Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Why I Teach Literature Meme

We here at In the Middle have been tagged for the Why I Teach Literature meme, and I thought I’d take some time this morning/afternoon to respond to that tag. But first, an anecdote: For years, back in college, I thought that “meme” (used in the context of livejournal, facebook, etc) was a compound of “me-me” – i.e., the first person pronoun. As in, “this post is all about me! Me and my thoughts! Me! ME!” I’ve since learned it references Richard Dawkins and mimetic theory, and refers to a unit of cultural information that is passed on (like a virus! or a gene...) in the information-web that is the internet. But if it’s a selfish meme, maybe my first interpretation holds a bit. And speaking of selfish memes, I wouldn't want my meme to make you miss ITM's other post today, from JJC, in which the Middle Ages get ecologically sustainable (if only in model form).

I’ll admit, when it comes to speaking of the supposed “value” of the humanities, I have an instinctual urge to cringe. Even though I’ve only been in grad school for three and a half years, I’ve learned what inevitably comes next. It’s either a massive number of people yelling “of course what I do matters, how can this not matter, here’s how I matter!” or – to pick on someone who is no doubt steeled against the arguments and disagreements of mere graduate students to the point of not even noticing them – Stanley Fish’s recent NYTimes blog posts that began the Spring 2008 semester with a hearty “We are worthless.”

I quote Fish at length:

It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.
To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

Will the Humanities Save Us? Stanley Fish says: No. They won’t. To which I respond – Of course the humanities can’t save us. I do interesting research, I hope, but it’s not life-saving. However, his more specific question – that of their use – is, I think, disingenuous. I find it disingenuous because it does not address the single thing academics in the humanities do that does influence the world around us: we teach. Teaching must have a use, surely, else why do it?

A number of my blogosphere colleagues have responded to this debate, and generated some debate of their own in doing so. I've not read all of them as yet -- but you can get a full list of those who have responded at Free Exchange on Campus. What I'd like to outline here is teaching literature as teaching connections, and teaching tools for making connections. I'm also interested in hearing what the blogging population of scholars thinks about this question -- my co-bloggers, and readers of ITM, this means you! Eileen has responded at bit at the Kugelmass Episodes.

I teach because analysis matters. I wrote a paper my first year of graduate school – before I’d ever taught a class – on “The Future of Literary Studies”. Highly idealistic, I wrote the following:

What is perhaps most striking, however, is that in literature, theory, science, religion, art and even history—the only thing humanity can consistently prove it is doing is telling stories.... [I also argue that we therefore should analyze all stories, not merely fictive ones.] Literary study is the critical reading and evaluation of literature. And what is literature, if it is not the (scientific, realistic, and even purely fantastic) stories we tell?

Now, ignoring my endless optimism and belief in my field (which has been tempered, though only a little, by the passing years) I think I would stand by this statement as one of the reasons I teach literature: humans need to be able to analyze the stories they are told. In my University Writing class, I do not teach “literature” per se and I certainly don’t teach medieval literature – but if there is one thing I hope my students learn from my course it’s that the stories we tell are not confined to the “classics” they are taught in Lit Hum. Just as influential are the narratives told by scientists (Richard Dawkins, for example, in his Selfish Gene and historians (Adrian Hastings in The Construction of Nationhood, or even Herodotus and Orosius!). More importantly, there are the political narratives: the speeches, the political discourse which in our sound-bite culture trades meaning and thought for a witty turn of phrase or a catch all assumption. I teach, then, because I hope to help students realize that the facts don’t always speak for themselves – in fact, they are often spoken for, used in ways that are ethically charged and moreover contested. Those assumptions need to be tested, questioned – engaged.

I cite it often, but perhaps you, dear readers, will forgive me if I cite it one more time. Kathleen Davis’ article “Time Behind the Veil: The Media, the Middle Ages, and Orientalism Now” (from The Postcolonial Middle Ages) is a perfect example of the stakes of literary studies. Her perceptive reading of public discourse about the Taliban’s restrictions on women in Afghanistan, and the western “reading” of that restriction as “medieval” (thereby allowing Diane Sawyer to travel “about an hour and a half back in to the mountains, and from what we’ve been reading, that’s several hundred years back in time”) matters to the continuation of that discourse. Moreover, it is a sensitive reading of the ways in which the media tells the story of a western world that must “save” the backwards, repressive Other by bringing the “East” forward in time to modernity. Using literary tools and techniques, Davis makes an argument that matters in modern society. Recognizing that these stories are not simply “what happened” (a list of facts and successive events that do not need interpretation) but rather a representation that can do very real things in the world. Stories have consequences, and those consequences are often wrought on people.

