Monday, July 17, 2006

If I had it to do over again...

Having just arrived home from a riveting Latin class yes, on infinitives and indirect constructions (which for once I seemed to understand during class and not in the hours outside of it spent studying), I was expecting to eat a quick meal, and then start doing a bit of work before bed. However, on Arts and Literature Daily, I found an absolutely fascinating -- and honestly, somewhat disheartening -- article. It's titled Good-bye, Mr. Keating. The title, of course, is a reference to the amazing English professor from Dead Poets Society, who inspires his students to reach for their dreams, to suck the marrow out of life -- with the tragic consequences of the suicide of one of them, who is forbidden by his father to pursue his dream of acting. It's a movie I saw relatively late in college, and I love it. The article is essentially about what the author seems to view as the great let-down of graduate school -- that to become a professor one must give up what one initially loves about literature.

A representative quotation (though one should really read the whole article to get a better feel for its tone):

It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school. They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that's why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.

For me, it's strange and wonderful, after receiving tenure, to be able to rediscover my undergraduate self, to nurture in my students the motives that drew me to graduate school in the first place.

The problem is you can't get to where I am now without going through a decade or more of immersion in a highly politicized and anti-literary academic culture. You have to spend so many years conforming that, by the time freedom presents itself, you don't know why you became an English major in the first place. You might even have contempt for your seemingly naïve students, who represent the self that you had to repress in order to be a professional.

It is not that I want to privilege some form of literary dilettantism as a substitute for professionalism. I simply want to demonstrate that the reasons most people get into English are different from the motives that will make them successful in graduate school and in professional life beyond that. They must, ultimately, purge themselves of the romantic motives that drew them to English in the first place — or pretend to do so. If you want to be a literary professional, you must say goodbye to Mr. Keating.

You may be teaching English, but in many academic positions (and certainly in the mainstream of academic publishing), you'll have to fulfill your emotional life in other ways, probably in secret, the way some people sing along with Barry Manilow in their cars.

The author offers this opinion after his run down of the reasons his students have given him for choosing to pursue English after one semester of literary theory study. They're typical reasons -- reading was a comfort, a joy, something the students truly loved. Frankly, they're reasons that sound familiar to me. I love getting lost in stories, in worlds that are removed and different from my own.

Now, I wouldn't be terribly offended if people think me naive, or perhaps simply innocent -- in a lot of ways, I'm pretty sure (and frankly, hope!) that I am, and I made myself a promise that I'd ward off "cynical grad student"-itis as long as I possibly can. I realize that the academic world is not all about loving literature...but there's this part of me that thinks that this, the chance to study what I love, and more importantly to teach others about it, to connect others (and I return, as always, to Forster's "only connect") to the past and to the present through literature -- how could I ever be disappointed when I will one day have the chance to return to others what my professors gave to me? And I'm not even sure what, precisely, makes the author feel the way he does -- there seems to be a very anti-theory tone to the article, but on some level it seems to be a frustration with literature as no longer being the discipline it once was?

I've had that conversation before. And I have to say -- I'm not disappointed with literary study. There are days it's difficult, but that's always struck me as kind of like life. Of course I have doubts, and fears, and there are days when it all seems kind of pointless, like I'm wasting my time. It isn't what I thought it would be in high school when I decided that this was what I wanted for my life. The difference isn't a bad one, though. Do I understand every literary technique and theory that I'm exposed to? Of course not. I don't understand a tenth of it. But it has stretched my mind, and opened up whole new ways of thinking for me, ways of understanding the world, ways (I hope) of finding my own way to make some small difference in it. There are days where my mind is an incoherent muddle, from historical linguistics or hours of Middle English or from reading too much theory -- but then I stumble across one of those lines in Derrida that can just take your breath away in its artistry, or a line in Chaucer that is perfect in its wry humor about life and love, or a facet of vowel morphology that explains why a modern word looks the way it does but still carries the valence of an ancient meaning, now present only in part -- and my frustration and inability to understand vanishes, and all I can see is how interesting and downright beautiful literary study can be. And I see the way some of my professors' work intersects with their commitment to the world and to making the lives of ordinary people better -- and frankly, it gives me hope.

This is relatively incoherent (thank you, Latin) -- but I guess I just wonder if Benton's is a common reaction. Certainly graduate school does disappoint some people. And of course there are days I feel like screaming out Eliot's line from Prufrock -- This is not what I meant at all! Then I quiet down, remember to breathe, and in a day or two it passes, and I realize that I'm here because I feel so compelled to read and write and teach that there is literally nothing else I want to do with my life. And I just can't imagine that, standing in his vantage point (god willing) in 10 or 15 years time, there'd be any qualifications on the statement that I would, in fact, do it all again.

Unless of course, it's "in a heartbeat."

Edit: Check out the link Tiruncula sent in the comments below for a far more articulate response to Benton's article.


Tiruncula said...

There was some interesting discussion of this a few days ago over at Flavia's. There's a lot of sympathy out there for your perspective, and, as I note there, I really can't imagine purely professional/political motivations carrying one very far in a PhD in OE!

anhaga said...

Thanks for the link -- it's good to know I'm not alone in thinking Benton's wrong! And I'd have to agree about OE as well.

Flavia said...

Thanks for the link and for dropping by, Anhaga! I'm pleased to have been introduced to your blog.

Darth Kohl said...

This post was a delight to read. I'm glad we're friends.

anhaga said...

Flavia> And I'm pleased to have been introduced to yours! Thanks for stopping by. :)

Darth Kohl> Aww. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and the feeling is mutual.