Friday, December 05, 2003


No, there's no political bias in the academy.

While surfing through various university websites looking at course catalogs--trying to write that "personal" letter of application--I came across the following little dandy on the UCLA English Department website.

English 109: The American Political Novel
This class examines a range of texts that explicitly engage political issues and that were, in some cases, written to intervene directly in ongoing political debates. The assigned readings will range chronologically from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)--perhaps the most influential political novel ever published in the United States--to E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1971) and Alice Walker's Meridian (1976). Although the books covered in the course raise many important topics, we will focus primarily upon three: race and the legacy of slavery, gender and sexism, and the American Left.

Apparently, the only American political novels out there are written from the perspective of the left. I would have thought that something like Philip Roth's The Human Stain, given the forthcoming film (or has it already been released?) and the fact that it deals with the politics of the academy, would have been a fine addition to a course of the American political novel. Of course, as that novel explicitly condemns the same sort of thinking that seems to be behind the creation of this course, I guess that might be a bit embarrassing to the professor.

I should have stopped reading at that point, and realized that I didn't really want to join the UCLA English department. But today's course catalog is really like a train wreck. Here was the next entry:

English 118: Reading Film Noir and the "Neo Noir"
This course examines the film noir genre and the literature from which it has traditionally been derived, the American detective novel. The syllabus includes classic pairings such as Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and the 1946 film adaptation directed by Howard Hawks. In addition, the class looks at the post 1980's trend of neo-noir novels and films that recast the noir tradition in contemporary cultural terrain, exploring dynamics of race, class, gender and sexuality. Examples include Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress and the 1995 film adaptation directed by Carl Franklin as well as James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential and the 1997 film adaptation directed by Curtis Hansen.

And there we go again. The holy triumvirate of race, class, and gender, with sexuality added to the mix. More novels read through the lens of leftist politics. I've read all three of these novels, and I seem to recall that they were far more dense that this reductive approach makes them out to be. And aren't things like setting (what we now call "issues of place," since the word "setting" might somehow resurrect the ogre of New Criticism) important in these novels? L.A. Confidential? Being taught at UCLA? And Phillip Marlowe is character of such depth, for all his stereotypicalness. Do literature classes even study the elements of literature anymore? There's more going on in The Big Sleep than naked pictures of Carmen Sternwood.

But wait! There's more:

English 177: The Myth of the American Adam and the Post-WWII Novel
When R. W. B. Lewis published his influential The American Adam in 1955, his thesis that the transplanted European functioned as a New-World Adam and the American wilderness as his Eden provided a mythic framework in which to read what the Academy then considered the American canon. In this class, we will investigate the relevancy of that mythos in a postwar era characterized by an increasingly more urban and ethnically diverse experience of America. Particular attention will be paid to novels from minority traditions that question the racial, gender, and historical underpinnings of this myth of the American wilderness. Readings will include Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, Thomas Pynchon's Vineland, Toni Morrison's The Song of Solomon, Charles Johnson's Middle Passage, Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, and Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange.

And again, we get two of the three holy lenses: race and gender. Also nice to see that "what the Academy then considered the American canon" has changed to reflect the need of canonical affirmative action. The quality of a work, it would seem, is relatively unimportant; what is important is that it either (A) talk about the themes of race, class and gender, or (B) can be forced to talk about these themes, either through the completely assinine "absence as presence" argument (by which critics allow themselves to say whatever they want to say about a work, whether the work (or should I say text supports the reading or not. I once listened to someone tell me that the film The Unforgiven was all about Native Americans precisely because they weren't depcited in the film, proceeding on the assumption that all Westerns must address the subject of Native Americans or be guilty of deliberately avoiding the subject. And why is there always a Toni Morrison book in these types of courses? Of course, the nice thing about Morrison is that you only ever read one of her books, because once you've read one . . . Kind of like taking a course at UCLA, it would seem.

So, three out of four variable topic courses for UCLA undergrads are about race, class, and gender. The fourth, entitled "Assembling California," doesn't provide enough of a description to tell, but the title of the course alone indicates to this recovering user of theory (or, perhaps more accurately, user--not reader--of literature) that the same cultural constructivist nonsense that underpins the other three courses will underpin this one. I'm not certain that "variable" is the correct term to be using here. A more honest course catalog would just say "Leftist Content Courses" and at least let students know what they were signing up for.

Out of the other twelve courses on offer for undergrads in the Fall, 2003 schedule, five explicitly focus on matters of race, rather than matters of literature:

English 189.3: Interracial Romance in African American and Asian American Literature
This course focuses on biracialism, passing and interracial romance in African American and Asian American fiction.

English 189.4: Theaters of Race
Seminar discussing dramatic literature and performances by African Americans, Chicanos, Asian Americans and Native Americans. The emphasis will be on contemporary solo performance and on works exploring race in conjunction with issues of gender and sexuality.

English 190: The 1992 Los Angeles "Riots" Reconsidered
This course examines the Los Angeles riots from multicultural and interdisciplinary perspectives. We will look at the event and its aftermath through the visual media, fiction, and nonfiction. Special emphasis will be placed on the interracial dynamics of African Americans and Asian Americans.

English M197A: What is the Blackness of Blackness? Constructions of "Race" and "Difference" in African American Literature
This course looks at a range of African American fiction and literary essays from the 1980s and 1990s that explore what Herman Gray has called "blackness as a sign." Rather than assuming black identity or community to be a stable given, texts such as Danzy Senna's Caucasia, A.J. Verdelle's The Good Negress and Hilton Al's The Women depict characters and personae who negotiate relationships to black identities and black communities through differences such as "race mixture," "black English" and "queer sexuality." The course will examine what Gray has called "various positions and claims on blackness" through creative texts as well as critical theory by writers such as Stuart Hall and Adrian Piper.

English M197C: Race, Memory, and Technology in Asian American Literature and Culture
This course will survey a selection of Asian American memoirs, novels, films, and stage performances, paying particular attention to the representation of media and popular culture within these works. How does incorporation into a media-saturated public sphere signal entry into normative American citizenship for Asian Americans? How does the global flow of media alter the terrain upon which Asian Americans make their claims? In this course, we will read several contemporary memoirs of famous/infamous Asian Americans (e.g., Wen Ho Lee, Margaret Cho) alongside recent fictions produced by Asian American novelists and filmmakers (e.g., Chang Rae Lee, Ruth Ozeki, Rea Tajiri). We will be examining these works in terms of their concepts of power, agency, social justice, as well as in terms of their portraits of the boundaries of bodies and body politics mediated by technology.

Do the voters in California know that this is the kind of nonsense their tax dollars are supporting? Actually, they probably don't. And neither do most of the undergrads who would be signing up for this course, from what I've seen. I know how to read these course descriptions, after years of taking the types of courses they describe. I know that they indicate that the class will be taught from a particular political point of view, and that many of them will likely attempt to alienate students from the wider culture around them by trying to convince them of its inherent evil. But students walk into these courses blind, and many of them come to believe that this is what literary studies is all about. Few learn how to closely read literature or to appreciate the fact that they are having a conversation with someone when they read a book, a poem, or a play. Instead, they learn the method of the monologue of the critic.

I think I've found a few places where Arnold can cut the budget--fire the professors who are being paid to teach these courses. What in God's name does any of this have to do with the study of literature? And these are undergraduate courses. Who teaches undergrads the reading skills they need at this highly overrated university?

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