The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Doubt is part of all religion. All the religious thinkers were doubters." ... ... Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Commentary of the Day - January 2, 2006:  Student Pressure and Your Average English Department.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

I am happy to report that, so far as I know, English departments across the land do not offer up major author seminars in the likes of Anne Rice or Stephen King, although many of their works are included in elective courses in vampire studies or horror fiction.  No doubt some students would prefer that an entire semester be devoted to in-depth studies of these and other contemporary best sellers because  undergraduates regularly argue that these are the writers they actually read.  Evaluations of the curriculum  make it abundantly clear that novels by Henry James, James Joyce, or William Faulkner   are the stuff that headaches are made of and the reason that college bookstores keep a goodly supply of Cliff's Notes in stock.

I say  this knowing full well that there are exceptions, happy exceptions, to the bleak picture of philistinism I've just painted, but even the sharpest knife in the English major drawer would admit that many of his or her fellow students are even worse than I suspect, and that if they had a chance to rule the curricular roost, all manner of junk, from bodice rippers to commix could be taken for credit.  The good news, then, is that English departments know how to hold the line about which authors deserve to be studied in-depth, in semester-long seminars; but, they will offer up all manner of junk if faculty members think they can lure a large enrollment with the lurid.  So, if students lobby for more King or Rice, chances are they will get them.

I'm not confident how they will act when a group of until recently quiet students insist that their voices be heard.  I'm talking about evangelical Christians who are now gaining in numbers and  in confidence. If African-American students once demanded that their literature be taught -- and taught by African-American professors -- and if feminists once argued that the English curriculum was dominated by dead, white males and that courses in feminist literature needed to be added, and taught be feminist professors, what makes the appeals of born-again Christians for courses on Christian literature taught by committed Christians so different?  Isn't this simply the latest round of lobbying efforts, and isn't it true that, each time in the past,  courses were added and faculty hired?

"Well," I can hear some of my readers murmuring, "born-agains are different."  I heard much the same argument, the "it's different" argument, when  the faculty once debated the sticky wicket of whether or not to give academic credit for internships.  As I remember that faculty meeting, we were treated to heartwarming stories about students who took a semester off to work for Planned Parenthood or for  Greenpeace.  What they learned, we were told, was something about the "real world" and how it worked. Some animals in this farm were more equal -- that is, more academically worthy -- than others, but after a good deal of speechifying, the faculty was on the edge of voting that students could get academic credit IF they wrote a term paper about their experiences and what they gained from them.

That's when I stood up to ask if all this also happens to the student who happens to spend his or her internship with the National Rifle Association (NRA) -- not, I hasten to add,  that I care  a fig about  whatever the NRA is currently lobbying for.   "Absolutely not!"  I was told, and when I asked why, the  person replied in exactly the same language he and others will use when the evangelical Christian lobby demands Christian lit. courses taught by believing Christians.

So much for the elastic word, "different."  My point is this: if departments of English bend to certain  fashionable winds they must, ultimately, bend to them all -- including ones that may strike them as unwelcome, or just plain "different."
I worry about the odd places that "inclusion" and "diversity" can take us if professors are to be true to their principles.  Not long ago campus conservative groups began to ask if "diversity" applies to professors, most of whom are overwhelmingly liberal.  Where, they rightly ask, are professors  sympathetic to their point of view?  Evangelical Christians will soon be asking the same questions, and English professors of conscience will have a tough time fashioning a reply.

What has mattered in the last few decades is not what English departments ought to offer (there is no agreement about that)  but what should be offered to assuage suffering and/or low self esteem.  The result is that fewer and fewer courses in Henry James or James Joyce are being offered on the undergraduate level.  Part of the reason, sadly enough, is that far too many English professors have not managed to make their own way through The Golden Bowl, much less Ulysses.  Indeed, there are whole English departments (my own college, alas, turns out to be one of them) in which not a single faculty member has read Ulysses even once, and at a comparable private college down the road nobody offers up courses in Hemingway or Fitzgerald.  I assume that many of the people in the English department at that school have read a few Hemingway short stories and The Great Gatsby but, again, none of them feels either equipped or constrained to offer courses in American modernism.

No matter, the whisperers will point out, and figure that I'm just another fuddy duddy rattling on about the difference between  "how it was" and how it now is.  That's partly true, just as it is partly true that English professors reflect their graduate school training long after they "graduate" as newly minted Ph.D.s.  The rub comes in if you happen to have been more deeply trained in literary theory than you were in literature, and you were taught to believe that theoreticians were much more interesting than novelists or poets.

The result is that many English professors of a certain age find it easier to get excited about multiculturalism than about great writers because they have read very few primary works of  consequence.  Asking these folk about literature reminds me of the Israeli army recruit who was asked if he could swim, "No," he replied, then  quickly added "But I know the theory of it."  English departments are likely to suffer through this joke for at least the next twenty more years, as professors  who got tenure because they were savvy about Derrida and Foucault hang around to shape an English  department curriculum that is longer on deserts than it is on meat-and-potatoes.

That's why advanced  seminars in multiculturalism, Madonna, or "The Sopranos" are just a heart beat away from making it into the college catalogue.  Those who remember an Irish poet named Yeats might remember what he said about things falling apart and the center not holding.  That is what is occurring across the land as English department have a hard time resisting whatever fashionable bandwagon squeaks its way down the road.

Still, there is pressure, and "pressure."  And as for those who will surely beat back any efforts to give Christian students what they want, they know how to rationalize and how to stonewall.  And if necessary, the worst of this crowd knows how to lie, and then how to lie about their lies.

© 2006, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College.  He currently is working on a number of pieces involving  religion and literature.

The IP comments: Here at Krispy Kreme U. we don't have an English department per se, instead we have a behemoth that goes by the title Department of English, Comparative Literature, and Linguistics with a faculty that includes some 70 full- and part-time instructors -- apparently there is strength in numbers.  Needless to say, we offer a great range of English courses.  However, the requirements for the major appear to be relatively traditional even though many faculty members are young enough to fall into the group Sanford talks about.  Students are required to have a fairly thorough grounding in 18th and 19th century English literature and poetry; and, they have to take at least two major author courses that include Shakespeare, and either Chaucer or Milton.  To be sure, a student can include 12 semester units of electives in his or her major program; and, those can be chosen from the likes of Cultural Pluralism in American Literature, Introduction to Afro-American Literature, Asian American Literature, Literature of the American Indians, Horror Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, Detective Fiction, Science Fiction and the like.  The first of these courses may include the study of Jewish writers in America -- presumably such major authors as Ferber, Heller, Hellman, Singer, Stein, and the like.  It seems to the IP that there should be room in such a course for writers whose focus is on Christian topics.  However, the IP agrees with Sandy that those choices should not result from student pressure.  Rather, those decisions need to be based on the quality of the literature itself.  Likewise, who teaches those authors should not be determined by student pressure.

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