Postmodern Fiction and Academic Criticism
Creative Writing and Literary Study

Abandoning the Ruins

As a younger man, my overriding aspiration in life was to become a Professor of English. Lest this seem an even more feeble ambition than in fact it actually was, I must qualify its expression by adding that, of course, I understood the job of the English professor to involve primarily writing about and teaching literature, activities I had come to think of as the twin poles of a vocation both eminently civilized and, as far as I could tell, uncommonly satisfying. I knew that there were obstacles to fulfilling my ambition, some obvious and in plain view, others unforeseeable, but my belief in the virtue of this calling was such that I was more than willing to face those obstacles, come what may. The biggest obstacle, finding a suitable position from which to profess the wonders of all things literary, proved as daunting as I could have anticipated and more. However, it was finally not the indignities of the collapsing job market, well-documented as they nevertheless are, that convinced me I should abandon my hopes for a tweedy life of highminded literary study. Rather, the study of literature itself gradually lost its appeal; by the time I was willing to admit this fact to myself, the very idea of literature as an academic “subject” seemed a contrivance designed expressly to destroy all interest in the actual writing that brought the subject into being in the first place.

I do not mean to echo the complaints leveled at trendy forms of literary study by conservatives and other traditionalists calling for a return to more established methods of teaching literature, complaints voiced with almost apocalyptic urgency in such titles as The Death of LiteratureLiterature Lost, and Who Killed Homer?. While many of the criticisms made by the outraged traditionalists are valid enough—literary study in the major universities has become highly politicized, literary texts are being enlisted in and subjected to agendas that distort them beyond recognition—they are also, in my view, deliberately misleading in their suggestion that before the barbarians arrived the study of literature was essentially unproblematic. These traditionalists would have us believe, for all they are willing to seriously examine the actual practices they implicitly defend, that teaching literature, at least as they would have it done, is an entirely transparent affair, simply a matter of making available the intrinsically valuable qualities of literary works through the methods appropriate to the task. In this view, one might take one’s own “approach” to the elucidation of these texts, as long as all such approaches are finally subordinate to the larger goal of revealing what is properly literary in the work at hand. This kind of diversity can be seen simply as evidence of the richness of literature, and effective literary instruction would seek precisely to authenticate the riches to be discovered in great works of literature. I myself accepted such a justification of literary study without reservation, but my experience forced me to recognize that it provided a no more self-evidently natural way to include literature in a college curriculum than any of the current varieties of literary theory so offensive to the traditionalists.

It must here be acknowledged that my experience teaching literature has not been in the upper tier of American colleges, nor even in the more favorably regarded of the state universities. For that matter, I have no more than a passing acquaintance with the community college, which by most who discuss higher education in the United States are often held out as the primary institution serving those students not attending the prototypical university or liberal arts college. (The prototype usually seems very similar to the university at which the commentator either was once a student or is currently employed.) Instead, I have been an Instructor/Lecturer/Assistant Professor in the American regional university or state college, of the kind usually called the University of _____ at _____, or Central _____ State College, schools that are often required to admit any student with a high school diploma. To those who would say that such schools do not provide a representative sample of the quality of literary study in the United States, I readily grant that the expectations for literary study at one of these institutions are of a different order than in the better colleges, that few of the students expect to make it a professional vocation (although a significant number of them are in training to be high school English teachers), and that the methods and goals of instruction are less self-consciously up-to-date. But I think it is nevertheless fair to suggest that if literature as an academic discipline is to be given its due, a test of its efficacy must be its results at colleges like these. Although an appreciation of literature might indeed be an acquired taste, has not an implicit motive for offering, and in many cases requiring, its formal study in American colleges been to enable as many students as possible to acquire the taste?

I am including in my definition of “literary study” not just the graduate study of literature or the structured undergraduate English major or minor, but also the various kinds of introductory literature courses taken largely by non-majors. Again, it seems to me, the credibility of literature conceived as an academic subject depends at least as much on the success or failure of these courses as on those designed for students who presumably come to them with an already established interest in the subject. Given that the introductory course is often part of a general education curriculum (as it was in almost every college at which I taught such a course), one must conclude that it is perceived as carrying its own distinctive value. That value is admittedly described in a variety of ways. The study of literature, for some, is an exercise in “critical reading” that can be transferred to other, non-literary, contexts where the ability to interpret “texts” is thought to be a useful skill, as is the “critical thinking” that can be developed through writing about literature. For others, exposing students to works of literature allows them to engage with ideas and issues in ways not possible in other courses. For most, however—and this holds true for both faculty in the English department and, surprisingly enough, many faculty members across the campus—a literature course simply requires students to read literature, which is seen as good in and of itself.

Luckily, the English faculty at the kind of college I am describing (henceforth I will use the composite name “Service University” to refer to this type of school) have an easier job grasping the purpose of their department’s major. Most of the students pursuing a major in English at Service University are in fact preparing to be secondary school English teachers, for which the English department provides only part of the curriculum (generally 6-8 required courses). Since it is presumed they are being asked to acquaint these students with “literature” at a fairly rudimentary level, the faculty is by and large free of the need to think much about the broader ramifications of literary study. On the one hand, the courses they teach are limited in scope and essentially unvaried from year to year, so that little attention needs to be given to them on a curricular level. On the other, the very narrowness of the curriculum paradoxically allows for many different views about what specific works should be included in the survey courses that dominate the course schedule and about how they should be presented—those with interests in this writer or that literary movement want to make sure their interests get represented, to avoid having their dissertations or their research work come to seem wasted efforts. Thus, the only way to insure that all such views are respected is to in effect give free rein to each. In fact, given the general paucity of opportunities to teach the desirable literature courses, there is among the faculty a built-in disinclination to question the methods employed by colleagues. No one, especially among the junior faculty, wants to be denied his or her turn at these courses by appearing to be someone ready to rock an already precarious vessel. The result is a situation in which it is in the interest of every department member (if not of the department itself) to actually discourage attempts to bring coherence or integration to the literature curriculum. The only way to preserve a place for one’s own philosophy of literary instruction in the Service U English department is to agree, tacitly at least, to preserve a similar place for everyone.

 It is true that, for the most part, the predominant philosophy of instruction in such a department could be described as “traditional,” that is, it emphasizes interpretation, historical context, and thematic continuity, all of which are directed ultimately to the task of providing students with both a deeper understanding and an appreciation of literature. Indeed, the Service U English faculty would for the most part accept the curricular philosophy favored by the traditionalists, so that the differences among them are considered to be differences merely of degree that somehow get resolved through the broader agreement about ultimate purposes—even if this agreement has always remained unstated. Perhaps it is simply taken for granted, but perhaps most on the faculty have forgotten that it was ever necessary. That each member of the faculty brings different assumptions to bear on his/her work thus doesn’t seem remarkable because everyone further assumes that such a state of affairs is part and parcel of the discipline itself. It is unavoidably what happens when one goes about the job of teaching a subject like literature in the first place. In my opinion, the fragmentation that occurs in the English curriculum at a school like Service is actually more harmful to the students the department serves that the kind of fragmentation one finds in the more prominent departments of English. In many, if not most, of the latter, the integrity of literature has long since been dismissed as an appropriate disciplinary concern, and students are left to piece together the shards of different theoretical and critical viewpoints into some minimally clear perspective on the broader landscape of critical and cultural theory. At Service University, where literature is still ostensibly the focus of study, students are informed about any number of issues related to the history and interpretation of literature, but are never really told what, if any, importance they are to attribute to literature as a distinctive form of expression. This is left to take care of itself.

 At least, a traditionalist might say, at Service the importance of studying literature is still assumed, even granting that the nature of its importance is not fully articulated. At the more “prestigious” colleges and universities the diminishment of works of literature to a status no more exalted than any other culturally-influenced text, at best (at worst, to a role as carriers of various kinds of oppressive cultural attitudes and sociopolitical forces), not only threatens the survival of literature but openly proclaims its study to be fundamentally instrumental, in this case the means of furthering a largely political, or at least extraliterary, agenda. Clearly the proponents of literature-for-its-own-sake in their struggle for hegemony in the English department (and other modern language disciplines as well) want to suggest that their methods are not instrumental, that what they advocate is a return to the kind of literary study for which literature is not a means to other, externally determined ends but is itself a sufficiently compelling focus of attention. But it is finally difficult to accept this notion. Nothing in the history of literary study or, more broadly speaking, in the evolution of the English department, gives much credence to such nostalgia for the lost purity of the literature curriculum. Certainly the example of Service University, where a semblance at least of the otherwise vanished curriculum survives, does not furnish much support for believing that the academic study of literature could be an endeavor free of personal or partisan secondary interests, if only it could rid itself of those who have diverted it from its proper path, either through an inability to recognize this path or through sheer bad faith. If anything, the open turn to forms of literary scholarship and an English curriculum that make little attempt to conceal their disciplinary impurities can be seen as a logical consequence of adapting literature to the American university curriculum in the first place, where almost inevitably a premium will be put on a subject’s utilitarian possibilities.

As Gerald Graff shows in Professing Literature (1987), this adaptation was made only gradually and in fits and starts, with each attempt at installing literature at the center of English studies met with skepticism and outright resistance by philologists and other historicist scholars unable to see what the simple appreciation or interpretation of works of literature would add to an academic curriculum. Until literature was finally able to fully displace philology and its research cousins (which, to judge from Graff’s account, did not really take place much before the 1930s), it was certainly the case that works of literature were employed by English professors for their instrumental value as exemplars of rhetoric, as sources of historical knowledge, or as texts provoking moral and ethical reflection. Once the study of English became more or less synonymous with the study of literature, however, the assumption seems to be that “literature itself,” as Graff puts it, was unambiguously the focus of attention. (Putting aside non-literature programs such as linguistics, creative writing, and, more recently, composition/rhetoric.) But, as Graff’s narrative also clearly shows, even the proponents of a literature curriculum did not exactly envision it as an exercise in passive appreciation. Not literature itself, but “criticism” became the activity that supplanted philology, criticism understood as textual exegesis rather than ethical commentary. So successful, in fact, was the assimilation of criticism of this sort into the academy that eventually any distinction between literary criticism and literary scholarship became so blurred as to disappear. Not only have the terms become virtually synonymous in practice, but to all intents and purposes the only variety of “literary criticism” to be found outside the academy any longer is the (brief) periodical book review, and even these are frequently written by academics.

The mode of criticism dominant in academic literary study until at least the 1970s was, as almost everyone now agrees, the New Criticism. Although New Criticism is now regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned because of its reputed focus on the aesthetics of literature, clearly, in the context of the narrative provided by Graff, it became the quasi-established method of both literary scholarship and instruction because it could be presented as a means of producing knowledge. Its more or less discernible, more or less “objective” procedures gave the analysis of literature a rigor of sorts, even though one could always employ the method to arrive at a highly idiosyncratic interpretation, or at least one not necessarily subject to testing in the manner of real science. While many of the practitioners of New Criticism did believe themselves to be in a sense advocating the aesthetic possibilities of literature, it is surely true that defenses of the practice would often require speaking of “literature itself” as finally a perpetually fruitful source of interpretive analysis, as a tool for developing New Critical reading skills. Those who were taught these skills can probably be forgiven for thinking that because of its emphasis on a certain terminology and its insistence on a set of sanctioned reading strategies New Criticism—at least as represented by those of their professors influenced by it—was more about critical methodology than about literature, and even those who understood that the method was meant to be a way of disclosing the constituent beauties of literature could easily enough forget to underscore this fact if and when they came to teach literature to students of their own. (I did.) As with any other favored method, those who employ it can become so enamored of its virtues as to lose sight of its intended objects.

 I would argue, in other words, that in the battle over the English curriculum between the partisans of cultural studies and the partisans of literary study the latter are in no position to charge that cultural studies relegates literature to a supporting role secondary to the promulgation of a particular critical method. The notion that as a discipline English has ever been, or even could be, essentially a preservation society dedicated to the inherent virtues of literature is mostly unsupportable. Further, the impression, conveyed perhaps as much by the media outside of academe as by the idealists within, that this ought to be the mission of an English department with literature at its core has arguably helped to hasten the hostile takeover of English by cultural studies and all the other forces seen by the traditionalists as arrayed against the serious study of literature. By defending what they have come to regard as the proper home of literature against the perceived interlopers through misleading claims of concern about the integrity of literary study, appealing more often than not to such words as “tradition,” “wisdom,” or even “beauty,” the critics of recent curricular trends have allowed the rebels to make rival claims to the standards generally more valued by the academy: objectivity, analytical rigor, theoretical sophistication, and, above all, a commitment to the real-world relevance of their work. I do not mean to imply that the traditionalists’ love of literature is insincere or that such love counts for nothing. I do suggest that the generation or two of English professors trained after the ascendancy of criticism came to so closely identify the cause of “literature itself” with the activity of their university department that they could not separate the two, even when to do so might have made their cause less tied to the inevitable fluctuations in the marketplace of academic criticism.

