Monday, July 10, 2006

Oh, let us weep for the sad state of literary studies

I often enjoy the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton's columns for The Chronicle even when I don't agree with them, but his latest strikes me as deeply and profoundly wrong--and I don't think it's because I had an atypical graduate school experience.

Benton's column discusses the things that inspire students to major in English and then to go to graduate school, and he contrasts those early motivators with the "reality" of graduate school. Now, no one would disagree that the undergraduate experience is very different from that of the graduate student, and many of us might admit to a certain feeling of loss: after all, as an undergraduate, one's reading and writing are enfolded (at least for many students) into the idyllic and leisurely life that is college. And as Benton rightly notes, students rarely become English majors due to parental pressure or because they have a set career path in mind; generally, they do it because they like to read, and they take the classes they take because they seem fun. As an undergraduate, then, almost everything is exploratory and almost everything is new, and any anxieties about the Real World exist in a category separate from one's classes.

In graduate school, however, career anxieties and personal anxieties are almost entirely entwined with one's work: do I actually know how to write? Do I have anything interesting to say? Am I ever going to get a job? Am I any good at this stuff (which is to say, in the graduate student mind, am I any good, period). That to me is the chief and most meaningful difference between the undergraduate and graduate study of English. Yes, it's quite true that the graduate student has to learn a number of new skills and master a larger body of knowledge, but the real difference is that what had once been essentially a pleasant and low-stakes pastime becomes a career, with all the pressures and expectations--and, let's face it, bullshit--that any career entails.

But this is not what Benton talks about. For Benton there's a more important difference between college and graduate school, and it's one he that he illustrates by listing the answers he received when he asked his English majors why they study literature. He got the usual responses: an early love of reading; the pleasure of getting lost in alternate worlds; a "love for the free play of ideas"; a quasi-spiritual sense of meaningfulness; attraction to the "cultural aura" of the bohemian artist; a "desire for wisdom."

"It surprised me," Benton reports, "that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive. Nearly all of them would have skewed to the left on most of the usual subjects." In fact, Benton is so surprised that he even asks his students why they didn't identify political or social reasons as motivators: "[O]ne said, 'If I wanted to be a politician, I'd major in political science. If I wanted to be a social worker, I'd major in sociology.'"

Huh, I thought when I read this. Why is Benton surprised that his students aren't majoring in English because of their political commitments? Why is he even asking this question? It seems awfully leading. . . . Oh, right. It's supposed to be a leading question, because only by asking it is Benton able to comment with due sorrow on the sad, sad state of graduate education, which sucks all the truth and beauty out of the simple, pure study of lit-rah-chure that his students enjoy in their prelapsarian groves of academe.

Sorrowfully, then, he continues:

It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school.

They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that's why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.

[. . . . ]

The problem is you can't get to where I am now without going through a decade or more of immersion in a highly politicized and anti-literary academic culture. You have to spend so many years conforming that, by the time freedom presents itself, you don't know why you became an English major in the first place.

This may reflect Benton's experience, and if so, I'm sorry to hear it, but it bears no relation to my own reality. (FWIW, I know where Benton went to graduate school, and although I don't know a great deal about the specific culture of that program--either now or when Benton went through it--his grad program and my grad program are major competitors, so it's probably safe to assume that there are some broad similarities between the two.)

Yes, academics in the humanities tend to be liberal, but while some of them are radically so, most are not--and relatively few, in any case, bring their political commitments to bear on their scholarship. And yes, there are idiots in the academy, and careerists, and people who rely upon incomprehensible jargon and other scholars' theories and who have never had an independent idea in their lives.

But most the people I know who profess English love it. LOVE IT, in the geekiest and most sincere of ways, and have never really lost whatever it was that made them the kind of kids who stayed up under the covers all night with a book and a flashlight. They're savvy and professional and hard-hitting scholars, but they still have that childish feeling of delight and wonder at the things they read and teach.

This is true whether or not they have political commitments to their research, although Benton appears to assume that merely having these commitments--or indeed a specific theoretical orientation--is what prevents one from loving literature. Now, I myself am completely unchurched when it comes to theory (never been taught it, never been expected to know it), and it would be pretty hard for my political beliefs to have much bearing on my scholarship even if I wanted them to, but I can't imagine objecting to the simple fact that some people have political commitments that are entwined with their scholarship.

Certainly, there are people who are more interested in the politics than in the literature and who let their agendas ride their textual analyses--but most of the people I know who have definite theoretical orientations are superb thinkers who came to their particular framework because they found it to be illuminating and liberating. I blogged last summer about reading Judith Butler for the first time (as I then was) and about how astonished I was (coming to her, perhaps, with some of THB's prejudices) to find her work so moving and so obviously passionately felt. But then, that's what good scholars do: they translate their passions and their enthusiasms into commentary, criticism, and teaching. They love what they do, and they take literature seriously and they take literature personally.

That being said, not everyone who loves reading in a rapturous and full-throated way makes a good scholar, and there are scores of undergraduate English majors who should be steered away from grad school for this very reason. But to claim that the love itself is unfashionable or in some way a liability is simply absurd.

