Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

William Deresiewicz makes several generalizations, including that the job market for faculty positions in English departments is subject to the "whatever-works grab bag" of various specialties positions in cultural and world literature, film studies and visual studies, science fiction and fantasy, and children's literature. Deresiewicz appears to believe that scholars with concentrations in these fields have nothing to offer to English departments, and moreover, that English departments have no place for these fields. In fact, Deresiewicz goes on to claim that "the profession's intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers." This claim in itself seems harsh, despite the fact that it matches the general narrative voice of the article, and it is not verified by any sort of research. What teenagers are setting these "intellectual agenda[s]?" Is there some sort of survey conducted that can qualify this claim? In other words, is the number of teenagers who get unlimited texting plans with their phones proportional to the number of "digital humanities" faculty positions open each year?

Focusing on the "whatever-works grab bag" of subgenres in English faculty positions, Deresiewicz claims that this "grab bag" does not necessarily fit in the box of the perceptions of English departments. However, these subgenres as a whole in actuality can be enlightening and refreshing. Certainly Deresiewicz, being a scholar, is familiar with at least some writings in these fields, such as film studies or science fiction, and perhaps even recognizes that the criticisms and scholarly work researched and written in these fields are actually interesting and valid in the scope of what English departments teach. But Deresiewicz goes on to state that these subgenres are "incommensurate categories flailing about in unrelated directions--apples, machine parts, sadness, the square root of two." It seems that Deresiewicz should realize, before making these claims, that scholars in these "incommensurate categories" can be perceived by some as more proportionate to each other than first appears.

To provide an example the connectivity and relativity of these subgenres to the perceived imperviousness of the English department, I will draw on Deresiewicz's own reference. Deresiewicz states that "no major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith Butler's Gender Trouble." It is interesting that Deresiewicz references Judith Butler as the last scholar to provide revolutionary theory, considering Judith Butler greatly influenced the film studies field. Deresiewicz claims that the English departments incorporation of film studies was some sort of scheme or "subterfuge." He also lumps film studies in the "whatever-works grab bag," as "visual/performance studies." It is evident that, like anything else not neatly fitting inside his narrow viewpoint, Deresiewicz does not feel film studies belongs in the English department. However, the last scholar to provide a new way of thinking, Judith Butler, contributed the article, "Gender is Burning: Questions of appropriation and Subversion" to Feminist Film Theory.

What I finally want to ask Deresiewicz is this: what about the young scholars, the ones researching and writing in these other areas such as film studies, who recognize that time actually goes by, and, gasp, things change? To insinuate that these genres are somehow beneath what should be academics is both offensive and elitist. Also, to generalize change so harshly to claim that teenagers are determining the direction of English academics is ignorant and foolish. Consider this, Dr. Deresiewicz, if you can put yourself so humbly in someone else's shoes. If you did not have the privilege to be among the informed elite, who so obviously have the answers to all the world's problems, would you recognize that for a graduate student who is 23 years old, film studies or world lit or science fiction might actually be interesting? Because hearing the same lecture about Shakespeare and Brontë and Joyce might be well and good for you, but I am frankly sick of the old. I wish you luck in the future, when everyone like me rises up and essentially destroys the jobs of elitist, close-minded professors like yourself. Oh, I forgot, you're not a professor anymore.

Emily Wilkins

Rochester, NY

Sep 20 2009 - 1:30pm

Web Letter

I attended graduate school at Berkeley during the heyday of literary theory and the new historicism. African-American literature was an important part of the American canon; courses on Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer were (still) required. A course on Proust and Joyce (not required) attracted an enthusiastic group of students. Yet there was already a sense of impending loss among the professors, one of whom (a Marxist) remarked that she was afraid that soon no one would read or study Henry James anymore.

There's surely a connection between the unpopularity of difficult authors like James and the inability of most undergraduates to write well in their native language. If you can't write a complex-compound sentence, you probably can't understand one (and vice versa). If you never read for fun as a kid, you probably won't write exceptionally well as an adult. One critic has coined the phrase "post-literacy orality," a subject I discuss in an essay on George Bush.

Since I enjoy both high theory and Toni Morrison (who wrote her master's thesis on Faulkner and Woolf), I don't blame the former for the decline of literary studies. Instead I'd blame the teachers who, in grades one through twelve, don't teach their pupils how to read and write. Like Obama, I'd blame their parents to some degree. I also blame those graduate programs that accept students whose English is substandard—programs give degrees to people who write badly themselves and then go off to teach writing. I blame an educational system that doesn't require mastery of at least one foreign language (learning another language gives you a better understanding of your own). And although I enjoy Cultural Studies, I'd blame those English departments that featured courses on the transitory commodities of pop culture rather than real film theory or demanding literary texts. I'd blame those creative writing programs whose professors don't know the difference between like and as, I and me, or lie and lay--and who don't know that they don't know. I'd blame those creative writing professors who don't read or assign demanding texts by dead writers, and who write ridiculous inflated blurbs for one another's books.

