Thursday, December 31, 2009

Oh, that Jewish problem

“Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?” This was the bait to trap unwary Modern Language Association conventioneers into attending a panel discussion earlier in the week. According to a story by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed, six somewhat prominent literary scholars sat together at a long conference table in the Philadelphia Marriott on Sunday evening to mope that American Jewish writing is “not a hiring priority” and “not considered a research specialty” in most English departments, because Jews are not viewed as being “distinct from other white ethnic groups.” To most academics the Jews are no different from other white people, and they are no better off when they insist that they are different: “Jewishness has been associated with Israel” and therefore with “colonialism and racism.”

When Jewish writers are included on the reading lists for courses in ethic literature the students complain they do not belong, because American Jews have not experienced the same “truly marginal status of people of color.” They have “have found their place” in American society, and need no extra boost from the literary curriculum. Thus nearly every English department in the country has at least one specialist apiece in black literature, Native American literature, what is clumsily known as Latino/a literature, and sometimes even Asian-American literature. But few have anyone who specializes exclusively or even primarily in American Jewish literature. Aside from antisemitism, which the panelists were quick to dismiss as an explanation, why should that be?

The answer is not hard to find.

English professors these days pursue many different research interests from many different angles—they share neither a common body of knowledge nor a common repository of methods—but they are unified by one thing, which functions as a shibboleth among them. They are actively hostile to the social order. Their professional obligation, as they conceive it, is to sow the seeds of indignation and discontent, to nurture the green shoots of ressentiment, to give voice and expertise to oppositionality. “Ethnic literature” is included in the literary curriculum to challenge white privilege. But American Jewish writing does not readily lend itself to such a project.

There are exceptions, of course—the Communist propagandist Mike Gold comes to mind, along with a few other proletarian novelists of the ’thirties—but for the most part American Jewish writers have been absorbed with something other than social problems. If Jewish literature, as the critic Baal-Makhshoves famously said, is one literature in more than one language, then several questions confront the Jewish writer before anything else. In what language is he going to write? If he decides upon the landsprakh, the vernacular of the gentile majority, will he succeed in thoroughly cleansing his style of all traces of Jewish bilingualism? Not even a writer like Philip Roth, who found that he must write in “the jumpy beat of American English,” was able to be the writer he wished to be without occasional recourse to Yiddish and the liturgical vocabulary of Judaism.

Even to wrestle with the language question, to forge his style in the wrestling match, is to locate the writer within Jewish literature. And as a direct consequence, his writing in larger or smaller part will be constructed as an “internal dialogue between Jews,” which the great critic Ruth R. Wisse calls “the natural form” of Yiddish and perhaps all Jewish writing. But if he is also an American writer, who is equally determined to enter into dialogue with great American writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Ernest Hemingway (all of whom had Jewish problems of their own), then his writing will necessarily be—to use the word in its only legitimate sense—multicultural.

Any scholar who would specialize in American Jewish writers, then, would have to master both American and Jewish literature—and not merely popular Yiddish fiction, but the real literature of the Jews, the religious literature of the Jews, starting with the Hebrew bible and plunging into the sea of the Talmud. He would, in short, have to be a scholar of Jewish religion as well as literature.

All of which he would also have to bring into any class on American Jewish literature. And none of which does very much to work up righteous indignation toward the wrongs of American capitalism. Is it any wonder English departments are little interested in advancing the massively bookish and time-consuming study of American Jewish literature?

Update: The proper name for the field, by the way, is American Jewish literature. To reverse the adjectives is a blunder. Those who have created the literature are American Jews, not Jewish Americans.

Update, II: To speak plainly, English departments do not need American Jewish literature as a pretext to hire Jews, who are distributed throughout the subspecialties of English. Advertising for positions in African American or Native American or Latino/a literature is a way to guarantee “minority” applicants and then to engage in employment discrimination without appearing to do so.

33 comments:

DB said...

What about the Zohar? A scholar of Jewish literature would be remiss to neglect that book, would he not?

D. G. Myers said...

Yes, indeed—although there are other Jewish books, including Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah, that are more important.

But that reminds me of a point that I forgot to make. Another strike against Jewish literature, from the standpoint of the English department, is that it has its roots in religion.

DB said...

Have you read the Zohar?

D. G. Myers said...

I’ve taught it.

R. T. said...

If I may continue with your line of thought, the teaching of Catholic American literature would encounter similar obstacles but for slightly different reasons. As an example, many literary critics have resisted the absolute Catholicism of Flannery O'Connor's fiction; in the alternative, the resistant critics have bent over backwards in their attempts to ignore the religious (i.e., Catholic) aspects in favor of the most fashionable theories of any given decade.

As I see it, this--like the American Jewish problem you outline--can be attributed to the anti-religious secular humanism of the academy, and I doubt that the academy (as a whole) will willingly embrace anything resembling religious literature. The only solution--though it is small--is the solitary professor who dares to teach courses that embrace the American Jewish (and the American Catholic) contributions to literature.

