Thursday, January 28, 2010

The End of English Departments and Literacy?

On January 10th, the following article by Mary Grabar (an English instructor in Atlanta--see image at right) appeared on the "Minding the Campus" webspace, sponsored by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (which, according to our good friends at wikipedia, is "a conservative, market-oriented think tank established in New York City in 1978 by Antony Fisher and William J. Casey, with its headquarters at 52 Vanderbilt Avenue in Midtown Manhattan").

Thanks for the link, Dr. Murphy!

Death by Suicide: The End of English Departments and Literacy

By Mary Grabar

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic novels, those ugly things which now enjoy a special section in college libraries, are to be added to almost any syllabus in a high school or college English class, I learned.
This is how far we've come since the 1990s when bitter young men and hysterical women scrutinized "texts" and condemned them as purveyors of imperialism.

To read the rest of the article, click here.


  1. Comics destroying the study of English...hmm...

    On the one hand I understand her argument, but on the other I lament her ignorance in thinking that graphic novels, or other forms of "non-traditional" literature, are recent inventions (as is their study). If she would care to peruse any of that scholar's bibliography, she could see that so-called comic book form goes back a thousand years (The Bayeux Tapestry? Medieval manuscripts? Hogarth? Rudolphe Topffler?) and its study goes back at least a hundred. Will Eisner was theorizing about comics back in the most staid hey-day of English departments. I realize that some people are poking and proding all over to find new and relevant topics, and any trend can wear out its welcome. But to say that an entire branch of literature (and an extremely influential one!) is off limits to "serious" study smacks of elitism, ignorance, and simple reactionary politics. The core of any English literature program is the novel, a genre that was seen as cheap "romances" and "scribbling" up until the mid 19th century when it cultivated a social agenda (thus making it worthwhile).

    Why can't we study both?? I do. I didn't get a degree in comics, though I have always adored them. But I also adore 18th century literature and there are profound connections between the two. 18th c. studies (and English and Art departments) completely accept the engravings of William Hogarth, which are sequentual art--narratives or novels in pictures, an important forerunner to modern comics. To say that Hogarth is acceptable and Art Spiegelman (Maus I & II, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1992) isn't makes no real argument--it just says that studying non-traditional forms is suspect. The discussion she is mocking at the beginning of her essay is actually rather profound, especially for a first-year student who has yet to read ANY text on a formalistic level. When you ask a student what is happening between the frames, why we read it that way, and if there are any OTHER interpretations (based on connotations, clues, and the comic-book term "closure"), a light goes on. Literature happens "between the lines," and we all accept the art of close reading and textual interpretation. But comic books don't deserve equal study because...they're easy? I would invite her to read Moore's Watchmen, which many English majors have complained is "too difficult" to read and abandoned mid-way. Pictures are a language all their own, and knowing how to read them, and how they interact with the text (they don't merely illustrate words) is a subject all its own.

  2. I sympathize with her "death of English" argument, since I highly value the book and its place at the cornerstone of any English department. But I'm interested in ideas first and foremost, and however we get ideas--whether from a novel, a comic book, or a web site--is worthy of serious discussion. What kills English departments is being blindly reactionary and doggedly elitist. I didn't see that this author really researched the medium or indeed knew anything about it, other than its dubious claims to scholarship. I would encourage her (or anyone interested) to read McCloud's Understanding Comics, a readable but serious discussion of the form. Did we abandon poetry when we made the novel the cornerstone of literary study (and why don't we continue to question that conclusion?)? Were Shakespeare's dramas (and other dramas) relegated to the dustheap in order to make room for T.S. Eliot? I hope not, since this father of modernism was strongly influenced by Elizabethan drama and Metaphysical Poetry. Comics, too, have a long tradition--one that arguably predates the novel!--and one that in turn influences much modern literature. Read The Chabon's The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, which is an acclaimed modern novel about...comics! Or better still, read a "literary" comic such as Blechdel's Fun Home (2008) or Thompson's Blankets (2007), both of which ask a lot of the reader--yet seem deceptively simple to pick up. How can literary scholars dismiss a work based on its surface?

    While there are numerous comics that are facile and pointless (for literary study anyway, for cultural study they provide endless fascination), the same can be said about novels, poetry, and drama.

    For someone trying to save the profession, I would expect a better defense!