Mediocrity infests the study of English in part because the profession doesn't prune itself; every university has to have a PhD program and an MFA program, even when its standards for admission are just too low. These universities then flood the market with job candidates. No self-respecting mathematics program would accept graduate students whose grasp of math is as shoddy as the average English grad student's command of English is. It is, I suspect, as rare to be exceptionally good as a reader and writer of your native language as it is to be brilliant at mathematics.

Languages are so full of nuances and idioms, of rules and exceptions, of connotations and denotations, that (in my view) a very small percentage of native speakers are actually fluent. If English departments realized this and acted accordingly, the job market for its students would greatly improve.

In other words, you can't blame the decline of an academic subject on its subject matter alone. There are cultural and market forces at work too.

I really enjoyed my graduate education at Berkeley. It changed the way I thought about a lot of issues. But I didn't fare so well in the aftermath. I got a job and lost it. I published a book of poems that was widely ignored. Now I'm trying to market a stage play/screenplay, and I'm finishing a long stint as a cancer patient. What I'd like to do right now, if I could, is be a speechwriter for Obama.

Carol V. Hamilton

Pittsburgh, PA

Apr 14 2008 - 2:33am

Web Letter

An editor's pick in the nine letters received so far about this article suggests that a principal reason English departments are hiring composition "instructors" is to teach students to write who haven't been taught to do so in secondary school. As someone who grades abysmal essays in an English department, I would like to say "if only!"

The tenure-track positions in composition advertised in the JIL are often research positions or positions in writing center administrati0n--any position that keeps a person out of the composition classroom for as much time as possible. Just like their colleagues in literature, graduate students in composition do not want to teach composition to first-year students; they want others to teach it. They want to do research in composition, either empirical (thus joining, as another letter writer says, AERA) or in rhetoric; or they want to engage in managerial functions over what the MLA calls "education service workers." Like their colleagues in literature, they want to teach graduate students.

Although somewhat off the topic of this article--and I have my own hypotheses about the decline of literary study, not all of which focus on fueling students' desires and which have found print elsewhere--the question of composition and of students' "abysmal" writing skills is crucial in any consideration of higher education in this country today. Few seem willing to face the fact that the teaching of "non-abysmal" writing is labor-intensive, difficult work, requiring years of effort on the part of students and teachers. Rather more popular is to say that "abysmal" writing is simply the opinion of those invested in the hegemony of standard English and elite culture, and to let the students write what they will and how they will. The latter option, needless to say, is more cost-effective than the former.

Sharon O'Dair

Tuscaloosa, AL

Mar 20 2008 - 2:47pm

Web Letter

The agenda of today's English departments is being set by teenagers because there are many worthy authors and novels that are overlooked because they aren't part of the traditional canon. Whether the minority canon or the majority canon, English departments have set up a process where you could be canonized as a saint faster than accepted into the set of works that English departments teach. The teachers have to be where the students' interests are, because it is the students who will run off into the night to dream up new theories, not the current teachers. The teachers are meant to teach them about their interests, and create citizens knowledgeable about their own passions, not simply perpetuate the same-old.

Kristen Olson

North Hollywood, CA

Mar 19 2008 - 7:15pm

Web Letter

White people in America are dying. They no longer want to make babies. The Asian, Hispanic and African peoples who are replacing them have their own literature to pass on that is an integral part of their own culture and mythos.

It is sweet that right-minded white people are so accepting of their collective demise and so are willing to teach "minority" literature, but it really isn't necessary. They must teach the African, Hispanic and Asian literature of the New America--or they must leave and be replaced by others who will.

For whatever reasons, white women no longer want white babies. For whatever reasons, they no longer want to be burdened with white culture and no longer believe in passing it on to the 1.4 children they have.

But the world will not end, nor will the USA. More robust peoples who do not labor under a burden of guilt and who actually love their culture and love babies are already replacing white people across the country, and are refashioning colleges and universities to teach their children what they need, as the author notes.

"American" literature will still be taught, as always. It just will not be "white" literature anymore.

You have built a wonderful country for us, white people, and we are thankful for that. But the time is coming when we will not need your counsel or care about your authors or books. We have our own, you see, and we want our children to learn them and pass them on.

Hadley Baxendale

Galesburg, IL

Mar 17 2008 - 11:51pm

Web Letter

I remember when Graff's Professing Literature came out, and the lively arguments we had about it at Carnegie Mellon. What should an English department look like? Why should it look that way? What do we offer the world through our scholarship and critique? Does the world's opinion of what we do have any relationship to the genuine value of our efforts?

At the time, the CMU English Department had some cultural theorists who loathed novels and rigorously problematized everything in sight, rhetoricians who would soon give up on CCCC in favor of AERA (because the education folks weren't afraid of asking questions that could be explored with statistical analyses), and document designers who were displeased that the money brought in via their research was being used to support increasing numbers of graduate students in literary and cultural theory. (I think the problematizers and the problem-solvers had more in common than seemed apparent at the time.)

It does seem backward to let student wishes determine the status or the topic demands of a discipline. But I think that argument might have been lost a while ago, when universities began claiming that they were preparing students for specific careers beyond medicine, law or religious leadership.

