Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, recently told the Associated Press that the literary culture of the United States is too mass-media oriented and cut off from the rest of the world. "The U.S. is too isolated," he said, "too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining." The last Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to a U.S. writer was given to Toni Morrison 15 years ago. An obvious implication of Engdahl's remarks is that things will remain that way for a while yet.
How valid are Engdahl's criticisms? Are there tendencies in U.S. culture that negate his perspective, or particularly grievous ones that confirm it? What American author seems an obvious candidate for the Nobel?
Those were the questions I posed by e-mail to a range of writers, critics, translators, and scholars. Most if not all of them are citizens of the United States, though it didn't actually cross my mind to ask for anyone's papers.
Here are the responses, presented in the order that they arrived. The winner of the Nobel prize for literature for 2008 will be announced on October 9.
Ron Silliman is the author of more than twenty volumes of poetry and criticism, including most recently The Alphabet (University of Alabama Press) and The Age of Huts (University of California Press).
"[Engdahl's criticisms] are valid & not valid is my take. But then I think that the only American who has received the Nobel Prize for Literature who has really earned it has been Faulkner. Giving one to Hemingway, but not to Gertrude Stein, whose literary style he normalized into his own, is like giving a Grammy to the Dave Clark Five while ignoring the Beatles. The others, without exception, show the degree to which the award is political, not literary.
If by American literature, Engdahl means the likes of Roth, Irving, Updike, Oates, then I'm entirely sympathetic to his complaint. If by it he means Pynchon or David Markson, then I'm a lot less sympathetic, because I don't think it's accurate there. Or Samuel R. Delany, for that matter.
I've always felt sad about the fact that neither Allen Ginsberg nor Robert Creeley received one, nor William Carlos Williams in the 1950s, which would have been the appropriate time to have recognized him.
In addition to John Ashbery, the only U.S. poets I would seriously consider would include Judy Grahn, who has done more to create a women's literature than any other writer in the past half century, conceivably Adrienne Rich (or possibly the two together), Joanne Kyger, the lone great woman writer of the beat generation, or Simon Ortiz, the Sioux poet. But those aren't the names I see being bandied about.
I think the problem that Engdahl might be having -- and likewise might account for some of the reaction he's gotten -- has to do with the fact that the relationship between great writing and the trade presses is like a Venn diagram with not so much overlap. If one judged American writing by what one saw published by Random House or [Farrar, Straus and Giroux], one would be apt to conclude exactly what he has."
Franco Moretti, whose method of "distant reading" was discussed in this column some time ago, is a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University and editor of the two volume study The Novel (Princeton University Press, 2006).
"Engdahl seems to me to be perfectly right. But unfortunately I am traveling, and cannot do any better than that. Sorry."
Levi Stahl is the publicity manager for the University of Chicago Press. His fiction and criticism have appeared in numerous magazines, online and off, and he blogs about what he has been reading lately at Ivebeenreadinglately.
"As usually happens with sweeping generalizations about culture, the ignorance of Horace Engdahl's assertion that American writers are too insular to conceivably win the Nobel Prize for Literature obscured the kernel of truth at its heart: American literary culture is relatively insular, as evidenced by the paltry number of literary translations published each year (let alone the even smaller number that achieve prominence). I had been thinking about this topic recently when reading an advance copy of Roberto Bolano's 2666: to an even greater degree than in his earlier The Savage Detectives, in 2666 Bolano draws his characters and settings from all over the Western world. Though the dark heart of the novel is in Mexico, whole sections take place in Europe and important characters hail from Germany, France, Italy, England, the United States, and a handful of Latin American and South American nations. Bolano's globe-trotting narrative reflects more than a casual comfort with internationalism; rather, it suggests a deliberate refusal to allow national boundaries to negate deeper ties of responsibility, affinity, and basic humanity.
