For the Love of Literature
Mark Edmundson’s “Teach What You Love” (Autumn) reminds me of the philosopher James K. A. Smith’s work, especially You Are What You Love, as well as William Deresiewicz’s essay “Love on Campus,” which appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of the Scholar. We don’t really talk much about love on campus, or loving Wordsworth, Whitman, or Woolf. We just interrogate them, probe their toxic brews, and so on. So sad, really. This article is wise and brave—thanks!
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Edmundson’s essay is so conservative that it is positively radical in its common sense. And it encourages me to share a vignette from my own classroom career, which ended in 2016.
For decades, I offered a version of a course called “Contemporary American Poetry.” After a while, it dawned on me that my “contemporary” poets (Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and then James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg, and Adrienne Rich) were dying off. So I renamed the course “American Poetry from 1945 to the Present.” It featured the same poets, more or less. Each new iteration might add a poet, or subtract one, from the syllabus. “Coverage” was never the issue.
About 15 years ago, a student asked, “Why these particular poets?” And I replied swiftly, “These are the poets I like the most.” She then suggested that the title for the course should henceforth be “My Favorite Poets” or something like that. The director of undergraduate studies at Southern Methodist University would not allow this—too specific, too personal, not “formal” enough as a title. This was too bad. My student was right.
It’s hard to know where to begin with an essay as detached from reality as this one. First of all: enrollments in English are plummeting not because of the way literature is taught but because students fear (wrongly, as it happens) that they won’t be able to get a job with a degree in English. Their parents and peers drum this into them relentlessly. Claiming that the problem is with the way literature is taught is just a premise for believing (also wrongly) that there’s something we as teachers can do to stem the tide.
Second: most newly minted PhDs in literature nowadays have never even read Derrida or Lacan. Maybe a little Foucault. But the era of high theory is long past, and with it, the stance that Edmundson critiques. His description makes sense for a good deal of criticism published in the 1980s and ’90s. But really, how much that’s coming out today engages in the kind of relentless demystification he deplores?
Teach what you love? Of course! But doesn’t everyone? Do professors of mathematics have to gush about how much they love topology? No, they just teach it—a subject that’s quite technical and difficult. Far more so than French theory. If we don’t do “readings” of the works we teach, or train our students to do so, what exactly are we teaching? Yes, the experience of literature is important, but we are also supposedly passing on a set of critical skills. If we don’t do even that, marketing an English major becomes even tougher. Refighting battles of the past is hardly the best way to address the problems of today.
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Much of Jacques Derrida’s writing on literature is an expression of his love for literature. Just think of what he wrote on Mallarmé, Blanchot, Shakespeare, and Baudelaire.
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The biggest thing that changed the teaching of literature was the emphasis on publishing. Since the entry of modern languages into the university curriculum in the early 20th century, professors could engage in scholarship related to the history of literature (writer bios, publishing history, and the like) as well as great themes and images, along with appreciations of works. By the ’70s, those were well-plowed fields. There was less need for another “Shakespeare is great” book, and aspiring literature professors had to find new approaches in their publications to have any hope of getting a job.
And then there’s the problem of defining the university as a place where scholarship produces new knowledge. “Shakespeare is great” isn’t new knowledge. And unless you translate that approach into something that students, donors, and administrators share, you’re always going to lose to the research sciences.
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I’ve seen surveys that suggest that college graduates who majored in English are the most dissatisfied of all graduates. My guess is that those who studied literature as part of the major are less dissatisfied than those who did not. I know a barista who is more than $100,000 in debt and bitter that his English degree left him unable to write a clear sentence to save his life. He’s working on it, but he’s also learning how to code.
In his sophomore year, he had a class in which he read Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as well as Jacques Lacan. His senior year, he took a seminar on Derrida, taught by a professor who knew jack-all about philosophy—say what you will about Derrida’s methods, but the man knew the primary texts of Western philosophy as well as anybody save the likes of Hegel and Heidegger—but instructed him on how to deconstruct texts, and Western civilization in general.
This, in short, is a major problem with English departments: professors teaching books they don’t really understand, but doing so in a way that inculcates, as Edmundson says in reference to Paul Ricœur, a habit of suspicion bordering on paranoia. It’s not a healthy, productive state of mind.
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Protecting the Land
John Leshy’s “Still Made for You and Me?” (about the threat to American public lands) is well researched and persuasively argued, and the most alarming political discourse I’ve read this year. Personally, I pray that we can turn the tide, as overwhelming as it seems.
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Jethro K. Lieberman’s “The Gravity of the Situation” brings home the dilemma of trying to understand and explain the highly sophisticated mathematical results of quantum physics within the confines of our limitations—our three-dimensional world. I used to tell my students to go with the results of the theory and simply appreciate what they can do; how can we understand those results with our limitations? I defy anyone outside the field of mathematics to “understand” eight dimensions, much less explain it to a layperson. Popular science books on the subject are amusing in their attempt to explain, but no one should consider them anything but entertainment.
William S. Richardson
The Eyes Have It
I wanted to mention how delightful it was to spot a bit of (possibly inadvertent) trompe l’oeil on the cover of the Autumn issue. Because the leftmost security camera extends over the spine of the magazine, it can appear to be sticking outward from the cover. I experienced a number of pleasant double takes as I walked past my stereo speaker, on top of which my issue lay. Surveillance eyeballs and trompe l’oeil—perfect, and yet another reason to appreciate this great magazine.
Steven G. Kellman’s assessment of Alex Ross’s new book (“Admired and Abhorred,” Book Reviews) touches on the relationship between Wagnerism and Nazism. Richard Wagner’s “deranged” anti-Semitic diatribes may have endeared him to Nazis, but you can’t understand the Ring Cycle operas as a paean to the Germanic supermensch. In fact, it’s the opposite: the story of a god who tries to create a superman, but his plans unravel and it all goes to Scheiße. Comic Anna Russell was famous for performing an inimitable sketch that presented a condensed version of the Ring. In it, earth goddess Erda sings, “Be careful, Wotan, be careful”—then, as Russell put it, the goddess “bears him eight daughters,” including the rebellious Brünnhilde, who defies him. Another popular musical work, The Fantasticks, echoes that theme: “[W]ith children / It’s bewilderin’ / You don’t know until the seed is nearly grown / Just what you’ve sown …” Although writing about gods and goddesses, Wagner made his characters realistically human.
Words to Live By
I do not usually read all the selections of Anne Matthews’s Commonplace Book, but this collection was absolutely scrumptious. Excellent.
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