Wednesday, February 05, 2014

On canons, smaller munitions, and the targets at which they are aimed

Here is a lesson from the internet: when someone writes an article criticizing academia, academia's best defense is to call him a conservative. This allows the writer to be absorbed into a broader caricature of the conservative critic: uninformed outsider (or, if improbably an academic, then probably an out-of-touch octogenarian), blindly worshipful of The Canon of Great Books, blindly disdainful of The Troika of Great Oppressions, certain of his own profound intellect and dubious of his students' basic literacy, and probably sexually repressed at that. If the critic at hand doesn't indulge all these sins in this particular article, we can at least know he has them in mind. So, discreditable, if not already discredited.

But, I don't see much evidence that Mark Edmundson is conservative. Judging by his CV, he's just a nondescript English lit prof who's written on Freud, Romanticism, the very cultural flotsam he now decries, and - mainly - himself. Many books and essays about himself. This is justified because he believes one ought to take to heart "the Platonic injunction" to "know thyself", which is probably decent advice, but I would add that the subsequent Platonic injunction of Delphi is, "Nothing too much," and the third (partially effaced and only recently uncovered, which is why you may not have heard of it) is, "And don't feel obliged to share it all." The Chronicle plea for anger management is just more about the important subject of his self suggesting no particularly conservative sympathies except a belated realization that he loves old people, who studies show are statistically more likely to be conservatives. But maybe we're confusing him with Mark Bauerlein, different English prof/critic of academia who actually is conservative? Or does anyone who takes a swing at deconstruction turn conservative from the exertion?

Flavia's response is probably more charitable to Edmundson than I can be. The Chronicle thing really is a mess of omni-directional resentment of the old guard, the vanguard, the avant-garde, pretty much everyone not on Edmundson's immediate but highly variable wavelength. But, I think rehashing the culture wars caricature makes it too easy to fall into the standard partisan poses on the question of canons and minor works, and to overlook the less clearly partisan standards of selection at play in the disputes over canons and minor texts. So when Flavia says:
I've long noticed that conservative critics who inveigh against the teaching of pop culture, ephemera, women and minority writers (and so on) do not take quite the same position when it comes to very minor writers who happen to be part of the establishment. So, early modern ballads, sermons, and the works of fifth-rate playwrights are so interesting and so worthwhile and even an important work of recovery (because: OUR HERITAGE!), but Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish--nevermind Toni Morrison, August Wilson or The Sopranos--aren't important enough or central enough to the culture.
I immediately think, which conservative critic has even voiced an opinion about Margaret Cavendish one way or the other? Who has said, "Let's keep all the women and minorities - all five of them! - off the seventeenth century syllabi, but we must include the sermons of Offspring Blackall !" (I love this name and am trying to give it as much traction as possible.) Until contrary evidence is produced, I am going to assert that no one has ever said this.

What is really at issue in the study of The World Before 1800 is not a question of establishment vs. periphery or canons vs. "pop cultural flotsam," but rather that The World Before 1800 is dramatically foreign to us, and the reason that people are bipartisan in countenancing the study of practically anything that old, no matter how aesthetically or intellectually unremarkable, is that it contributes to our understanding of an inscrutable and mysterious world which is both urgent to understand (because indeed: OUR HERITAGE! and even more urgently, if you think our past is our present: THE NOW!) and difficult to access. For example, by any standards - historical or contemporaneous - Filmer's Patriarcha is not a great book. Thomas Gordon could say of it even by 1720: "What a Secret would it be with Men, that Filmer ever wrote…if the Honourable Algernon Sidney and Mr. Locke had not answered?" Reading Patriarcha in 2014 will not measurably improve your life in any way. The only reason to read it is for historical understanding, to learn what kinds of arguments people were making first in the English Civil War, then during the Exclusion Crisis, and maybe also why. Because it's really bizarre given what came before and after him that anyone took Filmer's arguments seriously, and what can it mean about these English of 1683 that they did? So no one gets their panties in a twist over finding Filmer on a syllabus, not because he was a groundbreaking thinker whom we still have to take seriously like Hobbes, but because he helps us understand the weird world of the seventeenth century, whose "pop cultural flotsam" is no longer obviously pop cultural or flotsam to us. And so with female writers, and pretty much any writer we can find. That said, an entire college course on fifth-rate early modern sermons is probably still not worth expending one's limited undergraduate time on unless one is already committed to an academic career in this field, but the instructor of this course is still unlikely to be criticized from the outside for this poor choice.