I don't think it would be inappropriate to describe that approach as relatively uncommon in American fiction, but where Engdahl tripped up was by painting with such a broad brush, not hedging. After all, there are many prominent American writers who are internationally engaged -- literary reputations aside, it's hard to argue that such writers as William Vollmann, Philip Caputo, or Robert Stone, to take just a few, fail to demonstrate an informed interest in the larger world.
However, unless Engdahl's comments were an extremely canny publicity ploy, it sounds like we can't expect any American winners for a while. That would seem to let out such perennial possibilities as Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. Who's in the next rank? What writers might be on the verge of a Nobel-level career? I'm placing my bet on Richard Powers (as did the MacArthur Foundation several years ago): His oeuvre to this point has shown him to possess a restless, inquisitive mind that is unlikely to allow him to repeat himself or settle into a rut, while his ambitious attempts to marry the language and insights of science to psychological realism seems like a reasonable formula for the sort of sweeping masterpiece that could get the Nobel committee's attention.
Claire Messud is another novelist whose work I could imagine developing sufficiently to make her a contender, especially if she were to expand on the gestures to internationalism that she made with some of the scenes and characters in The Emperor's Children. My longshot candidate (though admittedly age is working against her) is poet Mary Oliver: though her poetry, deeply rooted in her New England home, could be described as provincial, her rigorous attention to nature, and her constant questioning of the relationship (and boundaries) between humanity and the animal world, seem particularly suited to the worldwide discussions, negotiations, and battles about conservation and responsibility that are sure to be a defining aspect of the coming decades."
Charlotte Mandell is a prolific and respected translator of French literature into English. Her recent work includes translations of Marcel Proust's The Lemoine Affair (Melville House, 2008) and Pierre Bayard's Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles (Bloomsbury USA, 2008).
"It's true that the U.S. doesn't publish enough translations: only 3% of its publications every year are translated books. Europe publishes many more translations: 'American publishers have one of the lowest translation rates in the Western world, according to Andrew Grabois, a consultant for Bowker, which tracks the publishing business. Only 3 percent of books published in the United States are translations (4,114 in 2005), Mr. Grabois said, compared with, for example, 27 percent in Italy. As a result, linguists contend, much of the English-speaking world knows little of other countries and cultures.' [Source here.]
That said, it's not true that the literary scene in America is insular. American writers like John Ashbery, Robert Kelly, Lydia Davis, Paul Auster, and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are not only great writers in their own right; they're also prolific and accomplished translators (Ashbery, Davis, Auster, and the Waldrops from the French; Kelly from the German and French). Robert Kelly has published several collaborative books with German authors like the Tyrolean artist Brigitte Mahlknecht, and the German writer Schuldt; Ashbery has translated or collaborated with French writers like Raymond Roussel, Pierre Martory, and Franck-André Jamme. I would add Clayton Eshleman (who translates from the Spanish and French) and Jerome Rothenberg (who translates from just about everything). Also, Rosmarie Waldrop translates from the German as well as the French.
Young American novelists like Paul LaFarge, Edie Meidav, and Emily Barton are deeply involved with cultures outside of America. It would be wonderful if the publishing world in America were as interested in other languages and cultures as the American poets and novelists living and writing today."
Steven G. Kellman, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton, 2005) and won the Balakian Citation for his critical writing. Last month he received the Gemini Ink Award for Literary Excellence.
"Though Russia is visible from Alaska, who is looking? Not the nationalistic cheerleaders chanting their mantra about the uniqueness of “America” (an inverted and hubristic synecdoche for “United States of America”). Nor the student at my university who had the chutzpah to demand exemption from a language requirement on the grounds that: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.” Not the moviegoers allergic to subtitles or the justices who deny the pertinence of any foreign case law. Popular culture and political discourse both corroborate Horace Engdahl’s observation about American insularity and self-absorption. And, yes, a pitiful smidgen of the world’s literature ends up in English. The Swedish Academy’s apotheosis of Elfriede Jelinek, Gao Xingjian, Wislawa Szymborska, and Kenzaburo Oe was an embarrassment to American publishing, to whom they were strangers.
