Saturday, January 31, 2004

 

Trickle Down Economics in the Academy?

I was reading through an interesting blog on Academic Superstars over at Butterflies and Wheels, which includes a comment by Scott McLemee, referencing an article he wrote on the subject for the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years back. I was particularly struck by the remarks of Stanley Fish on the subject of "Academostars":



This sounds suspiciously like Reaganomics to me, an economic theory I would assume 99% of professors in the humanities vehemently disagree with. Apparently, bringing someone like Fish into your department and paying him at least 2-3 times the amount his colleagues are making for doing far less work is going to help the whole department. And because this money will only be used by adminstrators to pay the ridiculous salaries of superstars, we had might as well accept that fact and pay Fish whatever ungodly sum he is "earning". We should not, apparently, issue a call for reform so that people receive equal pay for equal work. How capitalist of Mr. Fish.

To be fair, Fish may have a point: his presence in an English department may draw starry-eyed grad students into the department and increase funding for more useless graduate seminars on esoteric topics that will prove of little or no use to anyone teaching at most universities. In this respect, the "material conditions" of the other professors in the department may be improved somewhat (though the graduate students and adjuncts will still be teaching the same thankless classes for the same poverty-level wages).

But Fish will still be making 2-3 times what his colleagues do for far less work (most academic superstars teach one course a year, generally a graduate or senior seminar with a small enrollment). Very little of that privileged status will be trickling down to his colleagues.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

 

Reuters Headlines

Is the following sentence required to appear in one form or another in every Reuters story regarding Iraq?

"The United States and Britain cited Iraq's possession of chemical and biological arms as their main reason for invading the country in March and toppling Saddam. But no such weapons have so far come to light despite intensive searches."

Sunday, January 25, 2004

 

A New Academic(ish) Blog

I am informed of a new academic blog, written by a graduate student of English at the University of Oregon who is brave enough to actually identify herself to the world (unlike yours truly, who's still hoping to find himself in that lucky 40%).

Rose Nuñez's blog The Naive Humanist, promises to be well worth a few minutes of your daily blog reading time. She's in the process of incorporating a comments function into the blog, and is hoping that there will be some real discussion as her blog grows.

In her initial posting, she describes her purpose:



That sounds a pretty accurate description of graduate school to me, and a pretty accurate description of the difficulties inherent in carrying on a "conversation" with the ideologues that make up far too large a portion of the "intelligensia".

Check it out. Her take on the Fruits of the Sexual Revolution is also worth a read.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

 

Bush Bashing at GQ

The last issue of my GQ subscription--a magazine I have subscribed to for over a decade--arrived in the mail today. I will not be resubscribing. And yes, I appreciate the irony of an academic--particularly a graduate student--subscribing to a magazine in which about 90% of the items featured I cannot afford.

Yes, this is terribly off-topic, and I am going to rant a bit.

The long-time editor of GQ, Art Cooper, stepped down in the middle of 2003, just before his death. GQ took a hard left when its new editor, Jim Nelson, took over the reigns for Mr. Cooper. (It also turned into a twenty-something magazine--an early twenty-something magazine, but that's something to bitch about elsewhere. If you haven't checked out GQ lately, you might be surprised to find out that Conde Nast has decided to publish Details twice a month. Is anyone with a real job going to wear the clothes featured in this magazine?)

In the current issue, Jim Nelson uses his letter from the editor to Bush bash--calling him "President George W. Orwell" and accusing the president of Inner Party-style speeches. Mr. Nelson should, I think, visit a college campus if he wants to see an Orwellian society in action. The once enjoyable GQ List at the end of the magazine is also devoted to Bush bashing, featuring a series of campaign buttons that make the magazine's partisan position quite clear. In the interview with Tina Fey, from Saturday Night Live, the interviewer makes an attempt to solicit a negative opinion about Bush, but while Fey calls Bush both "cocky" and a "dullard," she also calls him "well-intentioned," which the interviewer appears not to know what to do with. (As a sidenote-- I've always found Tina Fey's commentary on "Weekend Update" to be fair and funny.)

This is not the first time this has happened. While I have thrown out the bulk of the issues that I have received since Nelson became the editor (after having saved at least seven years worth, currently in the garage), I recall at least two other interviews with actresses that have asked for an opinion about Bush, generally attempting to solicit a negative comment. In the other two interviews, the attempt was successful, and readers were treated to a mini anti-Bush rant. It would hardly be surprising were GQ to decide to interview Gwyneth Paltrow next month. (Where exactly is this jingoism Gwyneth complains about?)

This month's issue also sports an unflattering comic about Governor Schwarznegger, as well as an "expose" on Iraq.

I'm not exactly sure why a men's fashion magazine has decided that it was necessary to take a partisan position, and I'm not sure how taking such a blatantly offensive partisan position is "gentlemanly." One would expect a gentleman's discussion of politics to be a bit less abrasive. So much for etiquette.

I'm also not sure how the magazine's almost Maxim-like attitude towards casual sex is "gentlemanly." Lots more T&A in the "new" GQ, and lots of suggestions of casual relationships with women in the photos, which have so very, very little to do with fashion.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

 

"Sensible" Literary Criticism: A Bibliography in Progress

Well, the emails came in for about a week, and then trickled down to nothing. Obviously, given how short the list below is, I need more suggestions.

I've included most of what people suggested in their emails; I made an attempt to find either an in-print edition or the information of the last known printing. For most of the shorter pieces of pre-twentieth century criticism I've relied on the Hazard Adams anthology. If you can suggest better places to find these pieces, please let me know.