The World After 1800, however, is increasingly more familiar to us, and it becomes less necessary to light our way through the darkness by feeding every sentence discovered from this period into the scholarly torch. At this point a different question arises to determine what's worth teaching and studying: is this work difficult enough to require instruction? Nearly everything written before the eighteenth century is difficult enough for an undergraduate to require instruction, even unfortunately if it's a fifth-rate work, simply because the language and the context are so unfamiliar, so it's hard to differentiate Milton from our friend Offspring Blackall by that standard. The eighteenth century is mixed - things begin to look familiar and can be understood more easily without help, but help...helps. By the nineteenth century, reasonably competent undergrads can get through things like political speeches, popular fiction, histories on their own. To some extent, this is even true of even some of the best canonical texts, like Jane Austen's novels. That's why this stuff finds its way into high school curricula, while very little of anything before 1800 does. (Anecdote: I once tried to read Paradise Lost in high school. Didn't make it past the second page. Because: TOO HARD.) But even reasonably competent undergrads probably can't get through Hegel or Kant, Dostoevsky or Kierkegaard without some more learned assistance. The same is true of the twentieth century and on - Heidegger, Joyce, Freud: not light reading. The point is not that Austen is not worth reading because she's not difficult enough. Everyone in the English-speaking world should read Pride and Prejudice, and if it's a mutually exclusive choice, then they should probably read it instead of Heidegger. But, many of them can do so on their own.

So here is where the problem of taste meets the question of difficulty and partisan dispute arises: at a certain point in the past (necessarily a moving point, since time passes), the culture becomes familiar to the present and one can reasonably ask, is this particular piece of "pop cultural flotsam" really worth instructing students in? Conservatives also think there are great films and TV shows, at least judging by how many times I've been shown John Ford movies. But you don't really need a college course in Westerns to appreciate John Ford movies. On the contrary, your college courses on the origins of political society should prepare you to appreciate Westerns. So the answer about what is worth teaching seems to be what is intellectually or aesthetically most impressive and hardest to understand without instruction. However, a curriculum cannot be formed exclusively from the most mind-boggling works ever written, or the students would wilt from exhaustion, so it's hard to get upset over syllabi containing Jane Austen or Mark Twain or some other thing that is excellent but amenable to independent understanding, or even things that haven't attained such widespread recognition for their merits as Austen and Twain have (I offer: E.O. Rolvaag, a Willa Cather for pessimists).*

So "minor" texts will always be with us, because there will always be great texts that are under-appreciated, and bad ones that are over-hyped, and both are significant in their ways, even if only due to a longstanding error of judgment by previous generations of readers, as in the case of The Catcher in the Rye. How do we decide among them? Flavia says:
In the meanwhile, we study and we teach what seems most meaningful, most illuminating, most worthy. Most the time, those are canonical or critically-acclaimed texts. But real humanists know when and how to attend to the flotsam and ephemera.
This boils down to, essentially, "Trust us; we're professionals. We know what we're doing." And, ok, I trust Flavia. She has gotten through Paradise Lost, which my 16 year-old self still insists is impossible, so I'm willing to listen to what she has to say about it. I suspect most Americans also trust Flavia in this capacity. It's essential that they do so, because although you do have to defend the importance of what you teach, it would take the entire semester to build the case for each text from the ground up, without leaning at all on the accrued prejudices of students who simply assume because everyone has always told them so that Milton is a Great Poet, or Aristotle is a Great Philosopher, and so these books are worth banging their heads against even at the risk of concussion. That prejudice is essential to getting off the ground with these texts, to getting far enough into them that students can begin to see for themselves why they're such achievements, and from there, how lesser achievements relate to them. Flavia vouches for this very prejudice in a previous post. But this prejudice is only that - a prejudice. It's fragile, and if you want to sustain it, and you want non-academics to keep trusting your judgment instead of scrutinizing every one of your syllabi and inserting their own personal preferences because they think their judgment is every bit as good as yours, and everyone has a right to their opinion or whatever, then you have to maintain that trust.

