Monday, September 26, 2005

Strengthening the Profession

Drout today eviscerated the new MLA president's column in the newsletter. I won't trouble you with the gory details -- suffice it to say that his post is merciless and necessary. To be sure, it is ugly, but no uglier than the writing he tortures to a well-deserved death. To paraphrase the old cliche from cards: Read it, and weep.

At the end of the piece he writes:

That's probably enough. I could continue through the whole column, but after a certain point it's just mean. Confused thinking, poor writing and political special pleading: is it any wonder no one pays attention to the MLA? And I am not an MLA basher (really. Stop laughing.) I think a strong, effective MLA would be very valuable to American society and to our profession. But what we have ain't that.Instead, the people at the top of our profession (in the MLA as a whole, but also in my own field of Anglo-Saxon studies) are failing us. They are not communicating effectively to the public. They are involved in how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debates within the academy that are visibly stupid to those outside (and that wouldn't withstand the intellectual scrutiny of even a first-year grad student in philosophy). And most damningly, they are letting us become irrelevant because by the time the intellectual bills need to be paid, they will be comfortably retired.

This jeremiad at the end echoes my call for redefining what it means to be a professional in the field. So, my challenge to Drout and myself (and to anyone else who cares to be involved) is to move beyond identifying the problem, and work on solutions. How do we re-conceive the discipline of literary study?

Please note that what follows is very much ideas coming into being, not ready for primetime. I'm still working all this out; I suspect it will take years before my mind really wraps around it.

Some will argue that we do not re-conceive literary study, we abandon it. I reject that. Literature is too important to who we are as a species. Even before the advent of writing, literary oral poetry existed in every human society. We can pretend that we are walking away from literature and rejecting its study, but we are only capable of doing so as individuals (maybe). Mankind must always return to it, no matter what we call it. So, since we will be producing and studying literature anyway, we might as well do so thoughtfully.

Others will argue that literary study need only continue on its current path. While not even the very wise can see all ends, the impulse to maintain this direction seems doomed. If I were not in the field, though, I might be inclined toward this position. I had a friend in undergraduate who claimed to be an anarchist. He wanted anarchy, he said, so that in the absence of organized power he and others like him could take control. Maybe it would be easier to allow literary studies to collapse in exhaustion, little more than philosophy lite spiced with empty political agitation, then wait to see what phoenix arises from the ashes. Still, though, I have a fool's hope that all can be saved, and that we are on the cusp of something IMPORTANT.

One change I am sure is needed is a re-engagement with the public. I see the signs all around me that people are hungry for literature, but the experts (and this includes me) refuse to feed them. We deny them Homer and Virgil and Chaucer and Troyes and Pizan and Austin and Poe because we ourselves have grown contemptuous of them, preferring instead our new prophets from Bhabha to Zizek. We speak in Literary Cant to prevent them from intruding upon our secret world. We behave like High Priests carrying out the liturgy in public when it comes time to demand funding, then mocking our rube congregation when in conclave. This cannot stand -- and not simply for reasons of money and funding (though this is where it is first and currently felt) -- but for reasons of decency. Dean Yeager accurately accused Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters: "Dr. Venkman, we believe that the purpose of science is to serve mankind. You, however, seem to regard science as some kind of dodge or hustle." Substitute "literature" for "science," and you've got our current situation.

So, the question goes out, besides blogging (which guys like Drout are doing already anyway), how do we do this? How do we re-connect with the public? How do we encourage quality research over quantity? How do we move from philosophy-lite to depth of thought? How do we re-concieve literary studies to allow a re-naissance?


  1. Would you hold it against me if I said that Peter Venkman helped inspire me to go into academia?

  2. Well I always thought he was the coolest ghostbuster, but i have a little geek on the inside.