Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Decline of the English Department: How it happened and what could be done to reverse it

"During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education. The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically; the same is true of philosophy, foreign languages, art history, and kindred fields, including history. As someone who has taught in four university English departments over the last 40 years, I am dismayed by this shift, as are my colleagues here and there across the land. And because it is probably irreversible, it is important to attempt to sort out the reasons—the many reasons—for what has happened."

To read the rest of this essay by William M. Chace [that's Chace on the left]--which is in the Autumn 2009 issue of The American Scholar (the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)--click here.

Thanks for the rec, Dr. Grasso!


  1. I don’t share Chace’s view that English teachers “must agree on which texts to teach and argue out the choices and the principles of making them if they are to claim the respect due a department of study.” But if you leave out the verb phrase “must agree on which texts to teach,” count me in. I have come to believe that it is such arguments that give the profession its shape and vitality (and their absence signals its poverty). I don’t feel charged to guard the perimeter of a core set of texts.

    Chace takes a dim view of “little-read monographs and articles” and celebrates the “artifacts of human wisdom” that can be found in canonical literature, but this attitude strikes me as a step in the direction of the fantasy that the texts can teach themselves. I don’t dispute the fact that there are a lot of uninteresting monographs out there. Giving faculty credit for producing publications without regard for the quality of the production is like giving students participation credit for joining classroom discussion and I have mixed feelings about that practice.

  2. It's this eternal dichotomy in English departments: do we throw out the texts or teach only "Great Books" I really hate both approaches. I don't really approve of "Great Books" programs, because they tend to teach books in a vaccum, without cultural influences, and the minor works (and possibly non-literary) works which give the classics their unique perspective and power. But I HATE the idea that all books are relative and you might as well teach some forgotten Elizabethan/Jacobean dramatist as Shakespeare. You should leave a university with a certain base of knowledge, and every English undergraduate should know some key works in the British and American traditions, as well as a nice cross-section of contemporary classics. In theory, I like Harvard's idea of having survey courses re-assigned more to topics and themes rather than "the canonical works." However, the danger of this is that you might get someone who really hates, say, Shakespeare and more or less teaches this to his/her students, who will now go out of their way not to study him. As an undergraduate, I was almost a blank slate--I had a knowledge base, but knew very little--but hungered to learn. I wanted to be lead somewhat, and I needed to sift through the great works--get a sense of where to go, what to read, how things connected. So I think we need to agree on some key works that are important for a general understanding of the development of English & American literature, culture, and theory.

    For example, if you leave an English department without having read anything by Shakespeare, a novel by Defoe, Austen, Dickens, and/or Hardy, the Romantic Poets, a novel of Hawthorne, Twain, James or Faulkner, or poetry of Dickinson and Whitman, I think you got seriously gyped. Granted, you might have learned a great deal more, and read many other important works, but without some key texts, you will walk around in a fog, missing important references, not understanding the great cause and effect of literature, and certainly not getting the most out of literary theory, which more or less bases many of its theories on readings of these key texts. Professors must have great latitude and students should trust their judgment, but I worry about a program that avoids the great ideas and works for trends and the personal projects of the professor. It can't be either or--since we have room to do both. And a survey class can include both canonical works and the more obscure, culturally interesting "minor" pieces that flesh out the context. I just don't think it pays to be reactionary or revolutionary. Students need a sound education, and we need to teach Frankenstein and The Scarlet Letter (even if professors sometimes roll their eyes at these "much taught" works). Yes, students may have read them, but it's not about reading them once, it's about seeing how they are a product of a certain individual, in a certain society, that no longer means what it once meant to that society; we make works live by reinvention--so no work is ever old, or done, or tired. Giving up on Hamlet now is utterly naive, since previous generations have continued to explore its bottomless depths. So suddenly it no longer has anything to say? Are we "over" Hamlet? Please. (sorry for any typos or lapses of thought--I had to get this out in one go, since I need to get ready for bed!)

