Saturday, September 24, 2005

Professionalization and Our Arid Literary Era

Now that my books are all put away, I thought I'd respond to Michael Drout's post entitled, "Why is Literary Scholarship Going Through a Dry Spell?" I'm sure that out there are those who think it is not ... primarily those who like to think that their own work is evidence great intellectual accomplishment. I'll leave those people to pat themselves on the back while I address everyone else.

I suspect the culprit is the professionalization of the field. It irks me to say that, as I am a product of that professionalization -- you know, Ph.D., a few books in the pipeline, articles in print, etc. I even wear tweed and a bowtie. Phrases like "the constuctedness of knowledge," "infinite hermaneutic regression" and "radical disconnect between the signifier and signified" pass through my lips easily ... just to name three examples of things I said this week and was immediately embarrassed to have said. Yes, I'm a pro.

Professionalization has led to a couple of results that encourage meaningless activity in the field. The most obvious, and perennial boogieman, is the culture of publish-or-perish. In the Golden Age (which may or may not have existed), scholars saved The Book for the end of their careers. The Book grew out of years of thought and contemplation. As a result, The Book tended to be amateurish, a sort of memoir of beloved texts. The best one could hope for was the kind of thing the prolific Harold Bloom pumps out every thirty seconds -- a delight for those who take pleasure in good reading, but leaving little long-standing. Every so often, though, The Book reflected long years of consideration, and re-shaped the way we thought about literature (a la Drout's examples). In this same environment, when a younger hotshot scholar (like Tolkien) wrote something important, it was easier to get noticed.

Today, The Book often has to come thrice in the career: To get the first job, to be promoted to associate and get tenure, and to be promoted to full professor. By the time the scholar reaches full professor, he is intellectually exhausted at just the point he should be coming to the zenith of his powers. All too often, once the scholar reaches full professor, he never publishes another book. Even if earthshaking work is produced ... who has time to notice it? Young scholars are cranking out article after article for smaller and smaller audiences, and older scholars have stopped reading all the mass produced tripe. For all I know, the most recent issue of Whatever Literary Quarterly has published an article that could change the way I view everything ... but I'll never read it, since I have trouble keeping up with just the things in my own specialty.

A second problem of professionalization, and less acknowledged, is the problem of professional lingo. One would think that literary-types would be the most expressive people of all ... and one would be wrong. Professional terminology has moved from jargon to cant, often designed for the purpose of keeping outsiders from participating in the conversation. While Literary Cant prevents our already overcrowded publishing arena from being overrun by amateurs, it also creates many academics who simply cannot communicate with amateurs, and indeed cannot understand themselves. We've all been to the conference presentation that devolves into Duck Speak, with the grad student desperately trying to establish credentials to speak to a text by uttering every empty theory-talk buzz-phrase from the last decade. Everything gets "interrogated," all ideas are replaced by "memes," and all poems are replaced by "texts" -- ruining otherwise perfectly good terms. The presentation becomes incomprehensible both in the sense of being completely opaque and losing basic structure and grammar. The duck quacks on and on, and the only idea ever really expressed is, "Look at me! I'm professionalized! You should consider hiring me!" In any professional context, jargon should be a shortcut to clear expression of ideas, rather than a substitution for ideas.

These two elements of professionalization create an atmosphere wherein production of really important, field-changing works is discouraged, recognition of that needle in the publish-or-perish haystack is unlikely, and communication through the Literary Cant is difficult. Professionalization is a lot like caffeine -- it produces a burst of energy in the short run, but eventually promotes fidgiting and ultimately lethary.

I do not want to suggest, however, that we reject professionalization altogether. Professionalization has done a great number of good things. Literary study is open to anyone regardless of social class (though anecdotal evidence suggests that we are moving back to a class-based division), opening the way for people like me to get involved. It has made it harder (though still very possible) to hide complete incompetence from other faculty (though perhaps easier to hide it from administrators and students), and has promoted work from those who might otherwise not have the diligence to produce in writing their important thoughts. Rather than rejecting professionalism, I think we need to redefine it. And THAT, my friends, is a topic too large to address in this already over-sized post.

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