pherank

Why Teach and Study English

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A fine essay in the New Yorker - 08/27/13:

The study of English, to be sure, suffers from its own discontents: it isn’t a science, and so the “research” you do is, as my colleague Louis Menand has pointed out, archival futzing aside, not really research. But the best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic. Why was he a professor of literature? “Because I have an obsessive relationship with texts.” You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects.
The reward is that it remains the one kind of time travel that works, where you make a wish and actually become a musketeer in Paris or a used-car salesman in Pennsylvania. That one knows, of course, that the actuality is “fictional” or artificial doesn’t change its reality. The vicarious pleasure of reading is, by the perverse principle of professions, one that is often banished from official discussion, but it remains the core activity.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/why-teach-english.html

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A fine essay in the New Yorker - 08/27/13:

The study of English, to be sure, suffers from its own discontents: it isn’t a science, and so the “research” you do is, as my colleague Louis Menand has pointed out, archival futzing aside, not really research. But the best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic. Why was he a professor of literature? “Because I have an obsessive relationship with texts.” You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects.
The reward is that it remains the one kind of time travel that works, where you make a wish and actually become a musketeer in Paris or a used-car salesman in Pennsylvania. That one knows, of course, that the actuality is “fictional” or artificial doesn’t change its reality. The vicarious pleasure of reading is, by the perverse principle of professions, one that is often banished from official discussion, but it remains the core activity.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/why-teach-english.html

Has anyone EVER made a wish to become a used-car salesman in Pennsylvania?

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Has anyone EVER made a wish to become a used-car salesman in Pennsylvania?

It depends entirely on the actual life and adventures of said used-car salesman. Or repo-man. ;)

Does anyone start out wanting to be Holden Caulfield?

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Thank you for posting this, pherank. I commend to readers the comments section. I liked this one from "DRN26":

The author shortchanges the defenses of the humanities. Mark Edmundson's Why Read? and the newly released Why Teach? are superb, persuasive, eloquent, and accurate. His argument is not that the humanities make better people and better societies, which is sometimes false (the old Nazi's loved Wagner routine and, well, look at all the horrible people and societies that produced great art). The best defense of the humanities I've read is Edmundson's essay in which these two books grew out of, originally published in Raritan 32.1, entitled "Teaching the Truths." Highly recommended to everyone.

I can't imagine wanting to be any number of the fictional characters I read about. I take Gopnik's point that reading can be a lot of fun, but I certainly don't want to be a used-car salesman, Holden Caulfield, Humbert Humbert, or even a charmer who gets a happy ending like Elizabeth Bennet. And for the vicarious pleasures of time travel, movies can provide them just as well and sometimes better. I don't read about Humbert because I want to be him; I read for the pleasures provided by his creator's prose (among other things).

Thoughts, all?

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I can't imagine wanting to be any number of the fictional characters I read about. I take Gopnik's point that reading can be a lot of fun, but I certainly don't want to be a used-car salesman, Holden Caulfield, Humbert Humbert, or even a charmer who gets a happy ending like Elizabeth Bennet. And for the vicarious pleasures of time travel, movies can provide them just as well and sometimes better. I don't read about Humbert because I want to be him; I read for the pleasures provided by his creator's prose (among other things).

The essay necessarily simplifies things, and I agree with you that our reasons for reading a piece of fiction can be varied - it's not just about inhabiting a particular character for a short while. In fact, part of the pleasure lies in having so many options/approaches to use in examining and living with a work of literature. But in order to learn of and develop all these options, one has to start down the long path of criticial thinking...and that folks, is what the humanities are all about.

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dirac wrote:

:I can't imagine wanting to be any number of the fictional characters I read about. I take Gopnik's point that reading can be a lot of fun, but I certainly don't want to be a used-car salesman, Holden Caulfield, Humbert Humbert, or even a charmer who gets a happy ending like Elizabeth Bennet. And for the vicarious pleasures of time travel, movies can provide them just as well and sometimes better. I don't read about Humbert because I want to be him; I read for the pleasures provided by his creator's prose (among other things).


