The semester is over. The two graduate courses I taught turned out to uncover some important insights for me regarding our graduate program. One of the courses I taught is the capstone course for our MA in English, which is basically a straight literature degree. The course is titled "Seminar in Literary Criticism," and the students entered the course with little or no background in theory. I had expected that (though perhaps not to the extent I encountered) and had planned the course as a kind of survey of theory: Marxism one week, feminism the next, etc. In addition, the course is also the site where students begin to plan, research, and write their theses. On the last day, we spent some time talking about what we would take away from the class, what the greatest challenges were, etc.
Despite all the difficult reading we had done, the one thing that reasonated in the class had to do with the way I had presented the thesis project. I had suggested to them that they needed to be able to answer the question of why their project was important. That is, I wanted them to be able to articulate some cultural value to the work they were doing. In essence to be able to answer the "so what" question. Honestly, at the time I said it, I didn’t think I was giving them an arduous task. To me, its a basic rhetorical question. The answer doesn’t have to be grandiose. A thesis doesn’t have to solve world hunger. However it would be nice to be able to say, for example (and this example does not come from the class), "I am studying constructions of gender in Shakespeare’s plays in the context of other contemporaneous texts in order to understand better the ways in which modern concepts of gender were produced. Such an understanding can help us critique contemporary gender inequities." It’s not a particularly original idea, and the second claim may be debatable, but that’s beside the point here.
The point is to be able to articulate one’s research as something of value. If others question that value, that’s fine. At least you are part of a conversation at that point.
Of course this is not a question I reserve for our graduate students. It’s a question I would pose to our first-year students in a composition course, to students in general education courses, and certainly to students in our professional writing major. After all, its a basic principle of rhetoric: to be able to articulate the rhetorical purpose of a text. One must then understand that purpose in the context of ones own position as author in relation to the audience.
Ill give you my reading of this, but one other piece of context is necessary. This class had some rough patches. You can read the literary theory blog if you want the details. The crux of it though, I believe, was the way in which theory opens questions regarding the traditional values of literary studies, traditional values which (whatever the intentions of the other faculty in the program might be) many of these students held quite dear. I do not believe many or even any of them had been faced with the question of whether or not the study of literature is valuable, or more precisely, what makes literary study valuable and what values does it (re)produce?
So my reading is that, for the most part, these students have read literature and produced papers in a rhetorical context where the purpose and audience for the task were vague, unexamined assumptions. We simply assume that literary study is valuable without articulating why. Thus we simply assume the value of writing literary interpretation. And yet, when the question is asked, the answer is not forthcoming, at least not for these students.
I should point out, that it is not that I do not believe literary study can have cultural value. Like all things it can be done poorly or well. I might speculate that relying upon an assumption of value might be a sign that one fears there is no answer to the question. I could see that concern in my students as they struggled to develop an answer. However, most of the students can answer that question now, though it is an answer that always could use revision and refinement.
I just think it shows that maybe they would benefit from a little more rhetorical instruction in their program, but that’s another story.