And yet … Engdahl would have to revoke William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize, since the Mississippi novelist confined his fictions to the tiny postage stamp of Yoknapatawpha County. Sinclair Lewis never moved his prose from Main Street to the Champs Elysées. Many major American writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost, find the universe in a grain of local sand. American literature at its best is adversarial, at odds with the Babbitts and Snopeses who dominate the culture at large. To refute Engdahl’s claim that American writers “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature," it is sufficient to cite Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Ha Jin, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Translation feeds the creativity of American poets such as W. S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, Jerome Rothenberg, and Richard Wilbur. Among senior figures whose productivity is worthy of canonization in Sweden, Don DeLillo, David Mamet, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon are hardly isolationist hayseeds. The fictions of Philip Roth, who edited the invaluable “Writers from the Other Europe” series, establish lively connections with London, Tel Aviv, and Prague. Stockholm proclaims its own provincialism if, embracing the hoary stereotype of Americans as savages, it excludes them from the literary conversation."
"Engdahl's remarks seem to have about as much validity as Lawrence Summers's infamous statement regarding women's ability for math and science. And perhaps, like Summers, Engdahl would choose to defend himself by saying that these words were just a few taken out of context. Who knows. But these words do make me wonder about Engdahl and his own level of cultural insularity; certainly what he said would indicate he has some. At any rate I'll just make the following rather obvious but perhaps necessary (for Engdalh, at least) observation: Cultural insularity is a stereotype about America, one that I'm sure many Europeans embrace; there's some truth to it, but the fact that some Americans are incurious about the world in no way means that every person in this extremely diverse nation of 300 million is the same way.
I'm not going to get into an argument over where the "center" of literature resides these days, but it's strange that Engdahl would consign America to the margins when there's no doubt that postmodernist literature originated in and is still dominated by the U.S. When you talk about investigating human identity and critiquing society through a postmodern lens -- which is exactly what the Nobel committee spoke about when it gave Orhan Pamuk the award in 2006, or Jenelik it in 2004, or Lessing in 2007 -- you're talking about ideas that largely originated with American writers.
If the Nobel committee were interested in honoring an American postmodernist, then to these names could easily be added Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, John Barth, or William T. Vollmann (who seems to know a little about the world). Beyond the Nobel candidates, American authors like Norman Rush, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Powers, Matthew Sharpe, Cormac McCarthy, and Deborah Eisenberg should be able to furnish Engdahl with proof that we are not all sheltered over here."
Sandra Gilbert is professor emerita of English at the University of California at Davis. Her most recent books are a study of elegy, Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, and a collection of poetry, Belongings, both published by W.W. Norton in 2006.
"Engdahl's comment seems to me to be such a massive overgeneralization that it's hard to know where to begin to respond. Certainly American poets are frequently (though not always) worldly & wise readers who keenly grasp the importance of contemporary artists around the world: Darwish, Khoury-Ghata, Malroux, Ravikovitch, and a range of others."
"The parochialism of the Nobel's literary gatekeepers is nothing new. The Nobel committee’s literature selections tend to be based on mid- to late twentieth-century Eurocentric aesthetics. Still, even within the cautious framework of traditional Nobel considerations, there are Americans whose scope and conceptual daring should put them in the running. Consider the writers recognized numerous times by the National Book Critics Circle over the past 35 years: E.L. Doctorow (he won the first NBCC fiction award for Ragtime in 1975, the 1989 award for Billy Bathgate, was shortlisted for Loon Lake and won the 2006 NBCC award for The March), Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth. These are writers who have for decades engaged with the roiling cauldron of American culture, depicting the repercussions of our legacy of violence and war, the distorting and numbing effects of mass-market materialism.