As a graduate student led to graduate work in English out of what I thought was a simple love of literature, I myself came easily enough to accept this identification of the literary with the academic. If I began graduate school with little thought of becoming a professor—truth be told, with little thought of what would come afterward at all—by the time I finished, any distinction I might once have seen between my initial fascination with works of fiction, poetry, or drama and taking up the professing of literature as a professional career had all but disappeared. Perhaps I was among the last group of students to receive a graduate education in an English department still governed by the assumptions of New Criticism and related critical perspectives, and thus the conflation of an initial enthusiasm for literature with the disciplinary imperatives of the University may no longer arise, or at least may not arise in quite the same way. If so, I cannot agree with the traditionalists that the absence of enthusiasts like my younger self from the English department, in whatever form it comes to take, will either do lasting harm to the vitality of literature or ensure that English as discipline will cease to be relevant—although without literature at its center it would admittedly become a different kind of discipline. In transforming itself into a field of study more comfortably embodying current institutional values English could hardly be accused of shirking its responsibilities; by the same token, I cannot see how interest in “literature itself” would disappear if it was no longer held hostage to the prerogatives of the University.

It is easy to see how, literature having established itself as a respectable academic subject, these prerogatives could be adopted as one’s own. James Axtell, in his 1998 book The Pleasures of Academe, encapsulates the high ideals held by many, if not most, university professors of Axtell’s generation:

            Whatever else they are, colleges and universities are institutions designed and sustained by society primarily for intellectual purposes: to increase the knowledge, understanding, and mental prowess of their students and, at the same time, to increase knowledge and (ideally) wisdom for the greater good of society and humankind through the published research and scholarship of their faculties. The essential life of the university, therefore, consists of the “long slow quest and slow discovery, the quiet expanding influence of personality upon personality, of mind upon mind, the silent interdependent growth of knowledge and power and spirit, the slow unconscious advance toward maturity, from day to day, in both teachers and taught.” It is at heart the product of the intellectual and imaginative synapse between professors and students in the classroom, office, library, and lab.

 Although Axtell is a political science professor, this statement would no doubt be heartily endorsed by his colleagues in the English department. If anything, the literature professor is likely to view his subject as the most eminently qualified to meet the lofty goals described here. But, as I have previously pointed out, to enlist the study of literature in the larger project of developing the “mental prowess” of students is to conceptualize it in essentially instrumental terms, however much it is necessary to deny that literary study otherwise needs to pass the test of practicality. While Axtell’s appeal to “the greater good of society” might no longer command the unqualified assent it once might have, his general account of the academic mission would long have been considered unexceptional, even self-evident, highlighting again the way in which the professing of literature was able to accommodate itself to the terms of that mission with remarkable alacrity. That it does not now seem quite so self-evident can be attributed not only to the sharpened edge of the contemporary academy’s attitude toward American society but also to a phenomenon less clearly linked to specific disciplinary practices and, to my mind, much more likely to undermine whatever remains of the original justification for including literary study in the university’s curriculum.

In The University in Ruins (1996), the late Bill Readings confronts this phenomenon head-on, providing a perspective on the travails of the postmodern university that should be sobering to everyone concerned with higher education, not just literary scholars. Readings sees the university’s plight as the inevitable outcome of social and cultural forces it is essentially powerless to combat. Simply put, the role established for the modern university over the past 200 years, to mold educated citizens who will take productive places in the nation-state is no longer tenable in an era when the nationstate is declining in significance:

 . . .the University is becoming a different kind of institution, one that is no longer linked to the destiny of the nation-state by virtue of its role a producer, protector, and inculcator of an idea of national culture. The process of economic globalization brings with it the relative decline of the nation-state as the prime instance of the reproduction of capital around the world. For its part, the University is becoming a transnational bureaucratic corporation, either tied to transnational instances of government such as the European Union or functioning independently, by analogy with a transnational corporation.

