File spoon-archives/phillitcrit.archive/phillitcrit_1998/phillitcrit.9806, message 29


Date: Wed, 24 Jun 1998 00:02:19 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Re: PLC: The Cross Roads



Hey Thad!

Here's a commentary on your post from someone who's also been sorting
through such issues himself.

On Sun, 21 Jun 1998, T. Q. Alexander wrote:

> > >    Say George, I picked up my AA degree, and I'm now transferring into
> > >the University to continue my studies in Literature. I suppose, and you'll
> > >have to excuse my naivety, that I am to choose a period or genre of
> > >literature to base my studies upon? 

This depends on what you are going to do with your degree. If you are not
looking for an academic job, I wouldn't worry about such choices.  Fulfill
your requirements and then take what you like.   

As a Ph.D. student in cultural studies who expects to be out there job
hunting in the next year or two, I have been told by several older, more
experienced guides that I should try to market myself via commonly
recognized categories like 18th century British or 20th century American
literature or literary theory or Afro-American literature. 
(English depts. are where I would most likely apply, given my
background. Look at the job listings in the Chronicle of Higher Education 
to see what the "recognized categories" tend to be.)

But this advice might be more urgent in my case, since my
degree will be of the "non-traditional" sort. It has been a quietly
whispered sort of advice in contrast to the public rhetoric here and other
places about the need for interdisicplinarity and "innovation" at the
Ph.D. level.


I suppose I'm wanting to study both
> > >British and American lit. The industrial age of Victorianism is rather
> > >interesting. Post Modernism? I think I would like to study the Twentieth
> > >Century lit, both British and American. I guess I'll find out better once
> > >I start my classes. What period do you most enjoy in lit?!?

My suggestion here is to take courses you are interested in.  You don't
have to make any big decisions until grad school. Get the breadth you can.
don't neglect ancient and medieval literature.  I must say that the courses
which, in retrospect, did me the most good
were sophomore survey courses in British and American lit.  They provided
me with a kind of map and general code which made it possible to
make competent choices about later courses.  (Though if you
have an AA you probably already have such surveys behind you.)

Learn at least one foreign language well enough to really read and do
scholarship in it. If you feel drawn to one period,  take complementary
courses in history and philosophy and women's studies. Look for a course
or two which migh explain why literary studies has become so politicized.


Also, I found several of George's comments struck home--

> > I have always taken seriously the notion
> > that we always specialize in what we hate, or what bothers us, or what we
> > need to formulate a response to. I began, for instance to study (and teach)
> > Whitman because I hated him, but Lawrence, to whom I was devoted, was very
> > taken with his work. I needed to know why. 

The literary critical problems I was beginning to encounter as a grad
student, plus the fragile situation of the humanities in universities
rapidly becoming businesses, turned me towards continental
philosophy--poststructuralism and phenomenology, on the one hand, and
marxism on the other. I was particularly interested in how the meaning of
literary works seemed to alter according the the historical/cultural
contexts in which they were read, and was surprised to find that such
issues had been long addressed in the German philological/
hermeneutical/phenomenological tradition. Marxism only had an appeal to me
because 1) the encounter with PS and Phen had provided me with a language
for understanding it as a study of changing cultural/historical contexts, 
2) it was capable of explaining why contemporary
culture wars took the shape they did with the humanities in such
dire straights, and 3) why the native empiciricist, humanist varieties of
literary discourse seemed blind or impotent in the face of the
"industrialization" of higher education.  So it was frustration with the
contemporary lit scene that pushed me into close, note-taking reading Kant
and Marx and Derrida, with supporting courses in the history philosophy. I
was not attracted becuase studying the labor theory of value was in itself
fun and interesting.

(In one sense this has worked well for me since CS is supposed to involve
interdisciplinarity.  In another it does not because both English and
philosophy professors suspect my competence in their individual
disciplines, and it is generally through one discipline that one applies
for and gets a job.)
 
 And, of course, the best way to
> > learn something is to teach it.  Another consideration is that what we
> > don't enjoy indicates in each of us an areas of deficiency.

That is a good way to put it.  I didn't "enjoy" Sophocles the first time I
read him.  But the deficiency was not his.  Humanities professors find
this self-evident when the discussion turns around "classics."  But
when the problem of "deficiency" arises in the context of contemporary
literature or philosophy, it is generally the writer and not the reader
who takes the blame--a phenomenon which has endlessly interested me. 

I do enjoy Old English poetry. In my Beowulf class I was the one who most
enjoyed recitation.  But I rarely have time to read it anymore and no
longer study it at all. I only discuss it occasionally with others who
enjoy it.  And this is not really discussion but reciting lines punctuated 
with expressions of appreciation (that's great! or what
an amazing line!).

A final point regarding George's dislike of Whitman.  I disliked him
until I had to teach him.  Then I started liking him a lot, probably
because I learned to read him on his own terms. But now that
I keep getting into flame wars with liberal humanists, I find I am liking
him less and less, and must read him for clues to what seems wrong
in contemporary lit studies.  (I am assuming here that W has been
one of the strongest influences not only on American poetry but criticism
as well.)

So I guess what I'm saying here (with George, I think) is that it is
eventually some set of problems and irritations which become interesting
to the budding scholar and ultimately define his/her study, not some
static category like "Shakespeare" or "Modernism" or "the Novel"--though
you will proabably have to represent your interests through such
categories if you want to be an English professor.  But that won't be so
difficult because your chosen problems will be relatable to
Shakespeare, or modernism, or the novel.   So let your interests guide you
to some problem and AFTER you've got that decide whether you are a
medievalist or an 18th century man.


 hh



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