Wednesday, January 05, 2005


The Value of Literary Study

This post couldn't come at a more auspicious time, as many others are considering all of this "state of the humanities/literary studies" stuff as well. To begin, I'm going to pick up to some extent where I left off yesterday and assert that the papers presented at MLA are not at all the main point of the gathering and that, in fact, it is telling that MLA is called a convention and not a conference. MLA is a grand show, and the papers presented are part of that show, but in my (limited, obviously, because there is no way to attend every panel) experience, the conversation/discourse that develops from these performances is not particularly interesting or ground-breaking, in part because many in the audience are not necessarily going to be specialists on the topic being discussed. MLA is a place where it's possible to see what's going on in the discipline/profession as a whole, and so what many do is shop around and go to see things that they don't necessarily know very much about. It can be interesting, but I don't think that I've experienced the level of excitement or intellectual stimulation at MLA that I have experienced at smaller conferences in which all in attendance are similarly invested in the topic/author/period under discussion.

For this reason, many of the panels that I attended (with the exception of my own and panels sponsored to three allied organizations) were related to the profession generally and not, in fact, to literature at all. These panels were, to me, of great interest and I got much more out of the discussion generated by them than I did out of the discussion at the "literary" panels.

What all of this, along with the famous-people-panels about "The Future of the Humanities," brought home to me is that I think literary studies is in the midst of a major identity crisis. Much of the general public and many university administrators, colleagues in other departments, and students believe that those in the humanities are dilettantes who lead lives of leisure and produce nothing of value in the world. In fact, many of us in the humanities have a hard time articulating the concrete implications of what we do. Now, once upon a time when we were busy revising the canon and fighting Culture Wars and when Theory won the day, I think, actually, that it was possible to talk about literary studies as playing a significant political role changing attitudes about minorities, women, homosexuals, etc. I also think that it was possible to talk about what we did as having broader implications regarding how we think about language and aesthetics and how discourse shapes lived human experience.

But now, in this current cultural moment, it is difficult to justify our work - to ourselves and to others - in these ways. Why? One answer (and I'm not saying it's the only one, but it's the answer that seems most right to me) is that a corporate model for education eradicates the value of any such enterprises. Within the corporate model, there is little room for pedagogical or scholarly pursuits that don't necessarily produce tangible results - that don't have a positive impact on the "bottom line." And in this case the bottom line is not only about money (although, in some ways, it all comes back to money) but also about prestige, employability of students (graduate or undergraduate), and whether the "community" believes that the results of these pedagogical/scholarly pursuits are valuable. The bottom line is then measured by enrollment statistics (how many of us have to advertise for our classes to be sure they "make"?), test scores, student evaluations, grants awarded, etc. All of this has little to do with the work of reading literature and writing about literature, or with the work of teaching students to do those things. How can we measure (and thereby produce evidence of) the changing of perspectives that the careful study of literature can produce? How do we show that that changing or opening matters? Or do we adapt the discipline and change the goals of our discipline to fit this corporate model?

I can't answer these questions. What I can say, however, is that there seem to be three broad factions within the profession and unless we can somehow get those factions into productive conversation, I believe that we'll just keep bemoaning these same problems and the situation will continue to deteriorate. (Sorry for the doom and gloom, but it is what I think.) So, here's what I think the factions are, and of course my descriptions are dominated by caricature and wild generalization.

Faction One:
"Why does [insert any of the following: the crisis in publishing/the crisis in the job market/the revamping of English departments/the education system in America/rising college tuition costs for students/class bias in the organization of higher education in America] matter to me? Why am I supposed to deal with these things? I'm not qualified; I'm qualified to teach and to study literature." These are the same people who are dying to create new graduate programs in literature in a world that needs exactly no more graduate programs in literature.

Faction Two:
"The answer is to do a better job of making our discipline count in the real world. What we need is to have more professional writing programs and composition and rhetoric programs and stop all of this nonsense with literature and theory. Students want a degree that counts for something, not all of that mumbo-jumbo." These are the same people who believe that literary theory was the downfall of the profession, mostly because they don't understand it, and who really don't like literature very much at all.

Faction Three:
The compromisers. They want to find a way to balance the needs/interests of factions 1 and 2, and this often means a lot of time spent discussing things without much time actually getting things done.

I think I'm probably in Faction Three, and I'm not sure whether that's any more admirable a position than the others. In fact, it probably just means that I can't make up my mind. But I guess what it comes down to for me is that I do believe that there is value in literary study - even when the titles are racy and the topics controversial. I'm guilty of being a racy-title-haver and that doesn't mean that the work that I do isn't substantial or important. It just means that I know a racy title will get me on a conference program more easily than a bland one. And what's so bad about racy titles anyway? Isn't the point of a title to draw a reader in? Isn't raciness one way to do that?

And I do think there is value in studying things like the word "dude" or orgasms or representations of defecation or whatever. Just because these things aren't boring doesn't mean they aren't worthy of study. Sometimes I think that's what the populous demands of us - that we study only boring things. (Interestingly, there is a gendered element to all of this, too, that I think crosses over into the sciences - i.e., the interest in erectile dysfunction is somehow more "legitimate" than the interest in women's sexual dysfunction.... I don't know... maybe more on this another time.) These things are part of our culture and they are part of the art that we study and that makes them worthy of our inquiry not just because they are racy things to talk about but because they potentially tell us more about who we are and about the cultural moment in which the text was produced. To dismiss the "low" just because it's "low" is about as stupid as revering the "high" just beceause it's "high." (Nevertheless, I wouldn't say that all low-culture crap is worthy of study necessarily - there are judgments that need to be made, but I guess I have faith that most scholars really will make the right judgments.)

Ok, stuffy nose, so that will be the end of this value of literary study post. Cannot think further on it with the head cold.

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