December 07, 2005

Death of the English Major

Margaret Soltan has a piece at Inside Higher Ed on the way in which English Departments have managed to bring about their own marginalization.

[W]hen there’s not even a broadly conceived field of valuable objects around which we all agree our intellectual and pedagogical activity should revolve, there’s no discipline of any kind.

Instead, there’s a strong tendency, as Louis Menand puts it, toward “a predictable and aimless eclecticism.” A young English professor who has a column under the name Thomas Hart Benton in The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it this way: “I can’t even figure out what ‘English’ is anymore, after ten years of graduate school and five years on the tenure track. I can’t understand eighty percent of PMLA, the discipline’s major journal. I can’t talk to most people in my own profession, not that we have anything to say to each other. We don’t even buy one another’s books; apparently they are not worth reading. We complain about how awful everything is, how there’s no point to continuing, but nobody has any idea what to do next.”

The piece tracks the ways in which politization of the canon and the introduction of crazed literary theories are causing (or have caused) the collapse of the field.

Sigh. I was an English major twenty years ago and even though I attended the Glorious Workers' Soviet of Middletown and this sort of thing was creeping into the department even then, one could still pick and choose courses with solid professors that covered the bulk of, well, what English majors ought to read. Indeed, I managed to hit most of the high points of the canon between Chaucer and the mid-20th Century. I haven't checked out the course catalog lately, but I'll bet it's a lot harder to piece together such a curriculum today and even more difficult to avoid spending all one's time noodling about whether Jane Austen was a lesbian or Shakespeare a secret socialist.

I suppose that if I had to do it all over again, I'd be a classics major instead. Indeed, I think what kept me away from that route back then was the intensive language study involved. Too bad.

Yips! to Rachel.

YIPS from Steve: We have an "Honors Fellow" whose speciality is deconstructing cookbooks.

I kid you not.

Next up, no doubt, will be a major in Lunchbox Studies.

Posted by Robert at December 7, 2005 10:32 AM | TrackBack

Not an English major although I took that same class as Rob on Chaucer at the GWSOM (took it with the original Llama Butcher, that was a kick), but in science it is relatively easy to publish new findings since, well that's what we do. But any given humanities professor has the tremendous pressure to publish something new when many of the books they are analyzing are hundreds of years old. If the universities spent more time evaluating the quality of the teaching instead of the impact on the field, we might see less of the nonsense. More likely we will see continued deconstruction.

Posted by: LB buddy at December 7, 2005 11:09 AM

Very true that the sciences have an open-ended mandate on research and analysis, given the ever-widening scope of knowledge.

As for the humanities, perhaps it's accurate to say that too much publication means everybody perishes.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at December 7, 2005 11:21 AM

LB Buddy nailed it.

Posted by: Steve the LLamabutcher at December 7, 2005 12:30 PM

Well, this makes my Homer piece look right on the money.

Blame it partly on a culture that values the unique over the cogent. I have hope though; one of my professors agreed with me that the appeal of all the post-structualist critiques would probably fade, and focus would return to historical and cultural reads, the rest falling under "reader response."

As they say, "Everything old shall be made new again."

Posted by: tee bee at December 8, 2005 03:59 PM

That's "post-structuralizt."

Posted by: tee bee at December 8, 2005 04:02 PM