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Whither the English Department?


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#1 dirac

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Posted 30 September 2009 - 03:01 PM

An article on the current state of the English department.

Despite sheltering this central educational service, English departments are regarded by those who manage the university treasury as more liability than asset. The presence of endowed “centers for the humanities,” the availability of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the MacArthur Foundation or the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others, ease in only small ways the financial crunch universities now endure. As John H. D’Arms, formerly the head of the ACLS, reported more than a decade ago, even the meager outside support conveyed to humanists is slowly drying up and the responsibility for their well-being is “being increasingly shifted to the colleges and universities and . . . they cannot, or will not, make up the losses from other sources.”

These, then, are some of the external causes of the decline of English: the rise of public education; the relative youth and instability (despite its apparent mature solidity) of English as a discipline; the impact of money; and the pressures upon departments within the modern university to attract financial resources rather than simply use them up. On all these scores, English has suffered. But the deeper explanation resides not in something that has happened to it, but in what it has done to itself.


Thoughts? I would be interested to hear the opinions of any BTers who’ve had any (relatively) recent experience in the humanities department or are currently studying literature and related subjects - or who might have chosen to do so but elected not to. Older BTers with recollections of English departments of the past are also welcome to chime in.

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 07:34 AM

Call me an idiot, but I think making college more affordable would save the humanities. The pressure to make a quarter of a million dollar expense "worth something" is one thing forcing education to become vocational education.

#3 dirac

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 10:46 AM

True. A humanities degree has never been exactly a ticket to riches, but the situation seems especially grim today.

#4 Cliff

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 10:06 PM

From the linked article:

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.


I majored in mathematics and was an avid book reader. My experience was that literature professors disdained every book covered in their course. This differed from professors in other fields, who, while occasionally exuding boredom, would at times have passion.

#5 dirac

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Posted 02 October 2009 - 01:17 PM

That sounds awful,Cliff. Not a single inspired or inspiring lit teacher?

#6 Cliff

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Posted 02 October 2009 - 09:25 PM

One in high school.

#7 Ed Waffle

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Posted 05 October 2009 - 05:55 PM

I avoided this thread for a few days, not wanting to impose my curmudgeonly self on it--and then read the entire American Scholar article that dirac pointed to. Compared to William Chace, its author, I am a raving post-structuralist. He gives a nod to what many consider the real reasons for the decline in undergraduate (and therefore graduate) humanities programs--the desire for pre-professional education, preperation for further study in business, law, accounting, engineering or medicine. What he really wants to talk about, though, is how nobody teaches English the way he did 40 years ago and puts forth a most unconvincing plea for a return to the canonical view of the study of literature.

My problem is that I agree with much of the article--many years ago when I was an undergrad in an undistiguished English department in Chicago I was astounded at how my professors could somehow pick up a poem and simply pour meaning out of it. One of them had studied with Cleanth Brooks and was a master the close reading of a text--at first he seemed like a magician. During this Pleistocene era more than a few grad schools expected applicants to not only have at least one class in Shakespeare but one in Chaucer or Milton as well. Undergrads didn't study criticism--obviously we picked it up from professors in their discussions of how to approach different works but the idea was you learned the literature (as it was so quaintly called then) as an undergrad and then started with criticism and theory in graduate school--but you better know the works already.

I loved studying literature--imagine having a job that paid you to read and talk about books--was able to spend part of a summer doing some drudge work on the Melville project at Northwestern U. I was ready for trying to figure out how to pay for both a family and many years of education in grad school when other things intervened which put an end to my formal study for about 15 years.

My only connection now with an English department is through two friends who are PhD candidates in English at Wayne State. One of them is specializing in film and doing his dissertation on the works of Spanish erotic horror and sexploitation director Jesus Franco whose works include Vampyros Lesbos and Greta The Mad Butcher. The other is close to completing his dissertation on the images of video games. I have given short lectures to introduction to film classes that each have taught as grad assistants or adjuncts on Hong Kong movies. Both of them are smart, articulate, able to devour books, know their subjects backwards and forwards and may be the future of English departments over the next 30 years or so.

Don't tell William Chace. It would only add to his pain.

This passage tells his story as well as anything from the American Scholar article:

No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform.



