, this has nothing to do with literature vs. theory but simply bad (misguided) teaching. We have to teach students to read all the literature out there, and limiting the means to this end will prevent us from actually teaching—from showing that the conflicts ARE universal and relevant despite the time or place. I know I love reading and I love sharing my passion with students, and I am careful about leading students gradually into the deeper waters of criticism. But they are there, and I want them to see the multiple perspectives that peacefully co-exist in a single work. And I think Fleming sees this, too, though he may be arguing against his own pedagogy (at least in the Flaubert example).

  5. Josh, I thought about letting you have the “last word” on this subject, but I was so captivated by your response that I just couldn’t resist the temptation to filter it through my own head to look for places in which our perspectives overlap and places where there appear to be gaps between them. My natural tendency is to pay more attention to the gaps, because they require more careful thinking, but I want to say at the outset that I do not underestimate our agreements. Like you, I believe that there is a performative contradiction at work in Fleming’s approach, for example. He derides criticism and theory, but uses it.

    I am reluctant, however, to sign on to a paradigm in which “the subject” is “fiction, poetry, prose or drama,” and the “commentary” is the “discipline.” The image that comes to mind is one in which a bunch of snooty grad school students are having distracting sidebar conversations that drown out the works being spoken by the main attraction: The Subject.

    “Commentary” is prose, too, though. Why can’t we count it as part of the “Subject”? It can be entertaining and moving, too. I’m not saying grad school students are more interesting to listen to than the “Great Classics.” I’m just wondering if the subject/discipline divide subtly relegates literary criticism (commentary) to a slightly lower level in the hierarchy.

    The other image that comes to mind is that of the movie star (the subject—fiction/film/poetry, etc.) and the paparazzi (the discipline/commentary). The stars act/entertain; the paparazzi gossips and criticizes and pokes holes and is generally envious.

    I understand that you are advocating a both/and position with regard to “the subject” and “the discipline,” but I wonder if you share my protective feelings for the criticism-and-theory side of the divide.

  6. Let me come at it from a different perspective: Fleming draws a picture in which criticism is the bully and “literature” is the abused outcast. I see it the other way. People in the world at large don’t read literary criticism. Students in the public schools don’t read literary criticism. And even in college, even among English majors, students are protected from readings in literary criticism until they have read more “primary” works that “expand their knowledge base.” And yet they are asked to produce it any time they are asked to analyze a poem or novel in class (they are not asked to produce poems and novels). Why is it that schools are so willing to ask students to produce literary criticism but are so reluctant to have them read any? Why are the primary works always kicking literary criticism off the playground?

  7. On another note (I'm putting my response in multiple posts to disguise its length), I wonder if you would say the goal of a literature course should be to help students learn to love the literature or merely understand it? The fudge word here (which I often find myself using) is “appreciate,” which requires some understanding of its complexity but does not require endorsement of a given text’s values or enjoyment of its aesthetics.

    I ask because my answer would inform my response to your question about how to teach a student who claimed to HATE poetry. I like to think I would say to that student that love/hate is beside the point. My goal would be to teach that student how the poem works, to look at it as a machine, a rhetorical machine. I would not only want to talk about how it is put together internally, but how it functions in the world, what service it performs and in whose interest it performs that service.

  8. One final comment: Do we need to avoid indoctrinating students? I think “indoctrination” is just persuasion that is ham-handed (and, ultimately, shallow and ineffective). No one wants to indoctrinate anyone. But aren’t we all in the game of persuading students of the worth of one or another set of values, directly or indirectly? Many of the best courses I took in graduate school might be described as “solely about the professor’s perspective.” What made them good classes was the value of that perspective—the way it enriched my world view. Looking for a way to poke holes in it was an invigorating (and educational) challenge. Sometimes the professor welcomed those challenges gracefully, and sometimes they did not. Sometimes I discovered holes in the theory, and sometimes I just walked away persuaded by the ideas the professor was espousing—just like I would walk away from a book or a film or a work of literary criticism feeling persuaded or not.