Readings shows how universities have come to replace the former goal of nurturing national culture with the unobjectionable but ultimately vacuous goal of cultivating “excellence. Although this latter standard provides American universities with some uniformity of purpose—all institutions presumably can commit themselves to the pursuit of excellence—the criteria by which the new excellence is to be measured are so vague and so various as to essentially float free of any mooring in actual content. By making excellence an end in itself, without reference to truly common standards, or more importantly, a common understanding of how the various disciplines move toward it in tandem, the question of why these disciplines are housed together in a place called a university at all is effectively elided. At best, the work done by and in the disciplines becomes the available commodity the corporate university is able to market to its student customers.

 Readings’s analysis makes unequivocally clear the extent to which all academic departments depend for their legitimacy on a socially shared perception that they function as part of a larger project conferring the benefits of education in some recognizably valuable way. Thus in the old dispensation the study of literature in the United States could be justified as part of the effort to mold national character or instill national pride, especially during the long period of the cold war, at the least as an activity that could plausibly contribute to the development of those attributes desirable in the responsible citizen of the world’s dominant nation. In the new dispensation, however, it is difficult to see how such study could really continue to be indulged to quite the same degree, no matter how “excellent” an individual program might claim to be. What, exactly, is the cash value of excellence in literary study to the corporate university? What tangible rewards does it bring to the student, the institution, or the nation? Of course, the good that the study of literature promises to the individual—enhanced critical thinking skills, refined sensibilities, a raised political consciousness—or to the idealist professor—an educated vanguard of whatever sort—can still be defended (as Axtell does), but why would either the corporate university or its various stockholders conceivably find these goods worth paying for?

 Readings’s portrayal of the university in ruins would seem to be sufficiently disturbing to prompt all sides in the conflict over defining the literature curriculum to find common cause against the real threat, not just to its coherence or its potential utility but to its very existence. It is hard to imagine either the traditional or the radical version of the curriculum flourishing in any meaningful way in the corporate university, where service to the all-encompassing universe of corporate interests is bound to be the ultimate measure of excellence and where the other-worldliness inherent in all forms of literary study will not be easy to conceal. (The corporate order will surely find both Harold Bloom and Fredric Jameson equally irrelevant and entirely beneath notice.) But each camp seems content, for now, to keep firm hold on their illusions that what they do is not merely an important element in the college curriculum but indeed is the very energy source of the “essential life of the university”—if only the other camp would just go away.

There are some in the academic establishment who do claim they have seen the folly of their ways. Robert Scholes, a veritable eminence grise of literary study in America, confesses that he now sees the discipline of English as “a field of study that seems to me hollow, falling, though perhaps not yet visibly fallen.” It has become, in other words, a discipline in ruins. In his book The Rise and Fall of English, Scholes argues that an English curriculum dominated by the study of literature is no longer viable, partly because of the demands of an increasingly multicultural society but also because of the responsibility of the corporate university to its biggest customer:

            What this society wants of those who graduate from its schools and colleges with degrees in the humanities—as opposed to what many of those who claim to speak for it say it wants—are, at worst, docility and grammatical competence, at best, reliability and a high level of textual skills. What this society does not want from our educational institutions is a group of people imbued with critical skills and values that are frankly antagonistic to those that prevail in our marketplaces, courts, and legislative bodies.

Scholes has apparently come to accept the notion that what society wants, society should get, and he goes on in The Rise and Fall of English to sketch out a plan he feels should fit the bill.

I do not necessarily find Scholes’s argument outlandish, or even unconvincing. He has come to the same conclusion from his sinecure in the Ivy League that I myself came to after a much different kind of experience teaching college English: that literature makes a poor subject of academic study. His book is especially refreshing for its open admission that literary study cannot be sustained without a seal of approval on its utility by society. (He is also right in suspecting that his prescriptions for change will not likely go down well with either the academic traditionalists or the curricular radicals—both sides are too heavily invested in their unfounded belief in their own autonomy, in their essential freedom from social obligation.) Yet this is not to say that the program he proposes for saving English, if not literature, ought to be enacted. While this is clearly not the place for a detailed evaluation of Scholes’s solution to the problem he correctly identifies, since his analysis runs on a track parallel to my own there are two points I would like to make about his proposal to overhaul the English curriculum.