Academics do this by making arguments about specific texts demonstrating why they're so significant, but they also have to maintain reasonable public consensus among themselves about what constitutes significance and greatness in the first place. Dissensus about what is almost-significant and almost-great is expected, and no one balks at discovering that syllabi differ across institutions. But if the humanists in universities are uncertain that there can even be such a thing as a great intellectual achievement, no less which works merit the title, then why should non-academics continue to trust their judgment about "what is most meaningful, most illuminating, and most worthy"? Trashing the idea of teaching a canon or of the distinction between great and second-rate works while maintaining the centrality and significance of the humanities, or demanding that you be paid to continue your own important research is never going to succeed.** It's quite likely that your own research doesn't hinge on this distinction, but that doesn't much matter, since you can't exclusively teach your research.

If college education is limited by the external constraints of time, then canons are a way of dealing with this limitation. You can modify canons, or expand them, but not infinitely, and you can't really abolish them without abolishing universities as the best and most complete repositories of learning. So although Flavia says, "I want to move away from the question of whether professors still recognize a canon and toward an interrogation of what we're doing when we dismiss some works as "pop cultural flotsam," it's impossible to get away from questions about a canon, and her post remains about one. Asking what constitutes flotsam is still asking what merits inclusion in a necessarily limited curriculum - that is, what should be canonized? What universities give syllabus space to is implicitly what is best and most worth learning in our culture. There is no avoiding that implication except by demoting universities to the level of technical or vocational schools, where no one can complain that their education in air conditioning repair was only a partial representation of our culture, because it was never intended to be more than that. And we can do that; there is no necessary reason that universities have to be thought to offer liberal rather than technical educations. Universities can renounce that aim, but something else will probably take it up in their place and it's not clear how long the humanities would last in them without it.


* Flavia also suggests purposely teaching schlock to demonstrate the difference to students between a first- and third-rate work, which is plausible, but would seem to be limited to pretty low-level courses in composition. I have a hard time imagining why one would insert, say, Twilight into a course on Gothic literature just to show that Twilight is a sucky example of Gothic literature. One would hope that students would be able to see that on their own after a course in good Gothic literature. But I don't know, maybe this is more useful at places that are not "a university in Boston."
** I'm not saying Flavia's post is trashing the canon. Now I generalize against the generalizations of Liberal Defenses Against Conservative Critiques.

UPDATE: Withywindle weighs in.


Flavia said...

There's a lot here that I agree with. If Edmundson's essay were, say, about changing curricula that deemphasized a canon in favor of pop-culture, and provided substantive examples (examples do exist), we could have a real conversation about the logic for those changes, what's being taught, and why. As someone who works on an earlier period, I'm understandably anxious about those kinds of changes, not so much because my own livelihood depends on a traditional canon (although there's that!), but because, as you say, there's real intellectual merit to wrestling with the strange and the different and the difficult. I do believe that contemporary pop culture can be taught well, but it's undeniable that many more low-ambition students are attracted to such courses or such study, and for the wrong reasons.

So in many ways I'm a "conservative" when it comes to course- and major-design, though Edmundson is much more so--and that is all I meant by calling him a conservative (that, and that he aids and abets the kind of CCOA made by actual conservatives); I presume him to be somewhere on the liberal spectrum as a voter, though I don't know or care much about that.

And I didn't advocate teaching "sholock." I said there's merit to teaching noncanonical exemplars of a given tradition or genre alongside the canonical works. E.g., teach some mediocre sonnets mining the same tired Petrarchan vein, and you can see a) that every goddamn person was writing sonnets, which is useful to know for a whole host of reasons, b) which of the tropes have become conventional and how a less skillful person handles them, c) how different the good stuff by people like Wyatt is, and finally, d) what's going on when someone like Shakespeare or Donne upends the conventions playfully.

Phoebe said...

I may get into some of the rest of this later, but for now, to defend my template... A CCOA isn't necessarily when a person who votes Republican says something about academia. A person who votes Republican might have any number of criticisms of academia, including that it's too elite/impractical. My hope was that better conservative critiques might emerge/get more publicity (even if I'll likely disagree with them), not to preemptively silence all critiques from conservatives.

A CCOA, meanwhile, is a certain conservative stance regarding academia, generally found in conservative publications/from conservative columnists, but not exclusively. It's a certain type of critique that begins from a certain premise: whatever's happening in academia today - from student life ("I Am Charlotte Simmons") to the seminar room is a disaster. Also: anything with "studies" in the title, or any mention of gender or people from somewhere other than Europe. Studying white Christian men is studying Civilization; any time someone else is studied, that's a case of Oppression Studies, and to be denounced.