In the meantime, the Women's Studies program at my current university will get new office space in a shiny new building several years before the English department will...

Lili Fox Vélez

Wood-Ridge, NJ

Mar 17 2008 - 4:46pm

Web Letter

I wonder what subtextual issue Dr. Deresiewicz is trying to raise when he offers a hypothetical "expert" in a list of American authors, 15 percent of whom are gay, and then suggests that such a person cannot claim expertise in "some minority literature." Surely to reach the level of "expert" would entail consideration of the scholarship that approaches their work in relation to that identity category.

Josh Lukin

Youngstown, OH

Mar 15 2008 - 8:57pm

Web Letter

The same about the "social science " field. When I attended a local "outreach program" of our state university. I took classes in sociology, anthropology, political science/public administration and social work. Now the program is more directed to "womans studies," Hispanic studies etc. All of it quite "unmarketable" inside or outside academic areas.

Thomas O'Brien

Casper, WY

Mar 15 2008 - 7:50pm

Web Letter

As someone who teaches history, I see some of the same trends in my field that the author points out in his essay. That said, as someone who grades many abysmal essays, isn't it possible that departments are searching for instructors of writing and composition not because they are giving in to teenagers' desire to express themselves but because they understand that college students have not learned to write in high school and need instruction?

Janine Lanza

Detroit, MI

Mar 13 2008 - 9:21am

Web Letter

Gerald Graff's landmark study Professing Literature offers a notable warning, at the outset, of the necessary limits of his institutional history: "most of my evidence is drawn from research-oriented departments of English at major universities." He freely admits to dealing "only in passing with the teaching of composition," although he emphasizes, citing the work of William Riley Parker, Wallace Douglas and Richard Ohmann, that without composition "the teaching of literature could never have achieved its central status, and none of the issues I discuss would matter very much."

Presenting these clear demarcations for his history allows Graff to build a still incredibly convincing, if also incredibly bracing, case for why literature should remain a disciplinary object for the American university. William Deresiewicz's review attempts a stock-taking of the field over the past twenty years, turning to the quarterly series of documents that my job-seeking graduate students and I spend a lot of time with--the MLA Job Information List. What does he discover? "The lion's share of positions is in rhetoric and composition, the 'service' component of an English department's role within the university." Of the strictly "literature" jobs, nearly a third of the remaining positions are in American literature, and seem to also require some form of area sub-field, culminating in the "whatever-works grab bag" of everything from "Asian American literature, cultural theory, or visual/performance studies" to "ethnicity, gender and sexuality studies." Such job ads reveal, according to Deresiewicz, that English departments aspire to a combination of catering to students' desire to write (rather than read) and to a "trendiness" that will pull them into classrooms, and into the major.

Of course, the number of English majors is falling. And of course, job ads for any form of specialized work will sound idiotic when quoted out of context. As a job placement advisor for a small doctoral program, I share my students' frustration with potential limitless variations on the hoops they are forced to jump through to get to the interview and, hopefully, the job. Certainly, the "brilliant young scholar from a top program" might have to branch out in their reading a bit, beyond Deresiewicz's litany of writers-who-are-not-minority-lit, to get employment. Those of us who've never felt comfortable self-identifying as brilliant in our youth have also discovered that the day-to-day job of English professoring, while less glamorous-sounding than "academic literary criticism," involves adapting to what Graff called the "more or less democratic conditions" induced by the fact that literary study "had previously been part of the socialization of a particular class."

We should, as English professors, own up to the fact that we've never successfully replaced that class socialization process with a better, more inclusive rationale for literary studies. And you know--it really is time we came up with something. More students are going to college--although, as many have noted, still not enough to be representative of the class, ethnic and gender components of the United States, and definitely still not funded in ways that will ensure their completion of the degree without considerable long- standing debt. And more students means more conflicting voices determining curricula via their course selections. Not necessarily a bad thing--hardly the chocolate cake and recess Deresiewicz describes, and a DVD rental of Steve Pink's gleefully lowbrow 2006 film Accepted might offer professors some guidance in understanding how undergraduates today conceive the process of discipline formation.

But hovering behind this situation is the fact that we've never systematically presented how literary studies "serve" our students and our universities; instead, we've relied on composition to make the case for service, while dissociating composition from "academic literary criticism" in ways that misrepresent both areas of this common discipline, English. And our potential students--those in lecture halls, and those seeking jobs like ours--are still waiting. So, as long as some of those undergraduates continue to show up to literature classes, and as long as our graduate students continue to develop their own approaches to academic literary criticism, to serve as a serious, committed public for the scholarship that tenured faculty create, and to teach, for less money, the courses those same faculty often don't want to teach--we owe it to these publics to stop ourselves from airing our laments, as Deresiewicz does, about the death of literary criticism and the dearth of charismatic theorists, and offer something like our uncharismatic, and hopefully necessary, rank-and-file services to English.

Lisa Fluet

Chestnut Hill, MA

Mar 12 2008 - 3:40pm