#8 Quiggin

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Posted 05 October 2009 - 06:25 PM

One of them had studied with Cleanth Brooks and was a master the close reading of a text


A friend of mine took classes from Cleanth Brooks and goes crazy whenever you mention his name. He says the first breath of clear air, the first teacher to get it right was Northrup Frye -- to whom Harold Bloom owes a great debt, anxiety of influence and all. He also said -- this was the fifties -- that he wanted to do a paper on Wallace Stevens, but was shooed away from this idea. Stevens was interesting but not substantial enough. Like butterfly-wing dust, I guess, as Coleridge said of French lit.

#9 dirac

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Posted 05 October 2009 - 08:35 PM

Wonderful post, Ed. Thank you. It is my impression, which could be wrong, that theory and criticism do not have the grip on the curriculum that they once did and some of Chace's complaints are a bit out of date – indeed some of them might have been out of date when I was still in school.

I wonder what F.R. Leavis would have to say about all this.

#10 Paul Parish

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Posted 05 October 2009 - 11:54 PM

I buy it totally.

Literary theory fits sub-literature better than it does the real thing.

So far as we are cncerned, it's like analyzing hte semiotics of bad music videos, because the really good ones are too complex -- not to mentin the great ballets, which aren't vernacular enough to be considered at all.

Great poetry is highly compressed. It IS true, the unbearably obscure poetry of the mid-century was ALSO compressed, but not like the great simple lyrics that had always held the attention:

"Western Wind, when will thou blow
the small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again."

is a lyric you can't forget -- it WILL not let you go. it's 500 years old, simple as dirt, but it's still got a hard-on.

Similarly,

Word is to the kitchen gone and word is to he hall, and word is gone up to the queen and that';s the worst of all
Arise arise Mary Hamilton, arise and say to me, what thou hast done with thy wee bairn I saw this morn weeping by thee.
I put him in a little boat and put him out to sea that he might sink or he might swim but he'd ne'er come back to me."

And then they hang her
It will make you weep.
Last night there were four Maries, tonight there'll be but three,
Mary [White,] and Mary [Brown,] and Mary Carmichael, and me.

Poetry is like Petipa -- it's highly selected, there's a lot that is NOT there, but hwat is can lay you in hte aisles.

Which doesn't mean there aren't great pieces written in diary form -- "The Things they Carried" holds you because of its intense imaginative concentration, though, and not because it's factually accurate -- the facts are plausible in hte extreme, but what makes them tell is how imaginatively intense hte prose is.

WHen I was teaching English myself, what i saw work was literature that they were arguing about when I entered the room. Primo among these was a novel by DH Lawrence caled "The Rainbow" -- half the class had signed up to read that book, they didn't even know what it was, but it was called the Rainbow, and htat made tehm sign up EVEN WHEN the class did not fit their schedules. I have never seen a groupd of people perform like these before or since. nearly half hte clawss got and A or a B+ -- they were off the charts. And it was hte books that made it happen -- great literature inflames hte imagination, and anything else is just a chore to study.





An article on the current state of the English department.

Despite sheltering this central educational service, English departments are regarded by those who manage the university treasury as more liability than asset. The presence of endowed “centers for the humanities,” the availability of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the MacArthur Foundation or the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others, ease in only small ways the financial crunch universities now endure. As John H. D’Arms, formerly the head of the ACLS, reported more than a decade ago, even the meager outside support conveyed to humanists is slowly drying up and the responsibility for their well-being is “being increasingly shifted to the colleges and universities and . . . they cannot, or will not, make up the losses from other sources.”

These, then, are some of the external causes of the decline of English: the rise of public education; the relative youth and instability (despite its apparent mature solidity) of English as a discipline; the impact of money; and the pressures upon departments within the modern university to attract financial resources rather than simply use them up. On all these scores, English has suffered. But the deeper explanation resides not in something that has happened to it, but in what it has done to itself.


Thoughts? I would be interested to hear the opinions of any BTers who’ve had any (relatively) recent experience in the humanities department or are currently studying literature and related subjects - or who might have chosen to do so but elected not to. Older BTers with recollections of English departments of the past are also welcome to chime in.