Of course the template was crude and imprecise. Not every denunciation of Oppression Studies also includes remarks about the alleged hook-up culture. But it's a safe bet that the people who respond well to one of those points will be similarly generous to the other. And, I suspect, that some of those individuals vote Democrat.

Anyway, my main objection to the CCOA genre is that it never seems to reflect actual liberal-arts educations of actual people living in this allegedly decadent age. Granted, I (we) went to an unusual college, but friends from high school who went other schools, including potentially hippie-ish ones, somehow also seemed to be reading the same Great Books as I was. How did that come about, if colleges today are treating whatever's scrawled on the wall of a men's room as poetry?

The CCOA assessments of student life also struck me as... selective. (Separate from my own anecdata, consider all those Weddings and Celebrations couples who met in college. Where was their hook-up culture?) My impression was, and is, that the CCOA genre is meant to appeal to a certain kind of reader who may not know much about academia, but who's already decided it's in shambles, and that this reader gets what he wants.

Miss Self-Important said...

Flavia and Phoebe: You both insist that you might agree in principle with some of what you're calling particularly "conservative" critiques, but if they're at all meritorious, why write them off as merely partisan (and conservative is partisan, even if it falls short of identifying a Republican voter) when they actually say something holistic? In this case, as I try to say in the post, defending a canon is not just a defense of the five conservative professors at any school who might be teaching canonical texts. It equally serves the interest of the far more numerous liberal professors b/c the goal is to maintain the public's trust in the authority of academics to teach what they think is best, as Flavia says. That's a defense of the university as a whole, even if it comes from only a part within it. By calling it conservative, you insist that it's merely partisan and, implicitly, wrong. But then what would you say is a nonpartisan, holistic critique?

The CCOA is indeed meant to appeal to readers who may not know much about academia, or just people outside it - most critiques of the university ultimately are. Because again, there is a public trust to address and public prejudices to maintain. Universities are bubbles, but they don't float by their own power; something is holding them up. So I wonder what the problem is with writing about the university in a way that is also directed outward?

Flavia: Sure, many pop cultural topics can be taught well, but my point is that in considering their inclusion in college curricula, the question can't really be "What can be taught well?" or even "What might be interesting to the students?" although these considerations matter. College is limited in time, so does this thing really merit instruction, or can we hope that students will be equipped by their instruction in more difficult and fundamental works to understand this pop cultural thing on their own?

In the case of most contemporary TV shows and movies, I'd say this standard would push against inclusion. That doesn't mean that, say, The Wire (on which a course at Harvard was indeed taught, by a serious sociologist and not like the guy in White Noise who studies TV) has no cultural or intellectual merit or that it demands no closer examination than the casual TV watcher will give it. It simply means a college education should prepare you to do this kind of analysis on the products of your own immediate culture yourself. You don't really need a professor to contextualize urban America and the genre of crime shows to you in 2008 for you if you're an American in 2011. What you more desperately do need is someone who can contextualize 16th Century poetry for you, or explain Freud b/c you probably can't do that yourself. Perhaps every course can't meet this standard (and every course won't consist wholly of inscrutable assignments), but I'd think as many as possible should because, again, severe time constraint.

About teaching comparative schlock, ok. I thought from your post and comments that you meant you included bad works for the purpose of sharpening the students' aesthetic judgment, not minor works for contextualization. My bad.

Phoebe said...

I'll try to address "most critiques of the university ultimately are." and "So I wonder what the problem is with writing about the university in a way that is also directed outward?":

Many critiques of academia strike me as incredibly internal. I mean, the adjunctification of the university - does anyone care other than PhD students and adjuncts? Sure, articles make the case for why others should care, but that's because, as it stands, they don't.

The problem with the outward-directed critique is that it can say just about anything, however misleading, and cater to an audience with lots of beliefs about academia but little knowledge. The aim seems not to be reforming academia, or painting an accurate picture of what goes on, but rather confirming preexisting assumptions about societal decadence. Any one "Frasier" Overanalyzed workshop will thus cancel out however many required courses on Shakespeare.

The true CCOA - and maybe the piece Flavia links to, given its intended audience, doesn't quite count - is about taking courses and incidents out of context. If those were kept in context, then perhaps we could all look at the evidence and say, you know what, that's one "Frasier" seminar too many. Or not. We'd need the context.

Flavia said...