But to say the U.S. is “too isolated,” and “too insular,” betrays Engdahl’s own ignorance. It is especially embarrassing to him at a time when the doors of American literature have swung wide to gather in a new generation of writers whose work is shaping a post-conflict global literature, a literature of mixed cultures reflecting experiences on many continents. In the past few years, the National Book Critics Circle has recognized the contributions of this group -- young writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Vikram Chandra, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, Kiran Desai, Aleksandar Hemon, to name a few.
Incidentally, I’d add to the list of deserving candidates Americans Edward Albee, who has forged new ground in theater as a worthy successor to Pirandello, and Peter Matthiessen, whose artful, original, and empathetic nonfiction and fiction has explored historic, cultural and natural borderlines in Indian country, along the Atlantic Coast, in the Himalayas, Siberia, Africa, and South America."
Morris Dickstein is a distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is The Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (Princeton University Press, 2005).
"The main glitch in the competition for the Nobel Prize in Literature used to be the demand for positive moral uplift built into the award. This conflicted so dramatically with the direction of modernist literature that it was hard to imagine how any serious writer could get it, and in the early years few did. The names of those passed over are legion. In later times this requisite dovetailed with the undying hostility of individual Academy members to particular authors. These two factors explain why writers like Graham Greene, Nabokov, and Norman Mailer were passed over year after year, though Sartre and Beckett somehow managed to slip through, much to their own chagrin. More recently another obstacle replaced this one: European anti-Americanism, bolstered by a virulent left-wing anti-Semitism.
There’s always been a political dimension to these awards. When it was still cool to like Jews, still seen as the chosen victims of modern history, the award went to Agnon, Nelly Sachs, I.B. Singer, and Saul Bellow. Today it would be even harder to imagine the selection of an Israeli writer than an American writer, though Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and Aharon Appelfeld all have strong claims and are widely read in several European languages.
The same may hold true for the American writer whose appeal, since the death of Mailer, is strongest, Philip Roth. Though invariably provocative, his work too has been a great success with European readers. Updike also has a serious claim on the strength of his early novels, his lifelong productivity, and his consistently great short fiction. Neither of them is a Faulkner or a Hemingway, writers who revolutionized world literature, but Horace Engdahl’s dismissive comments are more about Bush and his damn-the-world, go-it-alone policies than about American writers. It’s true that American audiences are insular and read few works in translation, but our writers are not, except perhaps those seduced into playing postmodernist games at the expense of any felt human world."
Benj DeMott is one of the founders of First of the Month, which describes itself as "a newspaper of the radical imagination." He edited a recent selection of its greatest hits, First of the Year: 2008, just published by Transaction.
"That Nobel Committee-man’s snotty line about the provinciality of U.S. writers may be a sign that anti-Americanism is rife among A-Students in Euro-land. But on the b-side, consider those Huns and Brits who mounted an exhibition of Bob Dylan’s sketches this year, featuring a catalogue that talked up the artist as a Universal Genius -- a Goethe-like figure who not only composes music but draws and writes (memoirs as well as lyrics). What the hey -- maybe the Nobel locust is setting the high table for Dylan. I won’t mourn for J.C. -- the anti-Christ? -- Oates or Don DeLillo if that’s the October surprise. But I might organize for a more deserving American writer who was born in real time right when Bob Dylan was transforming pop life. Richard Meltzer’s early work on rock and roll -- The Aesthetics of Rock -- and pop culture -- Gulture -- made sense of the ‘60s as it all screamed by so fast. In more recent times, Meltzer has made himself into writer for the ages.
Like his wild brothers and sisters under the hill, Meltzer’s canon is marked by his (1) fascination with words qua words (2) radicalism (3) honesty. (He titled his massive collection of music writing, A Whore Just Like the Rest.) If you care about American writing, look out for Meltzer’s soon-to-be-published A World that Don’t Exist, and check Autumn Rhythm: Musings on Time, Tide, Aging, Dying and Such Biz (2004). In these (blues-, rock-, and jazz-drenched) meditations on “the death of your ass and mine ... the one-size-fits-all-ness of life,” Meltzer is finding his own way up into that high country that Dylan’s been reaching for since Time Out of Mind.