With respect to my desire to acknowledge that partial solution, I commend your efforts at your university (and I wish my efforts at mine had been more sustainable).

D. G. Myers said...

You are right about Catholic fiction, Tim. When I proposed a course on the religious novel at A&M, my proposal was denied.

DG said...

Why don't you teach a blog-based course on the religious novel?

DB said...

What titles would we be covering?

D. G. Myers said...

I will be surveying the history of American Jewish fiction for a new website sponsored by a major Jewish philanthropic organization.

R. T. said...

Well, I'll have to give some thought to your question (and suggestion).

You may have noticed that my blog is "hibernating" until I can resolve a few personal and schedule issues. When those are resolved, I will have to think more about your idea.

I am also out of the classroom for the next semester or two, but I hope to return at the earliest possible date (if all my personal and schedule issues get resolved).

Going back to the blog idea, I wonder, though, about the "audience." Blogging sometimes feels a bit like soliloquizing in an empty theater. At least classroom teaching has a living, breathing audience where a teacher's ideas do not simply disappear into empty space; well, that is at least the ideal for classrooms, but--as we both know--the reality can be disappointing when students are merely "present" but not positively engaged.

At any rate, thank you for the suggestion. Now, I will give it plenty of thought.

D. G. Myers said...

What titles would we be covering?

tba

Mother of Invention Acting School said...

About this:

"English professors these days pursue many different research interests from many different angles—they share neither a common body of knowledge nor a common repository of methods—but they are unified by one thing, which functions as a shibboleth among them. They are actively hostile to the social order. Their professional obligation, as they conceive it, is to sow the seeds of indignation and discontent, to nurture the green shoots of ressentiment, to give voice and expertise to oppositionality"

While I don't have a persuasive counternarrative to the reasons American Jewish writers are not treated by English departments in the same way as other ethnic groups, the "sowing discontent" picture of people's motives strikes me as ascribing a kind of deliberate villainy to these people that I don't believe they possess. If I had to speculate, I would say it has more to do with wanting to be seen as someone who "sees through" the kinds of conventional accounts of meaning and the social order with which they (and presumably their students) were raised. They want to be the ones who weren't duped, who didn't believe the hype. To this minds set, a critical account of anything is the only acceptable one. They fear having been suckered, and are at pains to prove that they weren't. In other words, the kneejerk antagonism towards the surrounding social reality is borne from a desire to accredit themselves, to belong to the tribe. This account of their motives to me seems more plausible than a desire to instill anti-social attitudes in their students, who will somehow go out and exact their revenge on the social order. Individual academics might be motivated in this way, but it seems to me too roundabout a scenario to attribute to a whole class of people.

D. G. Myers said...

Ah, but English professors do not consider it villainy.

Anonymous said...

You've taught the Zohar? Does teaching the Zohar not require a certain level of spiritual achievement? For instance, does it not require one to be a mystic, one with G-d, the performer or miracles, and so on? How do you know, otherwise, that what you teach is really the truth?

D. G. Myers said...

Who says I teach it as the truth?

Anonymous said...

What do you teach it as?

Miriam said...

I'm leaning towards religion being the stumbling block, more so than politics, if only because of the sheer bafflement with which most people studying modern literature greet my research ("Why on earth would you do such a thing?!"). To medievalists, on the other hand, studying religious literature makes perfect sense. Perhaps we just need more medievalists on hiring committees.

Anonymous said...

Well the point is that you, as a teacher, have a moral responsibility to teach the truth of a text. How can you know the truth of the Zohar unless you're a Jewish mystic?

D. G. Myers said...

My responsibility is to teach a text as it presents itself. And I no more need to be a Jewish mystic (how do you know I’m not, by the way?) than I must be a Christian to teach the New Testament.

R. T. said...

A Note to Anonymous from Another University Teacher: A teacher does not serve as a prophet (i.e., one who reveals the truth) or a cleric (i.e., one who is responsible for parishioners' souls) but serves instead as a mentor (i.e., one who shows students how to think for themselves about important issues, including those found in all sorts of texts). Therefore, there is generally no singular, perfected truth in a text or one way to approach a text (unless it is a Divine text, which is a subject for the theologians and clerics); a university teacher (or one at any level) has a duty simply to guide (mentor) readers who must learn to discern for themselves the "meaning" of a text. In other words, do not confuse teachers with religious clerics; the former is concerned with students' minds while the latter is concerned with students' souls.

Anonymous said...

But if you're not a Christian, how do you know what the New Testament is really about? If you're not a Jewish mystic, how do you know what the Zohar really means?

What you propose is a situation where an English professor can teach a text on quantum math. This can be nothing more than an absurd proposition at best.

You need background in order to comprehend the text; in the case of mystical texts, you need to be a mystic; in the case of the New Testament, you need to be saved first, before you can teach it--you need spiritual authority that comes from a mystical event.

