Higher Education

"your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track"

A line from Neil Young’s Alabama. Over dramatic no doubt but a reminder of how difficult it can be to move forward. I’ve initiated a discussion about the revision of our department’s graduate programs. I’ve written about it a few times here before. We are still trying to schedule a retreat to discuss these matters. Perhaps we will be successful and maybe some faculty will even show up.

Being optimistic has never been my strong suit, but I’m working on it. That’s more to do with me personally than anything else. However, there has been a recent flare-up of these issues over a course proposal, which lead one of my colleagues to proclaim that our MA is an "MA in literature."

Um, well, actually, it says it’s an MA in English. Now I would agree that the defacto experience of the program is one that is limited to a particular set of courses offered by faculty who define themselves as experts in literary periods. The only real exception to that is the course I’m teaching now, the Seminar in Literary Criticism.

I’m not sure what it means to say that a degree is "in literature"? Where are we being prepositionally located by that phrase? What am I "in"?

Well, it’s really all to easy to play these kinds of language games, to demonstrate that a degree "in literature" in fact has no location. The same may be said of a degree "in English" or "in Professional Writing."

The phrase is meaningless, a place holder that allows for the application of institutional power. In this case it seeks to establish an inside and outside. Literature is "in;" everything else is "out." Since there is no way to establish this inside and outside in language or via logic (i.e. there’s no way to define "literature" that includes everything the speaker wants to include and excludes everything else). The only way to do that is through an arbitrary application of power. As I wrote in my previous post about the Supreme Court, definitions are, well by definition, arbitrary.

Really the more interesting question, at least to me, is why one might insist on this arbitrary definition of a term and use it as a bureaucratic tool to exclude one’s own colleagues from participating in the curriculum?

I mean I might disagree, quite strongly in fact, with some of my colleagues’ understanding of text, writing, literacy, composition, theory, technology, etc. etc. In the appropriate forum, I might question them directly. In my scholarship, I might develop critiques of the disciplinary values in question (though never of them personally) as I seek to build something new. Indeed, I do that here on this blog. Such critiques of discipline will even come up in the classroom, particularly as we try to understand the role technology or theory plays in English Studies or we critique received notions of authorship. That isn’t to say my classroom is a "my way or the highway" kind of setting. I think my students will attest to that. It simply means that we hold disciplinary values up for evaluation.

I would assume that all academics address their disciplinary values in their teaching and their scholarship. Though I may disagree with others, I strongly value the principle of plurality in intellectual activity. I wrote about this a few weeks ago.

I’ve never been in a position of much institutional authority. I don’t know that I ever will be. So maybe that makes this easy to say. However, I don’t think I would use my authority as a means of silencing or excluding faculty. In a way I see that as an abridgement of the principle of academic freedom.

We would object to a university president firing a faculty member because she expressed unpopular views in her scholarship. We would object to a dean telling a professor he had to teach one book rather than another simply because the dean didn’t like the content of the book the teacher had chosen.

Those are rather clear, though perhaps oversimplified, cases. But how should we respond to a department blocking a group of its faculty from participating in a graduate program because that group expresses a minority view of the discipline? It doesn’t come down to a firing or a direct order from the dean. It is much easier to simply not permit a faculty member to offer a graduate course or to schedule it at a time when no one will be able to take it or to block the addition of courses in that area into the curriculum.

As much as one might say that this is a struggle "over" discipline (there’s that prepositional location again), is it not also a matter of ethics and professionalism? That is, we can disagree, but can we also recognize that there are limits to the way our disagreement should proceed? That it would be inappropriate to use the venue of tenure or promotion or salary increases as a site for this argument? That it would be inappropriate to step on one another’s academic freedom for the purposes of this argument? That if we do this, we all lose?

I realize that opinions and emotions run high over these things. I realize that some faculty (maybe here, maybe not) believe that writing is not an intellectual or academic activity, that the study of writing is not either: that somehow we in rhetoric are "less than" those "in literature." I realize that some faculty may not want the "purity" of their program diluted by the pharmakon of rhetoric. That, at best, they want "separate but equal" programs.

What are you doing Alabama? (*cough* I mean English Studies)
You got the rest of the union to help you along
What’s going wrong?


2 replies on “"your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track"”

But GUY…Neil’s “Alabama” is all about the guitars, the tones if you will. the lyrics are drawn with broad strokes by a youngster (no pun…) but listen to the MUSIC!!! RAWK ON!!!!!!!!


No doubt Dave. The power of the song is in its performance, in the moment of experience–the guitars, the voice, and so on. In many ways the song itself mitigates the potential harshness of the accusations Young makes. The result is a song that delivers a real sense of offering a hand, of moving forward together.


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