The first concerns its complexity. At its heart is a general education core that returns to the medieval concept of the “trivium,” comprised of the study of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Each of these topics is broken down into specific courses with names such as “Language and Human Subjectivity,” “Representation and Objectivity,” “Systems and Dialectic,” and “Persuasion and Mediation.” Given that the number of core requirements in most colleges is being reduced rather than enhanced (especially the 13 number of English-sponsored core courses), it is difficult to imagine that such an ambitious project as this would have any chance at all of gaining support, even if all of its potential complications could be adequately foretold. Added to this reconfiguration of the core curriculum is Scholes’s redesign of the English major. At this level, courses would be offered in four categories: theory, history, production, and consumption. These courses would not focus on the teaching of literature, but rather on what Scholes here and elsewhere calls “textuality” (see Textual Power, 1985). At this stage, the distinction between Scholes’s program and what is called cultural studies essentially disappears, as “texts” of whatever variety and provenance would be welcome as objects of study. This sort of approach certainly has as much validity as, say, the coverage model of literary study, but its amorphousness suggests it would be monstrously hard to administer, and thus likely would prove to be no more coherent than the curriculum it seeks to replace.

The second point brings me back to Service University. Simply put, Scholes’s program could never be adopted at a school like Service U. If it were to be tried, I am almost certain it would produce nothing like the results Scholes has in mind for it, just as the literary model copied from the liberal arts and research universities has failed to meet the needs of the students entangled in it. Not only would the English faculty resist such a program with all its collective might (which does not itself make a case against the program), but the students, majors and non-majors alike, would find the entire concept virtually incomprehensible. This is not, it should be said, because these students would be less prepared to do the work asked of them than those attending Professor Scholes’s classes at Brown, but because they would be utterly unprepared to understand why they were being asked to do the work at all. Those academics, like Scholes, who dominate discussion of curricular and pedagogical issues in American higher education seem unable to imagine the conditions that prevail at a school like Service University, so different from those they are used to at their own more advantaged campuses. Here the students have at least become accustomed to the idea they must take a few English classes, including some literature, because it is said to be good for them. Some even find the one or two composition courses they are required to take at least potentially helpful, although it is doubtful in the extreme that many of them would ever perceive Scholes’s overdetermined “trivium” as something designed to provide them with the more rudimentary writing and communication skills they will need. The English majors understand English to be a “subject” that includes British and American literature, and they expect to learn something about such literature, if not exactly to be transformed by it, and to in turn teach this subject to their own future high school students. Scholes’s revamped English department, with its trivium and its textualities, could not be more ill-equipped to fulfill the expectations of the students attending Service University.

The Rise and Fall of English is nevertheless about as solid and coherent a blueprint for the refashioning of English within the corporate university as any other we are likely to see, although Scholes would, no doubt, object to this characterization. I am not suggesting that he is in some way politically retrograde, merely that his interest lies in preserving a role for the profession to which he maintains an allegiance within an institution undergoing irreversible change. From the English department Scholes hopes to create students will not receive an education in taste and sensibility, nor will they receive instruction designed to help them become informed and responsible citizens—at least not of the traditional American nation-state. They will receive, it seems clear, an excellence-certified curriculum that will help them negotiate their way through the postmodern global village. My contention that this sort of curriculum would be simply bewildering to the students at Service University, where the global village seems as distant and foreign as Service U itself must seem to Professor Scholes and his students, and where the goal of most is to find a comfortable place in the village they already inhabit, does not imply that the traditional literature curriculum serves a purpose any more useful to these students. In fact, I have come to regard the failings of literary study at Service University as the most compelling evidence that the very attempt to include literature in the college curriculum was a mistake, and that any subsequent attempts to rebuild on the original unsound foundation, no matter how well-intentioned, are doomed to only compound that initial mistake.