  3. Well, I am not an English Professor but I do have a few feelings and thoughts on the topic at hand:

    Dr. Benton said "but this attitude strikes me as a step in the direction of the fantasy that the texts can teach themselves"

    Which I would heartily disagree with not only on the premise that a text CAN teach itself when it is dealing with the appropriate student but also with the entire branch of literary criticism that remains true to the notion that a book's value and meaning is found within the context of that book.

    Often times, we tend (as teaching minded persons) to believe that we have the answers and we know the "one way" that something should be done and we accept the current status of the canon's contents and what it was supposed to teach to students.
    Had this been the chosen frame of reference, no one would have ever read the Bible, with the exception of Roman Catholic clerics--because no one else was "able, ordained or worthy" of reading it and/or teaching it.

    I feel that we need to begin to shift the mind-set a bit, to accomodate experiential learning (which is what Dr. Benton was advocating) because as with most things in life--we do not *need* someone to tell us what we need to know, we really need only to listen to the voice within that already knows this.

    While Dr. Grasso seems willing to continue the studying and teaching methods of the classics--with this as well, I think that we need to open that up just a bit to the possible interpretations that might have been working at the time of the writing--as well as--looking at the new theory of what the collective unconscious might be opening up in the realm of the collective library of knowledge.

    In short, my dear teachers--I think that we cannot chose either method as the 'be all, end all' of the way to teach the subject of English and the genres within it. I think we really need to look at the people that we are working with and allow their collective wisdom and attitude shape the classroom and what is taught within it.

    For example: why on EARTH would I need to read Frankenstein or The Scarlet Letter *again*?? These were both tackled numerous times in middle and high school a number of years ago! Why not move on to some other things that might have more bearing on today's world OR if we must work with those members of the Literary Canon that have already donned their britches and traversed the globe uncountable times, why not look at them in some NEW way? For example: why does Frankenstein have to be about medical ethics? Why can it not be about--the personna that people wear and the masks we hide behind? Why must the Scarlet Letter be about adultery and brandings? Why can it not be about the invisible 'letter' that is tatooed on each of us, as a morality of an immoral society? Why can't we talk about single parenting or the problems with organized religion?

    Myself, I would rather read Cantebury Tales or 1001 Arabian Nights then to have to sit through one more telling of Gilman's lack-luster yellow wallpaper! :) Any other color--chartreuse, pink polka dot.. anything but that hideous Yellow and overdone commentaries!

    Is Shakespeare still relavent? Is LOVE relavent? that answers the question nicely.
    Why not stand Willy up next to a lyricist from the 21st century though and see if he still comes out as esteemed.

    It is time that we begin to shake off some of the old ways and seek new ones. It is time to open the Canon or throw it out and allow the newer authors to fill in the blanks?

    Just my two cents worth--(1.5 cents in this rough economic time.)

  4. Great responses, Patricia. I understand and sympathise with your arguments here, and I agree with most of them (and others somewhat, if not whole-heartedly). One thing that I find troubling is the idea that reading a work "completes" it. I meet many students who have read a work--often only in high school--and are done with it. Reading is not about "reading" per se, but re-reading. Nabokov famously said that reading IS re-reading. For example, I read Frankenstein during high school (it wasn't taught as a high school text for me), and got nothing out of it. I read it again a few years later as an undergraduate and thought it was okay. I then re-encountered it as a senior graduate student and was blown away. Works aren't just "works"--they are windows into specific times, specific ideas, specific arguments, and specific people. You don't read the same Frankenstein (or any work) at 15 as you do at 25, 35, 55, 75, etc. What one professor made me see in Frankenstein made me realize that this is no mere monster book, or even a gothic tale; it was a profound meditation on Romantic theory and truth, about science and religion, about the old world and new, about education, about the expansion (and the ends) of empire, about travel, about male hegemony, about female liberation. To read it once may suggest one or more of these, but great works are great because they have so many perspectives--perspectives that, frankly, many lesser works lack. You could read something by Lovercraft, say, and get frightened, see themes of race and class in it, but it doesn't have the ability to constantly reflect diverse worlds and peoples. Frankenstein was written by a very young woman under the spell of an only slighter older young poet, both of whom were profoundly under the spell of the older generation--her parents, the Godwins, the Romantics, and the revolutionary furor then enveloping England. And yet, without knowing any of that, it speaks directly to us, an age Shelley could have scarcely imagined--and yet seems to know and understand intimately.