"I think it's a mistake for anyone to make sweeping statements about literature, but history judges the givers of prizes especially harshly -- and maybe no prize of the last century deserves that scorn more than the Nobel. This is, after all, the prize that passed over Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, and Leo Tolstoy. And they've compounded their errors in recent years by letting major figures of humane letters die unacknowledged -- Roberto Bolaño, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Ryszard Kapus'cin'ski, and Kurt Vonnegut in the last five years alone. I mean, how seriously are we supposed to take the pronouncements of Secretary Engdahl when the academy under his guidance has chosen to honor Elfriede Jelinek and Gao Xingjian but not Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Tomas Tranströmer, Chinua Achebe, Mario Vargas Llosa, or Margaret Atwood.
So do I despair when Endahl says that American literature "is too isolated, too insular" and fails to "participate in the big dialogue of literature"? No, I don't. But maybe that's because I've read novelists Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Louise Erdrich, and Michael Chabon, poets Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, and Yusef Komunyakaa, playwright Tony Kushner, and -- yes, I'll say it -- graphic novelist Art Spiegelman. I'd stack that group of writers against any country's on any day."
The PMLA, the publication of the Modern Language Association, the major association of professors of English, has called for papers on new directions in literary criticism for the 21st century. In a World War II era poem, “Of Modern Poetry,” Wallace Stevens declared that among other things, modern poetry “has to think about war.” In a similar fashion, as the Iraq war grinds on now into its sixth year, and it has become painfully obvious that, despite some wishful thinking in the wake of Vietnam, protracted American ground wars are hardly a thing of the past, I would suggest that contemporary literary criticism, a great deal more of it anyway, needs “to think about war” and the military.
More than two decades have gone by during which time American literary and “cultural studies” critics have had relatively little to say about these subjects. About World War I and American literature, for example (which is the concern of my new book, The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and the Fiction of Mobilization), there have been few major studies since the early 1980s: Stanley Cooperman came out with World War I and the American Novel in 1967; David Kennedy issued Over Here: The First World War and American Society in 1980, and Jeffrey Walsh published American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam in 1982. This subject has since gone out of fashion in English departments.
Back in the mid-1980s, I fulfilled the breadth requirements for a Ph.D. in English at the University of California at Berkeley, and I never had a single course that addressed literature of war or the military: I was never asked to read, in American literature classes or for my American literature field exams, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Heller’s Catch-22, or Herr’s Dispatches, nor was I asked to read the criticism cited above. (I only encountered one war novel during an undergraduate English major, but that was in England where I was assigned A Farewell to Arms on a junior year abroad.) In an article in the current PMLA on “The New Modernist Studies,” the authors compile a list of a dozen new and old “currents” in scholarship, but the issue of war is not among them. Even in the field of history, where groundbreaking new work has recently been done on the social-military history of World War I, by the likes of Nancy Gentile Ford, Jennifer Keene, Stephen Ortiz, and Nancy Bristow, these social-military historians find themselves to some degree marginalized within their larger discipline because of their “unsavory” choice of subjects.
We can perhaps guess why the subjects of war and the military have fallen out of favor. The Vietnam War changed the meaning of war and of the military in this country, at least on the left, and the cohort of professors that for the most part has dominated and set trends in these fields of English and history in the last 20 years is of the generation that came of age during the Vietnam era; most of these professors were students when the huge protest against the war took place, and most of them were against the war.