A few people who just suggested authors will not find their suggestions included below. Please send me references to particular works. If the critic in question is an essayist, give me an idea of where the essays might be found. If I have to look it all up myself, it will take me a lot longer to get the information into the bibliography.

I've also not yet included works of criticism regarding a single author. I'd like to categorize those under the author they are about, but I'll hold off on this until there are several books to include under each author. Shakespeare will likely appear first.

If you have any suggestions regarding categories, let me know. I realize I have made some "controversial" decisions here, like putting all of the cognitive psychologists under twenty-first century criticism, because they mark a departure with post-1960s Theory influence criticism. This is a rather arbitrary decision, particularly as these works date mainly from the 1990s. I've also decided to give those who are mainly writing against Theory their own section. Frankly, I'm not sure who's technically a New Critic and who isn't anymore. It's been awhile since the last theory class.

So, here's a working draft. I'm still taking suggestions, and will be taking suggestions for some time to come.

Also, if you think it would be helpful to make the titles of the works in print into Amazon links, I can incorporate this into the next "edition."


PRE-TWENTIETH CENTURY CRITICISM

Arnold, Matthew. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” In Critical Theory Since Plato, second edition, ed. Hazard Adams, 592-602. Heinle, 1992. (In Print)

Boccacio, Giovanni. Life of Dante. Trans. F. G. Nichols and J. G. Nichols. Hesperus Press, 2002. (In Print)

Critical Theory Since Plato, second edition. Ed. Hazard Adams. Heinle, 1992. (In Print)

Eliot, George. Selected Critical Writings. Ed. Rosemary Ashton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. (In Print)

Horace (Quintas Horatius Flaccus). "Art of Poetry." In Critical Theory Since Plato, second edition, ed. Hazard Adams, 67-74. Heinle, 1992. (In Print)

James, Henry. Literary Criticism, Vols. 1 & 2. Ed. Leon Edel. Library of America, 1984. (In Print)

Johnson, Samuel. The Lives of the English Poets. (OOP)

Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism, c.1100-c.1375: The Commentary Tradition, revised edition. Ed. A. J. Minnis and A. B. Scott. Oxford University Press, 1988/2000. (In Print--U.K. Only)

Sidney, Sir Philip. "An Apology for Poetry." In Critical Theory Since Plato, second edition, ed. Hazard Adams, 142-162. Heinle, 1992. (In Print)

Wilde, Oscar. The Artist as Critic: Critical Writing of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Richard Ellmann. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. (In Print)


TWENTIETH CENTURY CRITICISM THROUGH 1960

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953. (In Print)

Bahktin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. (In Print)

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. Harvest Books, 1956. (In Print)

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism (updated edition). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957/2000. (In Print)

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Penguin, 1923/1991. (In Print)

The New Criticism

Empson, William. 7 Types of Ambiguity. New Directions Publishing, 1966. (In Print)

Richards, I. A. Practical Criticism. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1924. (In Print: Routledge, 2001)

Winters, Ivor. The Function of Criticism. Denver CO: Alan Swallow, 1957. (OOP)


TWENTIETH CENTURY CRITICISM SINCE 1960

After Poststructuralism: Interdisciplinarity and Literary Theory. Ed. Nancy Easterlin and Barbara Riebling. Northwestern University Press, 1993 (In Print)

Argyros, Alexander. A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. (In Print)

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973. (In Print)

Bloom, Harold. A Map of Misreading, second edition. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2003.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994. (In Print)

Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Univeristy of California Press, 1990. (In Print)

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. University of Chicago Press, 1983. (In Print)

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Irony. University of Chicago Press, 1975. (In Print)

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. University of California Press, 1969. (In Print)

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method. University of California Press, 1978. (In Print)

Girard, Rene. Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literature. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. (In Print)

Girard, Rene. To Double Business Bound : Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. (In Print)

Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Harvard University Press, 1980. (In Print)

Kermode, Frank. Pieces of My Mind : Essays and Criticism 1958-2002. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. (In Print)

Kepnes, Steven. The Text as Thou. Indiana University Press, 1992. (In Print)

Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Ed. Peter Conradi. New York: Penguin, 1999. (In Print)


TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY CRITICISM

Cognitive and Evolutionary Psychology

Livingston, Paisley. Literary Knowledge: Humanistic Inquiry and the Philosophy of Science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988. (In Print)

Storey, Robert. Mimesis and the Human Animal. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1996. (In Print)

Turner, Frederick. Natural Classicism: Essays on Literature and Science. New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1985. (In Print, University of Virginia Press, 1992)

Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.


CONTRA-THEORY

Cunningham, Valentine. Reading After Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. (In Print)

Ellis, John. Against Deconstruction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. (In Print)

Ellis, John. Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. (In Print)

Hilfer, Tony. The New Hegemony in Literary Studies: Contradictions in Theory. Northwestern University Press, 2003. (In Print)

Patai, Daphne and Noretta Koertge. Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women's Studies. Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. (In Print)

Friday, January 16, 2004

 

Graduate Student Attrition and the Question of Blame

So, graduate student attrition rates are the topic du jour in the blogosphere. I’ve spent the better part of an hour navigating from site to site, reading a lot of opinions. Some excellent criticism has been made, but there are also some seriously sour grapes out there.

