Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Reply to critics of “Academe Quits Me”

A few days ago, the economist Thomas Sowell found himself obligated to write an op-ed column in which he pointed out that “trickle-down economics”—the economic policy of the political right, according to the political left—is non-existent. It is attacked widely on the left, Sowell observed, but “none of those who denounce a ‘trickle-down’ theory can quote anybody who actually advocated it.”

I thought of Sowell’s column yesterday when I studied the readers’ comments to my essay “Academe Quit Me,” reprinted at Inside Higher Ed. No fewer than eight nine ten commentators were quick to denounce me for “rehash[ing] the canon wars of a previous generation,” in the words of one, or “likening [my] experience of being let go with the Grand Fall of the English Canon,” as another said.

I’ve reread my essay closely several times now and for the life of me I can’t find the word canon anywhere in it. Is it possible I wrote the word in my sleep? One or two commentators acknowledged (if they couldn’t bring themselves to say so outright) that I never actually wrote what I was being denounced for writing. But the denunciations were valid anyhow, because my essay, in the words of one commentator, “sounds like someone who feels that English departments should only teach courses that discuss White men and eurocentric studies,” and “Myers implied that voices and opinions should be excluded,” as another said.

By the magic of sounds like and implies, a text can be made to say anything the critic wants it to say! I can’t think of a stronger case for improving the teaching of English than the example of such wild-eyed readers, who project their bogies and night sweats into texts that spook them.

Even if it is their habit to express themselves in talking points and received ideas, though, it doesn’t follow that everyone else lives by the same habit. I have been writing publicly for more a quarter century now, and nowhere in anything I have written do I call for a return to the canon. I mean nowhere. If there has been one consistency in my writing it has been this. For more than two-and-a-half decades I have dissented from both sides in the canon wars.

One of my first published essays—published in the Sewanee Review in 1989 as I was just beginning my academic career—was called “The Bogey of the Canon.” The title summarizes my argument. To spell it out further:

To the revising of canons there is no end. But the canon, the “old canon,” the “patriarchal canon,” the “restricted, canonical list,” the “fixed repertory”—this is a bogey. It has never existed. It has merely changed, from critic to critic and generation to generation; it bears no marks of persistence as well as change. . . . Those who fear canons have seen a pattern where there is only randomness, and have mistaken a selection for a principle. The name they have given to this is “the canon,” but there is not enough of an identity among canons for there to be any one canon. It cannot be said to be a substantial entity.In light of the comments to my essay yesterday, I’d go one step farther now. The canon is the name by which calls for the restoration of order and coherence to literary study are misunderstood in advance and rejected out of hand without additional examination.

What I actually wrote in “Academe Quits Me” is that academic literary study is no longer a “common pursuit.” It does not represent a “common body of knowledge.” It lacks “common disciplinary conceptions.” Does it say more about me or about my commentators that the only common pursuit they can imagine, the only common disciplinary conception, is a “canon” of “dead white males”?

Most English professors secretly know that I am right, however, even if they would never permit themselves to say so publicly. In my teaching, I have learned that I cannot assume any common background knowledge, not even in English majors.

Last spring I taught one of those boutique courses that could have been offered at the University of Minnesota this semester: an honors seminar on Evil in the Postwar American Novel. Among the books I taught was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I began the discussion by raising the question of Faulkner’s influence upon McCarthy. My students looked at me blankly. “How many of you have read Faulkner?” I asked. No one raised a hand. “How many of you have heard of Faulkner?” Three hands went up. In an upper-division seminar on Philip Roth, pretty much the same thing. Not one student had read Saul Bellow.

In “Academe Quits Me,” I warn that the loss of a common tradition in English study leaves every English professor exposed. No one is indispensable to a university, because no curricular subject, no great author, is indispensable. When he was in college not long ago, a younger friend wrote to me privately yesterday, “you could take Shakespeare’s Treatment of Women, but not Shakespeare.”