    I believe, as do many scholars and writers, that there are key texts that all English majors (and people in general, but let's not go crazy) should know and understand. Not to be elitist or to wear a badge of honor, but because they underpin the myths and social constructions of Western culture. To not know them would leave you less aware of the fabric that shapes the past, present, and future, and will leave you less open to appreciate newer works, most of which play off these works and reinterpret them. You say we should teach newer works and throw the old ones out? Why? I would say, we can't read the new ones WITHOUT the older ones. The Canon IS open--and has been for the greater part of the last century. Many of the works, such as Gilman, were actually let in by forward-thinking scholars, and became "canonical" becuase we realized the tremendous power and influence they held over subsequent generations. We are constantly updating the canon and modifying it, and to think of the canon as a fixed work, that has never changed, is not realistic. True, some works remain--and they remain becuase we find meaning in them, not because a cabal of PhD's says otherwise. Look at recent editions of the Longman Anthology or the Norton anthology--there's no narrow canon in there; you'll now find Mary Astell and Aphra Behn alongside Alexander Pope and Johnathan Swift. It is changing--and I wish to encourage and support these changes, rather than retreating to the ghettoization of literature.

  5. My problem with many English departments is that they are taking the "either or" approach, removing all the classics (or giving the option not to take them), or only teaching the most tried and true ones. In my classes, I never take either road; I teach Shakespeare and Browning alongside Claude McKay and Sylvia Plath (as I am this semester); I have taught Stephen King alongside Mary Shelley; and I have taught the works of recent Nobel Prize Winner V.S. Naipaul alongisde Joseph Conrad. And don't even get me started on graphic novels, which are the true literary form of the 21st century...
    I truly lament how easily English majors can make it through our program and miss major chunks of their literary heritage. Sure, they teach the Canterbury Tales in high school, but HOW do they teach it? The same goes for The Scarlet Letter or The Yellow Wallpaper. They typically teach the "this equals that" approach, which is belittiling and condescending. In college, the point of reading and scholarship is to force us to re-experience these great works which, frankly, you probably haven't read in any substantial way in high school. I don't think I teach the same work the same way ever (unless I'm stressing a strictly formalistic close reading of poetry); and I sincerely doubt any serious English professor subscribes to this dubious pedagogy. I just think it's a shame to assume you've actually "read" (and by read I mean critically examined) Frankenstein and put it on the shelf...chances are, you haven't, especially since I am continually learning how to read it.

  6. I just came back from a Defoe Society conference where we discussed various historical, theoretical, and pedagogical approaches to Defoe's famous and less famous works. There are scholars who have spent their entire lives reading and researching Robinson Crusoe; they continually find new things to say and learn from it. This humbles me; it reminds me that literature, like life, is never exhausted, never drained, never "done." Each new generation continually transforms and adapts them to their experience, while continuing to understand what they meant (and how they were shaped) by their time. We can't fall pray to the easy illusion that we need to stop reading the old stuff and start reading the new. How do we define "new"? Just works written recently? Or what about older, forgotten works that are unfairly neglected? And why should we just study "new" works? Isn't that as limiting and elitist as blindly studying the canon?

    This is a huge argument, and one not easily digested or solved. But as I am a professor literature first and foremost, I stand by and respect tradition--not because it's tradition, but because I understand why it's been honored. Literature isn't like popular culture where we endlessly recycle last year's trend to find something new and "fresh." Popular culture is a great barometer of culture, psychology, and economics; but there has to be something that takes us beyond the moment. Something eternal, timeless, and invigorating. If the old works are out, then let's ship out the forests and mountains, too--they're pretty "old" by now, I would imagine! :)

  7. *LOL*
    Oh Captain, my Captain! I think I've opened a can of worms (hopefully not 18th century ones) *tee hee*

    I wanted to clarify that I didn't ever say that we should throw the classic works out. Actually, I think that the opposite is really my POV. What I meant by my comment, is that the old methods of "teaching" them, may need to be updated for newer and relevant meanings.