I can't imagine wanting to be many fictional characters either. But I do identify with Gopnik's point that reading "remains the one kind of time travel that works". I began reading historical novels very young because I found them around our house. For some reason, we had a complete works of Balzac and Dickens in the house (inexpensively produced, possibly one of offerings that newspapers used to sell one volume at a time earlier in the 20th century). We also had lots of Book of the Month Club selections.. It didn't have to be long-ago history. For me, growing up in the post-war suburbs of New York City, the world of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, even Cheever and Updike, were very much "history." They encouraged me to go to the library looking for works of real history about the period, the places, and the people who inhabited them. -- everything I had just been introduced to in the novel. I'm convinced that this was what led me eventually to history as an academic field and profession.

I realize that films can also spark this kind of time-traveling experience, and I have often done that. But what books have over movies is that you can proceed through them -- into them -- at your own pace. You can pause, close your eyes, think, imagine alternative words or actions. You can get up from the chair and go the book shelf (or, nowadays, Google) to pick up another book that you were reminded of. Visconti's The Leopard is visually ravishing and dramatically involving. But Lampedusa's The Leopard -- the essence of which is captured very well in the film -- is something I have traveled through frequently since I encountered it in high school, sometimes reading the whole book, sometimes just a chapter or an episode. .

Edited by bart

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But what books have over movies is that you can proceed through them -- into them -- at your own pace. You can pause, close your eyes, think, imagine alternative words or actions. You can get up from the chair and go the book shelf to pick up another book that you were reminded of.

Film is inescapably bound to time, and we are the beneficiaries, and the victims, of film shooting (which proceeds linearly) and editing, which manipulates time by rearranging the individual 'frames'. Literature doesn't have that same constraint, as you mention, and the reader may end up doing as much editing (with the mind) as the writer did to create the work. I find there is much more of a conversation going on in the act of reading, than we ever experience while watching a film, especially in a theatre, where presumably we are trapped for the duration. The act of reading isn't passive. Many films, imo, can be felt to "happen to us", like watching two cars suddenly collide on the street, but I can't recall reading a book and having the same feeling.

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Exactly my feeling, phrank. I've always found that watching films, though it involves effort, is essentially passive. Books .... never so.

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I realize that films can also spark this kind of time-traveling experience, and I have often done that. But what books have over movies is that you can proceed through them -- into them -- at your own pace. You can pause, close your eyes, think, imagine alternative words or actions. You can get up from the chair and go the book shelf (or, nowadays, Google) to pick up another book that you were reminded of. Visconti's The Leopard is visually ravishing and dramatically involving. But Lampedusa's The Leopard -- the essence of which is captured very well in the film -- is something I have traveled through frequently since I encountered it in high school, sometimes reading the whole book, sometimes just a chapter or an episode. .

Yes, I do that all the time. I just got up from reading a Czeslaw Milosz poem that mentions Daphnis and Chloe to reacquaint myself with that myth via the good old Internet. But that proceeding through at my own pace - stopping to think over a scene, or even watch it again before procceding - is also something I find myself doing when I watch movies online, for example when I watched a handful of Bergman films on Hulu awhile back. Of course good filmmaking rewards this, but it's hardly what directors have in mind.

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I do see your point, bart, but I take issue with your particular example. The Leopard is an adaptation of a great novel. By definition it's likely to be inferior, because the better the work the more closely content and form are bound together. Any adaptation to a different medium will be lacking in something. (For me the film version of The Leopard is particularly lacking, although it looks gorgeous.)

........ we are the beneficiaries, and the victims, of film shooting (which proceeds linearly)

(I don't want us to get too far away from the topic at hand - thanks to my own comment - but this is questionable, to say the least.....)