Let me address the excellent criticism first. I’ve been complaining about the number of students allowed into the program at my present institution pretty much since the year after my arrival, when a decision was made to more than double the number of admissions from the year before. I assume that this was done in part because the number of undergraduate admissions had gone up, and somebody had to teach all those additional sections of freshman composition. The professors in the department have never really discussed it. That they realize the necessity of a large pool of graduate students to guarantee (1) that they are allowed to continue to teach—or rather moderate, since very few seem to do more than preside over graduate student presentations—and (2) that they not have to teach the dreaded freshman composition is quite clear. I confess myself guilty of the second desire—I never want to teach freshman composition again—ever. As far as teaching graduate seminars, I would be happy not to teach graduate students at all, but if I do land a job at a school with a graduate program, you can be damned sure I will be teaching the class, not listening the students deliver presentations on things they are not yet expert on. Just today, I was asked by an undergraduate class to lecture rather than having them work on questions in groups—that, I was reminded, was why they had chosen to come to class that day: to have the expert guide them through the text. I had simply wanted to give them a break from listening to me drone on, but that was not what they wanted. So, I lectured.

Yes, the institution, from the individual professor to the department straight up to the university administration, is to blame for this problem. I find John Bruce’s (I always want to say Jack Bruce, but he’s the bassist from Cream) suggestion that a class-action lawsuit be filed an attractive one. Graduate school, at least in the humanities and social sciences, is a bit of a scam. But most of us know it’s a scam, and we seek admission willingly. Those who are not aware of this are woefully uninformed. Unlike a fellow blogger, I would instead use the phrase caveat emptor. Here comes the conservative side of my personality: it’s the individual’s responsibility to find out what he or she is actually purchasing. I entered the Ph.D. program realizing that I was (1) allowing myself to be exploited as cheap labor for the English department, and (2) that what I was purchasing was about a 40% chance of getting a tenure-track job in my field (I believe that is the current percentage—I have not checked in a couple of years). I also knew more than enough ABDs to realize that many people—through the fault of their program, their committee, or through their own fault—never completed their dissertation. From this point-of-view, suing the university is like suing McDonald’s because you’re overweight.

Yet I’m still enough of a lefty to want justice to be done in this instance, regardless of the fact that people are stupid enough—and I include myself in this—to purchase the lottery ticket which is graduate school. A severe house-cleaning, perhaps. But I’m not so sure about the lawsuit.

Yet there is a fact that remains unstated in a number of these blogs and the comments sections. In increasing the number of graduate students admitted, the quality of the graduate student also drops. That has been true at the institution I am currently attending, it is true at the institution where I pursued my MA, and it was true at the schools I taught at when I was an adjunct. To provide a more-or-less objective example, the qualification exam pass rate at my current institution has dropped considerably in the years I have been here.

Let me provide a brief description of the exam, so it is clear what I am talking about. The qualification exam is a three-part essay exam. There is a section on British literature up through 1789, British literature from 1789, and American literature. The exam reading list has undergone only small variations in the time I have been here, and is thus well-known to students from the day they begin the program. While some professors have added their own little obscure favorite texts to the list, it is surprising canonical. I would think any well-prepared undergraduate—and certainly someone who had gotten high enough GRE to gain admission—should have little trouble passing the test, and spending some time with the non-canonical works should pretty much guarantee a passing score.

In the past, one or at most two students may have failed a single section of the exam each year, but in recent years, this number has risen. The exam itself hasn’t changed—the same questions, with only minor modifications, have been asked since at least four years before I arrived. They are very broad—as you may imagine—and don’t require much in the way of secondary criticism. Basically, you just use a selection of the works you read to illustrate some major point. It’s not particularly difficult, unless you’ve come into the program poorly prepared.

And poorly prepared these new admissions are. So poorly prepared that after much whining and crying about how difficult the exam was, a group of students managed to have the exam changed from being administered in a single day to be administered over two days; having to write three essays in the course of a single day was too anxiety inducing for these new students. Shockingly—at least to me—whining actually had the effect of making the test easier.

The quality of student work in seminars has also dropped. This is the origin of one of my gripes about theory. I’ve taken courses with people who basically write the same paper for every seminar they take, merely changing the primary text or texts being examined. These students appear to have mastered the construction of a single reading, and then apply it with a few variations to any book they pick up. As students of British and American literature, they really don’t measure up, as they know very little about British and American literature. I would not hire them to teach survey courses, for example. You need to know something about the historical context in which a piece of literature was written and the continuity—or lack thereof—that exists between the various eras of British and American literature. This is the knowledge base of our profession. Without this knowledge base, the granting of a degree—even a BA, to my way of thinking—is taking part in a lie.

The point of all the blogging over the last few days seems to be the placement of blame. I’m not sure this is as simple as some would have it. Yes, universities and departments are guilty of using graduate students to meet their budgets and of demonstrating a considerable lack of concern for their future success. I have seen this at my own institution, but I have been very lucky in this respect. I would not trade my dissertation advisor for the greatest scholar in my field, and the rest of my committee, though often busier with things other than my dissertation than I would like, is genuinely concerned with my success and my future as a scholar. Yes, they profit from my labor, in that they are not required to teach composition, but they put in their dues the same as I, and are quite sympathetic to what a complete pain in the ass teaching composition is.

But, in my experience, there are those who leave graduate school because they are not cut out to be graduate students. Grand success as an undergraduate does not guarantee success as a graduate student. This is particularly true, in my experience, of people who attended small liberal arts colleges. Graduate school requires you to be a self-starter—it requires you to take a great deal of responsibility for your own education. You are, after all, at least 22 years old by the time you enter graduate school. Expecting to have someone hold your hand—even your advisor—strikes me as rather childish. This is not your advisor’s job. If you’re not prepared to take this degree of responsibility—professionally or emotionally—chances are you are going to wind up as a negative statistic in the 50% attrition rate. Good Lord—if you expect to be allowed to teach courses in your field—literature courses, not composition courses—then you had better have some idea of how to prepare yourself to stand up in front of students and display expertise.

