Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

English studies beyond literature

Marc Bousquet writes a piece for The Valve discussing "When 'English' isn't literature" that is in part a response to that xtranormal video I mentioned a few posts back on getting a phd in the humanities but also discusses his department's survey of students in English courses. He notes the following:

We haven’t even finished collecting responses, but it seems clear that many students from a wide variety of majors remain interested in at least some areas of traditional literary study for personal interest, or to fulfill a distribution requirement.

But when you ask what interests might lead students to make the larger commitment to a minor in English, or a major, the picture tilts. So far, science, business and other humanities majors say they are most likely to consider a minor in English in a diverse set of fields that I would characterize as either a) involving the production of texts, ie, writing or b) the intersection of disciplines.

I think we often miss the forest for the trees when we look at student interests: unless they’re an English major, we see our other students under labels that seem to clearly parcel them out into different camps: creative writer, business communications student, first-year student in composition.

But when we strand those various interests together under a single heading–writing or textual production, we start to see that these groups are often the same people–just with a writerly orientation to English, rather than a readerly one.

As he continues elsewhere, there remains a core of majors who express this "readerly" orientation toward English, but that group, he observes, is shrinking, with little likelihood of growing in the future. He also discusses the faculty's divergent interests, which perhaps could be better reflected in the curriculum. Of course I don't want to comment on his department's particular situation, but clearly this is a larger disciplinary condition. Moreover, I would think the survey results Bousquet describes are hardly surprising. That said, the negative response in the comments to the mere suggestion that an English department could partly turn its orientation toward "production" is telling. All I'll say about that is that English studies is really in trouble if the general situation is that faculty are not even able to consider and discuss the idea that the discipline might change and grow over time. If that is truly the case then one would have to wonder about the intellectual merits of the discipline in general.

However I am hoping that is not really the case. What Bousquet describes is my understanding of what a writing curriculum looks like. It's what we were building at Albany years ago with our Rhetoric and Poetics concentration. It's what Professional Writing majors do, like the one I was a part of at Cortland. Of course the difficulty those efforts can face is that they remain separate from some core notion of English as literary study. In a way, this is a little strange since if you go to most department websites or catalog copy, you'll find some promise that studying English will make you a better writer, only to then find that direct instruction in writing is largely absent. This problem is now exacerbated by the fact that the conventional writing experience in the discipline–the literary critical paper–is now increasingly disconnected from the writing activities one finds elsewhere in the world.

However I really see this as a broader problem across many humanistic disciplines.

In my view, the fundamental problem with humanities curricula is that they are about feeling. Learning to feel a certain way about literature or history or philosophy, to have a particular kind of experience when encountering such texts and ideas. In other words, it's less about knowing particular things or being able to do particular activities as it is about cultivating a particular subjective-affective relationship with culture. Yes, you will learn some particular things about your subject and you will learn to write essays, interpret texts, etc. But that knowledge/skill is devalued. Not by me, mind you, but by the discipline itself which rejects (often explicitly) the notion that it provides useful knowledge or skill. If that knowledge/skill is valued, it is because it facilitates entering the desired subjective state. Now, no doubt, the characteristics of that subjective state have shifted over the years, following the course of changing literary canons and new theories, but the goal of a particular subjective position remains the same.

This is a problem for several reasons. Primarily, our own disciplinary content is largely critical of such a project. In humanities own terms it situates our work as a purely ideological enterprise where the job is to position students in a way we find ideologically acceptable. Would there be any possible way of presenting that as a legitimate pedagogic enterprise? Secondarily, as a student, who would sign up for such an enterprise? Not me. 

So clearly this has to bring us back to what one can do with what one learns in the humanities. And not surprisingly this is where many students are as well, as Bousquet notes. They want to make their education productive. I am confident literary studies can be productive, though it may require some methodological shifts. One can study literature and find the study useful for doing things in the world beyond writing literary criticism (which is not to say that one can't do that too).

Oddly enough, in the end though, I think it comes back to feeling: the way humanities faculty feel about our discipline, our identification with a particular ideological operation of our field, and our commitment to reproducing that feeling in our students. Can we use our own critical methods to dislodge ourselves from those feelings, just as we have used those methods to try to dislodge students from their mainstream ideological associations?