I was a bit puzzled by this, from the essay:

To have turned the habits of reading and obsessing over books from a practice mostly for those rich enough to have the time to do it into one that welcomes, for a time anyway, anyone who can is momentous. English departments democratize the practice of reading.

It may or may not be true that people aren't reading as much any more - I haven't seen any numbers - but books are at least as cheap and plentiful as they ever were in comparison to other forms of art and entertainment. It is true that people who are economically struggling have time for little else but economic struggle, but that's always been true. There are people all over the internet who are reading and obsessing over books and seem unlikely to be rich, unless Gopnik's definition of rich is exceptionally broad. Years ago Gore Vidal used to complain that modern English departments were the reverse of democratic, but of course that was years ago.

(I'd also be interested to hear from any BAers who are teaching or studying English lit today - reporters on the ground, so to speak.)

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I do see your point, bart, but I take issue with your particular example. The Leopard is an adaptation of a great novel. By definition it's likely to be inferior, because the better the work the more closely content and form are bound together. Any adaptation to a different medium will be lacking in something. (For me the film version of The Leopard is particularly lacking, although it looks gorgeous.)

Hmmmm - I think you're going out on a limb here, Dirac. Film makers would definitely disagree that "any adaptation to a different medium will be lacking in something", since they often use Literature as a jumping-off point, or borrow from previously existing sources. Of course there's lots of trash cinema, but I'm not sure it holds up to say, conversely, that the only significant movies, as art, are the films that are entirely original projects. From the The Wizard of Oz to Wuthering Heights to The Graduate there are many instances of great films (of varying genres) that are largely based on books. And there's definitely an argument to be made for certain film adaptions being as significant as works of art as the original books. A number of Kubrick's best films (e.g.: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining) were all 'based' on pre-existing fiction, but are beloved by fans of "art-house" cinema, and are very influential within the art form. It really does come down to the people involved, whether industry hacks, or actual "artists".

The two art forms are tremendously different to produce - a novel can be slowly pieced together by a single person (or quickly if you are Jack Kerouac on amphetamines), but films, especially the Hollywood variety, almost always require a large crew of people that somehow must work together successfuly. Film making takes as much luck as chemistry and money to get a project to come off half decently. There is an element of serendipity that plays into successful film projects - fortunately that isn't as necessary for lliterature.

And now back to English...

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Well....I certainly would be going out on a limb, pherank, if I'd made the broad assertions in your gloss on my post. I was speaking of the challenge of adapting The Leopard or other great works of literature and suggested a reason for same (not a terribly original or limbworthy one, I think). Books that aren't of the very best, or works that are very obscure, have not only been adapted successfully but occasionally with improvement on the originals. And there are other reasons to bring the best of literature to the screen, if made with love and care; John Huston's The Dead doesn't begin to approach Joyce, but I'd not be without it.

Film making takes as much luck as chemistry and money to get a project to come off half decently.

Quite so.

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I found this to be a passionate defense of appreciating literature, but not a good defense of English as a discipline, which can include everything from literary theorizing (not popular here, I am guessing), to deep and careful archival research (making a roaring comeback in the digital age). Gopnick, in my opinion, seems unfamiliar with the field today; to quote Sean Wiley, a colleague in comparative lit., "he ends up arguing for studying the humanities but spends the bulk of the article excoriating them." And I found the quotation below, among others, painful and pretentious:

"If we abolished English majors tomorrow, Stephen Greenblatt and Stanley Fish and Helen Vendler would not suddenly be freed to use their smarts to start making quantum proton-nuclear reactor cargo transporters, or whatever; they would all migrate someplace where they could still talk Shakespeare and Proust and the rest."

Fish, for one, no longer teaches English; Greenblatt and Vendler have uneven reputations in the field.


It's timely that this appears now, at the start of school; I have to spend a good deal of time introducing students to the idea that we're going to think about literature and analyze texts--even, gasp, make arguments about them, not just rhapsodize about how much we love them.