Obviously, my above response largely avoids the question of theory, and the asinine assumption of many professors that graduate students must engage in theory, even those who prefer to be students of literature instead. Certainly we must be familiar with theory; contrary to the opinions of foolish ideologues elsewhere, I have mastered theory. I spent several years enamored of it, before discovering its many, many flaws. Like it or not, graduate students are required to understand theory. I have no problem with this. I simply think that a class in theory should also contain a strong critique of theory. But, like it or not, it is a part of literary studies, the same as Philip Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry,” or other works people dread being required to read. If you are student of literature, then you should be required to understand the history of literary criticism, even those schools of criticism that strike you as idiotic.

But, I do agree with those who complain that they should not be forced to adopt a theoretical stance that they do not agree with, or, indeed, any theoretical stance. It is sad that many good students of literature have been driven out of programs because they refuse to adopt theory, and even sadder that many professors and graduate students have simply accepted it as fact that no good student of literature will not adopt a theoretical position. This is ideological totalitarianism, and its practicers need to be admonished. If admonishment does not cure the problem, these professors need to be dismissed from their positions. Graduate students unable to master the primary subject matter of their field—in this case, literature—should be required to do so.

In any case, the present situation is, for many reasons, unacceptable. But I refuse to feel sorry for all those who have decided to leave their graduate programs.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

 

And Now for Something Completely Different

“Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic.” –Albert Camus

A month or so ago, Winston very kindly caved in to my pestering him about letting me blog on his site and now, finally, I will stop dithering and get about it.

Like Winston, I have found my way to a critique of theory and the academy from the inside out. During my MA program, I was deeply enamored of theory, particularly feminist and gender theory. In my particular field of literature, theory hadn’t yet made quite as many inroads, and there was still the perception of a “good old boys” club that resisted young feminist scholars such as myself. The fact that I never actually personally encountered any such resistance, despite interacting with a number of well-established, older male scholars who would have been considered members of said club, should probably have been a tip-off for me to question that perception a little more closely. At any rate, my MA thesis “brilliantly” interwove gender performativity and Occitan poetics, and I felt confident that my future work would continue along these lines.

What changed? One incident that stands out in my mind was in a graduate pedagogy class, early in the first term of my PhD. In a discussion about gender and authority in the classroom, in which most participants nodded sagely at the claim that gender (that is, being female—men don’t have gender) inherently and negatively affects an instructor’s authority, I had the audacity to protest that personal demeanor might have something to do with it as well. (I still believe this. In the seven years I’ve been teaching, only once have I had any kind of authority issues, and that was with female students who objected that I wasn’t “touchy-feely” enough.). The response I received shocked the hell out of me—one would have thought I had just asserted that rape victims have it coming. The sheer irony that I had been judged an anti-feminist reactionary left me bemused at first, then thoughtful, and finally disturbed. I began to question my identification as a feminist, because I found many of the positions advocated even by supposedly mainstream organizations such as NOW to be deeply problematic. Issues concerning gender are still important to me—more important, in some ways—and in the end I decided to reclaim my feminist identification in the tradition of equity feminism exemplified by the likes of Christina Hoff Sommers and Tammy Bruce.

So that's a bit about me and where I'm coming from. Stay tuned...

 

Standardized Testing, College Admissions

Kimberly Swygert, as usual, provides an insightful critique of an open letter to Governor Jeb Bush in the Jupiter Courier regarding the FCAT test, a high school exit exam that requires a student to have mastered 10th-grade material in order to graduate.

I'm not going to reproduce her analysis here; I'll only comment that she's right on the mark.

Instead, I'd like to speak as the college adjunct (yes, I was an adjunct for a number of years before returning for the Ph.D.) who had to teach a community college "composition" class that was three levels below Freshman Composition.

Yes, I taught a composition class in which I was required to begin with parts of speech, move on to writing basic and then complex sentences, move to the paragraph, and then finish--if possible--with a 3-5 paragraph essay. This was done in an 18 week semester, so I spent about three weeks on parts of speech, and several students failed quiz after quiz on things as simple as nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates. I actually resorted to Schoolhouse Rock cartoons to try and get them to memorize the songs and, hopefully, the content. A failed effort, though; by the fourth week of class, we had gone from 30 students to 14. Most of the students who dropped the course were performing in the 10th to the 40th percentile.

All of my students were high school graduates. I'm not saying they graduated with a 4.0, but they were in possession of diplomas. I know this because we discussed it. They were in no way prepared to attend college, so the college was forced to offer not only four semesters of remedial English but several semesters of remedial math. Many students were enrolled in both remedial English and math, and were going to be in junior college for at least an extra year trying to get themselves up to the junior college level.

The universities I taught in were slightly better, having only two levels of composition below the freshman level. The lowest level started with the paragraph, instead of parts of speech and sentences, but many instructors found it necessary to go over these materials anyway, as students were clueless. At the university level, all students--in my class and in everyone else's--were in possession of a high school diploma. Transfer students from junior colleges were required to take the remedial courses there. (And I break a PC rule by using the word "remedial." We were not allowed to refer to the classes as "remedial.")

Andrea Johnson, the writer of this open letter to Governor Bush, seems to think that this is a perfectly acceptable situation, though she never addresses the consequences of her recommendations. So long as students do not feel bad about themselves, everything is okay. Pass them along, provide a sense of self-esteem--false though it is. Why earn something when the system can be tricked into giving it?