D. G. Myers said...

And you, O Nameless Critic, are proposing a situation in which only blacks could teach—or, for that matter, read—texts by blacks, only Lesbians could read and teach Lesbians, only 19th-century Catholics could read and teach 19th-century Catholics (sorry, Miriam).

Your example of my teaching a “text on quantum math” is beside the question, because such a text would be written in a symbolic language. A scientific text written in natural language, though—a text by Darwin, for example—could indeed be taught by me. English professors teach Darwin all the time.

Anonymous said...

What do you read Darwin as, by the way, an example of Marxist intersperses class warfare? I can only shudder at what Miriam thinks of 19th Century Catholic literature and what she teaches it as--perhaps as an example of patriarchal oppression of the queer identity.

The point is that one needs text-specific background in order to teach a text. That is the fundamental assumption of all scholarly learning and stands regardless of whether the text is written in a natural language or symbolic language.

Imagine the converse of my argument being universally true--any person being able to set themselves up on a street corer and teach any natural text without any background? Would there be value in learning from such a person?

R. T. said...

Anonymous, since you brought up math, let me share an example that may help explain the (literature) teacher's role.

Let us consider the math professor. His or her job is not to show (or pontificate about) the solution(s). Instead, his or her job is to teach students the intellectual process involved in reaching solutions (conclusions).

Now, let us consider the literature professor. His or her job is neither to demonstrate the "truth" of a text nor to offer students a fixed, absolute "interpretation" or reading of a text; instead, his or her job is to teach students the intellectual process involved in reaching their own solutions, conclusions, and interpretations.

Just as the math professor possesses specialized knowledge about process and theory, the literature professor also possesses specialized knowledge about process and theory.

In your scenario, you are confusing processes with solutions.

Do you now see (within this framework) how a literature teacher can "teach" the texts about which you seem to be confused and unwilling to admit to a teacher's "authority"?

Anonymous said...

Any scholar who would specialize in American Jewish writers, then, would have to master both American and Jewish literature—and not merely popular Yiddish fiction, but the real literature of the Jews, the religious literature of the Jews, starting with the Hebrew bible and plunging into the sea of the Talmud. He would, in short, have to be a scholar of Jewish religion as well as literature.

In other words, you require a background in Jewish literature and religion before you would allow someone to teach Jewish literature but you think that anyone has a right to set themselves up as a teacher of other literature, be it Catholic or Gay or Black.

Incidentally, I wonder if Miraim has background in Catholicism of any kind. I am almost sure she is neither a scholar of the Church history or the Catholic religion.

D. G. Myers said...

The point is that one needs text-specific background in order to teach a text.

The point is that this “need” has nothing whatever to do with believing in the truth of the texts that make up the scholar’s “specific background.”

I was originally trained in the history and theory of literary criticism, which I taught for several years—even though I am extremely skeptical toward most of the texts that make up the history and theory of literary criticism.

Finally: to say that one needs a background in Jewish (or Catholic) religion to teach Jewish (or Catholic) texts is not the same as saying that one needs to be Jewish (or Catholic) to teach the subjects.

And Miriam Burstein requires no defense. Anyone who reads vary far in her blog The Little Professor will recognize the modesty, balance, penetration, and wide learning of a genuine scholar.

R. T. said...

Anonymous, before you go further with your baffling assertions about authority for teaching specific texts (i.e., authority vested in blacks, gays, Catholics, Jews, etc.), please read and consider my posting regarding the math professor and the literature professor, especially in terms of process and theory (as opposed to special authority of any sort based on gender, race, sexual preference, religion, etc.).

As for your confusion about Professor Myers' and Miriam's arguments and backgrounds, they can handle themselves well enough and should be able to clear up your misunderstandings about teachers' qualifications and roles.

R. T. said...

Prof. Myers: Perhaps I am speaking out of turn, but my comments have been motivated by my strong feelings about the role of teachers, which (I argue) Anonymous is misunderstanding. If I am intruding upon or complicating the discussion, please feel free to say, "Step aside, please."

D. G. Myers said...

Never, Tim. I will never say that to you.

Denver Bibliophile said...

What about me? Will you say that to me?

Nameless Critic said...

My point was based on the warrant that you must have background in what you propose to teach. If you propose to teach Jewish American lit, you should be a scholar of Jewish religion, history and culture in America. And if you get so deeply into all that, don't you at least partially become a Jew by osmosis? Ditto for other lits. Moreover, you should have studied with a recognized scholar of Jewish American lit rather than just a guy on a street corner.

And so for mystical lit--if you want to teach the Zohar, you should be a student of a Jewish mystical rabbi.

Without background, without credentials, you're just a guy on a street corner teaching stuff you don't really know anything about. But the point of teaching a text is for the student to get a dose of the mindset, the culture, the warrants behind it. You can't teach it like that unless you live that yourself. Otherwise your students get not the text as it is but a modern distortion of it.

D. G. Myers said...

You no more need to be a mystic to study the Zohar than you need to be a pragmatist to study Dewey.

Stephen said...

Comment on Update II: why do you put quotation marks around the word minority? They ARE minorities.