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It's timely that this appears now, at the start of school; I have to spend a good deal of time introducing students to the idea that we're going to think about literature and analyze texts--even, gasp, make arguments about them, not just rhapsodize about how much we love them.

I can imagine the difficulty, Ray. I suspect that many of us on BA grew up with English teachers who expected analysis and explication of text and convinced us that this was simply a normal part of "reading." This approach affected me so much that, I honestly cannot imagine reading without doing it.

I meet so many people nowadays who do not read except for information-gathering, work requirements, or escape. This must certainly be a challenge for teaches with larger goals.

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Hello, Ray, thanks for chiming in. It sounds as if you have work ahead of you, but it's nice to hear your students do show a love of literature,.I remember students who were well-meaning but did not even have that to begin with. Good luck....

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It's timely that this appears now, at the start of school; I have to spend a good deal of time introducing students to the idea that we're going to think about literature and analyze texts--even, gasp, make arguments about them, not just rhapsodize about how much we love them.

They can't just hit a Like button? Oy vey!

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It's timely that this appears now, at the start of school; I have to spend a good deal of time introducing students to the idea that we're going to think about literature and analyze texts--even, gasp, make arguments about them, not just rhapsodize about how much we love them.

The subject is also timely because many graduates of the English/Humanities disciplines are currently in the news (we just don't know their names). That is because one of the larger employers of humanities graduates (especially post-graduate) is the Intelligence Community, and beyond that, the Foreign Diplomatic Corps. Of course it helps to know another language as well. But these lucky employees are not being hired simply for their language skills, but also for their analytical abilities.

A good essay topic might involve the ethics of hiring students of the humanities into the intelligence community. And is it all bad? Well not when they avert some catastrophe on behalf of their nation - then the citizens tolerate them, but when the Intelligence community just looks to be part of the problem, then the citizenry get very angry. It's really hard to tell if the present day Intelligence Community, and Diplomatic Corps, are any more or less effective than their predecessors going back 3000 years.

My own mother (an Honors English major) and her good friend (an Honors Sociology major) were both approached by the NSA upon graduation. Her friend accepted.

So if English majors are wondering where they can find jobs – it helps to know what firms are involved in research, analysis and writing....

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A line I did like very much in the essay was this:

"English departments democratize the practice of reading. When they do, they make the books of the past available to all. It’s a simple but potent act."

As in our political democracy, however, it's not always certain that everyone wants to participate, as these studies make depressingly clear ("33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives" and
"42% of college graduates never read another book after college").

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phrank wrote:


My own mother (an Honors English major) and her good friend (an Honors Sociology major) were both approached by the NSA upon graduation. Her friend accepted.

I was an American studies major and was urged by a professor who had "connections in Washington" to apply for the Foreign Service. My preliminary interview quickly disabused me of my fantasy that Foreign Service work would involve lots of socializing with artists and intellectuals in a place like Paris or London. These were the early days of the Vietnam War, and I intuited that they were actually trolling for people to work in some sort of intelligence organization. I did not pursue the matter further.

At the time, I was told that a benefit of a humanities-based education included such abilities as -- comprehending and using language/ analyzing and comparing texts/ asking questions and knowing how to research them/ learning new material efficiently/ and the ability to place texts of all sorts into a larger social and political contexts. Pretty much everything I have done in life since those days has required and rewarded those abilities. I'm, grateful to my high school and college teachers and curriculum-writers for having taken such things seriously.

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At the time, I was told that a benefit of a humanities-based education included such abilities as -- comprehending and using language/ analyzing and comparing texts/ asking questions and knowing how to research them/ learning new material efficiently/ and the ability to place texts of all sorts into a larger social and political contexts. Pretty much everything I have done in life since those days has required and rewarded those abilities. I'm, grateful to my high school and college teachers and curriculum-writers for having taken such things seriously.

