The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.".... ....Sir Richard Steele.

Commentary of the Day - January 14, 2007: Ulysses, Undergraduates, and Lifelong Readers

Recently, the IP posted a piece of mine about James Joyce's novel and those English majors who collect their sheepskins without turning a single page of Ulysses.  A shame, I thought (and still do), but all too understandable given the sad fact that many of their professors haven't read Ulysses either.

I received a good many emails from people who couldn't agree with me more, and about an equal number from those who couldn't agree less.  So, let me begin by trying to carve out some common ground: Among the many things we hope for our undergraduates is that they become lifelong readers -- and this sentiment is certainly not restricted to those who teach in English departments.  From the humanities to the sciences, professors agree about the value of encouraging lifetime readers.

So far, so good, but the devils that bedevil us are in the details, or to slightly twist an old adage, art is long and academic semesters short.  There simply isn't enough time for undergraduates to read most, much less all, of the world's great books.  The list of books one might like to cram into a course, nearly any course, is always longer than one’s actual list.  This, no doubt, is the reason that Saul Bellow's novella, Seize the Day is taught much more often than the longer -- and more complicated -- Herzog, and why Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 makes it onto the syllabus rather than his more ambitious Gravity's RainbowUlysses, many told me, suffers from the same fate; it just takes up too much time.

I am also told that today's undergraduates have increasingly short attention spans and that only makes the problem of putting book,  chair, and sitzfleish together even harder.  Moreover, I say this knowing full well that even if our students lived in a parallel collegiate universe where there were no football games, no fraternities, and no time to "goof off", there still wouldn't be enough time for the serious reading I have in mind.  That's why developing lifelong readers is so important, but also why it's so difficult.  I am told that many undergraduates read more books during their college years than they do in the remainder of their lives.  I hope this sad assessment is not true, even as I would quickly admit that life after graduation has a way of filling up one's time with such real-life tasks as balancing a monthly checkbook or changing a baby's diapers.

Those who agreed with me about what can only be called a watered-down English major nonetheless took me to task for making Ulysses a litmus test.  What about x or y (you can fill in the blanks) they would ask?  And what about the English major who specializes in 18th century literature?  Or the Renaissance?  Or Ye Olde English, for example?  Let me now publicly admit that they are right, even though I retain my conviction that Ulysses is a seminal novel.  Moreover, I continue to feel that the modern period has too often been swamped by the larger, trendier boats of postmodern literature and theory.

Departments of English do what they can, given the pushes and pulls of academic life.  For those members of my former department who were not amused by some of my remarks about Ulysses not being offered (it now is, by a person hired after I left active duty), or my too-quick assertion that nobody in the department had read the novel (apparently a few closet readers had), I not only apologize but also go on to say that one of the things about my former department that makes me proud is the fact that requirements for the English major include five -- count 'em, five -- survey courses at a time when many English departments have done away with survey courses altogether.

Say what one will about the problems inherent in "survey" courses, the fact remains that they expose many students to writers -- and, yes, to voices -- they had not heard before.

But the classroom is not the only place to encourage lifelong reading; extra-curricular activities can also help.  I think there's nothing wrong with a Great Books reading group as an activity sponsored by members from several departments.

I would, however, strenuously oppose any efforts to turn my pie-in-the-sky proposal into for-credit courses, whether called "Great Books" or "Some Pretty Good Books."  The latter "aw-shucks" title betrays a sensibility that tries to position itself as far as possible from anything remotely resembling moral gravitas.  For such people, the problem is (was?) the literary canon, and how the official pantheon of work written by dead, white males could be destabilized.  In large measure, the applecart has been overturned; and, now,  college catalogs regularly announce courses in Madonna, the Sopranos, comic books, and the "text" of cereal boxes.  True, most of these guerilla courses are hit-and-run affairs, here one semester, gone the next.  But I am hardly the only person who is pretty sure that these courses are flimsy indulgences, and that they are likely to be completely forgotten in fewer years than the warranty on an eight-speed blender.  My last comment on some corners of academia was meant to have a hard, no-nonsense edge but that ain't nothing compared to the comments of parents who have to pony up $40,000+ a year for awfully thin gruel.

Saul Bellow once told an interviewer that "enthusiasm" was essential to good undergraduate teaching, and lest I be perceived as a thoroughly sour sort, let me say that I generally agree with Bellow on this point.  But let me add that I also agree with Thoreau about every person marching to his or her own drum, although I’m fully aware that the world has suffered much from where some drums took some people.  Enthusiasm is much the same thing.  Hitler, for example, was very "enthusiastic" about ridding the world of its Jews.

It is precisely here that quarrels about what is worth reading and teaching are worth having on the floor of faculty meetings, but, that said, we need to be sure that all departments, not just English departments, hire people who bring the right sort of enthusiasm to the difficult task of liberally educating undergraduates raised by television and hooked on play stations.  Those faculty members who desperately seek student approval and who have sensibilities not above pandering to the lowest common denominator should, in due time, be shown the door.  If not, they will, when tenured, do much worse.

What perplexes me, among other things, is why it is that Great Books groups are thriving all across the country, peopled by adults who are now retired and who had been less than serious readers in college.  Would it be so terrible if members from several departments came up with a "list" (always the subject of groans) that might guide one semester's reading-and-discussion, followed by a completely new list the following semester.  Let me hasten to add that I have a modest three or four books per semester in mind.  Faculty members who might think of this as an extra-curricular activity worth supporting will support it; others will not.  But isn't this rather like the English majors who volunteered to read Ulysses (so I would think of them as "serious" majors) as distinct from the many others who declined my invitation.

Serious, lifetime reading isn't for everyone, although, increasingly attending a college is.  That's yet another rub for another day.  I think it important to expose every student to a generous smattering of the best that has been thought -- and said -- and it is my hope (sometimes against all hope) that a line from a Keats sonnet or a poem by Auden will come back to them when enough age, experience, and, yes, sorrow, has made the sustaining powers of literature more attractive than they were during the hectic, overly crowded years of an undergraduate education.

Finally, I promise to  get off the Ulysses bandwagon if anything remotely resembling my dream of Great Books College Reading Groups turns out to be true.

2007, Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin & Marshall College.  Sanford divides his time between the New Jersey shore and the Florida shore -- what a life!  He is a frequent contributor to The Irascible Professor.

The IP comments: First, the IP is pleased to see that Sanford's original article generated such controversy.  It's a sign that people still care about what happens in colleges and universities.  Second, "Great Books" would be great, but the IP would be happy if his students would read anything -- comic books, the newspaper, trashy novels, anything at all.  Too many of today's students, particularly those at our comprehensive public institutions, read only those items that actually are assigned in class if they read anything at all.  Finally, retirement often brings with both time and freedom.  That may explain why us geezers have time for those Great Books programs.

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