imagine/nation

I was passed along an article from the Chronicle by one of those annoying pseudonyms, curious in this case as "his" argument was hardly the type of thing that would require anonymity. Dredging up that old example of Dead Poets Society, he discussed the disconnection between the undergraduate who majors in English out of a "love of literature" or some equally romantic notion and the faculty whose graduate school and teaching experiences have brought them to a very different place. "Benton" writes

The problem is you can’t get to where I am now without going through a decade or more of immersion in a highly politicized and anti-literary academic culture. You have to spend so many years conforming that, by the time freedom presents itself, you don’t know why you became an English major in the first place. You might even have contempt for your seemingly naïve students, who represent the self that you had to repress in order to be a professional.

It is not that I want to privilege some form of literary dilettantism as a substitute for professionalism. I simply want to demonstrate that the reasons most people get into English are different from the motives that will make them successful in graduate school and in professional life beyond that. They must, ultimately, purge themselves of the romantic motives that drew them to English in the first place — or pretend to do so. If you want to be a literary professional

I suppose this is a somewhat fuzzy and undirected complaint about cultural studies and theory (there is mention elsewhere about the pressure in graduate school to be "political"). In its place, the author hopes to hold onto professionalism while recapturing some of the romantic appreciation for literature s/he had as an undergrad.

Now let me suggest why this whole business is misdirected, particularly in terms of English Studies as a discipline.

1. The author says his/her students are all headed to graduate school. I hope they aren’t all off to try to be PhD’s in literary studies, for their own sake! If a romantic appreciation for literature won’t serve you well in a literary studies graduate program, it certainly isn’t going to get you any further anywhere else in the world. While it is perfectly fine for them to love literature, just as they might love jazz or Asian fusion cuisine, they need to understand their education in some other terms.

2. While it is necessary for a graduate education–and I would say even an undergraduate education–to bring into question bourgeois notions of literary appreciation and romanticism, I would agree that there is some failure to the curriculum if it does so at the cost of crushing the students’ capacity for imagination (which graduate school certainly can do). The ideology of romanticism may dominate our discourse on imagination culturally, but it does not own a patent on creativity. If students major in English b/c literature stimulates their imagination, then provide them with a more critical understanding of that process that proliferates creativity. Ulmer comes to mind here, among others. Hell, the entire experimental literary tradition of the past century comes to mind for that matter.

3. This ties into my ongoing reading of Friedman’s World is Flat. In the end, he advocates the importance of cultivating our national imagination. of imagining a new role for ourselves in the flattening world. He also calls on Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind and his advocacy of "right brain" creativity. Perhaps there is something of value here in recognizing the important role English Studies can play in developing creativity. Unfortunately, I do not see that role as a priority in literary studies. And btw, I don’t think of this as a cultural studies v. traditional literary studies issue. Yes, CS folks may critique the idea of "creativity," but they need to see how creativity  might continue to function following the critique of subjectivity (I assure you it does). On the other hand, traditional literary studies folks often seem more focused on literary content than on skills/practices. So neither side pays much attention to creativity. For their own part, rhet/comp people tend to see creativity as the province of "creative writing" types, who in turn, for the most part, are still caught up in romantic notions of creativity.

In short, it’s a mess, but there’s some potential there.

4. Finally, in the name of right speech, let me say one purely positive thing about this essay. I applaud "Benton’s" recognition and valuing of his students’ motivations for entering the major. We may ultimately have to teach our students that their major is quite different from what they imagined it to be. That’s ok; I’d guess that’s true of many majors. But we still need to start with recognizing where they are, why they’ve come to us, and where they think they are going.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: