May 9, 2008
What Literary Critics Actually Do
Over on Letters from a Broad, there’s a discussion about individual tastes in literature, and how to think about things when personal tastes violate the received wisdom and authority of experts in literature--people with PhDs. The discussion really upset me, not because anyone said anything particularly insulting or offensive--on the contrary, many comments were quite astute--but because it made me confront, more forcefully than anything has for a long time, that most people don’t understand in the slightest what I do. They don’t understand academia in the humanities; they don’t understand the way literary scholars approach the study of literature; they don’t understand the way literature is taught or the rationale for it.
It’s not like this is necessarily anybody's fault; relatively few people get PhDs in English, so why should the rest of the world understand what it’s like to do that? The grueling hours involved in being a grad student and teaching freshman comp (which is the primary way graduate studies in English are funded), the sheer drudgery of grading paper after paper (many of which are heartbreakingly bad), aren’t the least bit glamorous, so you can’t blame people for not wanting to hear more about the whole business. And in order to get a PhD, you have to study something in such depth that sometimes you can’t even explain easily your specialty to grad students focusing on other periods or genres of literature.
And it’s also not like I ever really forget this; I am reminded every time I’ve mentioned to someone over the past few years that I’m not really happy in my current situation and would like to find another. “Have you considered applying to this really cool college in this really cool area?” they sometimes ask me. “You should send in your resume.”
But an academic doesn't have a resume; she has a curriculum vitae. And you don’t simply send it to any institution you’d like to work at, because it won’t do you any good: colleges and universities don’t just hire English professors; they hire specialists, to do specialized jobs, and they do it at specific times, when they have a specific need.
Furthermore, the job of an academic is not merely to pass on but to generate knowledge. It's not the job of English professors to tell students what the masterpieces are and how to recognize them, as was Chanson's assumption on Letters from a Broad. That hasn’t been the goal of literary studies for a long time; it wasn’t what happened when I started college in the early 80s. Instead, literary scholars broaden the scope of questions that can be asked about texts, both general and specific. In order to do that, you have to be trained in the types of questions that have been asked. Certainly that includes attention to criteria for excellence, but its also includes interrogating those criteria, not merely reiterating them.
Neither my undergraduate degree nor grad school involved going into classrooms and talking about “great books” and why they're great, which is an entire curriculum (not just a single course) that is increasingly rare in colleges and universities, although people like Allan Bloom are always arguing that we wrong to abandon this approach to literary studies. Certainly there was attention to the canon, to the foundational texts of English literature, and I personally am glad that I read every last word of The Canterbury Tales--in middle English, no less. But the fact of the matter is, I read that as an undergrad, and that’s where I think students should read things like that. I think it is irresponsible of undergraduate English departments to produce graduates who do not have a solid foundation of knowledge of English literature through its history, and one of my dissatisfactions with my current institution is that we do just that.
But students don’t merely read texts; they discuss them. It’s not enough to read Chaucer and Beowulf and a few representative texts tracing development in the novel in the 18th century. Partly because professors have to have a way of assessing how well students have read the texts and how sharp their analytical, verbal and creative (and here I am not talking about creative writing, but creating ideas) skills are, students must write papers. And to do that, undergrads must learn the art of critical analysis and literary scholarship, which is also what you do in grad school, only in more specialized terms.
If I hadn’t already known how to write papers and analyze texts when I got into grad school, I wouldn’t have A) gotten in or B) succeeded once I got there. I admit I didn’t like my PhD program in a lot of ways, but I am figuring out that that might have had a lot to do with the particular time I went to grad school: the 90s, the heyday of theory. I hate Barthes and Judith Butler and dear god, I can’t believe I had to read Althusser’s dreadful piece on ideological state apparatuses THREE FUCKING TIMES! I don’t remember a single goddamn thing from it, which to me is a sure sign that it lacked substance and import, because I generally have an excellent memory, especially for things I've read.
As an aside: what I really remember about Althusser is this anecdote from his autobiography (which I also read--it was written to explain why he murdered his wife--short answer: she wanted him to) about how he stuffed bread in his ears when he was institutionalized as a young man, because the mental hospital he was in was so noisy. Then the bread got moldy, and caused him great pain, but he’d stuffed it in too deeply to fish it out. And because he was sort of crazy, the doctors didn’t believe him when he said, “I’ve got moldy bread in my ears and I can’t get it out, but it really, really hurts.”
But I digress.
The larger point is this: to get a PhD in English you must (ideally)
1. Be a reasonably competent (but not a great) writer. True eloquence is not necessary; the ability to produce comprehensible prose should be.
2. Understand the criteria by which literature has historically been judged, and understand as well the ways those criteria have been challenged and changed.
3. Have a sophisticated understanding of the questions that have already been asked about specific texts and the larger endeavor of literary studies, so that you can then ask sophisticated questions yourself. This means reading not only literature, but criticism, and producing criticism yourself.
4. Have an area of expertise, something you study in depth. Thus, in addition to knowing enough about the canon of English literature that you can chat about it at cocktail parties, you must know a decent amount about the canon or foundational texts of your own genre. Not everyone who studies literature needs to read the Confessions of St. Augustine, but I do, because my area of specialty is nonfiction, and The Confessions constitute one of the earliest and most important texts in the history of autobiography. The same goes for Rousseau (who also called his autobiography his Confessions) or Montaigne (who invented the essay, when he began to make “attempts” or “essays” in writing to understand his life, his mind and his times back in 16th century France).
This is long enough for today; I’ll continue it later.
Posted by holly at May 9, 2008 8:29 AM