    I do think that some works, really just aren't all that relevant to society as it exists right now. Perhaps in some frames of reference they might be--but not all of them are as important to us *now* as they were *then* as with all things times and attitudes and societal norms change and we too must change to accomodate them.

    For example: Some works I think we do really pick over far too much--and really do NOT allow the text to speak for itself enough! Many times, we impose our beliefs of this particular generation--and then we lose the relevance and historical value that the work once held. Recently, I heard a group of students pretty much say that Aristotle was condescending and not useful in studying in the modern time. I for one, nearly swallowed my tongue when I read that! Aristotle, Plato, Quintillius *not* important?? Forsooth! May it never be so!

    I'd also like to unequivocally agree with you on the re-reading of texts for relevance that wasn't there (or wasn't seen) in an earlier reading. I read for example an old book of Aleister Crowley's "Libre al vel Legis" (The Book of the Law). At the time, I felt that the man was a narcisstic, chauvenistic pig--and put it away. Later, as I was going through a divorce, I re-read it and found a certain strength to the words. Later, I read it again and found that a large part was hogwash of a man that was really gone mad--and other parts, they stuck.. when I reframed them into another system of beliefs and thinking.

    The same is true of Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of The Mabinogion. One can read this as a story and its groovy enough. However, if one reads it with a critical eye as to the triplicate layering of bardic myth--you find real pearls of wisdom hiding in there--about the land of Albion, the Sovereignty of women and "the Goddess" as well as a cosmology and timeline of events that can be easily found when delving a bit further. Its an amazing work!
    I even found a huge link between it and some of Wordsworth's poetry and also with an application to "Lady of the House of Love".
    So yes.. I do think we read and re-read and glean more and more as we change in response to our world and thus, the meaning of the literature changes in reponse to our personal growth.

    But-- I do think that there are many many ways to approach the teaching and learning of them--and MUCH OF THAT is dependant upon the student actually engaging with the text and not just "poo pooing" it.

    I look forward to taking your Gothic Literature class and many others with you as the Professor, as it sounds like I would really enjoy the ways that you handle the subject matter.

  8. It is true that most things we read, based on our life experiences and all the wisdom we acquire through the life span--I think opens our ability to understand things more fully
    THere is a hermetic axiom that I would apply here:
    When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

    I also think that because so much of what we believe and think and do--is rooted in history, that we do--probably need to have certain 'reads' that we have to draw from. However--I think some have become a bit archaic and non-inclusive of the current social/personal boundaries we have now.

  9. I mean, what we can (and often times) do--is just not the way it ever was! That we can't fully relate to the texts based on that.
    For example.. If you take the Shakespeare play "The Taming of the Shrew"... I think that as a feminist this particularly story is just a NIGHTMARE. While it can be related to certain aspects of the female psyche--I think alot of the meaning is now lost on generations of women that have simply NEVER and will NEVER and could NEVER.. be in that position (pardon the pun)..
    You know what I'm saying??
    I think that while we may be able to relate (somewhat) to The Yellow Wallpaper--some of it is now simply lost--due to the fact that our generation of women, has never been so totally 'ruled over' by men (and thank the gods for it!)

    I also agree that an either or approach is just ludicrous. Some things (such as what I said yesterday about is Shakespeare relavent? Is LOVE relavent?) simply are part of the warp and weft of who we are and who we will ALWAYS be... no matter the age. Perhaps that's kind of Jungian of me (as I do accept and fully embrace the notion of the collective unconscious and the archetypes) but it is what my view sees as the reality.

    For example.. the Mabinogion. I love this book! The Evangeline Walton book on the Mabinogion Tetralogy has opened up the understandings of the multi layered bardic meaning in ways that had we not continued to go back and back and back and reclaim the wisdoms of it--we would have missed the inherent meaning all the way around!
    This is a work that was simply conceived of in such a manner that it was MEANT to continue on long after the author was gone. The book does in fact "teach itself" and it claims our inner soul and inner wisdoms. (which is why I disagreed with Dr. Benton on the matter of can a text teach itself) I think they most certainly CAN and DO. I know that from experience.