Unfortunately, there is no institutional history comparable to Graff’s of literary study at colleges like Service University. Such a project would probably strike most people as either redundant—surely nothing important could be added to the story told in Professing Literature—or beside the point—what would an examination of such schools really contribute to our understanding of the place of literature in a college curriculum? I believe that a careful scrutiny of literary study in this outback of the academic world would be anything but redundant, although I could imagine most of Graff’s audience finding it so alien to their own experiences that it would seem of very little relevance to the development of appropriate professional standards. Unquestionably it would do little for the maintenance of a duly flattering professional self-image. What such a shadow history would show is an ad hoc process by which schools like Service, seeking an upgrade in status, can do so only by succeeding in becoming pale imitations of their perceived betters, mere facsimiles of an archetypal University. The consequence of this process in the English department is a curriculum that looks something like that to be found in a real university (although on a smaller scale and with a heavier emphasis on composition and general education and other service courses) but that for this very reason serves the purposes neither of the students expected to make use of it nor of the discipline of literary studies itself, certainly not as delineated in Graff’s book. The newly-hired instructor, who can have only the sketchiest knowledge of the way what seems an otherwise recognizable curriculum came into being, must sooner or later come to terms with this unsettling truth, while trying to avoid his/her own looming versions of Scylla and Charybdis: to this side. a growing contempt for the many students who increasingly seem not to measure up to expectations, and to that, a palpable loss of confidence in the relevance of the subject he/she has been trained to teach.

My own graduate training most assuredly did not include advice about how to deal with such a dilemma. I now understand that my professors had no real incentive to fully inform me about the facts of academic life, even if they themselves were in full possession of the facts about a school like Service, and I could not have expected the faculty at Service to be eager to reveal the unpleasant details to prospective job candidates. It became clear enough during the interview process that Service did not really resemble my graduate institution, but the impulse to suspend judgment is strong, especially if it seems this might be one’s only chance to pursue one’s chosen career. The extent to which these false hopes continue to be nourished no doubt depends on the new instructor’s capacity for self-deception. My talent for ignoring the obvious proving capacious indeed, I tenaciously hung on to my illusions about where I was and what I was doing for a number of years before watching them dissipate like a valley fog. Although the temptation to relate the multiple indignities I was forced to endure as an overly idealistic teacher of literature is strong (the most vivid classroom image from my days at Service will always be of the young man in his baseball cap, sitting in the back corner of the room so as to make (he thinks) his frequent perusal of the scenery outside the window, and his occasional naps, slightly less conspicuous), such an exercise would not be particularly enlightening. Others have undergone the same ordeal, and the process is entirely predictable: the young (or at least naïve) instructor assigns a selection of readings that to him seem intrinsically compelling and that he presents to his students with great expectations, only to gradually realize they couldn’t find them less compelling and further find his own interest in them rather puzzling. Eventually the disillusioned instructor faces a choice: stay put and adapt to the situation, making whatever compromises seem consistent with maintaining the commitment that brought one to the classroom in the first place, or move on, perhaps to find a new vocation that doesn’t so insistently undermine one’s morale. My story differs only in my inability to move on completely, my need to account for the irreparable breach that opened up between my assumptions about the nature of literary study and the reality I actually encountered.

I am willing to take my share of the blame for failing to inspire a greater appreciation of the benefits of studying literature. Confronted with students assuredly in need of such inspiration, I was unable to carry out the task. Whether my failure was a result of my own inadequacy or the inadequacy of my training is probably irrelevant in the end. While most of the students I encountered could not use what I had to give them as a teacher, I did along the way have a few truly bright students who were deeply engaged by the literary texts they read. As far as I could tell, they really didn’t need anything I could give them. Perhaps a particularly dedicated and determined teacher would find the circumstances at Service University a welcome, albeit daunting, challenge. An argument could indeed be made that such students as those at Service provide the most meaningful opportunity for creative and diligent instruction. But this sort of dedicated teaching requires a sense of purpose unrelated to one’s knowledge or love of literature; cultivating this view of teaching is certainly not a priority of most graduate schools, and unfortunately I could never quite summon either the desire or the ability to view it this way on my own. To be a good teacher, I discovered, I needed to retain some vestige of my original sense of purpose, and as my confidence in the value for my students of what I was doing continued to erode, my interest in teaching as a mere professional activity became little more than perfunctory.

Above all, my experience led me to conclude that it is entirely appropriate to raise questions about the utility of literary study, despite the protestations of those who either pronounce it to be obviously its own reward or who consider taking such questions into account tantamount to collusion with the established political order. I could no longer deny that my own approach to the teaching of literature was built on its own assumptions about ends and means. I might explicitly dismiss the idea that literary study was a method of indoctrination, whether to the beliefs of the right, the left, or the presumed national consensus, but implicitly my initial belief that literature effectively taught could play a valuable and distinctive role in the development of the critical faculties (itself based on the assumption that acquisition of the skills involved could be valuable to most people) was heavily invested in the broader notion that literary study was indeed useful in some fundamental and profound way. The biggest problem with the Service University English department, I now understand, was not that my colleagues had no suitable conception of the ends to which their professional activities should be directed, but that, like me, they each had their own rather firm convictions about what they were doing that were nevertheless never fully examined and that led each of them to proceed according to his/her own particular understanding of how literature should be presented and why their students should want to learn about it. To say the least, these sometimes irreconcilable practices added up to a program that was anything but useful to the students for whom it was ostensibly created.