I’m not opposed to the inclusion of underrepresented voices—in principle I’m not even opposed to film studies as a part of English—but my critics have failed to grasp my warning. Where nothing is considered essential knowledge, then nothing (not even film or underrepresented voices) is guaranteed a niche in the world of institutionalized scholarship. What my tenured colleagues fail to realize is that their sense of having a secure and permanent place in English is an illusion created by tenure. Nothing else protects them, because nothing else they contribute to scholarship or the academic community is considered necessary, not even by them. They themselves, by acquiescing in the loss of the common pursuit, have made themselves superfluous.

And if they think that a university cannot take away their salaries and their offices while continuing to recognize their tenure—if they think that entire English departments cannot be eliminated—they had better think again. Because such things have already happened at more than one university in this country.


Unknown said...

You comment on the possibility that "nothing is considered essential knowledge," and that seems to be the real issue. People of your generation (and mine -- I close in on 68 next week), were educated in curricula that accepted the idea of "essential knowledge." We are now watching a different parade, with different marchers, and we are being left behind. Would you agree, though, that we might have "been sold a bill of goods" in our education, especially when we were allowed to believe that we could keep the same parade going on forever? I know that is a somewhat lame question, but consider the source: I am at the end of my career, and I am very sad, nearly tearful, that the parade is now passing me by.

D. G. Myers said...

I wouldn’t say that I was sold a bill of goods. Not one I didn’t pay for, at any rate.

I am more inclined to blame myself. When I entered academe, I had the confidence that, if only I taught well and wrote better, I’d carve out a place for myself. Where such naïveté comes from I can’t tell you.

Unknown said...

You say: "I had the confidence that, if only I taught well and wrote better, I’d carve out a place for myself."

That, David, was what English departments told everyone who joined the parade. Then the liberal progressives took over the universities and the departments, and the parade route changed.

So, I do not think naivete is the issue. I call it "bait and switch."

In any case, where ever you go next in your travels, I wish you well. As for myself, even though I have been a mere adjunct, and we know how the academy treats that subspecies, I doubt that I will teach after this semester. Neither the parade route nor the music being played along the way appeal to me very much.

T.S/ said...

After reading "Academe Quit Me," i tried to bring this up at a party last week, disagreeing with one of your commentators that we are devolving into no more than a series of specialties to argue that the question is one of discipline: You can become a more accomplished mathematician, scientist, pianist, etc., but you can't become a better reader--an idea I think is ludicrous. Harry Potter is not Ulysses or Sound and the Fury and being able to see--and read--at that level is actually worth something. But these people--my friends--seemed to disagree: Why should we value one over the other? They seem to miss the point that the value is in learning to comprehend from varying distances, viewpoints, states of mind, etc., and that that makes us better able to see and react to and understand ourselves and the world around us for good and bad. I'm not for throwing anything out or keeping canons unchanging as if they are words from on high. But I'll keep chopping away at "Gravity's Rainbow" and returning to Nick Carraway and his strange intimacy/distance in Gatsby becomes they have value as more than just entertainment.

Anonymous said...

Dear Colleagues:

I was a professor and now I'm a dean. Real decisions about the direction of institutions typically do not take place at the level of chair, assistant dean, and even deans. Typically, they take place at cabinet level and board level, although boards are oftentimes not quite sure about what they are approving. Oftentimes, the decisions are made in budget meetings and you can bet that if you work in an institution that has expensive pre-professional and professional programs, or in institutions that carry significant debt, the Humanities and Social Sciences are probably going to get leftovers. SCUs are bound to come up and programs that generate them, and programs that generate high tuition and fees, programs that also enjoy high demand, are favored. So in English composition and the sexy stuff will always be favored over what's considered old-fashioned. The conversations are not about merit; they are not about culture. They are about revenue streams and cost structures. When the universities were growing, the effects of these discussions were muted. Now there is a lot of capacity in higher ed. There will be losers. As for English studies (also my subject), the universities will not choose to function like old aristocracies and keep elements of culture alive for which there is no ready group of consumers. Readers and writers have to do that--on their own. In this environment class issues are going to exacerbated, for the good, well-endowed privates, will stay good. In twenty years, the average student at the average institution will wonder what "liberal arts" means. Also, the Humanities and Social Sciences have never had the benefit of strong professional organizations. But I'll let someone else speak to that.

Unknown said...
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James Anglin said...

