Friday, March 25, 2005
The Theory Blues
I'm a grad student who started working on a career late in life. For almost ten years I was a habilitation training specialist for a person with developmental disabilities. Now that I teach as part of my degree, I sometimes long for days when I actually thought I was accomplishing something getting a person to remember to put the seat belt on in the car. Still, I enjoy college teaching and kick myself for not starting this career sooner.

One of the things I'm happy about is that this is my last semester of coursework for my degree. After this, it's just comprehensive exams, a prospectus and then the dissertation. Believe me, I would much rather sit and write about something I have no interest in than sit in classes listening to professors read THEIR grad school notes to you in the guise of teaching literature. Don't get me wrong, I like most of my profs, but if you yourself have taught classes, then it's like learning the secret of a magic trick. It's never the same if you know how they're doing it.

I wanted to use this forum to talk about my experiences and interests, but also to vent about what I feel is going wrong in the field of scholarship for English Literature. More of this will come later, but to start with, the emphasis on literary theory has just about killed any creative instinct I used to have. There's nothing wrong with looking at literature through the lens of Lacan, Foucault, Spivak, etc. But there is something wrong when that HAS to be in an essay to get any attention or have a chance for publication. What made these people arbiters of literary exposition? Professors assume that by the time you get to college, you have already read the books they assign for classes and know the plot and background of the author. Therefore, they bypass thematic discussions and go straight into what theorists have to say about the book and/or the genre/era. What if you are coming to the book for the first time? What if you want to say, "Wow, can you believe Pip's benefactor was Magwich the convict?" No, you have to think about what Eve Sedgwick would say concerning Pip's relationship with his brother-in-law Joe. And God forbid you find a theorist or critic you agree with who wrote their essay more than five years ago. If it's that old, it must be crap according to the profs. Only recent criticism will do. Does anyone else see the problem here? No new literature is worth a damn, only old and the older the better. Homer is a fucking saint of literature. But no old criticism is worth a damn. Seems strange to me.

Of course, I know why this is so. If only old criticism is accepted and no new theorists appear, your profs have no chance of publishing their own stuff, getting tenure, getting promoted, etc. It's self-preservation. I wouldn't mind this so much if they a.) admitted the viability of older criticism, b.) allowed readers to talk about the plot, characters, etc. without telling them to look "deeper" because "that stuff's been done to death." It hasn't been done to death to that student! Professors are in danger of creating a group of very narrow-minded scholars with no regard for the magic that is the writing process. Already, creative writing courses are frowned upon and regarded as "lower class" and an "easy A." It's difficult enough to get a book published by an academic press, harder still to find any audience outside academia. Why narrow the audience even more by passing theory from hand-to-hand only to English students who will in turn pass it to their students, thereby creating an elite of theory practitioners who are only understood by each other.

I don't mean to denigrate literary criticism and theory's place in it. But think of the ramifications when you must then teach it to students who have to take your freshman level classes to graduate. This is not computer science or engineering, which requires an interest in those fields to participate in those programs. This is comp that almost every student has to take. So when they have a teacher who is so inundated with Foucault and the like and tries to teach that to students who have zero interest in it, higher education is alienating a large section of the student population and making them hate writing. Therefore, they will not try to improve their writing. Which is a shame, because the proliferation of blogs, e-mail, message boards, etc. means that we as a whole are writing more than ever.

Wow. Didn't mean to go on so long. So, uh, who do you think was Jack the Ripper? And what about that Paris Hilton and whatever it was that she did crazy today?
posted by Lavaughn Towell @ 7:40 PM | 2 comments

At 11:26 PM, Anonymous ET said...

Jack the Ripper was a woman. You people are overlooking this entirely. As for Paris Hilton, she says when she looks in a mirror she sees "A kind girl with nice eyes...because I'm a sweet person." Funny, the rest of us just see a tramp. Oh well. = )

At 11:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forgot to say...clever pun on "The Weary Blues." Nice touch.


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