Amen to that, Bart. Something that I hear quite a lot these days with regard to training or education, is, "it was just a waste of my time/or money". Because it didn't lead to an obvious job or career path. I can't recall learning about ANYTHING that hasn't proven to be useful knowledge in some manner. There's obviously been a radical shift over the course of my (and our) lifetime regarding the role of education in society, and its value to the citizenry.

There was an excellent article relating to education and its effect on a society in the PBS program, The Chosen Few: A New Explanation of Jewish Success (Study by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein). The long and short of it: education good, no curiosity and illiteracy, bad. ;)

A note from Paul Solman: Nine years ago, someone sent me an academic paper that put forward a radically new explanation of why Jews have been so successful economically. Written by economists Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, the paper explained Jewish success in terms of early literacy in the wake of Rome's destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the subsequent dispersion of Jews throughout the Roman empire - Jews who had to rely on their own rabbis and synagogues to sustain their religion instead of the high priests in Jerusalem.

You may know a similar story about the Protestant Reformation: the bypassing of the Catholic clergy and their Latin liturgy for actual reading of Scripture in native languages and the eventual material benefits of doing so. Why is Northern Europe -- Germany, Holland, England, Sweden -- so much more prosperous than Southern Europe: Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain? Why do the latter owe the former instead of the other way around? Might it have something to do with the Protestant legacy of the North, the Catholic legacy of the South?

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/businessdesk/2013/04/the-chosen-few-a-new-explanati.html

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The long and short of it: education good, no curiosity and illiteracy, bad. ;)

That does seem to be the point, doesn't it?

I'm wondering about a couple of things.

First of all, the ideas summarized in your two quoted paragraphs are clearly oversimplifications. In fact,

they seem to confirm some rather old stereotypes about the radical difference between Northern versus Southern European cultures, along with assertions of the superiority of the former over the latter..

Also, as ballet lovers, shouldn't we be a bit on the side of the "liturgists"?. Reading can't tell us everything we need to know, Nor can intellectual analysis. Sometimes "doing" something in a serious, committed, even sacred manner (either as ritual, or dance, or other performance art) is an equally profound way of accessing knowledge.

Which suggests that an active education in the arts is something that ideally should go hand in hand with the kind of intellectual training that the writers of the article above are advocating. Thinking in terms of the paragraphs quoted above, we might think of this as a union of "Northern" and "Southern" European types, both of which are of great value to us as individuals and as culture.

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I'm wondering about a couple of things.

First of all, the ideas summarized in your two quoted paragraphs are clearly oversimplifications. In fact,

they seem to confirm some rather old stereotypes about the radical difference between Northern versus Southern European cultures, along with assertions of the superiority of the former over the latter..

Also, as ballet lovers, shouldn't we be a bit on the side of the "liturgists"?. Reading can't tell us everything we need to know, Nor can intellectual analysis. Sometimes "doing" something in a serious, committed, even sacred manner (either as ritual, or dance, or other performance art) is an equally profound way of accessing knowledge.

Which suggests that an active education in the arts is something that ideally should go hand in hand with the kind of intellectual training that the writers of the article above are advocating. Thinking in terms of the paragraphs quoted above, we might think of this as a union of "Northern" and "Southern" European types, both of which are of great value to us as individuals and as culture.

The Solman quote acts as the lead in the to the article, so I think it purposefully presents the reader with the popular sterotypes before presenting a new theory about Jews and economics.

"Shouldn't we be a bit on the side of the 'liturgists'?" Or as Balanchine once said, "Byzantine icons, dear."

That certainly makes some sense, though I personally try not to take 'sides' as that generally translates to being on a particular 'team' and wearing their uniform, talking the right talk. That's where all the problems start for me. Dancing as a non-book form of knowledge makes perfect sense: there's lots of stored information/memory involved, but it is not a worship of "the word" (which may be why religious sects often want to ban such activities). Dance does seem to be about activites of the body and mind that are beyond language, but I don't happen to see that as a danger to alphabetic language, jsut an expression of other aspects of the mind/body.

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