  9. Again, I was trying to understand what Fleming might have been reacting to without agreeing with him--because I don't. Reading and studying theory was a valuable part of my graduate study (like you, I was not taught or encouraged to read theory in my undergraduate); and I don't think one is more important or better than another. Nor is one the “subject” and one the “discipline” in general...however, my point was that I got a Ph.D. in literature, and more specifically, British literature. While literature can be defined as anything from blogs to poems to theory and criticism, it is also explicitly pragmatic: I had to graduate with a thorough knowledge of the British canon (particularly in my specialized field), as well as the history, culture, and criticism that grew up around it. So for me, with the realities of having to get a job and teach this fundamental subject matter, literature WAS the subject, and all else the commentary. I don’t see this as pejorative at all, just pragmatic. That’s what I’m an expert in. I personally can’t pretend to be a Marxist with my extremely limited knowledge of Economics (though I have read The Communist Manifesto many times, as well as some of Grundrisse), or that I am particularly fluent in psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, linguistics, or the finer aspects of postmodernism. All of these interest me, but I am who I am—a self-declared literature expert. What I found somewhat comic about graduate school in English is how everyone is suddenly a sage in fields they have never even taken a 1000 level course in (such as a fellow grad student who wrote a dissertation about disability studies and tied this into Greek myth and Aristotle—despite having no particular expertise in Greek, Philosophy, or ancient (or comparative) literature). I think Fleming resents this all-inclusive nature we have in English grad programs which somehow shies away from the one thing we have always traditionally done—the study of literature. It doesn’t (nor shouldn’t) be everything we do, but again, I think he feels we’re forgetting this crucial link to the “story” in favor of the worlds we’ve grafted on top of it (because stories predate commentary). I think his fallacy is to graft graduate school & academic practice with what goes on in the undergraduate classroom. I think theory and criticism should be PROMOTED much more in this sphere: however, I always stress a balance, and in the case of lower level courses, a balance tipped far toward the “literature” side of things (in literature surveys, anyway).

    You make a great point when you say that we push students away from reading literary criticism, but then expect them to write it. But in saying this, aren’t you making a distinction between discipline and subject? I think that literature IS criticism (and vice versa). Literature is not a “thing” or a revered temple idol: it is a perspective on the world, and in many cases, a profoundly unsettling one—as in the case of Wilfred Owen’s scathing WWI poems, which cut aside the patriotic mythos of the British soldier for the truth of blood, gas, and ignoble death. It is storytelling, theory, criticism, culture, and history all rolled up in one. Critical writing is just another manifestation of literature, but one that no longer tries to enter the “mythical” mode (storytelling) and instead tries to articulate what and how we read. It becomes our psyche and our subconscious, unraveling our cultural values and stereotypes, and helps us deconstruct the mythic tableau and examine the narrative atoms that compose it. If anything, that’s the distinction between traditional literature and criticism: one of art and science. Literature tries to examine the world through the guise of a fictional/artistic experience, while criticism doesn’t create this artificial lens but prefers a more direct, rigorous approach. Indeed, this is why so many graduate programs focus on theory—it has more cultural capital among the science-minded university, where studying stories and poems seems somewhat suspicious and superfluous (why study a subjective art—can’t anyone read it however they want? Can it ever be known?). So I would say that making students respond to primary works is not the blind leading the blind: it is forcing them to translate the myth (the story) into the vernacular. They need this experience of grappling with a text and trying to make it “speak” in their own language. I think this experience is essential to have before being initiated into the vast body of criticism that is prefaced on a PROFOUND understanding of the myth and its history. Indeed, I was utterly mystified by theory at first not because I didn’t get it, but because I didn’t have a sufficient background in the works they discussed, whether British, American and European. Reading widely made me appreciate theory, and I worry that a program that relegates foundational (albeit canonical works) of human thought such as Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Emerson, Conrad, Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, etc., is actually crippling the students and making it impossible for them to ever properly come to grips with writing or reading criticism on any meaningful level.

    So what would be the purpose or goal of a literature course? Like you, I don’t think you have to love it (unless you plan to be a teacher—then you HAVE to! :) ). But as you said, you must come to grips with the mechanics of the work, the cultural forces that shaped it, the gears and wheels of style and genre, and the profound cause and effect of author and audience. Also, however, students need to stop seeing works as bound merely to a certain class or divide, such as Brit I or American II, etc. To me, literature is what replaced mythology (and in some respects, religion); it’s an overlapping universal narrative that also speaks to the particular. It voices our heroic quest and maintains a link with our oral ancestors who first invented the building blocks of the “story.” Literature profoundly moves me because I feel part of a never-ending narrative, and I enjoy teaching students how each work positions itself in the story, and once we make allowances for history, culture, and other shifting perspectives, we ultimately find ourselves. Fleming fears we’re losing this shared experience of storytelling and blames it on the academics themselves. I can’t agree with this, since any kind of criticism makes me profoundly AWARE of the story and how we tell it (especially someone like Levi-Strauss, who talks explicitly of mythic archetypes). So students need to leave off the love/hate dynamic and understand why we read literature and how it works. And they need every tool at their disposal to do this, which is why they need to read widely in both traditional and contemporary works.

