Literary Studies Concedes Defeat

Perhaps they, the youngest generation, can labor with their teachers in putting together the house that has forfeited its sense of order. If they do, they can graduate with the knowledge that they possess something: a fundamental awareness of how a certain powerful literature was created over time, how its parts fit together, and how the process of creation has been renewed and changed through the centuries …

They can also convert what many of them now consider a liability and a second-rate activity into a sizable asset. They can teach their students to write well, to use rhetoric. They should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their activities. They should announce that the teaching of composition is a skill their instructors have mastered and that students majoring in English will be certified, upon graduation, as possessing rigorously tested competence in prose expression. Those students will thus carry with them, into employment interviews or into further educational training, a proficiency everywhere respected but too often lacking among college graduates.

American Scholar, Autumn 2009,The Decline of the English Department, William H. Chase

Literary Studies folks have long lamented the possibility that their field seemed to be settling into the same sort of steady-state irrelevance as, say, the study of classics or linguistics. (By irrelevance, of course, they mean to undergraduate education). What’s unique about Chase, at least as far as I know, is that he concedes that the battle is lost.

In my upcoming book, A Taste for Language, I argue that this is exactly the wrong strategy. I won’t repeat that argument here, but I will say that what I find fascinating about this piece is the way it assumes that the sole source of academic power lies in the discursive powers of the academic. Since literary studies cannot persuade, it cannot succeed.

In one way, of course, that’s only common sense. Certainly English Studies (both composition and literary studies cadres) need to find some way to make their continued existence more than simply palatable. More precisely, Literary Studies, as Chase notes, seems difficult, if not impossible to justify, as an investment of time and energy. Composition has no such problem.

But this idea of persuasion– in texts as much as in committees and the public at large– too often hides as much as it reveals. What it hides is that there are other forms of power, specifically, the power that results from organizing. If people worried about the fate of English Studies were suddenly organized into unions, the whole picture would change.

Social systems and economies are complex systems, but the changes in the university system (and the economy at large) are not random. They serve certain specific interests. Generally, the changes in Detroit, just as much as changes in the higher education classroom, tend to favor markets over people. These changes were never inevitable, and they can be reversed.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

One Thought on “Literary Studies Concedes Defeat

  1. useful information. It’s really good

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