#11 Ray

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Posted 06 October 2009 - 07:22 AM

Wonderful post, Ed. Thank you. It is my impression, which could be wrong, that theory and criticism do not have the grip on the curriculum that they once did and some of Chace's complaints are a bit out of date – indeed some of them might have been out of date when I was still in school.

I wonder what F.R. Leavis would have to say about all this.


As a CURRENT member of an English faculty, I will affirm that Chace does indeed have it wrong, insofar as constructing a generalization about the whole field (which, despite his first-personal accounts, is what he's aiming to do). It's amusing to see this kind of argument for policing the gates come up since, as my student writers would put it, "the dawn of time." If we had fixed the curriculum at, say, 1700 (or even 1800), we would read no texts in English in any course that purported to be about "great literature." If we had fixed the curriculum in the early 20th century, we might not read any books by American or other non-British Anglophone writers. The "great literature" criteria he mentions is highly focused on the 19th century and excludes much of the 18th century (Chace's criteria for literature would exclude entire fields of inquiry and discovery). And PS we still love our books, but sometimes feel that there are others we have to teach. I don't see a problem with that. And people practice a diversity of approaches out there, from high theory to trudging in the archives, a diversity which Chace clearly feels is a bad thing (and indeed in terms of building clout, it may be). But that to me is what makes it interesting. Just my two cents.

#12 dirac

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Posted 06 October 2009 - 02:25 PM

And it was the books that made it happen -- great literature inflames the imagination...


So true, Paul.

....and anything else is just a chore to study.


It can be if it’s not to your taste. Literary criticism/theory is really a branch of philosophy, and it’s possible to be fascinated with theory without coming to it through a love of literature, strange as that sounds.

The "great literature" criteria he mentions is highly focused on the 19th century and excludes much of the 18th century...


Yup. People who think the novel started with Richardson.

#13 kfw

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Posted 06 October 2009 - 06:14 PM

Literary criticism/theory is really a branch of philosophy, and it's possible to be fascinated with theory without coming to it through a love of literature, strange as that sounds.

Not at all strange to me. As much as I dislike the relative displacement of literature by theory, I have so often been drawn to works of art, and drawn deeper into particular art forms, by criticism that reaches wide and deep. The theory draws me to the work being theorized about, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

#14 Ed Waffle

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Posted 06 October 2009 - 07:56 PM

Passionate, well written and learned literary criticism can be exhilarating. While the farthest thing from an expert, there are critics whose work I really love. Terry Eagleton and Denis Donoghue are two of them also they seem miles apart in their views of most things. Whatever their critical approach and political beliefs—Eagleton’s politic views are front and center in many of his books—they have spent decades reading widely, deeply and creatively. Which is a wonderful thing to have done.

I wonder what F.R. Leavis would have to say about all this.

I think he would stick to his pantheon of “great”: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad and his judgment of what made them great—a serious moral purpose and their study was essential to understanding of law, politics, philosophy or history. I may have that wrong—it is cribbed from some notes I made in a copy of “The Great Tradition” a zillion years ago—but it is an attempt at an answer to dirac’s question.

But what Leavis might think of William Chace and his revulsion at the current state of Englsih study I couldn’t begin to guess.

On another subject entirely, I won’t bother quoting any more from Chace but much of his essay drips with class deprecation bordering on scorn. He longs for the old days when elite people at elite universities studied elite subjects because they didn’t have to worry about learning things like the tensile strength of ¼” carbon steel or the effect of accelerated profit realization on next year’s bottom line or if a recent Supreme Court case applies to the matter at hand.

#15 dirac

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Posted 07 October 2009 - 10:38 AM

On another subject entirely, I won’t bother quoting any more from Chace but much of his essay drips with class deprecation bordering on scorn. He longs for the old days when elite people at elite universities studied elite subjects because they didn’t have to worry about learning things like the tensile strength of ¼” carbon steel or the effect of accelerated profit realization on next year’s bottom line or if a recent Supreme Court case applies to the matter at hand.


I agree with you about Chace’s tone but it is sad in a way that colleges and universities are so often regarded today as a higher form of vocational school instead of institutions of higher learning in the older sense. (On the other hand more people have greater access to education today.)


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