  10. I think that perhaps I was just really really blessed, to have had English teachers that were AWESOME in high school! Mr. Hart Pierce (yes I actually remember that man with a great respect even twenty four years after having had a class with him) was muy excellante on letting our minds lead our learning. When I was a Junior and Senior with him--I was working on hmm, the Romanov dynasty and the Borgia/DeMedici connections in term papers! So I do think that I was taught and did learn so very much from him. But I know, that alot of English majors and students at large, may not have had the same experience! I would be out of my head to assume that an English class is tailor fit to me and to my needs. Teachers walk a very fine tightrope of having to discover and work with the shining brilliance of a few students (not myself necessarily--that would be completely narcisstic of me to say or assume) and the somewhat limited knowledge of the majority. Soooo the classes like what you teach at the U and what Dr. Benton does with Film-- are of great interest to me, because they allow us (as students) to delve deeper if we wish to and if we are capable.

    Now.. get ready to swallow your tongue.. BUT.. I have never read ANYTHING by Defoe. (*blushes*). so what (if you were going to suggest a "best reading" would you say is a good place to START with his work?
    I would like to be able to converse on that and not be an idiot in future classes. ;)

    My "dream" is to be able to teach literature and film in certain contexts.. kind of like what you are doing and leaning towards with the graphic novels and the Gothic Lit class!

    Speaking of which.. does ANYONE know if there's going to be a theory class this year (that would eliminate my need to take Grammar?)
    (sorry Dr. Benton--its not you.. its the grammar!)

    SO.. now that I've responded again.. from the other side of ten hours of nyquil induced stupor.. those are my thoughts! :)

  11. This is a great discussion--just what I needed after some rather difficult Comp classes this week. You make some very fine points, and I'm always happen to hear someone bring Jung into the mix, since I find his work fascinating and just as enlightening as Freud. I have the Mabinogion in my office, though I haven't read it in over 10 years. It's a fascinating work that has been retold in many forms throughout the ages, and yet this work remains vitally fresh and relevant not because of what it says, necessarily, but HOW it says it. This is the point of all great literature: the themes may be universal or dated, but we also celebrate how each author articulated them in a way that transcends how 100 other people said it. Great works are always works of poetry--they have "poetic" as well as "heremenutical" (interpretive/traditon-based) meaning.

    I see your points on The Taming of the Shrew and The Yellow Wallpaper, but aren't you doing what you accuse us of doing--reducing a work to only one meaning or reading? Yes, a modern feminist might be shocked by the views seemingly expressed in The Shrew, but isn't this an obvious reading? Shouldn't we assume that a writer such as Shakespeare (even earlier in his career) might have more going on--particularly as the play opens with an "Induction," which suggests that the entire play is a dream? One of my PhD professors specializes in this play and edited the Bedford critical edition of the play, which challenges many of our "handed down" interpretations of this play. If any work was just about "taming a shrew," we wouldn't read it anymore--because many plays and works have been, and we no longer read them. Great works, canonical works, only exist because of their ambiguity; even when they seem to say one thing, they hint at so many other worlds--worlds we may only faintly glimpse in our reading, but which the study of literature invites us to translate, experience, and articulate.

  12. Is The Yellow Wallpaper just a historical document--a mere feminist manifesto? Yes, this is there, and it's vital that we see and understand this, but it's also a penetrating psychological story, a study of societally induced madness, and an exploration of the process of creation itself (it's a good allegory for any writer's struggle, not just a woman's). I once taught a woman undergoing chemotherapy, and she profoundly related to this story not as a woman per se, but because she related to the kind of "madness" the main character was experiencing. In the hospital bed, she was unable to create in any normal way, so her mind created elaborate fantasies/nightmares that played out day after day and blurred the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

