This Week in My Classes Revisited, with Some Thoughts on J. C. Hallman

Another year, another edition of the ongoing saga “This Week in My Classes.” I began this series of posts two years ago as a response to what seemed to me exaggerated and unwarranted claims that English professors routinely wage war on literature, destroying (or indoctrinating) young minds in the process. Here, for example, is a comment from a thread on Footnoted (apparently now defunct, this site at the Chronicle of Higher Education once rounded up interesting posts from academic blogs):

Lit crit should finally die the death it so much deserves. Lit departments have floundered for decades because they have forgotten the text. Instead, they have pandered to the politically correct idiots who can neither read with sense nor write with style. May they ALL be flushed down the toilet where they belong.

The folks at Footnoted had linked to a post of mine in which I wondered why professional literary critics were either ignored or villified in some very public discussions going on at the time about the state of reading, literature, and criticism. I had been reading, for instance, Cynthia Ozick’s piece “Literary Entrails,” which appeared in Harper’s in 2007 and included the following aside (or “asnide,” a great neologism I just learned):

(Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multi-syllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since, unlike the hardier customer reviewers, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.)

Here’s part of what I wrote at the time:

I too find much recent published criticism pretty unappealing, and many aspects of professional academic discourse alienating, for a range of reasons. But I don’t think what goes on in my classroom, or in the classrooms of a great many “dons and doctors,” deserves to be so sweepingly ignored or distorted. Here’s a similar bit from the “statement of purpose” with which Green launched his blog: “the academy, once entrusted with the job of engaging with works of literature, has mostly abandoned it altogether in favor of ‘cultural studies’ and other forms of political posturing.” Again, however accurate this may be as a description of academic criticism (and that’s surely arguable), “the academy” (not, of course, monolithic in the way Green implies) does a lot of other things too, much of which involves exposing students to a variety of writers and styles, thinking about literary history and the history of genres, learning a vocabulary to talk about how writers get different kinds of things done and to what ends–aesthetically, ethically, and yes, also (but not exclusively) politically. One thing those of us in “the academy” do is send at least some of our students out into the “real” world excited and inquring and serious about literature, and equipped with some knowledge and some expertise as readers. I like to point out to my students that they will be assigned “required” reading for only a small fraction of their reading lives–after that, the choices will be theirs, the engagement and the satisfaction only as deep as they choose to make it. It’s my goal to give them some tools and strategies to go deeper if they want to, as well as to broaden their textual horizons. Ozick (rightly, I think) laments that “Amazon encourages naive and unqualified readers…to expose their insipidities to a mass audience.” You don’t need an English degree to be insightful about books–but some education as a reader is surely one way to become the kind of reader novelists such as Ozick (or, for that matter, critics such as Green) hope to have.

As I brooded about these sweeping condemnations of my life’s work, I found I was most troubled and perplexed by the enormous gap between what I (and most if not all of my colleagues, mentors, and friends) are doing, or trying to do, or aspiring to, in our classrooms and the way that work was being characterized. In my own 23 years in the academy, I’ve had only one experience in a classroom that seemed anything like what these people are describing, and I write as someone who was a student through some of the most intense years of the so-called “culture wars.” Only ignorance–some of it surely willful–and prejudice (some of it based, I thought, on the kinds of things Tim Burke had written about as “Anger at Academe,” including both personal experiences and what he calls “social antagonisms”) could sustain such hostile misrepresentations. And so the best–really, the only–response I could think of that might do a little good was to shine some light on what really happens in at least one English professor’s classroom on a regular basis. Not, as I wrote then, that I assume “my own classroom is either wholly typical or exemplary,” but it’s the one I know best.