This comes back to curriculum, as Phoebe's comment also suggests. I have no problem with the occasional class in pop culture, because part of what is being taught (in any discipline) is skills: of writing, analysis, research, or the application of historical context, theoretical approaches, etc. And if a pop culture class draws in some students who otherwise wouldn't be in the major, or demonstrates to majors how their training can be applied to other aesthetic objects (the close-reading skills that are learned in analyzing poems are analogous to those used in analyzing films, but they require different terminology and attention to different techniques), that's great.

But disciplinary training is not reducible to skills, and so while I'm perfectly comfortable with a student taking a couple of classes that take noncanonical texts as their primary object of analysis, I'm also a strong defender of a relatively traditional canon, not only based on historical period, but also on genre. As I said, I think we agree more than we disagree here.

(And maybe this is a tangent, but--the thing that always, always gets left out of CCOA is the fact that English departments at less-prestigious schools are actually less likely to jettison traditionally-defined requirements and less likely to schedule an entire course on, say, "Sex and the City" than top-tier schools. This is because we're aware that our students really need both the exposure to and the cultural capital of knowing The Classics.

A Harvard English major is, first off, more likely than my students to take a Shakespeare class if it isn't required (or to have already read eight Shakespeare plays in high school)...but, second, if he announces to the world that he's never read Shakespeare, he's unlikely to suffer any significant social or professional consequences. A first-generation minority college student from Northeast State U doesn't have that luxury. An education steeped in the classics opens many more doors and gets them taken much more seriously than "English major, NSU" alone conveys. And faculty who teach such students are, by and large, really attentive to what their students need and what they can--or can't--afford to leave out.)

Withywindle said...

Flavia: In your copious free time, how about sketching the requirements you would have for an English major to graduate from the college you teach at? And the requirements to be admitted at Your Grad School? And books in your Period you think a Grad Student should read. I'd be interested to see how your principles articulate, at these various levels.

Miss Self-Important said...

Sure, there are internal reports on the state of a school's lawns and facilities or curriculum reviews and things like this that are only intended for those immediately concerned with a certain school. But it's hard to imagine a world in which considerations of American higher education should or could be limited to that kind of thing. As I've tried to say, our higher ed system relies on a great deal of faith from non-academics, and if they lose that faith, the system will crumble. This faith is manifested in everything from taxpayer support for student loans and research funds to the high social status of academics and public deference to their expertise. Academics have to talk to the outside world, and they have to justify themselves. And there definitely is interest and an audience for this kind of talk and justification, or else books like The Closing of the American Mind would not be bestsellers and the articles on adjuncts wouldn't be in such mainstream outlets as Slate and the NYT.

It's certainly true that journalistic treatments of any topic tend to indulge in generalization and anecdata. But I guess I don't quite see what the alternative is, other than statistical studies. Most CCOAs are prompted by actual and not hypothetical events, like when our WASP-loving friend Joseph Epstein criticized the Northwestern sex toy demonstration, or when Harvard announces that it might have a grade inflation "issue." It's true that essays based on such individual events are not comprehensive studies of the goings-on of all universities or even a single university, but that too has been done (and you will realize when you see the length of this report why it's not done very often).

Is the problem here that CCOAs vilify pedagogical practices that are not actually bad, or that they vilify actually bad things that just don't occur as frequently as the CCOAs imply? If it's the latter, then this is in some sense a problem endemic to journalism and also not a huge one. Just b/c bad things don't happen often doesn't mean that they shouldn't be challenged when they do, right? Horrible and even fatal hazing doesn't occur at most college fraternities, but when it does occur, it's not a bad thing to expose it and publicly shame the schools that permit it and to make schools where it hasn't happened (yet) consider the tenor of their Greek life and whether it remains in accord with the purpose of the school. So with curricular embarrassments like NU's sex toy scandal or Harvard's grade inflation. I see no great harm in forcing universities to self-examine and ask, "So, what's our grade distribution looking like these days?" or "What's going on in our classrooms?" in the face of isolated incidents of bad behavior.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, it's true that non-prestigious schools are much less subject to popular scrutiny than prestigious ones. Even the difference between UChicago and Harvard, which is mentioned in the NYT practically every week, is substantial. I think there are some good reasons for this - top schools set the standard, educate "future leaders" and all that BS, should exemplify the highest degree of excellence and therefore are more blameworthy when they do bad things, and so on. But it does make your job more thankless, or at least less publicly recognized. The CCOAs I can recall off the top of my head rarely even consider what is going on at schools outside of the top 50 or so (Bloom even had an explicit caveat about that, as I recall). Perhaps people assume things are fine at such places academically (say, b/c the glut of PhDs means they have many very strong job candidates killing each other for positions), and their main problems are administrative corruption and deranged athletic investment. But I don't get the sense that conservatives worried about the replacement of the canon with Oppression Studies or TV Studies are as worried about it at Cal State San Bernadino as at Yale.