Since the Vietnam era -- and this marks a break with previous attitudes -- most American intellectual elites have not wanted to be in the military or to study it: They associate the military with an aggressive foreign policy and with homophobia, and the military’s degree of complicity in these policies is of course a legitimate concern. However, the relationship English professors generally adopt in regards to the military is strictly an oppositional one: They usually want only to criticize the military, not also to understand its undeniably major role in our history and culture. Not incidentally, that role has, historically, been in part a socially progressive one, as it was even in World War I (as the new scholarship has revealed), despite the army’s appalling discrimination against blacks and its mistreatment of women. Indeed, for most of the 20th century, the army was in the vanguard in the development of equal opportunity and meritocracy. In any case, to study war and the military does not, of course, make one pro-war. After all, much American war literature is antiwar or anti-military or both.
The couple decades of relative silence about the American experience in World War I by English professors is now beginning to be broken: most notably with Richard Slotkin’s 2005 Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. But more needs to be done and more will be. Studies are forthcoming on World War I and American literature from a number of younger English professors, who, like the small cohort in social-military history who have done groundbreaking work, did not personally experience the ordeal of the Vietnam era.
Perhaps the other major change that we might ask of literary criticism for the 21st century is that it have more interchange with other fields, such as history: that it become more truly interdisciplinary. At last year’s MLA conference, in its Presidential Forum on “Humanities at Work in the World,” Peter Brooks nostalgically conjured up the moment of high promise back in the 1980s when literary theory was providing tools of analysis for other fields and for real-world inquiry, for example for legal scholars, in a talk called “The Humanities as an Export Commodity.” If the interdisciplinary potential of that era faded, it is partly because English professors’ cultural studies went on to develop a highly specialized or esoteric style and thus perhaps also to become, over time, somewhat hermetic in its discourse -- and thus literary criticism today sometimes appears to other disciplines as to some degree remote and isolated.
If English wants again to be in the position Brooks remembered of the 1980s of exporting its analytic and having an influence even in the larger world outside of academia, then it needs to attempt to develop a more accessible style of expression as well as to import from other disciplines. My suggestion for a new direction in literary criticism is what might be called “mobilization studies,” by which I mean not merely the study of war literature, but much more broadly the study of the wide-ranging social and literary effects of mobilizing armies and populations for war and demobilizing them. Analogous to the new sub-field of social-military history developed by historians, “mobilization studies” will be situated at the intersection of policy history, social history, and literary analysis. It was heartening that this year’s Hemingway Society conference invited a social-military historian to give a keynote address. In terms of literary criticism’s engagement both with the issue of war and with other disciplines, let’s hope it is a sign of things to come.
Lily Tomlin famously quipped, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” While I am loath to think of myself or some colleagues in rodent terms, success (or winning), as popularly understood within the professoriate, exacts a price from those in the race, “winners” and “losers.”
For better or for worse, the goal of the graduate school race, winning a tenure-track assistant professorship at a certain type of college or university, frames the pre-professional experience of most students of English and foreign languages. What graduate programs boast in scholarly training, however, they often lack in institutional training -- that is, in guiding future faculty members to see and experience positively the variety of professional identities rooted in diverse academic cultures, specifically the cultures of teaching-intensive colleges.
New Ph.D.’s in tenure-track positions at teaching-intensive colleges and universities rather unfairly have to learn on the job the role of assistant professor at institutions whose cultures do not mirror those of the Ph.D.-granting universities they just left. Once the elation of securing a tenure-track appointment subsides, the same fortunate minority who emerge from the job crisis having won the race now cope with a second job crisis, one involving the cross-sector transition from research-intensive to teaching-intensive institutions.
The year I completed my doctorate, fall turned to spring, the job market turned from four- to two-year colleges, and I turned into a community college professor, one with few strategies at the ready to brook the physical and emotional toll of a 5/5 teaching load as well as a 2- to 3-course summer load. The word “graceful” does not come to mind when I think of my personal cross-sector transition from graduate school’s paradigm of reflection and knowledge production to my community college’s standard of commotion and spirited knowledge transmission, all in a microcosm, the College of Lake County in Illinois, of a macrocosm in which 12 percent of full-time faculty hold doctorates.