    So is this indoctrination? Perhaps, but how can this be “my” view if the works I’m teaching have survived countless generations? I didn’t decide on my own that these works are telling a mythic narrative—they are because they’re still around and kicking for me to teach! I see this as simply acknowledging what is already there and understanding and appreciating why it exists. I do resist being a professor of one idea or view that students have to learn and poke holes through. While that can be a great exercise, it goes against the grain of my personal pedagogy; I don’t want to embody views but simply pose problems and facilitate discussion. I want students to leave with numerous perspectives—some from class, some from their own writing and thoughts—and I don’t want to anyone to feel rejected because they couldn’t “get” me or accept my view of things. That’s why I resist teaching my own research explicitly, though I do offer ideas I have as a point of view, not insisted upon, but proposed. I remember many professors of mine making definitive statements such as “Jane Eyre is a shit work—read Wuthering Heights instead,” or “Conrad is a racist imperialist—no one seriously studies him anymore.” At the undergraduate level, such a comment could blight a student’s curiosity forever. While I might occasionally have strong ideas like this, I don’t feel it necessary to communicate this: why should a student be forced to accept my prejudices/preferences as dogma? This might not be what you mean by indoctrination, but this my fear—that learning will become “learn who I am.” I resist that as much as I can. I would rather be a bard than a prophet, someone who simply tells a story, discusses what it might mean, and leaves without any definitive conclusions. I don’t want to start a revolution (I leave that task to others).

  10. Josh, I don’t know if anyone else other than the two of us is reading these comments, but just in case they are, I’d like to clarify something: I’m really digging this exchange of ideas and I suspect you are as well. I find this kind of discussion to be fascinating because it pushes me to read and think carefully. I don’t think this is a case of two professors who “love the sound of their own voices”—a charge I recently heard one of our students level at teachers in general. This is, rather, a case of two professors who like thinking. And if there is some negotiation of where and how our views coincide and differ, that makes it interesting, just like playing a game of pick-up basketball with a group of skilled players is more enjoyable than practicing free throws by yourself on an abandoned court. I’m afraid that someone who hasn’t heard us batting around ideas like these when we talk to each other in person, might get the impression that there’s more conflict here than is really the case. In fact, this is just the kind of discussion I hoped this website might produce and I thank you for your support. Viva la conversacion!

  11. I agree with you that Fleming thinks the “story” (fiction, film, poetry) is getting short shrift in undergraduate classrooms and “the worlds we’ve grafted on top” (commentary) is getting too much play (though I don't like those definitional terms). I also agree with you that he overestimates how much what gets taught in undergraduate classrooms resembles what gets discussed in graduate classes and professional journals. I also agree with you that theory and criticism should get more play in undergraduate classrooms. On this much (and more), we agree.

  12. I agree with you that literature and the study of literature serve some of the functions that have traditionally been served by mythology and religion. I suspect, though, that you may get a greater charge than I do out of tapping into literature (the "never-ending story") in that regard.

  13. You are also right to point out that although I argue that literary criticism should be regarded as literature, when I call for the inclusion of literary criticism and theory in the classroom (as you do), I am implicitly acknowledging the existence of a body of texts that is in an important way unlike the body of texts that currently gets taught. I admit that though imaginative literature often has a critical element, it is possible to differentiate between texts that enter what you call the “mythical” mode and those that do not.

    I must add, though, that while much literary criticism aspires to be “direct,” “rigorous,” and “objective,” some literary criticism is impressionistic, hesitant, meandering and ambivalent. Some literary criticism is comic, and some of it is even moving in ways that make it read more like art than science. As you have illustrated with your description of Wilfred Owen’s WWI poetry, writing in the “mythical” mode often serves a critical function. Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” written entirely in verse, provides another good example of a text that blurs that line between aesthetic and critical expression.

    Fiction, poetry and drama often function as “commentary” on the real world, as well as on other works of fiction, poetry and drama. And works of literary criticism often use the device of commentary on an isolated work of literature to launch a commentary on much broader “real world” subjects. In short, it’s all “commentary” at one level or another.