Standards are necessary, Andrea. And, unfortunately, we cannot trust teachers to assign appropriate grades to students. The ESL situation I described last month is indicative of this. This student had passed Freshman Composition; mine was the second of a two-semester sequence. Whoever passed this student was guilty of massive grade inflation. On a standardized test, this student would have scored at best in the 30th percentile, and would have been required to repeat Freshman Composition. This might have had the benefit of convincing this student--early enough for it to have made a difference--that his language skills were way under par, and that he needed to do something about it. Instead, he is a graduating senior and he cannot communicate in the English language. We'll probably wind up giving him a degree anyway, and sending him back to China. After all, if we were to hold him to some objective standard, we might stigmatize him and make him feel he hadn't done a good job in school. Which is, of course, precisely the reality, both for him and for 12th graders who cannot perform at the 10th grade level.

 

An excellent analysis of the leftist university, yesterday and today.

Let me first state that in linking to FrontPage Magazine, I do not wish to be lumped in with Horowitz's particular brand of Neoconservatism. Obviously, I agree with a great deal of what Horowitz and company have to say on the subject of education, but there are other matters on which I do not agree. I also question the presence of Ann Coulter, whom I find as ideologically blinded as those from the left she is critiquing.

Simply put, I don't want my linking to this article to engender a whole host of erroneous assumptions about me and my politics.

That said, here is an excellent article by a Professor of English in the University of Oregon's Honors College (which I have found, through a quick snoop through Oregon's website, means she is not directly connected to the English Department itself). She was a graduate student there in the late 60s, and speaks of her experience then and now. It is quite illuminating.

The article can be found here.

 

This is just too funny.

This made me laugh even harder than watching The Simple Life.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

 

Guilty . . . not exactly pleasures . . .

I'm watching The Simple Life. I've watched The Simple Life for the last three weeks. Why am I watching The Simple Life?

Let me make it perfectly clear: I do not find either Paris Hilton or Nicole Ritchie even slightly attractive. Eye candy is not the reason. My wife is just as horrified and mesmerized as I am. We are disturbed--deeply--yet we keep watching.

Our horror is not a puritanical reaction. We've grown quite immune to Paris Hilton's ass-crack (which is all crack and no ass). It's in part a rather lefty reaction, actually. But that's only a part of it.

Is this the train wreck phenomenon?

They are currently arguing about what to do with the fur of a small animal they just killed in their big, blue, oh-so-redneck pickup. And I'm vaguely sad it won't be on again next week.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

 

Reasoning with Leftist Anger and Hate

Adam Kotsko, self-professed leftist, has decided that it is his mission to decide whether or not I am an acceptable candidate for a tenure-track position. Let’s take a look at his reasons:



Okay, let’s take this apart bit by bit, remembering that Adam has already expressed agreement with the current order of things in his disputations regarding "sensible" criticism both on his own site and on LitSkunk. First of all, it is wrong of me to want to radically reshape the way things are currently done in English departments, but it was apparently okay for the Left to radically reshape English departments decades ago, since Adam has no problem living and working under the current hegemony. By Adam's reasoning, it is only correct to dissent if you are a Leftist dissenting against the right. I’m not sure how exactly Adam has arrived at this nifty bit of logic, but there is it.

Adam then reveals his true fear: if people like me—read, evil right-wingers—were to gain ascendancy in English departments, people like him would suffer. He may be correct—certainly I would advocate some house-cleaning, and I would want the professoriate to be a little more rigorous with itself in terms of thinking. I don’t think such a demand is unreasonable, because they are paid to be rigorous thinkers, no? All I’m asking for is professors to actually teach students to read literature, at least as step one, instead of starting with the Leftist readings and leaving any other possibilities out of their syllabus. I’m also asking that the pomos take the last 35-40 years of scientific advancement in the area of the human sciences into account when formulating their theories. Saussurean-derived theories need to be “interrogated,” to use one of their favorite terms, in light of what we now know about how the brain produces language.

Why are you so scared to let this interrogation happen? Because you know that current theoretical practice will have to be radically revised? But isn’t such radical revision our responsibility? Aren't we supposed to revise our ideas in light of new knowledge?

Apparently not, for you would have me and others like me refused jobs on the basis of our disagreement with the current hegemony. So you basically admit that it is acceptable--indeed preferable--to have a department of ideological clones, and that they are justified in making certain that no one who thinks differently ever infiltrates the department. Would you feel the same way about a hiring committee from a more traditionalist department who turned away candidates who practiced theory? Is this sort of political discrimination then justified so that everyone can get along and think the same thoughts? What exactly are you saying? Because it sounds to me like you're simply affirming that my fears are justified. You appear to want postmodern philosophy to remain in place, unquestioned and undisturbed, forever.

As for my remark about Marxist regimes. First of all, I did NOT say that human beings evolved to be capitalists--I said that we evolved to be competitive. It’s part of the survival mechanism. You might think about reading a little science to find out some things before spouting the ideology. Marxism runs contrary to human nature—the nasty little drives that make us human prevent us from adopting such a system without some sort of totalitarian state forcing it upon us. Try looking outside the ivory tower and into the real world sometime. You might see how Marxism operates.

Adam goes on to try and find alternate explanations for the end of the Cold War:



Yeah, the U.S. was in terrific economic condition during the Great Depression. You might want to talk to my dad, sometime. He could tell you some great stories about how well off the U.S. was.

Interestingly, you bring up Stalin’s purges. Now why exactly did Stalin find it necessary to purge a large portion of the Soviet population? Oh, yeah. BECAUSE THEY REFUSED TO FOLLOW COMMUNISM. They weren’t willing to give up private property and the rewards that came with competitiveness, so Stalin branded them enemies of the State and got rid of them.

