Monday, December 29, 2008
Bruce Flemming, Chronicle of High Education - The major victory of professors of literature in the last half-century - the Great March from the New Criticism through structuralism, deconstruction, Foucauldianism, and multiculturalism - has been the invention and codification of a professionalized study of literature. We've made ourselves into a priestly caste: To understand literature, we tell students, you have to come to us. Yet professionalization is a pyrrhic victory: We've won the battle but lost the war. We've turned revelation into drudgery, shut ourselves in airless rooms, and covered over the windows.
The good news is that we've created a discipline: literary studies. The bad news is that we've made ourselves rulers of a realm that has separated itself almost completely from the rest of the world. In the process, we've lost many of the students - I'd say, many of them men - and even some of the professors. And yet still we teach literature as if to future versions of ourselves - not that there will be many jobs for them. The vast majority of students don't even want to be professors: They'd like to get something from a book they can use in their lives outside the classroom. What right have we to forget them?
Students get something out of a book by reading it. Love of reading was, after all, what got most of us into this business to begin with. We are killing that experience with the discipline of literary studies, with its network of relations in which an individual work almost becomes incidental. But it's the individual work that changes lives. . .
Literary studies split off from reading in the early-to-mid-20th century as the result of science envy on the part of literature professors. Talking about books somehow didn't seem substantial enough. Instead of reading literature, now we study "texts." We've developed a discipline, with its jargon and its methodology, its insiders and its body of knowledge. What we analyze nowadays is seen neither as the mirror of nature nor the lamp of authorial inspiration. It just is - apparently produced in an airless room by machines working through permutations of keys on the computer. . .
Nowadays the academic study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the more rarified a college you attend, the less literary studies relates to the world of the reader. The academic study of literature nowadays isn't, by and large, about how literature can help students come to terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes, and victories, and pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that make us human and fill our lives. It's, well, academic, about syllabi and hiring decisions, how works relate to each other, and how the author is oppressing whomever through the work. The literary critic Gerald Graff famously told us to "teach the conflicts": We and our squabbles are what it's all about. That's how we made a discipline, after all. . .
Nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who've just touched down on Earth. We professional storekeepers explain the vegetable section, the dairy section, the meat section, note similarities and differences among our wares, variations of texture and color, the fact that there's no milk where the applesauce is, and perhaps the fact (which we bemoan) that there are no papayas. We're teaching the store, not what's in it. We don't presuppose visitors know anything about where the things on display came from; if they do, it's because we told them - that can be our work too, speaking of the world before it ended up in the grocery store. But we're the ones who decide whether or not to include that world outside, and how much. We just want to rack up sales. All this fixation by the storekeepers on the store misses the point: People grow food in order to eat it. Similarly, books are meant to be read. Reading is the point of a book, not integrating it into a discipline. . .
There is a point to college or university guidance of literature. Most people never read serious literature at all without a guide. Too, people get more sophisticated as they have things pointed out to them, or as they read more. And many people just don't know what they may read to begin with. So there's a reason for teaching. We professors just have to remember that the books are the point, not us. We need, in short, to get beyond literary studies. We're not scientists, we're coaches. We're not transmitting information, at least not in the sense of teaching a discipline. But we do get to see our students react, question, develop, and grow. If you like life, that's satisfaction enough.
Bruce Fleming is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. His most recent book is What Literary Studies Could Be, and What It Is (University Press of America, 2008).