Thursday, December 18, 2003


MLA Interviews and the Theory Question

As anyone in academia will immediately understand, I have been thinking about the MLA interviews pretty much around the clock. The question I am most concerned with is the dreaded Theory question. Obviously, I’m not a big fan of theory. Oh, it has its uses. I would never debate the use of postmodern theory to understand, say, the postmodern novel, the same way I would use existententialist philosophy to read something like Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place". But I’m not so sure about using postmodern theory with Homer or Chaucer. It might produce an interesting reading—or utter B.S.—but it often has little to do with what either Homer or Chaucer set out to do. It’s historically irresponsible, and places the critic over the author in determining the text’s meaning. A typical move for the inflated egos in our profession, but one which shows little or no respect for the mind that produced the work being studied.

At any rate, I don’t mean this to become a tirade against theory.

What I mean this to be is an important question regarding the theory question at MLA interviews.

According to “the rules,” potential employers aren’t supposed to be able to ask you about your politics. But, given the highly politicized nature of theory, how can the theory question not constitute a question about politics? If I start talking about I. A. Richards’s influence on my work, I reveal myself as a literary conservative. And if I talk about A. C. Bradley’s influence on my reading of Shakespeare, I think that makes me a literary paleo-conservative. Whereas if I mention Foucault, or Said, or Derrida, I’m a fellow traveler. In many ways, the answer to the theory question reveals the candidate’s politics, or at least the candidate’s politics in terms of literary scholarship (though the two generally go hand-in-hand, in my experience).

Does the theory question constitute a political litmus test? I know it will in my case. I can either lie, and pretend to espouse a highly politicized way of looking at texts that, in many cases, runs counter to everything we know about reality and the human mind (yes, I prefer the answers of science, not the empty hypothesizing of postmodernism), or I can tell the truth, and probably blow my chances of getting most of the jobs I’ve been called to interview for. (My C.V. plays it cagey, by the way.)

One reader tells me of a job he lost by telling the committee of his fondness for Northrop Frye, an indication of his literary conservatism indeed. I imagine he got the same look that I received when I complained to the director of composition at my current institution that there were only heavily left-leaning readers on the approved list of textbooks. “Ah, an evil Bush-voting bastard.”

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