English Studies futures market

At the confluence of two conversations. Yesterday I watched Dave Parry's talk on the future of the university and received a link to William Chace's American Scholar article on the "Decline of the English Department." These are very different approaches. Both identify a problem/crisis with our current situation, but where Parry recommends an embrace of emerging practices, Chace calls for a return to the past. Not surprisingly, I am more sympathetic to Parry's argument, but there are interesting things in both.

When I look at Chace's essay, it is maybe easy (for someone like me) to dismiss his position as some old guard conservative reaction. But I don't really read it that way. Certainly there is some longing for the way things were back in the heyday of literary studies' height of popularity when he was an undergrad in the early 50s. But as he points out, in retrospect (and if, indeed, we are seeing some final decline of lit studies), the popularity and centrality of the field to higher education was really quite fleeting–something experienced only by a generation or two of scholars. The explanations for the decline our now familiar I think: the rise of other, pre-professional majors, the increased acceptability of women entering other fields, etc. Chace adds to this the observation of English's fragmentation and departure from the traditional, canonical approach to literary studies (i.e. the experience of his youth). And perhaps that could be seen as finger-pointing as cultural studies or feminism or whatever, but he also notes

there are more and more gifted and enterprising students coming from
immigrant backgrounds, students with only slender connections to
Western culture and to the assumption that the “great books” of England
and the United States should enjoy a fixed centrality in the world.
What was once the heart of the matter now seems provincial.

Note that even he is putting "great books" in scare quotes. After this, the essay becomes somewhat fragmentary (much like our discipline). Chace goes into the changing economics of higher edu: the increasing expectation that a college degree is preparation for a career, increasing tuition, institutional expectations for external funding which is scarce in the humanities, etc. But he really wants to focus on the discipline's internal problems, namely that "English has become less and less coherent
as a discipline and, worse, has come near exhaustion as a scholarly
pursuit. English departments have not responded energetically and
resourcefully to the situation surrounding them." In short, for Chace we have lost sense of identity and mission starting with scholarly/research paradigms and bleeding down to undergrad curriculum. Though he may be loathe to recognize it, I think even Chace sees the old structure is not useful. As he aptly observes, "The comparison is akin to what young people growing up in Rust Belt
cities are forced to see: the work isn’t here anymore; our technology
is obsolete."

So where does the rubber hit the road in Chace? This is what he suggests:

  • " a return to the aesthetic wellsprings of literature" (as opposed, I think, to the politicized cultural studes analysis, but that's just my assumption here)
  • emphasize teaching over research for tenure: "If they wanted to publish, [humanists] could do so—at almost no cost—on the Internet" (really? no kidding? tell me more)
  • central to that teaching focus is a renewed focus on books (again, away from cultural studies/theory)

But here's the real kicker:

English departments can teach their students to write well, to use rhetoric. They
should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront
of their activities. They should announce that the teaching of
composition is a skill their instructors have mastered and that
students majoring in English will be certified, upon graduation, as
possessing rigorously tested competence in prose expression. Those
students will thus carry with them, into employment interviews or into
further educational training, a proficiency everywhere respected but
too often lacking among college graduates.

Just as a side note, I was talking to faculty in the law school last night, someone who teaches legal writing to first year students. He said that English majors have the hardest time adapting to legal writing b/c they have been taught and rewarded for writing in a particular way that is not appropriate for the legal genre. That's something to think about if we are going to proclaim our expertise as teachers of "writing."

If we fail to act, Chace imagines literary studies will become like Classics departments. That's a good analogy. I always think of art history myself.

Parry sees the same problem in a different way. He's looking more broadly at the university as a "hack" (as he puts it) for the limits of print-based knowledge production and distribution. Here in the late age of print, we necessarily must re-invent ourselves or see something arise to replace us. He calls for us to embrace and even race toward the realization that the cost of educational products is approaching zero.

That's true, but he also points out the knowledge is more properly seen as a process than a product, and certainly learning is a process. As a process, it requires labor and materials to be undertaken. I would argue that the labor involved is highly specialized and thus ought to continue to demand some premium in the marketplace. I've been up and down that debate before. Yes, there are folks who can go to opencourseware and learn on their own. And maybe there will even be people who will be willing to teach/mentor for free or in a crowdsourced way or something. I remain skeptical at this point that we can educate our citizenry through such practices. The institutions must change, but I think we will still need them for the foreseeable future. However, those that do not change may be in trouble.

In that way they are like Chace's English departments.

It's funny, but I really don't disagree that much with Chace. I don't really care much for his "return to books" strategy, but if that's what lit studies folks want to do, I don't think it matters much to me. I agree that we need to change our research practices (and that digital scholarship wll play a role in it). I certainly agree with a renewed focus on writing, but I'm fairly sure that we would disagree on what that actually means, as I don't think that writing 1000-word close readings of canonical works is going to achieve the writing goals that Chace values.

In my view, English is the humanistic study of textual practices in the English language. We have had to think broadly of text and see our interconnections with non-textual media. But our obvious focus remains on text whether it is creative writing, rhetoric, literary studies, composition, or professional/technical writing. Obviously today we need to study the transformation of those practices in the context of digital networks. But the reality is that there is more text and more textual production today than at any time in human history. And textual production, distribution, and consumption is undergoing the most radical revolution we have seen in centuries, if not since the invention of writing itself.

In other words, there is more for us to study and more for us to teach our students than ever. So maybe that's why we seem so fragmented and lost. The process of globalization altered the centrality of the textual practices we historically studied. And now this technological revolution has fundamentally changed the rules of the game.

But I agree with Chace, we need to stop wallowing in despair or pining for the old days or closeting ourselves off with our particular research interests (if we are indeed doing such things) and put something together. And I think a lot of what Parry says about where we might go by questioning the naturalized assumptions of print-based university practices makes. So I think we need to ask two simple questions of ourselves, our departments, and our discipline.

  1. How do we make use of our existing knowledge, experience, methods, and expertise to refocus on the central issues and challenges of contemporary textual practices?
  2. How do we communicate that renewed focus to (prospective) students, to others around the university, and to broader public discourses on education?