The U.S. might also have outdistanced the Soviet Union because people had real, human motives to succeed in their endeavors. The U.S.S.R. used the stick method, while the U.S. used the carrot. People were allowed to pursue personal success while also pursuing success for their country. They also knew that they could experiment and fail without getting sent to the Gulag. Ideological curbs on the pursuit of knowledge were far less in the United States--despite all the accusations of McCarthyism--than they were in the Soviet Union. Knowledge that didn't fit into the Marxist picture--like Bakhtin, for example--was eradicated, and the person responsible punished. (Readers should notice here the similarity between the ideological hegemony Adam admits exists in today's academy and the ideological hegemony of the Soviet Union. Why aren't there many new ideas in the humanities these days?)

As for Cuba, don’t even get me started. I know former Cubans. I’d like to see your privileged self down there living under Castro for awhile. I hope you’re not homosexual. Castro’s not big on homosexuality. You might also take a look at the disparity between the way Castro and his cronies live and the way the rest of Cuba lives. If the U.S. embargo is the cause of Cuba's poverty, why aren't Castro and his buddies poor? And if they're such good Marxists, then why aren't they distributing the wealth they have evenly throughout the populace. Oh, yeah. BECAUSE CASTRO IS A TOTALITARIAN DICTATOR.

And, once more, I did NOT say people evolved to be capitalists. Stop putting words in my mouth. Find out a little something about human evolution, which, as a member of the left, I assume you pay lip service to. This is NOT a “politically motivated fabrication.” It’s simply a fact of human biology. It’s not a pretty fact, but there it is. And yes, the difference IS that I’m correct. I have a set of biological facts on my side, proven through the use of scientific method, and you have ideology. I’m not knocking the impetus behind some of this ideology—I’d like a utopia just the same as anyone—but I am knocking the lack of scientific fact, indeed the fact that much of these ideologies fly in the face of scientific fact, necessitating totalitarianism in order to get individual human beings to obey. I'm also knocking the violence necessary to create the utopia.

Finally, Adam goes on to attack Conservative English Major, presumably because I have linked to him:



Well, sorry my friend, but when confronted with extremist thought, people often find themselves pushed in the opposite direction. You begin to get tired of the unquestioned assumptions and the writing off of the bulk of the American populace as “fat, lazy, and stupid,” as your charming friend Steve puts it, and you start to question those assumptions yourself. Just like your heroes were put off by the dictatorial nature of New Criticism, so are some of us put off by the dictatorial nature of the current regime. Human beings, for better or for worse, tend to be reactionary.

Finally, Adam concludes:



Yes, Adam. Hopefully you will outgrow your current phase, a phase of leftism apparently brought on by the anger of the right, if I'm reading you correctly. But I thought that one political extreme couldn't drive a person to move towards the other extreme? Oh, I forgot. I guess you've invoked the double-standard again.

As for embracing a more conservative point-of-view because it is a novelty, think again. That's not what I'm saying, and that's not what Conservative English Major is saying, either. The academy is extreme, and extremism rarely holds up under logical scrutiny. I've come to my current position slowly and carefully. This isn't some sort of Goth phase I'm going through here, but more than a decade's experience as a professional in academia causing me to rethink former positions in the light of overwhelming evidence. As for the political, well, I've always gravitated toward what is now called "classical liberalism," and that's definitely not the liberalism practiced in either the academy or in the Democratic Party. Having seen the dangers of the current regime in the academy, I've decided that a change is in order.

And Adam? One last thing. Just because you and your friend Steve evince contempt for the thinker as well as the thought, please do not assume the same of me. I have a number of leftist friends, including several who know exactly what I think about politics, the academy, etc. While I may think some of their ideas are ridiculous, I am able to get along with the person behind the ideas. In fact, there are even a few I enjoy arguing with, and they with me. Were I hired by a theory-ridden department, I'd like to think I could develop some of the same relationships--agree to disagree, but always hoping of course that I could make a difference.

You might look back through the passages you've quoted from my blog. The tone there is concerned, but it's not angry. Your tone, on the other hand, is angry and condescending. "Real" science? What are the scare quotes supposed to mean, exactly?

But, I'm not out to start a blog war. Frankly, I have better things to do with my time, but you have unfairly characterized me and my position, so I felt it necessary to respond.

 

Teaching MoveOn.org Propaganda in Class

A friend of mine from my M.A. days, who is working on her Ph.D. at an institution that will remain nameless, forwarded me an email from her composition teachers' listserv in which one of the MFA candidates tells her fellow instructors that she has placed the film "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," produced by MoveOn.org, on reserve so that teachers in the program can show it in class. She also directs her fellow instructors to the website truthuncovered.com.

This person is supposed to be teaching composition, and, in the program in which both she and my informant teach, she is supposed to be teaching argumentation and critical thinking. Instead, she is presenting students with MoveOn's propaganda as if it were an unbiased source of information, presumably to counter the "bias" of the mainstream media.

I am told this is common practice in this university's composition program, and that both MoveOn and Michael Moore are regularly used as unbiased sources of information in courses, showing up with frightening regularity on instructor syllabus.

My informant feels that she cannot raise an objection to this issue, because instructors in her program were essentially given permission to do this by the composition director during their pre-academic year meeting, when ways of approaching the Iraq War that were obviously designed to teach against the Iraq War were discussed with them. Also, since the contracts of grad student teachers at her institution are renewed on a year-to-year basis, she fears losing her job, and thus her ability to continue her degree.

This is a sad state of affairs. Critical thinking skills are, to my mind, the most important skill we can help students to develop in their four years with us. This person, and apparently, the bulk of the program in which she teaches, has abandoned the teaching of critical thinking skills in order to indoctrinate. We can only hope that students, realizing that they are the focus of an attempt to brainwash, develop critical thinking skills on their own as the result of said attempt.

Monday, January 12, 2004

 

This is hilarious.

But sad. Shouldn't it disturb the practicers of this sort of criticism that this sort of thing can be created and that the titles it generates, while occasionally off the mark--due more to the programs inability to make individual distinctions between literary input--oh, wait, many practicers of this criticism cannot make this distinction either . . . Anyway, the titles is generates sound pretty much like the crap on the program of pretty much any literary conference I've ever attended.

Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for this little gem.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

 

Critical Categories, Some Clarification

First of all, thanks to those of you who have responded so far. Keep the responses coming--the list is still quite short, and I know there's more stuff out there that I'm unaware of, particularly in the post-1960 category.

I want to clarify what I mean by "sensible," and while I don't have time right now to answer in full the debate that has occured here and here, I will be posting a lengthy reply/statement sometime this week. As you may have guessed, the term has begun.

When I say "sensible," I am talking primarily about criticism that can be used as a tool--that presents a methology for reading literature (or any text) that can be used by the reader without the necessity of adopting a particular ideology or adopting wholesale the subjective viewpoint of the critic (as so many Foucauldians do). Yes, yes, everything is ideology. Go ahead and blog on that. I'll still be here. What it should be grounded in is knowledge. Real knowledge. Not politically motivated fabrications, like radical social constructionism, but real knowledge. Hence my interest in cognitive psychology. Leftist nonsense notwithstanding, cognitive psychology has gained real knowledge about the human mind--the way it thinks, the way it produces language, and so forth--that demolishes a great deal of postmodern philosophy. In the past, philosophy has been required to reformulate itself as the human race (not just Western culture) has gained new knowledge; for some reason, the pomos think they are exempt from this, because they have "problematized the (Western) discourse of science." Uh-huh. Galileo's on the phone, Pope Pomo. Sooner or later, you'll need to acknowledge that the earth does revolve around the sun, and perhaps issue an apology.

But, I get ahead of myself. More on this later this week.

I'm trying to organize this list of criticism, to develop some categories so people unfamiliar with criticism can also use the bibliography. For example, I've divided the 20th century into pre- and post-1960s criticism. In the pre-1960s category, I've put most of what people have suggested into two sub-categories: New Criticism and Russian Formalism. But there's other stuff I'm not sure what to do with. Auerbach's Mimesis, for example.

It's even more difficult in the post-1960s. Bloom's Anxiety of Influence. What exactly do we call a work like this? In some ways, it takes an intertextual approach, but what exactly do we call it? Perhaps we need to create a new list of categories--sensible categories--for criticism that doesn't fall into the schools defined largely by ideology and/or identity politics.

Perhaps I obsess too much over categories. I could simply leave it at the very broad categories, but I want the list to be user friendly. I've also considered soliciting annotations, to help guide potential readers to works that will help them to formulate their own ideas, rather than adopting someone else's viewpoint wholesale, as so many theoretical readings do (and as I've already remarked above--but I'd like to hammer this point home). I'm definitely NOT looking for things to "apply" to literature; I'm looking for knowledge that readers can bring with them and use to unpack the text, or to create a dialogue with it. A Bloom-inspired monologue is no more the act of an individual reader (unless it's Bloom) than a Foucault-inspired monologue.

So, email me with more suggestions for the list of works itself, category suggestions, and annotations, if you feel like taking the time. Email address, as always, is to the right.

Friday, January 09, 2004

 

"Sensible" Literary Criticism

After yesterday's blog, and a couple of rather successful lectures in class trying to demonstrate to undergraduates the value of literature in and of itself, I've started thinking about trying to develop a comprehensive list of works of literary criticism--even theory--that are "sensible."

Now, if you're reading this blog, you have had one of two reactions to the word "sensible." Either you know instinctively what I'm talking about, and can think of several works that you, too, consider "sensible," or you are going to respond on your own blog by "problematizing" or "interrogating" my use of the word "sensible." I'm interested in the responses of the first group. I could care less what the second group has to say, and could probably write your responses for you, if I were so inclined.

When I say sensible literary criticism, I don't mean works that examine a particular author or work, but broader theories of reading--methodologies, if we want to avoid the term theory--that can help a reader to formulate an ethical practice of reading and also to become a better, closer reader.

I'll start the list with a few suggestions of my own. My email address is to the right--please email me with further suggestions. If those of you with blogs of your own--particularly blogs that get read more than my own--will publicize my call for titles, I will start a file and eventually publish it here on the blog. At some point in the future (read, after the dissertation), when I move this blog to its own host, I'll give the bibliography its own web page.

This is important work, I think. We need not only to acknowledge the exemplary works of literary criticism and theory from the past, but push for the inclusion of contemporary works of criticism in the so-called canon of theory (the one canon that seems never to get questioned). There are works out there that argue for approaches to literature that have been largely ignored. The works advocating an evolutionary/cognitive psychological approach to literature and the arts that I've posted links to on the sidebar are examples of such works.

More contemporary works such as these, as well as a comprehensive list of works that question the foundations of the dominant paradigm, are desperately needed as a counter-balance in courses that purport to teach literary theory and methodology. If we can create a resource for students and teachers to learn about these works, we will have performed an important function.