    Instead of attempting to classify individual texts as “mythic” or “scientific,” I think it makes sense to raise student awareness about the rhetorical function of “imaginative literature” and the aesthetic function of “critical literature."

  14. I’m with you, Josh, on the value of a reading program that includes foundational works of human thought. To your list of Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Conrad, and Faulkner—all of whom produced texts that have been traditionally associated with the aesthetic/mythic tradition, I would add texts from the critical/rhetorical tradition produced by Plato, Aristotle, Marx, and Arnold. Emerson and Woolf fit on both lists (and Arnold, too, for that matter).

  15. One final note on the courses I took in graduate school that were, as I suggested, “solely about the professor’s perspective.” I think I may have misrepresented my experience. I never took a class in which a book written by the professor of the course was the course’s assigned text. And I never took a class in which a professor dismissed a text like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights out of hand. I did enjoy a couple of the courses I took in which the professor took a strong (not stupid or shallow) position on an issue and defended it effectively (sometimes, in the process, offering us a glimpse at his or her next book). And I was never punished for pushing back—on the contrary, I was rewarded for it. I was not forced to accept someone else’ prejudices, but I was challenged to grasp their arguments and articulate my reasons for embracing or rejecting them.

    Articulating and defending particular, explicitly stated propositions and arguments is not the only way that teachers shape the learning experience of their students. We communicate our values--“who we are”—in the way that we structure our courses, in our decision to tell stories or lay out arguments, discuss possible meanings or make a case for one compelling interpretation, offer conclusions, invite revolutions or refrain from either practice. Everything that we do has a persuasive dimension, though, even efforts to persuade someone of the general value of being open to persuasion.

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  17. From a student's point of view, I can offer my opinions on literary criticism. I admit that I don't enjoy reading it; however, having discussions on literary readings is almost essential for me. So often, especially in works that have been around for more than, say, 120 years, there are plenty of things that I miss in my casual and oftentimes distracted reading sessions. Though I typically am able to see the themes, plot points and the story in general, when there is a classroom discussion I tend to pick up essential nuances that I didn't catch in my solo reading. The realization of these bits adds much more depth and dimension to what has been read, and I leave with a completely different and improved view on the work.

    I certainly don't think that the same results could come about without discussion. For that, I think more value should be placed on interactive, spoken literary criticism rather than jargonized (as Dr. Benton put it) and often pretentious written criticism that is only seen from one point of view -- that of the critic himself.

    As far as jargon goes, I find all but the basics fairly unnecessary. If it is meant to offer insight, it should be easily understood. Otherwise the explanatory article tends to take on a more expository tone that seems to be written for the author's sake rather than for the reader's.

    As far as professors are concerned, I am curious. You two seem to agree that literary criticism was an important part of your education and yet that it is usually suppressed in the curriculum. As professors, how does that affect your respective teaching styles? Do you feel inhibited? How do you reconcile your views on the importance of criticism with the lack of support it has in the system?

  18. I must say that i do not agree with Flemings point (and please tell me if i misinterpreted this) that an X reader would not need to read something by an X author to get anything from it. If you can relate to it in anyway you will be intrigued by that text just for the simple fact that you can relate to it and more than likely you will get alot out of it by seeing someone other than your own experiences.
    I agree that without discussion most students would not only find themselves blinded, or lost in certain texts but might also miss the deeper meaning to that text without the aid of a professor pushing you to think about what your reading and making you question what you are reading, not to just simply read it.

  19. After reading the above discussion and reading the article myself, I feel that for myself there are no definite answers. In an ideal world, a student would have a lesson tailored to best suit their learning style and put in a way that is the most easiest to understand. I feel that if a student and teacher or student and professor relationship could be like this that alot of the formalities would disappear as the relationship between student and teacher would deepen due to the commom interest of the subject. (Assuming the theacher loved their subject matter and was able to convey that passion and love of it to a student.) As far as what to teach, wheter it is a set cannon or a chosen few readings, I feel that the student and the teacher should work together to choose selections and have a wide variety of authors and topics. As Dr. Tribbey mentioned in his lecture to Dr. Benton's class, literary history is also an important field because it gives the why and the what answers-what was going on in the world to allow such a writer to come to be and enjoy the success and why was this writing remembered? I would like to see a comprehensive course over literature that also briefly discussed hypotheticals such as 'would William Shakespeare have been as popular if he was born in the 1950's? The 1990's? A main goal of teaching would be to give students the skills to think and make decisions on their own,as was mentioned by Flemming a coach-like role.