Finally, I teach because I do think literature can change lives, open horizons – all those things that seem so unrepentantly idealistic. Do I know this for fact? Not really. Stanley Fish says he never wanted to help his fellow man because of a poem. Further, he avers that one teaches the subject matter and any delayed effect of what happens in a classroom is contingent and cannot be aimed at . It’s a long road, and overly complicated, but literature did change my way of looking at the world – precisely because it taught me that I had to look at it. This wasn’t because “The Wanderer” is a poetic injunction to go out and change the world – rather, a professor who insisted on its complexity and nuance, the ways in which ideological forces are at war within it, taught me how to look closely at the text to parse the way it works in the society from which it came. And the ways in which it doesn’t, or doesn’t have to. Eileen, in her comment cited above, states that aesthetic study -- and moreover, I think, teaching literature -- is also about dreaming and being foolish, which is critically important, I think, for opening up avenues toward a creative and open-minded life which might be said to do some good in the world. It's a point of view with which I whole-heartedly agree -- I may have taken the ideas presented by my professor and done something with them, but I needed the tools she gave me to do so. That seems to me to be one very important function of teaching literature, one too often overlooked: teaching students not what to think, but how to think. Giving them the tools to pay attention.

I teach critical, close readings as a “refined way of paying attention.” In short – I ask that my students really look at our subject matter, whether it’s science or philosophy or politics. It’s surprising what you can notice if you’re paying attention – and if nothing else I do in the classroom sticks with my students, I hope they learn how to notice, how to engage, the discourses that the media and the world tries to feed them – and I hope it helps them to become more informed, and more aware, of the world we inhabit. I teach because I believe in connections. I teach because if we’re going to speak across languages and cultures, we need to do so carefully, generously – we need to pay attention to others, and we need to pay attention to ourselves – most importantly, I teach because I think literature and literary analysis (and yes, even freshman composition) gives students the tools they need not just in their lives, but the tools they need in our collective life on the singular multiplicity of habitations we call Earth.

cross posted to ITM.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Old English, New Media: or, Friday Night Meta-Blogging

As everyone knows, blogging isn't really academic blogging unless somewhere along the line, you start "meta-blogging": indulging in that art of writing blog posts which theorize about blogging. Recently, I was asked to write an essay for the Old English Newsletter about blogging and Old English -- more specifically, perhaps, about what is to be gained through academic blogging. Although the essay itself has not yet been published, I wanted to post a bit of it on ITM and Old English in New York -- both to get some reactions, as well as to share what has kept me away from blogging so often in the past few weeks.

Of course, we all know that this particular issue has been done -- some might argue to near-death -- on the blogs. However, I do think I managed to get somewhere when it came to defining my blog-work in terms non-bloggers or those new to the blogosphere might understand. Of course, the usual suspects were among my early inspirations -- Scott Eric Kaufmann, Adam Kotsko, and Joseph Kugelmass are all cited in the portion I'm copying here...however, I also am indebted to posts by Doctor Virago, Bitch, PhD, and of course, the usual suspects here at ITM (Eileen, Jeffrey and Karl). I may still have time for revisions -- but even if I don't, I look forward to hearing from you, dear readers, on things I could nuance, clarify, change or get rid of entirely. Also: my apologies to DTK, who had not yet begun his series of guest posts here at ITM when I wrote this (and so doesn't yet appear in the litany of guest and co-bloggers on ITM that I list in footnote 8).

Excerpt from Old English, New Media: Blogging Beowulf
[The essay from which this excerpt comes begins with a consideration of my own beginnings in the blog world, along with questions of pseudo- and anonymity, before segueing into the conversation that took place, both at Inside Higher Ed and The Valve, between Kotsko, Kaufmann, and Kugelmass. I begin here with the consideration of Kaufmann's article on academic blogging.]

Scott Eric Kaufmann, on the other hand, sees a brighter future for the prospect of blogging in the academy. Maintaining a fairly high readership with his blog Acephalous has given Kaufmann a certain visibility within the scholarly community, but the real pay-off is in the experience he has had not only as an academic but as an academic author, because blogging has given him the experience of learning “what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience.” [1] Furthermore, he poses a particularly challenging question to specialists: “Why not write for people who don’t already [know] how you think about everything? Why not force yourself to articulate your points in such a way that strangers could come to know your thought as intimately as your friends from grad school do?” [2]

Kaufmann’s questions here are ones I routinely pose to my first year writing students, encouraging them away from what the Rhetoric and Composition specialists call “writer-based prose” and toward the far easier to engage “reader-based prose.” It is a fine line to walk; what academic blogs can do, however, is allow all of us an opportunity to write for the non-specialist, to attempt to make complex arguments without being obscure. In responding to both of these authors, Joseph Kugelmass makes the point (one I hope will be well taken) that blogs allow an interface between the academy and the “public” in a way more traditional scholarly outlets such as journals, edited collections and books seldom do. Moreover, he claims that “[h]umanistic blogs are one way of restoring the connection between scholarly tradition and the new plenitude of culture.” [3] In short, they allow the humanities to be accessed by their subject – humans.