In my freshman year I won a prize in English, but then I majored in physics. I decided that I could read books and think about them, and even write about them, just as a hobby, in my spare time, without much formal training. I wouldn't do it to professional standards, but I could do it well enough to enjoy it. Without quite a lot of formal education in physics, though, I wasn't going to be able to do physics at all.

So I took a lot of physics courses. I did also keep taking one English course each year. I worked my way up to one upper year seminar, and in my final year I wrote a long essay on Paradise Lost. Then I did more physics, got a PhD, spent ten years as a post-doc, and now I'm a professor.

Whatever I am as a physicist, I'd have been a lot worse as a literary critic. I could not have coped with the absence of a common core of solid knowledge in the discipline. I can explain my work to any other physicist in the world (and be understood by them), within about ten minutes. After listening to any other physicist for ten minutes, I can ask an intelligent question. It sounds as though this is impossible in English these days.

I imagined it could be otherwise, that English could be at least somewhat more like physics in this respect. I hardly even really dipped my toes in the water of English academia, so maybe I just took too much for granted; but it seemed like a solid discipline to me. It didn't feel all that weird to go from thermodynamics to Renaissance poetry. It felt as though I was just walking a short distance across campus, at the university.

My brief English studies were valuable to me. The practice I got in writing short English essays has certainly helped me to write scientific papers and grant proposals. And there must have been at least a bit of influence in my thinking.

If I somehow had to pay now for my four college English courses, by wiring my past self money, I'd certainly do it. Those workers were worthy of their hire. And for some form of English studies, at least, I think there must be a future.

David W. Nicholas said...

I have read your blog with interest. I graduated from a private high school in the mid-70s and dropped out of my first semester at my local community college. I won't say it was a good decision (men my age are *supposed* to have degrees, unless they have a trade) but outside of that I've never missed my lack of education much. I read more than anyone I know (seriously) and am a serious bibliophile to boot.

My classic education was pretty spotty. We read (I think) Silas Marner and The Old Man and the Sea, and somewhere Animal Farm. Somehow I missed pretty much everything else, at least during my school years. I read stuff myself though, War and Peace, all of Sherlock Holmes (twice before I was 18), Moby Dick, The Naked and the Dead, and one or two others I can't think of right now. Lately, though, I've been trying to catch up. Most of the stuff I've read has been semi-contemporary (Harper Lee, not Chaucer) and I've found a majority of it quite good (though I hated The Grapes of Wrath).

I will say this, though. While I'm not a big fan of the real classics, I firmly believe that the modern literary concentration on contemporary writers has two chief motives: contemporary teachers know contemporary authors/artists better, and contemporary teachers believe themselves and their generation to be the most significant one in the planet's history. Narcissism is hard to beat, and when it's accompanied by laziness, it's pretty hard to stop...

Leo Wong said...

Best wishes.

Palinurus said...

Serious study of literature in college has always been anachronistic and more than a little absurd. For a long time that was part of its charm: the sublime folly of studying books that ask if you’re happy with your marriage, job, religion, or friends with teenagers who have not yet had or fully experienced any of these things, and most of whom have been rendered impervious to such questions; of parsing the best that has been thought and said with those who are immune to its charms and terrors.

Yes, so the clichés run, even they may learn to better read, write, think critically, know themselves and their world, and so on and so forth. But if they’re really open to that sort of thing, they can learn the same in other disciplines or from other experiences; and as a boss myself, my experience has been that all disciplines are failing pretty much equally in this regard. To the extent that there is some truth to these platitudes, literature students learn these things far better than they’ll ever need to for the work-a-day world. Study of literature cultivates habits and sensibilities that are a lot like the hobby of making ships in a bottle; it’s something that, while personally enjoyable, must be confined to the den or basement because it is, in the eyes of charitable onlookers, faintly amusing, and, in eyes of the more cynical, patently ridiculous.

Hence I agree with the comments of the dean. Study of literature has lately been a luxury, like apartment-style dorms and million-dollar gyms, that has been subsidized by the fat subject matters and the fat years of the university and economy. It is now withering on the vine, not so much because of a lack of intellectual coherence, but because of its persistent defiance of the iron laws of the market: English majors are not getting good jobs anymore. Let’s face it, professors can tell themselves “publish or perish”; in reality, it’s always been “provide enticing job skills and perish.” Given these economic pressures, and the exorbitant cost of college, the market is growing impatient with those would teach “sweetness and light” to those who will go on to keep the books for a whorehouse; more advanced courses in carnal accounting, please! The shocker is that it lasted as long as it did.