    Literature is always relevant--it does not lose its power or applicability. What does happen is that we fail to challenge ourselves and accept easy answers or interpretations. In the same way, we have to assume that new literature does the same things, and not dismiss a recent work out of hand as "not being complex enough," etc. We also have to realize that literature, theory, and culture itself is unknowable; you can never get to the bottom of it or even master it. You can only keep learning. No one teacher can prepare you for anything. They can only show you new paths, and you, yourself, are ultimately responsible for exploring them. If I can "teach" anyone anything from my teaching, it is simply this: we must keep reading, asking questions, and trying to challenge our comfortable assumptions. Myth is not literal, it is an allegory, a symbol, even poetry itself. Literature are living myths, attempts to write our daily existence into something that can be grasped, studied, and known. Yet, even this cannot be so easily grasped, studied, or known. It's an illusion, and we have to realize this and force ourselves to see through the illusion, and not fall into the delusion of "maya" (the Buddhist concept for the world's illusory qualities).

    That said, you should read Defoe's Moll Flanders, which is an 18th century account of a woman who had to fend for herself, make her own money, and marry where she could--even, in one case, her own son! Defoe based this on a real woman but transformed the experience through fiction and his own cultural insights. Also interesting is The Journal of the Plague Year, his fictional first-hand account of the plague that devastated England (and esp. London) when Defoe was a boy. It's among the most realistic and terrifying accounts of catastrophe ever written.

    Keep reading and voicing your thoughts!

  13. Dang Dr. Grasso! :) *you are really smart ya know that?*

    I totally agree that is what I needed too! I have been out ill (seriously.. lol) for like a week and a half. So I am in desperate need of home-bound intelligent discussion with someone who is NOT tired after a work day or under the age of 21! :)

    On the Mabinogion.. seriously that should be *your* homework on the Fall break is to re-read it beginning this year! Thing is: with the Mab if we allow it shape our interior mind and spirit.. it really is designed to be read as a cyclical book. Meaning, all of the stories connect with the elemental alignment of certain seasons, the aspects of Sovereignty (not only for the feminine but for the "Kings" as well, for the study of the Brithion and Celt culture, for the study of the bardic meanings via oral lore AND for the cosmology of the universal and the history of people and wars and battles that define humanity and outline the basic things like femininity in strength, masculinity in rulership aspects and the shaping of fine individuals on a global scale. But then again: I'm *IN* to the Tetralogy and the meanings of all of this stuff! For you.. if I read Defoe.. I think you should read back through the Mab and consider closely the tales of Manwyddan and Pryderi and Gwion Bach (Taliesin) for the aspects of male sovereignty. I firmly and totally believe that we are in an age of great Kings and giants in the land.. if only by soul and heart!

  14. As to if I am reducing "The Shrew" to a singular and rather narrow minded interpretation (my words not yours.. you were alot more gentle about that! hahah) I may just have to re-read it again.. and see about that. Fortunately I was given the collected works of Shakespeare (a huge tome that could be used as a weapon if needed!) and will definitely do so this year! Perhaps you are right. :)
    It's been a while!

    Yellow Wallpaper is (truly) a pretty great work--but I think I am totally burned out on it at the collegiate level! So many refrences and readings have occurred that I think I would rather read Steinem or even "The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank" :)
    I'm just burned out on it. However, in light of your sharing on the student that was doing work and thought with it during a battle with chemotherapy.. I do admit the possibility that I might have been not really 'getting it' as much as I should have--due in large part to the time of my own life and the situations. I think in many respects, when my 18 yr. old son was killed in an accident in August of 07, I just battened down the hatches and didn't let ANYTHING or ANYONE that close to my head, my mind, my soul or my emotions for a good long time. Something that I struggle--even now--to overcome.
    SO perhaps, I really should re-read that too.. just for the sake of truly READING it.. from the side of the madness.. (like your former student) perhaps there is more healing in it then there is horror. You know what I mean?

    I definitely will read Moll Flanders. In fact, I will look on the online classics library and see if I can find it to begin that immediately. If not.. feel free to throw the book at me in the hallway and I will get on that immediately! :)

    I thank you for the conversation and the time. I really enjoy this type of dialogue! Looking forward to that Gothic Lit class in the Spring. Seriously!