A few examples:

Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism
I.A. Richards's Practical Criticism
Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending
Steven Kepnes's The Text as Thou
Frederick Turner's Natural Classicism
William Empson's 7 Types of Ambiguity
Mikhail Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination
Valentine Cunningham's Reading After Theory
Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence

and of course the works of literary criticism in the sidebar. Much of what is included in Hazard Adams's Critical Theory Since Plato (at least the older edition I have) would also go on this list. But I'm particularly interested in post-1960s criticism, which the Adams is short on.

I await your input.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

 

New Blogs, Ethical Reading Practices

Two new blogs in the blogosphere have come to my attention: University Diaries (which actually predates my own blog by a week or two) and LitSkunk. Both make for interesting reading, and have certainly proven thought provoking for me. Each has served, in its own way, to remind me of why I do this—the reasons I decided to enter this profession in the first place. Thanks.

I am reminded that the political response to the politics of the academy, though sometimes necessary, can also serve to steer us away from the job of carefully reading literature that has been entrusted to us. The predominance of theory in our profession is a problem, but not merely because it has served to politicize the classroom.

What too many practitioners of theory forget is that an individual, human being wrote the “text” being studied. I read an interesting book by Steven Kepnes entitled The Text as Thou, which uses Martin Buber’s I and Thou model of human relationships as the basis for a practice of reading. I’m not going to recap the book’s contents here (I am slightly busy dissertating, after all), but I think that the ethical relationship it requires the reader to establish with the text—remembering that the author is a Thou whose essential human identity must be respected—is one that we as a profession would do well to adopt.

It is a constant source of amazement to me that in a profession where postcolonialism holds such sway that the “colonization” of a literary work is not only permissible but commonplace. Rather than the voice of an individual mind with something to say, the literary work becomes an opportunity to further the agenda of the reader. Rather than engaging in a dialogue with the author, theory allows readers to engage in a monologue all their own. How many “readers” are there amongst those of us who read literature for a living who produce time and again the same basic reading of any work they happen to read? For how many readers is the text always about “X”, or always about “Y”? And what about the ridiculous “absence as presence” position, in which a text that doesn’t address “X” can be said to speak about “X” because it avoids speaking of “X”?

Is this an ethical reading practice? “X” may be the interest of the reader, but it’s most definitely not what the author is writing about. Conversation between author and reader grinds to an immediate halt. This shows a singular lack of respect for the fact that the author has something to say, and labored intensively in the attempt to communicate it. Don’t we have an ethical obligation to listen? To try and understand what the writer is trying to communicate? A Thou wrote the words on the page; dead or alive, the author deserves to be listened to.

No doubt the theorists will find this position naïve, uncritical, or worse, old-fashioned. Putting ethics above politics is frowned upon in our profession. Judith Butler’s essay in The Turn to Ethics is extremely revelatory of the current attitude toward ethical concerns amongst scholars of the humanities.

Like the American culture academia so regularly condemns, we are poor listeners, unable to hear what is being said to us over the sound of our voice. Thankfully, some of us are trying harder to listen to what literature has to say to us.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

 

Finally, an update.

After a long absence here—visiting family, attending MLA, dissertating, and preparing to teach a new class this term kept me quite busy—I should comment briefly upon the MLA interviewing experience. I cannot comment upon any of the panels, since I did not attend. Even those few panels I would have been interested in attending would have been excruciating to sit through, given my state of perpetual anxiety about taking what in some ways amounted to mini-orals exams.

I’ll start by addressing the theory question. It did come up, but not in the way I expected. Apparently, some of my letters of recommendation made it clear to hiring committees that I was no fan of theory. I was not exactly required to defend my position, but I was asked by more than one interviewer to confirm that I was not entirely opposed to theory in all circumstances. I fell back on those modern theorists whose ideas I do not find too blinded by leftist politics, and managed to rescue myself, I think.

As for the interviews themselves, I’m avoiding commenting on them too much. I’m just superstitious enough to want to avoid jinxing myself. Supposedly, I will know by the end of January whether I have any campus visits. I’ll post something more on the whole process then.

As for the conference, the entries in other blogs about dark clothing and severe glasses is dead-on. It was amusing walking around San Diego incognito (jeans, a sweat shirt, and tennis shoes, when not interviewing) and playing “spot the academics”. There is also the “soft bag” phenomenon, which was pointed out to me by “Julia.” Academics seem to favor the same sorts of soft leather “briefcases” to carry papers, books, etc. Business people, on the other hand, seem to favor the hard-shell briefcase. Admittedly, I cannot find a hard-shell briefcase that will hold a laptop, scores of student papers, and a Norton Anthology—actually, I’ve even had trouble finding a soft leather bag with this capacity. But, I digress.

I should also point out the one academic fashion faux pas that I have always found most irritating: men’s shoes. Buck shoes are perfectly appropriate to wear with khakis and other less formal pants, but not with suits. I can’t count the number of men I saw wearing perfectly acceptable suits whose effect was destroyed by the poor choice of shoes.

Academic males: buy at least one pair of dress shoes!!

Also, men’s dress shirts. Oxford, button-down collar shirts are acceptable with khakis, etc., but they are not suit shirts. Invest in a couple of nice dress shirts to wear with your suit and tie.

Perhaps academic males should start reading GQ. It has become insufferably leftist since the previous editor passed, and there are swipes at Bush at least twice in each issue. You can have your politics reified and learn how to dress at the same time.

As for women’s clothing, I pay a little less attention, because I don’t wear it myself. What seems most needed is a little variation. Dark pantsuits, chunky shoes, the ubiquitous glasses—a little individuality would be nice, though the woman who wore the skirt made out of men’s ties mentioned in Erin O’Connor’s blog is taking it a bit too far.

Hmm. Maybe I should change my nom-de-plume to Mr. Blackwell.

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