What Ails Literary Studies: Leaving Literature Behind: The professionalization of the field is turning students off

We’re not teaching literature, we’re teaching the professional study
of literature: What we do is its own subject. Nowadays the academic
study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing
world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the
more rarified a college you attend, the less literary studies relates
to the world of the reader. The academic study of literature nowadays
isn’t, by and large, about how literature can help students come to
terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes, and victories, and
pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that
make us human and fill our lives. It’s, well, academic, about syllabi
and hiring decisions, how works relate to each other, and how the
author is oppressing whomever through the work. The literary critic
Gerald Graff famously told us to “teach the conflicts”: We and our
squabbles are what it’s all about. That’s how we made a discipline,
after all.

You wouldn’t think we’d so focus on the power of written works with
the United States engaged in regime change using guns and soldiers —
some of them my students. That, it would seem, would be real power. But
of course, it’s a literature professor telling the story; this skewing
of reality makes perfect sense. At least to other literature professors. — Bruce Fleming

I remember feeling this very frustration when I took a lit crit course as a grad student, and now I’m teaching the subject to undergrads. Of course my initial reaction is to defend my profession, and to justify what I’m about to do next term. We offer a separate course in lit crit only once every other year, so it’s not as if we’re kicking reading out the door. Some students in the class are planning to be high school English teachers, so I don’t plan to spend the whole time wallowing in obscurity or forcing students to read works from my favorite literary subfield (which, of late, has been steampunk… brass pipework… rivets… mahogany panels… rusty, rusty rivets… um, where was I?).

I am working on an opening lecture that introduces literary criticism not as a series of facts to memorize and names to drop, but as a way of studying the thinking process that forms our own world view. Since I teach alongside colleagues who write, study, and teach about horror, suspense, romance, science-fiction, I think it’s pretty safe to say our program doesn’t support a particularly stodgy or rarified approach to the canon. Nevertheless, I teach lit crit to advanced students who have already taken “Intro to Literary Study” and “Writing about Literature,” and most likely several other reading-heavy courses too.  Those are the courses where I feel it’s most appropriate to equip students to move beyond simply “relating to” literature, and push them towards the study of the conflicts, challenges, and power struggles that led to the formation of the canon. 

Fleming teaches literature at the U.S. Naval Academy. I’ve enjoyed reading the musings of Mike Edwards, who teaches composition at West Point. I also teach a literature survey which draws mostly students taking a core requirement. In that class, while I do ask students to move beyond merely summarizing a work and relating it to their personal lives, I am satisfied if the course teaches the close reading skills that will help students become better readers (no matter what they end up reading).

When I used to teach writing to engineering students, I got to know
what an engineering student is like, and was able to use a freshman
engineering student’s expectations and experiences to help me push them
to the next level of wriitng. I applaud Fleming for challenging his naval students to see themselves in unlikely places.

No big finish for me… time to put the kids to bed. I’ll think about this when I put together my syllabus for January.