Withywindle said...

San Francisco State University seems to get in the news regularly (at least once every year or three) for Jew-hatred. And Ward Churchill was at University of Colorado-Boulder. But I fancy you're right, Flyover College is never going to get the press interest of Big Kahuna (Allston).

Flavia said...


By requirements, do you mean specific texts, or general areas covered/skills mastered?

If it's the latter, I'm fairly happy with what my department now requires from literature concentrators (we recently revamped our major to include a skills sequence overlaid upon our more traditional period/distribution requirement). It's flexible, but still expects familiarity with major periods of British and American literature. However, part of my satisfaction has to do with our faculty, who are heavily weighted toward traditional areas and indeed toward earlier periods--I know that my students are likely, just because of the composition of the faculty, to be exposed to the big works and to be taught them seriously. If the faculty changed, my satisfaction might also change.

As for specific works--well, that's more complicated. The longer I teach, the less in love I am with the survey format that presumes students can get something meaningful out of a new author every class or two. The next time I teach Brit Lit I, it may just be Beowulf, Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, a few lyric poets, and Milton (no Shakespeare, because they get that elsewhere). Better to do a few texts well--including really allowing intro students to dig into the formal aspects of each work--than skim the surface of a dozen. I think students need to know a bunch of big guys, big genres, and have a sense of different genres, periods, and movements, but I'm less fussed about the idea that, say, a student might graduate without knowing Jonson or Donne. If a kid takes a Faulkner class, does he also need to have read Hemmingway? Or Dickens rather than Eliot? Knowing one well is better than knowing two or three shallowly, assuming we're still making an attempt at coverage in terms of genre and period.

Basically, "coverage" is always going to be a fiction--both because students have a finite number of credit hours within the major and because (at most schools) the faculty do not perfectly cover all possible areas of study. But a good program exposes students to enough, in enough periods and areas, that they know at least some of what they don't know, and inspires them to want to read and know more.

Withywindle said...

Flavia: Skills, general areas, and texts all interesting; although texts ultimately most interesting since most detailed, least fudgeable.
I do like your department’s requirements—indeed, I’m tempted to say just about any CCOA would be happy with it. Now, when I saw a World Literature requirement, I thought to myself, Is this how we smuggle in study of texts by Lesser Breeds, like Robertson Davies and A. D. Hope? But when I dug in, it looks like that’s how you teach Homer, Cervantes, and Chekhov; so I’ve nothing whatever to grumble at.
The fact that I like your department’s requirements, that they do seem to overlap so much with conservative preferences, makes me think that the heart of your objection to the CCOA is not so much I don’t like what you want me to do as it is I’m already doing what you want and you’re still complaining, moron! (If this is obvious, forgive me for being slow.) But to the extent that is true, it makes me wonder how much your preferences are open to critique from the other direction—from a radical/left perspective. I.e., what proportion of the MLA might condemn you as conservative/elitist/something-unpleasantist-and-insufficientist, perhaps in vitriolic tones? I would say a non-trivial proportion. But let me extend that offhand judgment: the strength of the CCOA critique of academia is proportionate to the portion of the MLA which would either outright criticize your department’s syllabus, and your teaching preferences, as too conservative, or would fail to defend you against such radical critique. If only 5% of the MLA falls into that camp, the CCOA critique is weak. If 50%, rather strong.
Now, of course I like your text choices. I want to follow up on your preference for depth-over-breadth. It seems to me that’s a pedagogical choice that has traditionalizing effects on the curriculum—if you only have a few choices, you’re more likely to choose the traditional greats—and if you don’t, you get more yelps. The broader survey allows for more innovation in the survey—you can just add Aemelia Lanyer [sp?] to Milton, instead of replacing him, which is both more arguable and less hackles-raising. So I think your pedagogical preference is also aligning you with the traditional camp, opening yourself up to radical critique.
It may never happen, of course; in which case, yay! But I just want to lay down a marker, that it is possible the Children of the Revolution will come after you, precisely because what you do is so amenable to what I favor.

Phoebe said...


I know you boycott WWPD following something I no longer remember, but if I may communicate with you on this neutral ground (and I hope I may, if only because I think I coined this acronym you're using)...

