Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Sharleen Mondal

Thanks for citing my post. I'd argue with the statement that I am "living in another academic age," and that the things I describe are no longer important. My evidence that these these things are still very much important is the fact that every paper I've written thus far in graduate school (I'm in my third year in the PhD program) has been held to the standards that I describe. When I didn't include a discussion of existing work on a novel I analyzed, I was even told that my work could not be "graduate level" until I learned to include a thorough explanation of how I was contributing to what had already been written about the novel. I was firmly told that "graduate level" work meant reading what had already been written about the novel I was analyzing, and that this long, laborious process is one without which I could not possibly contribute anything acceptable. When I read a seminar paper in front of colleagues at the beginning of my second year, I received a well-deserved verbal lashing for not adequately historically contextualizing my analysis of another novel. We are constantly required to ask ourselves the "so what?" question--that is, so you have this idea, now explain why the hell it's important to the field--and then to explicitly address that "so what?" in our work. Even after getting these basic things down, my work is returned to me with demands to make it more accessible, more in conversation with existing criticism, etc. It could be chance and maybe I just have really good advisors, but my point is that I've learned (often the humiliating way characteristic to the first couple of years in grad school) to be very rigorous about my work.

As for theory speak and jargon, I think it's a slightly different issue. One can write a well-contextualized and relevant paper which is also understandable to few people. This doesn't disqualify the paper from being a worthy contribution in some way, though I share your thoughts about how "patently absurd" this can get.


Maybe smirk is supplanting snark as a prevailing critical lense.

Daniel, you have it right, this is a rehash and in attitude, disingenious, me thinks.

A good laugher about intellectual currents and such is Francis Wheen's book, Idiot Proof.

Charlie Bertsch

I enjoyed reading your thoughtful comments. Though I disagree with you on a number of points, I share your distaste for scholarly prose that hides its lack of content with polysyllabic meanderings.

There is one matter, however, that I feel the need to complain about.

You write that, "Charles Bertsch, a professor who accompanies Lewis-Kraus to the convention, practically admits he has more interest in PAC-10 basektball."

But I think if you paid closer attention to the passage in question, you'd realize that you are overstating your point. I certainly express more interest in PAC-10 basketball than I do in the author's late-night musings. Literature is never discussed.

My problem with said musings, BTW, is that they were "late-night" musings. As someone who has attended the MLA convention, you can surely understand why, after listening to panels all day, I might wish to spend the hour between 11:30pm and 12:30am doing something other than discussing the convention.

Perhaps that seems like a trifle to you, but I do not wish to be grouped with English professors who have no interest in literature.

Amardeep Singh

It would be difficult to prove either way that literature professors don't study, appreciate, or advocate the reading literature. Speaking for myself, I tend to think many of us do all of those things. We aren't always well rewarded for it, but we do it.

Read Andrew Dubois's introduction to the recent collection "Close Reading." Dubois is really a bit of a conservative; he clearly personally prefers formalist literary criticism.

But he also argues that the idea of 'close reading' remains universal in the the profession, including in Theory, identity politics, etc. He sees it prevalent in undergraduate pedagogy and in what is generally expected of graduate students (Sharleen's testimony speaks to this). Also, people on the job market for literature positions are almost always advised to make sure their job talks exemplify close readings of serious literature. (Admittedly, they are not always hired on the strength of those readings.)

In short, close reading may still rule the profession under camouflage.

As for MLA, the kinds of papers people give there may not be indicative of what people are like in their respective classrooms. People are doing what they think will impress, not how they actually think. You'll see more honest papers at the various author or period-oriented "societies" (i.e., the Woolf society, the Modernist Studies Association, etc.).

See also Tim Burke's recent idea for a new university. The insularity of many English profs. isn't limited to English. Other humanities departments as well as the social scientists also suffer from it.


Hey Dan. A usual, I enjoyed your post and absolutely agree that 'jargon' per se is not the problem, but rather jargon/prose which masks lack of content.

But a couple of quibbles. One, I see that Charlie Bertsch has already defended himself, but I wanted to add that I think you sell him a bit short. I thought Charlie came off as very intelligent and sincere in the article and in no way a part of the problem you outline.

Two, although I also think current trends in scholarship (cultural theory et al.) are detrimental to literary studies as a profession, I think that perhaps it is not as widespread on a micro-level as many think. My experience in a PhD program actually mirrors Sharleen's to an extent. My professors demanded textual evidence, historical grounding, and did not ignore aesthetics. One thing I did was actively avoid courses and/or professors whom I thought or knew were in the jargony, cultural theory camp and in effect was able to tailor my program as much by "camp" as by field. Granted, one shouldn't have to pick courses based on that criterion and as I ultimately left the program without my PhD, I clearly still have issues with the whole dog-and-pony show....

But my point is that there is a flip-side to the theory/cultural studies/race-class-gender crowd and they are still out there teaching even if it takes some effort to find them. It's not all doom and gloom. I also think Amardeep's post has a lot of truth in it.

Dan Green

To Sharleen Mondal: I'll slightly revise my statement. The things you mention are also considered important when professors are able to force graduate students to jump through their hoops.

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