So I suggest this: since all Benton's evidence is anecdotal, and all mine is likewise anecdotal, let's do this officially: THB's peeps and my peeps. Right after school. By the swingsets. We'll settle this once and for all.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

I'm with you! I hated this column. I generally don't agree with THB, actually, though I grant that he writes columns of substance, as opposed to many of the First Person things in the Chronicle. Now, I realize I'm not a lit person so I shouldn't really be allowed to comment, but THB is sounding like a crotchety old man already. What's interesting to me is that as a grad student, he wrote a lot about what's wrong with the system in terms of labor (e.g. the adjunctification of the academy, etc.), and I could completely agree with him. Once he got his job, however, he seems to have gone all reactionary. Or it may be that he's always thought these things, but felt unable to say such things while he was a student, for fear of not getting a job (though I've never found anyone who's been successfully able to suppress fundamental beliefs in the service of getting a job, so...). But still, he annoys me more and more these days.

(Sorry to rant!)

dhawhee said...

Maybe it's the swingset line, but New Kid's first line was going to be mine. I too am with you: I couldn't even finish THB's piece. The whole Dead Poet's frame was more than I could take on its own. I would just add emphatically to your (really lovely) paragraph about the 'childish feeling of delight' that such a feeling, for my part, frequently is most noticeable with 'discoveries' made while researching. I mean the kind of deep, historical, richly theoretical research that is rarely achieved at the undergraduate level.

thanks for the post--

negativecapability said...

I love your response to THB, although I have to admit that I do feel some of the sense of loss that he alludes to (although not in ivy-laden Dead Poet's Society terms). Yet, graduate school is not what I thought it would be, but I'm trying as hard as I can to make it what I think it could be, knowing what I now know. Shouldn't that be what those of us in the profession should be focusing on? Instead of looking back to Robin Williams characters? (just think about Patch Adams!)

Tiruncula said...

Flavia, my experience is yours. You really don't go into my corner of literary studies for careerist or political reasons, though I do know people whose scholarship and political passions are deeply intertwined and who have advanced the field as a result. But more importantly from where I sit, I can't imagine wanting to teach students who go to grad school for what THB considers the "right" reasons. My goal is to help our romantics to keep body, soul, and romanticism intact through the process: that is, to maintain their integrity.

kfluff said...

Flavia, I totally got your back! Benton sounds like he could have taught in my grad program (soooo much theory, so little lit). I can remember feeling as if I had to develop a politics of reading, right there, on the spot; meanwhile, the literature that I lurved was something I had to do on my own time. It's really only through teaching that I've come back to expressing how much I love what I read, and what makes me love it. Someone like Martha Nussbaum or bell hooks might argue that loving a text is a political act in and of itself.

Texter said...

Hi, thanks for this post.

I am fond of Benton's columns, but I too felt a bit alienated by the end of this one. Although I can identify with a sense of loss that comes with the professionalization of something you love, I found his vague definition of "political" awkward and potentially divisive. So, thanks for this comment:
can't imagine objecting to the simple fact that some people have political commitments that are entwined with their scholarship.

I was the student at the liberal arts college who 'found' english only when i found professors who dialogued with me about various theories and when I was introduced to contemporary postcolonial literatures. My original advisor (a poet, and someone I respected) was disappointed with the road I was taking (i was joining 'them') as an undergrad, and I switched to another advisor (a woman, who ended up leaving the small college for a big R1).
For me, though, the love of language, and form was inseparable from the love of ideas, was inseparable from the love of learning about new ways of relating.

Flavia said...

Thanks, all.

Dhawhee: the 'childish feeling of delight'. . . for my part, frequently is most noticeable with 'discoveries' made while researching. I mean the kind of deep, historical, richly theoretical research that is rarely achieved at the undergraduate level. I couldn't agree more. I very much feel that graduate school has enhanced my love of literature because it has made it so much richer and more nuanced.

Texter: welcome!

heather said...

I've been lucky enough to have not just one, but several teachers in graduate school whose excitement about the material, passion for the medium, and interest in teaching comes through in everything they do--every class they teach, every conversation they've had with me about my dissertation, etc. I don't believe that the average college professor is jaded or "in it for the wrong reasons." At least in the humanities (where you're not likely to cure cancer or make a million dollars) you have to love it.

Flavia said...

Heather: welcome, and thanks for dropping by. I do wonder whether Benton thinks that the evil political types he (apparently) encountered in grad school went there to fulfill their political ends--wouldn't they, like his students, have been more likely to go into a more immediately effective line of work?

anhaga said...

Brilliant response to the article -- I only just read the article myself last evening, and was floored by how wrong I felt Benton was. I'm pleased to find that I'm clearly not the only one who felt he was wrong in his analysis of "the state of literary studies." I'm also pleased to find I'm not the only one who finds that graduate school has deepened their love of literature.

prefer not to say said...

This comment is so belated as to be almost rude, but one of the things that interests me about folks who trot out the "love of literature" fallacy is how shallow their notion of "love" is.

According to the love of literature model that conservatives tend to propogate (which is not to say that all politically conservative people espouse this model): 1) Love means never having to worry about what OTHER people might have said about a work of literature before you read it. 2) Love means never having to know the history that produced a particular piece of literature. 3) Love means you never have to worry about the implications of your love, how your love might operate in the larger world, who your love might exclude or injure.

When my students groan over theoretical or critical texts that we read, I often say, well, this IS real love. You often are drawn to *people* based on the rush you get from being around them, how attractive they are, etc -- but you couldn't make a permanent relationship out of that. In literature as in life, real love does the heavy lifting too -- real love seeks knowledge, real love happens in context, real love takes into accounts even obnoxious viewpoints, real love is never just about pleasure or private experience.

So there.

Flavia said...


This is a brilliant formulation, and one I fully intend to steal from you. Thanks so much for weighing in.