Kugelmass concludes his meditation on the use of blogging in the formation of academic communities with a possibility many might be familiar with: the idea (though not explicitly stated) of the workshop. Conversations on a blog, he suggests, might function as “stepping-stones to mainstream work: ironing the kinks out of a journal article, gathering sources for a dissertation, drafting a keynote address or the chapter of a book.” [4] Blogging, then, allows a lower-stakes audience for a work-in-progress, and thus allows for the author to take risks he or she might not otherwise take, and benefit from readers’ comments and responses. In line with Kaufmann, he highlights the development of the author in the writing of a blog, arguing that “the opportunity exists to turn blogging into something more than an interstitial occupation, for the lonely times, and the idle times. It can be the practice, as vital in scholarship as in friendship among equals, of discovering a voice.” [5] The idea of a practice inherent in blogging – a practice which should be highlighted as a process rather than a product – is key, for Kugelmass and for many academic bloggers (myself included), in the formation of “voice.” [6]

I would argue that the idea of developing academic “voice” is what makes academic blogging so valuable in general. In May of 2007, after numerous conversations with colleagues at Kalamazoo about the possible ramifications (positive and negative) of letting go of my pseudonym, Old English in New York’s “Anhaga” was relieved of her duties of authorship, and I “claimed my voice.” [7] In the time since, I have used the blog as a forum for promoting the activities of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium, as well as posting interesting calls for papers and descriptions of conferences in the New York area. After having been a frequent commenter on the medieval group blog In the Middle (founded by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in 2006), I was asked in August 2007 to join the collaborative project there as the resident graduate student blogger. [8] In the Middle, and the community that has formed around it, is a forum in which I share my own ideas and projects, to be certain. However, and perhaps more importantly to the development of my academic voice, it has allowed me to be an active commenter and interlocutor for the work of other academics.

Through Old English in New York and now In the Middle, I have found a community of scholars with similar interests, who want to provoke and participate in discussions about the work we do. I would suggest that a part of what is gained in the blogging community is not simply a chance to think aloud on one’s own topics, but to be affected by each others’ work. Even when topics range outside our own areas of expertise, we can still comment usefully and intelligently on each others’ ideas. Moreover, I have found that the ideas and questions raised on the blogs linger with me, and hold a purchase on my imagination which can only enlarge my breadth as a scholar. This kind of interaction often encourages imaginative juxtapositions in what I call a “Forsterian” scholarship, drawing on the epigraph to the E.M. Forster novel Howards End. Our work is to “only connect”: to connect ideas, people, cultures and texts in a network that might, in the end, be best described not only as human but also as humane:

[W]ithout conversation, especially among those who seek, not to tear down your ideas, but to help you make them better and more theoretically rigorous, I really don't believe there is much traction for really good work to develop its highest potential, or else whatever ‘victory’ you do achieve with your work is, again, kind of lonely, maybe even empty. [9]

Here, Eileen Joy picks up on my Forsterian theme, suggesting that scholarly work at its very best is always a process of collaboration. Blogs are becoming a fruitful way for us, as scholars seeking to create a community of thinkers, to reach out across the distances that separate us to form a kind of “global classroom” in which we can all benefit from each others’ expertise early on in projects that can be made more astute through the interaction.

In reaching out in a format that is readily accessible to a culture that is increasingly engaging the texts we study, we have a chance to let intellectuals and enthusiasts who are not “academics” see inside the “ivory tower” a bit more. Perhaps in the process, that tower might be dismantled, allowing the study of medieval cultures and texts a place in a society that often finds it inaccessibly remote. All we need do is connect.


[1] Scott Eric Kaufman. “An Enthusiast’s View of Academic Blogging.” Inside Higher Ed. 1 November 2007.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Joseph Kugelmass. “Academic Blogging Revisited.” The Valve. 1 November 2007.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Here I would like to thank the director and assistant directors of the University Writing Program at Columbia – Joseph Bizup and Nicole Wallack – for introducing me to the theoretical aspects of writing, and in particular this focus on process, which is one of the key components of the course.
[7] “Claiming my Voice” Old English in New York. 16 May 2007.
[8] Although In the Middle began as a single-author blog, Cohen has hosted a number of guest bloggers during the two years of its existence, including Jon K. Williams and Michael O’Rourke. The first In the Middle “book club” event featured contributions from Susan Kim, Heather Blurton and Asa Mittman. Karl Steel and Eileen Joy, who are now co-bloggers with Cohen, also began their work on the blog as guest bloggers.
[9]Eileen Joy. Comment on “Scholarship and Blogs part 54656” by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. In the Middle. 21 December 2007.

cross posted at ITM.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Old English in New York, Version 2.0

Having recently finished That Which I Had Planned To Do before anything else this break, I took the opportunity to update and modernize my blog. Time for a change, I say. So here you go: Change. New title bar. Funky little "favicon" (up in the url bar above the browser...how cool is that?).

I did all the design myself (with the help of a lovely little device called "paint.net" -- which you can find here. It's incredibly easy to use. If I can do it -- anyone can.

Opinions welcome.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Old English in...North Carolina Borders?!

I'm home for the holidays, spending time at my beloved Wake Forest library and generally enjoying not freezing, though it's been a bit colder than I like the last few days. When inhabiting North Carolina, I frequent places like Borders, which I avoid like the plague up north -- when you need a quasi-intellectual setting in which to pleasantly waste an hour, there's no high-power substitute here.

That said, I rescind all my former assumptions about North Carolina's Borders stores. For lo and behold, on the bookshelf: Old English has achieved enough status to have a language-learning guide on CD and cassette. Who knew?