I’ve kept up the series for two years. While I don’t think I reached any of the skeptics who motivated it originally, it has turned out to be, intrinsically, a useful and interesting exercise for me. Here’s an excerpt from the “Reflections on Blogging My Teaching” that I wrote up after the first year:

As the weeks went by, though, I more or less stopped thinking about these lost souls. So who was I writing for? Well, as other bloggers often remark, your only certain audience is yourself, so you have to find the effort intrinsically valuable and interesting, which I almost always did. Teaching is, necessarily, something you do in a state of rapid and constant motion (and I mean not just mental but physical, as the Little Professor has recently proven). Classes follow on classes, and on meetings and graduate conferences and administrative tasks and attempts to meet proposal deadlines, in what becomes a blur of activity as the term heats up…and though a great deal of planning and preparation typically goes into each individual classroom hour, I hadn’t usually taken any time to reflect further on what just happened, or what’s about to happen. I found that taking this extra step each week not only helped me identify the purpose, or, if writing retrospectively, the result of each class, but it made each week more interesting by giving me an opportunity to make connections or articulate puzzles or just express pleasure and appreciation in ways that went beyond what I had time for in class. I pursued links between my teaching and my research projects, for example, as well as between my teaching and my other ‘non-professional’ interests and activities. I articulated ideas suggested by class discussions that otherwise would have sunk again below the surface of my distracted mind. Blogging my teaching enhanced my own experience of teaching. That in itself is a worthwhile goal.

I felt the same after the second year of posting. Though I am doing some repeat teaching this year, there’s enough new material–and there are always different connections, ideas, and challenges–to make me look forward to another round, more of the same but perhaps, as I go along, with some differences in format, just to keep things lively.

Also, though I no longer really expect to make a dent in people’s prejudices against my profession, it turns out that there’s still plenty of hostility out there that deserves to be countered. Just this week, for instance, DorothyW tipped me off to this discussion of a forthcoming anthology by J. C. Hallman, whose statements about academic critics are very much in same spirit as Ozick’s, whose “Literary Entrails” he cites in his Introduction. His parting shot is at the “the dry, tenure-desperate prose of critics, who already have far too much say over how literature is perceived in the world.” “Writers,” he says, “set out to celebrate the work rather than exhaust it.” Hallman admits to not being a scholar, but he offers up a breezy two-paragraph account of the history of literary criticism since 1910 that is apparently meant to justify his eventual conclusion (after his own apparently unrewarding venture into critical debates about Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw) that “maybe the whole business of criticism ought to be chucked”–or better yet, he decides, reinvented according to his own idea of “creative criticism.”

I stand by the position I originally took against Ozick. Thanks to the passionate, diligent, rigorous work of highly-trained professional critics in thousands of classrooms every day, many, many students read and appreciate many more “good books” than they would otherwise; rather than being, as Hallman says, “inoculated against the effects of good books,” they learn to enhance, expand, or challenge their personal responses with attention to craft, genre, literary history and influences, social, historical, and political contexts and implications, aesthetic theories and effects, language, rhetoric, and much more. It’s true that “celebrating” the work is not the usual tactic, but enthusiasm for it is a necessary–just not a sufficient–condition for successful teaching. Yes, a lot of published academic prose is pretty dry, even alienating, especially when read by those never intended to be its audience (the same is true of technical writing in other fields, as is often pointed out in these debates). I worry about the quantitive pressure created by our systems of tenure and promotion, the log-jammed peer review process, the disincentives for taking a long view, or a long time, in a project. I’ve spent a fair amount of time myself wondering how to do critical writing that is lively and accessible but still responsible and well-informed. I’ve reviewed a lot of books that show how non-academics, including creative writers, “write about reading.” It’s not that I’m complacent about the state or style of academic literary criticism. Even so, I resent having this dismissive remark from James Wood stand as a fair assessment of our situation and efforts:

Having been caught out, the poem is triumphantly led off in golden chains; the detective writes up his report in hideous prose, making sure to flatter himself a bit, and then goes home to a well-deserved drink.

James Wood is an excellent reader and critic; I’m sure he enjoys a “well-deserved drink” after a day at the Harvard job he got without having to serve the usual soul-crushing academic apprenticeship, or after publishing a book for which he was not required to support and complicate his arguments with extensive research outside his personal library.

Anyway, it’s another term, and I still think it’s worth keeping up this series. Next time, some specifics about my Fall 2009 courses.

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