  20. Personally, I feel that the breakdown occurred with the onset of literary theory which was split off from literary criticism. Criticism of literature has been around for millennia. We read the books, discussed them, and heard what the professor had to say. Now, with multiculturalism, everyone has to have a say in it with all aspects of their argument being validated. Nevermind what the author meant. He was only the author and we know best how it relates to our world and our point of view. It is quite a humanistic viewpoint. It points inward towards the reader instead of pointing outward.

  21. I have found that in one year of college I've learned more than four years in high school. Why? Because of discussion and professors pushing the students to do things they know they can do. Reading a certain book in high school I hated it. She gave it to us, told us to read it, then we were tested; no challenge, no discussion. Then given the same piece of literature again in college I found the light, a whole new world. We discussed, got involved, learned! I was magically attracted to this sort of literature when before wouldn't have looked twice at it. When you have class discussions and get involved in speaking the book becomes a whole lot more and you find things bout it that you never knew existed. I think students should be pushed to their limits, given a challenge to broaden their horizons. So I did agree with Flemming on how he challenged his students to see the book in away they would have never thought, just by giving them a little push in the right direction. So criticism or creative or any kind of writing, as long as you can get something out of it and broaden yourself I feel they are all important, and not one more than the other.

  22. Dr. Fleming's classroom discussion did nothing to sharpen the mind of his students. It perhaps helped them put themselves "in another's shoes"--helped them relate to someone else's story. It is not pointless to learn to empathize, but teaching others to empathize does not require a doctorate.

  23. I agree with the above post@!
    This sentence below caught me right from the start, I belive that some educators have made themselves the pool of knowledge and that the only way for students to get any of the knowledge is to get water from that pool. It makes me think of teachers that you know are brilliant and for some reason because they are so smart they have no way of explaining it to any of us... they lack the "dumb it down" button...because the are just so incredably intellagent, it all goes back to to the pool metephor!
    "The bad news is that we've made ourselves rulers of a realm that has separated itself almost completely from the rest of the world."

  24. I'd like to give my two cents here for whatever it may be worth. I haven't been exposed to literary theory yet but I have read a fairly good amount of great literature. Most of what I've read would probably be considered a part of the "canon" the selection of texts that most professors consider to be the ones all students need to read. This would basically be the great writers of the 19th century. I think it's fair to say that instructors should broaden the reading selections some by including more recent authors, authors of more varied backgrounds, more female authors, and so on. I'm not suggesting that the classics should be ignored. They're classics for a reason --- they've stood the test of the time and they're universally appreciated. The works of Robert Frost, for example, will be appreciated a hundred years from now whereas it's likely a lot of the unconventional, purposefully obtuse, "artsy" material that intellectuals hold up as being enlightening will fall into the dustbin of history. Only time will really tell here. If a work isn't truly great it won't matter how much it's held to be a part of the "official" canon of literature.

    As to the quality of literature, I think that there has to be some kind of yardstick employed. To not do so means that almost any kind of writing would be considered to be good literature. This yardstick should be broadly defined. A basic test that I personally apply to any literary work consists of asking these six questions:

    1) Is the text at least somewhat approachable?
    2) Did I learn something?
    3) Is it artistic in some way?
    4) Does it say something new?
    5) How original is it really?
    6) Does it offer any entertainment value?

    To my way of thinking, words seemingly put randomly on a page hardly qualifies as good literature. What has happened, I think, is that these so-called intellectuals pride themselves on purposefully being obtuse --- the more obtuse the better. If someone can actually understand what you're writing you've failed as a writer. Don't misunderstand me though: I'm by no means suggesting that it's bad to be indirect, subtle, or complex. I'm merely suggesting that there has to be some kind of "method to your madness"; that your work must be understandable on some kind of level. With visual art, I believe, one is allowed a lot more liberty than with writing. A bunch of colored dots on a canvas need not mean anything at all. The same cannot be said for a jumble of words. Words do mean things. The improper use of them lends nothing usually.

    What instructors should do is try to bring literature to life not kill it by an overly technical treatment. Any work should be open to criticism no matter how classic that work may be. Students should be encouraged to have an open mind when reading something. Professors should be free to also express their opinions but they shouldn't try to impose their views on the students. Simply put a classroom should be an incubator for ideas.