English: A Long View

A comment from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the “state” of English:

Post-colonial studies, transnationalism, postmodernism and poststructuralism have taken hold as the dominant foci of English faculty. It is not enough that these scholars refuse to read the literature of historians, anthropologists sociologists and the like, they also refuse to teach basic literature (Blake, anyone?) and relate it to why they became interested in literature in the first place. As these fads move English further and farther away from their basic subject matter, and infuse their writing with their own bias and desperate attempts to be novel, it is the students who suffer. They would be much better off with less Foucault and more Dickens (Western and non-Western) and leave the arguments about transnationalism and cosmopolitanism to the scholars of disciplines who actually read the literature of these fields (with no comments implied about their worthiness in the long run).

I will draw from my academic history to think about this comment. I want to take a broader view of what it means to study English, what it means to write, and what it means to teach.

Here what the English Major looks like (now) at my undergraduate alma mater:

REQUIRED: 30 credit hours*
CORE REQUIREMENTS: 12 credit hours, including:
ENGL 300W: Critical Issues in Literary Studies
9 credit hours chosen from the following:
• ENGL 217W: Survey of British Literature I
• ENGL 218W: Survey of British Literature II
• ENGL 219W: Survey of American Literature I
• ENGL 220W: Survey of American Literature II
DISTRIBUTION REQUIREMENTS: 18 credit hours, including:
One 400 level course from each of the following categories:
• American Literature
• British Literature
• Senior Seminar
One 400 level Literature and Diversity course.
6 hours of electives, with no more than one course below the 215 level.

If memory serves—it has been some time—I took British Survey I, which included Beowulf, “Piers Plowman,” and healthy doses of Spenser and Sidney and Shakespeare. It was a survey, so nothing really heavy. I wrote a final paper on Spenser’s “Colin Clout’s Come Home Againne” (1589-90). And I remember falling in love with “The Wanderer,” relishing then what I would later come to think of as deracination. An American Survey class with Elizabeth Rich introduced me to modernism and the wonders of Gertrude Stein. For that class, I read the entirety of Maureen Honey’s Shadowed Dreams, and wrote about black women’s poetry.

After my general survey classes, I took a class on Shakespeare’s comedies and another on the poetry of the Early Modern Period. A special topics course on Jane Austen and her contemporaries introduced me to Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, and Ann Radcliffe—I continue to adore the Gothic novel and turn to eighteenth century novels to clear my palate. A subsequent graduate-level course on the Romantics covered the better-known and lesser-known figures (better than saying “major and minor”).

With Linda Kinnahan, I took a wonderful class on women’s innovative poetries that introduced me to Erica Hunt and Marlene Nourbese Philip and Kathleen Fraser and Susan Howe among many others. A subsequent graduate-level class walked through twentieth century American poetry, and there I discovered Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer, though we read broadly and deeply.

Nor was my reading confined to class assignments. Clumsily, mostly on my own, I worked through what I later recognized as founding texts in queer studies, feminism, African American studies, and postcolonialism. I cultivated the habit of creating and reading through bibliographies, following up footnotes, creating an ever-more expansive sense of “the field.” I will note that my undergraduate professors were incredible–the Department of English allowed me to take 3 graduate level classes.

While my teachers were “theoretically informed,” they taught me to focus on the primary text, to take it as the grounds for any argument I might make. I still work this way. This approach helped me in the liberal arts curriculum, where I took classes on Cultural Anthropology, Religion (a requirement), Simone de Beauvoir (a graduate student class), and introductory classes in Philosophy, Sociology, and Art History.

Graduate school offered other flexibilities. In terms of “chronology”: two classes on the Early Modern Period, both deeply inflected by new historicism, which means we read works in context. Subsequent classes on the Victorian period, the American Renaissance, and two classes on Modern British (not contemporary). Yes, I read Dickens and Hawthorne and Melville and Pound and Eliot. And, yes, I enjoyed reading them and return to them in my teaching, if not necessarily in my scholarship.

Three classes from the History Department, one from Anthropology, and another from Communications filled out my roster. Then, and now, I had no illusions that classes taken in one department could be everything I wanted (or needed). And this simply because there are differences in disciplinary method, in how evidence is understood, archives are constructed, arguments written. I was as interested then as I am now in how historians, anthropologists, sociologists, legal scholars, economists, and a whole range of other people organize knowledge. I read them. Not with any claims to being an expert, but wanting to expand my frames of reference: I want to be “honest” to the complex, messy ways that knowledge travels and is understood.

I offer this somewhat idiosyncratic, though by no means unusual, narrative to complicate the easy caricatures that circulate about what English professors read, know, and do. Only a very narrow vision of English would claim that we do not read “outside” our discipline. Anyone who argues that, for instance, postcolonial studies has not engaged with Anthropology does not understand the range of the field. Certainly, in conversations with anthropologists, it is clear that I am not an expert in the discipline. But it is also clear that we can learn from each other—and we read “toward” each other.

It is also not clear to me how literary works can be disembedded from the contexts of their historical production and circulation. I cannot teach Ngugi wa Thiong’o without talking about his education at Makerere, his encounter with Fanon and Marxism while in England, and his subsequent exile to the U.S. All of these infuse his work, though they may not exist as its content. Perhaps the simpler way of saying this is that we in English might approach “transnationalism” and “cosmopolitanism” differently, but a different approach differs from the ignorance and irresponsibility suggested by the comment I cited at the opening.

More recently, circumstances—one might say history—have compelled me to think about law and policy, about NGO structures and activism, about contemporary art and artists from Africa. Over the past few years, I have read multiple official government reports, law cases, NGO reports, studies on disease and health, studies on internet usage and Africa’s digital revolutions—history has forced me to stretch in ways I could never have anticipated. Some of this work finds its way into the classroom, some of it into my scholarship.

I worry when we model education as a thing that produces what Kenneth Burke termed “trained incapacity.” I am troubled by people who police fields and disciplines by privileging narrowly defined parameters of “expertise” and “excellence.” I inhabit English as a life-long learner who desires to share the process of learning. I seek to foster curiosity in my colleagues and my students, even as I seek to remain open to the knowledges produced and circulated by others.

3 thoughts on “English: A Long View

  1. Pingback: Breather « zunguzungu

  2. Hi Hector, I really like the idea of bookdrum, the sense of building a “thick world” for books. I’ll be sure to keep it in mind as a resource and as a model for a rich interpretive practice.

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