James Anglin said...

Swift's 'sweetness and light' were the good things that bees ('the ancients') made, in contrast to the yucky things made by modern spiders. This was supposed to echo the classical dulcis et utile. Bees made honey, which was sweet, but they also made wax, which was useful. Maybe English studies don't offer enough useful light.

Studying at university to become a more sophisticated consumer of fiction is kind of like studying to become a gourmet eater. No doubt there's a lot to learn, but it's an indulgence, not a trade. Maybe it will only be a good thing if that indulgence comes to be offered in only a few places, for high fees.

Of course studying English also confers broadly useful skills; but it confers them as byproducts of a primarily self-indulgent exercise. And I think Palinurus nails an important point: the practically useful things in an English education are also to be had elsewhere. One learns to read and think and write in the course of seriously studying almost anything — with the difference that one is also learning a useful subject that is not merely aimed at refining one's own palate.

So maybe literary studies as we've known them are mainly doomed and rightly so. I still think something substantial could be salvaged. Creative writing, for instance, is a useful trade, to which literary criticism may be a worthwhile ancillary.

Otherwise, what if English departments converted to studying non-fiction?

George said...

I agree with much of what you said, but I think that the problem goes back far beyond the 1970s. Rather that say this at length in a comment, I've written it here.

D. G. Myers said...

Damn you, George. How dare you refute me with evidence!

(Great job.)

Andrew Fox said...

My favorite quote from yet another wonderful article of yours, David:

"I can’t think of a stronger case for improving the teaching of English than the example of such wild-eyed readers, who project their bogies and night sweats into texts that spook them."

I'm sure you're already painfully aware of this, but English is far from the only discipline in Higher Ed that lacks a base of common knowledge or even minimal standards of knowledge. Another such discipline would be the home of that renowned philo-American, Noam Chomsky -- Linguistics.

When I was in my early thirties, I enjoyed a brief affair with a French Canadian woman, Carole C., who was studying for her Doctorate in Linguistics at Tulane University in New Orleans. Her unfamiliarity with written English was causing her problems with her dissertation, however. She knew I was a writer (of science fiction and horror) and that I had some skills with the English language, so she asked me to sharpen up the language of her dissertation a bit.

I ended up doing far more than just that. For the princely sum of $300, I essentially entirely rewrote her dissertation, because her central thesis was so lacking in substance. Mind you, I had ABSOLUTELY NO prior experience with the academic discipline of Linguistics; hadn't ever taken a single class in the field. But I came up with a bunch of interesting-sounding gobbly-gook, written in appropriate academe-ese, to bolster her central thesis and make her research results sound much more impressive than they actually were.

You know what? Her dissertation passed its review board, and she was crowned a Doctor of Linguistics. So somewhere out there in Montreal or elsewhere, there is a Linguistics professor who owes her career to $300, a few good jumps in the sack, and a horror writer who is good at coming up with complete B.S.!

Anonymous said...

"...academic literary study is no longer a 'common pursuit.' It does not represent a 'common body of knowledge."

Well, thank goodness for that. All the class titles you salivated over I thought sounded terrible, and the ones you thought we're lame I thought sounded amazing.

Also, unlike the physicist commenter, I think this is common in many fields.

Also, why did you leave a place where you had tenure?

Marty said...

FWIW, I began my undergraduate career (in 1966) as a Chemistry major. I had to pass a year of "Freshman Comp." (Many could not pass this course and flunked out of college.) This course influenced my life more than any other. I wound up graduating with a degree in Philosophy, and becoming a dentist.
God bless those who insisted I learn a common body of cultural knowledge. I don't believe that that personal/moral growth could have taken place in "just any discipline." God damn those who are so egocentric that they will tear down the foundations of culture and replace it with PC trash.

zmkc said...

This is all astoundingly depressing - as is this:

I don't know how we got to this point and I don't know how we make our way back.