15 February 2005

Reassessing the formula

In yet another brilliant post, Dan Green at The Reading Experience continues to question the stranglehold the academy has on literary study:

Again, what I find most telling about this formulation is that denying students access to theory would impede their ability "to have a meaningful understanding of modern literary scholarship" (emphasis mine). The almost unconscious assumption is that to study literature in modern American universities is perforce to study the scholarship on literature, to become familiar with what others who have devoted themselves to the study of literature have written about the study of literature. [...]

Certainly we can think of the way we come to value reading works of literature as, broadly speaking, something that is learned, but in this context "teaching" means teaching literature as part of an academic curriculum. And, in my opinion, this underlying premise that literature is something to be encountered through the formal study such a curriculum imposes, that "literature" is somehow first and foremost a subject of academic study, needs to be reconsidered.

He outlines the events that got us to this point, and concludes:

Theory is important, indeed indispensable, to "those who are planning to become graduate students and professors." And undoubtedly "anyone teaching literature will have to deal with a group of conflicting assumptions." But these things are true because, essentially, becoming a literature professor, not advancing the cause of literature, has become the primary objective of the graduate student, and because teaching literature has come to be much more about teaching--that is, professing a point of view--than about the works of literature being taught. Those works are still around, waiting for such readers as are willing to take them for what they have to offer. But in this regard, curious readers would be much better served by reading, say, literary weblogs than by giving much thought to what literary theory is all about.

(My prior mentions of this ongoing discussion can be found here and here.)


molrendiel said...

Excellent post, amc. I agree wholeheartedly. I question whether one can actually learn literary theory without first appreciating literature. Can one really criticize an author without having some kind of impassioned response to his/her writing first? But academia seems to be all about emasculating us from such responses...

amcorrea said...

That's basically Rilke's response (love understands more than criticism can--which, of course, flies in the face of most theory).

I am really curious to know what happens to professors like I had--those who really care about literature and believe it's important. What happens to those of us who aspire to that? Do we somehow get caught in the cogs of academia and get the spirit crushed out of us?

I looked through my notes on some of Eliot's lectures, and it is all very solid, insightful, affirming stuff. But it seems that analysis quickly became commodified...thus the current state of affairs. (Read his whole post--it's dead-on.)