Unfortunately, this is a problem without a plausible solution. The model of literary study on which the Service U program is based is not only moribund, but was never really appropriate for such a school in the first place, as I have tried to point out. Literally, the students at Service U have no use for it. This is less, I believe, a comment on the abilities of the students than it is a recognition that a liberal education, especially when centered around the study of art and literature, has a necessarily limited appeal. If the best collective justification that can be found for the formal study of literature is some variation of “it’s good for you,” then literature—the individual poems, stories, novels—becomes merely useful in the narrowest, most utilitarian sense. That someone like Robert Scholes would propose an alternative program built on almost exclusively utilitarian grounds seems finally a belated acknowledgment that literature can play only a subsidiary role in an English department that seeks to have its work validated by an American society in which practical intelligence counts for more than theoretical sophistication or aesthetic sensitivity. Such adaptability will unquestionably be required for the professor of English to retain a comfortable place in the new corporate university. (Indeed, it will likely be required of all professors in what is still called “the humanities,” an academic construction that has largely been built on literature as one of its central pillars and is likely to collapse entirely once that pillar is removed. The fate of this division of the corporate university will probably prove to be the most ruinous, as its foundation was the shakiest to begin with. What other plausible justification for its very existence can really be offered beyond the avowal that some exposure to it is “good for” students?)

The prospect of an English department without literature at its core does not, it must be clear by now, particularly distress me. I would be more disturbed by it if I accepted the notion that literature itself could not survive shorn of its institutional supports in academe, but I cannot find such a claim very persuasive. It surely cannot be said the transformation of literature into an almost entirely academic pursuit has significantly enlarged the audience for serious works of literature—a good case could be made, exemplified by students such as those passing through my own classes, that it has instead done the opposite, discouraging more potential readers than it has encouraged. Nor can it be claimed that the academic literary curriculum provides the only, or even the best, opportunity to introduce curious readers to the literary tradition. Organizing a given array of literary works into some preconceived system is one thing, and should not necessarily be dismissed. But when I reflect on the way my own interest in literature developed, and on the way my best students’ progress in acquiring the skills of serious reading seemed to parallel my own, I find it hard to believe that such an organized, formal authority is needed to motivate those fascinated with the literary imagination to further investigate its possibilities, both as realized in the past and as explored in the present. The resources on which the classroom instructor draws are by now readily available to anyone willing to seek them out, and serious writing is in perilous shape indeed if it can only be kept alive by a system based on the colonization of those resources.

Literature can survive without this institutional support not because the academy has saddled it to untenable conceptions of its use-value, but because its intrinsic usefulness cannot be served by the practices of the academy. Richard Rorty has offered a description of literary writing as that writing which depicts the singular kinds of indignities human beings can inflict on one another, thereby reminding us of the inherent cruelty we are unfortunately prone to. This is as good an attempt to supply an interpersonal use-value for our giving respectful attention to works of literature as we are likely to find, but even here it is difficult to see how such a justification for reading literature necessarily serves as a justification for its formal study within the walls of the university. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to see how the corporate university especially would find it possible to measure “excellence” in fulfilling this purpose, however consequential one might really find it to be. In my view, however, Rorty is still too concerned with locating the pragmatic value of literature in its potential social utility. I believe that literature is profoundly useful, but that its benefits are ultimately and unavoidably personal. Serious works of literature, of whatever genre and from whatever period, give free range to the imagination and to the innovations of language—for both the writer and the reader. All other potential ways of valuing literature may or may not be “teachable”—but they do not, they cannot, encompass these most important qualities. This was, I now recognize, something I understood even before I decided to “study” literature, and the lesson I myself learned from my disillusioning efforts to profess the study of literature is that a literary education of this more immediate and untutored kind, free of the artificial structures that divert our attention, available to anyone determined to gain it, and not confined to the enervating space of the classroom, remains the best reason to value what literature can do for us.


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