Re: "I’m already doing what you want and you’re still complaining, moron!", I don't where Flavia stands, but that's actually a lot of my beef with CCOAs. The hippie-dippie curricula they decry just don't seem to be happening. Nor, for that matter, is the hook-up culture - a "hook-up" is an intentionally vague term that covers basically anything that someone who's made a monogamous commitment shouldn't be doing with someone else. In and out of the classroom, things are, I suspect, a lot more what CCOAs claim to want to see than they assume.

Withywindle said...

To a considerable extent. But neither do I think they are imagining all the--we--complain about.

Miss Self-Important said...

Phoebe: I still don't see the problem then with pointing fingers where things do go wrong, even if most things are going fine. How about the frats? Most frats are fine, but sometimes frats go wrong and do brutish things. Do you consider exposes of frats gone wrong to be equally problematic given how many thousands of Greeks in American colleges are perfectly nice people who are just socializing, albeit somewhat boozily? Is it unfair to them to be burdened with negative caricatures just because some infinitesimal number among them once behaved brutishly?

Phoebe said...


It's a matter of phrasing. If a story about frats presents a problem in a couple of them as Frats in America Today being in trouble, then that's no good. With CCOAs, my point is that if there's one wielded dildo vs. hundreds of canonical offerings, an article about how college in America today is Dildo Studies for all will paint an inaccurate picture. If the point is merely that this happened, with some context of similar incidents, fine. The problem, for me, is the line about how of course we expect such things from colleges today, when the reality is, we don't.

And oh so much to say about the Bowdoin report, if I ever finish reading it...

Flavia said...


Thanks for this--a useful series of questions.

Basically, my position on the CCOA is Phoebe's--that most of us really are teaching a pretty traditional curriculum, and that even those teaching 20th-C works are more often than not teaching a pretty widely-recognized modern canon. If you look at the job ads in English literature, they're still defined by very traditional period or genre boundaries, and as a result, so are most curricula (I understand that fifteen or twenty years ago there were jobs in "literary theory," but if I've seen even two jobs listed that way in ten years, I haven't seen three).

As for how open I am to critique from the radical left--eh, I'm sure people who would criticize me exist, but I have to say that I encounter very few of them; the radical types one meets through the MLA are political radicals, not curricular radicals. They're activist in whatever causes matter to them, or they approach the Victorian novels they study through a Marxist lens, but (see my previous paragraph) they're usually still teaching within a traditionally-defined field, and so have a personal stake in the preservation of those fields. They may spout a lot of what I consider nonsense in meetings or the classroom or on the local news, but it's rarely nonsense that affects the curriculum per se.

And bear in mind: no matter what the CCOA claims, most people pursue doctoral study in literature because they actually love literature! And it's very hard not to read a ton of canonical stuff over 10 or 12 years of schooling, qualifying exams, TAing for lecture classes, and so forth. Not everyone loves every thing, and I've certainly met people who say offhand things like, "eh, it's dumb that we still require Shakespeare"--but that's about the extent of the negativity I've encountered.


If you only have a few choices, you're more likely to choose the traditional greats....So I think your pedagogical preference is also aligning you with the traditional camp, opening yourself up to radical critique.

Yes and no. You're absolutely right that a more narrow class emphasizes the greats, but I was describing what I do in the survey--which at RU serves mostly underclassmen and non-majors--not what I do in an upper-division class, where I include at least a few noncanonical texts. But more importantly, this isn't a strategy that leftists within the field are likely to attack--for one thing, it's unlikely that someone who's hostile to dead white men or earlier periods knows any noncanonical early British writers! If anything, they're more likely to nod and say, "okay, fine, I've heard of those guys, and if you have to teach dead white dudes, I guess it should be the big names"--the people they studied in school or for their quals.

Again, this may reflect just my experience, but the four colleges and universities whose curricula I know well (my Ivy alma mater, the two colleges I've taught at, and my spouse's employer) have really traditional requirements, and the national job market seems to reflect a similar conservatism.

Withywindle said...

Flavia: Thank you! As on previous occasions we've had related discussions, this is my basic reaction: I continue to hear anecdotes from other people in your discipline which are somewhat less encouraging, but I take your reportage seriously, and it has made me somewhat more optimistic about your discipline. Which increased optimism I hope is reflected in my comments as we continue this conversation and off--I do try to take on board what you say.