As a minority in terms of degree attainment, the impulse to bring the best of my doctoral education to a community college inspired several projects: an internship program to bring graduate students to our campus before they entered the job market, thereby getting a sense of at least one community college’s day-to-day life; specially designed themed composition courses that moved away from traditional rhetoric to more current theoretical orientations, social-epistemic chief among them; and, perhaps most important to initiating a national dialogue about academic cultures, a collection of essays from foreign language and English Ph.D.’s.
Intuitively knowing I was not the only faculty member struggling to bring humanistic intellectual ideals to a teaching-intensive college, I wanted to read of other Ph.D.’s who became successful public intellectuals in academic settings that, generally speaking, neither afforded them the time nor resources to articulate their stories, to publish accounts of their transformation from “scholar” to “teacher-scholar.”
Thus was Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life born. A collection of essays from faculty who have built rewarding careers at teaching-intensive colleges and universities, Academic Cultures creates a space for faculty who often remain silent in academe once they leave graduate school -- again, for lack of time and resources. To be sure, as the job crisis in English and foreign languages continues, we need detailed narratives from people who have adapted their doctoral habits of mind to the needs of schools ranging from tribal colleges, to border colleges, to comprehensive colleges, to non-elite religiously-affiliated colleges, to high schools.
Just as Ph.D.-granting departments depend upon faculty members to design curricula that will meet the needs of graduate students, so do all departments, whether they grant A.A.'s, B.A.'s, M.A.'s, or certificates. Aeron Haynie, a Victorianist at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, a comprehensive university, asks in an essay an important question of professors: “Shall we devote more concern to ensuring that students read certain authors ... or to developing their skills in critical thinking, reading, and writing?” The same question can be asked of professors across higher education, whether humanists or scientists. Haynie concludes that “our profession needs to clarify what we teach and how it might be useful to a larger public that exists in the varied cultural contexts in which colleges themselves reside.” To clarify connections between the humanities and real communities, our profession needs to hear the voices of humanists practicing in all sectors of higher education, especially those colleges and universities with greater ties to the community, with a greater need for public intellectuals.
The K–12 system already links theory to practice, the humanities to communities, because primary and secondary schools are integral parts of the communities they serve . Colleges of Education and state regulations mandate the student teaching experience, in which candidates learn first-hand how to apply knowledge to the classroom, all the while enjoying the benefits of mentors, meetings, and college classes devoted to supporting students as they navigate the choppy waters of taking the lead in a classroom.
Ph.D.’s in secondary schools can take the lead in translating the language of advanced study in a discipline to praxis, as Stephen da Silva does at a private high school in Texas, where he taps into a mainspring of positive challenges. “When I began teaching high school,” Da Silva comments in his essay, “I rather arrogantly imagined that I was regressing. Instead, I have entered a profession that demands that I grow.” Although we do not expect high school faculty members to produce conventional research, the broad community of Ph.D.’s, scholars all, need not accept the silence of those who are busy with large class loads, large class sizes, and community activism. The political stakes are too high.
As past director of the Writing Center at Concordia University of Oregon, Lynnell Edwards makes literal da Silva’s growth metaphor in the title and content of her essay “Grow Where You’re Planted.” She candidly articulates both the nourishment offered by an evangelical institution’s call to community as well as the deprivation that comes from wondering “more than once whether I keep this position simply because it is a full-time job, something more and more scarce in the humanities, or because the work I am doing here matters at some level beyond my own intellectual and professional satisfaction.” Grappling with the dissonance between the institution’s values and her life’s work remains a paradox that Edwards finds vitalizing. “Ultimately, having had to reckon with the dilemma is what gives meaning to the life.”
Others find work in contexts with more harmony between their personal beliefs and professional practice. Keene State College professor Mark C. Long, for example, acknowledges those, like himself, who “have managed to make satisfying professional lives in less than ideal circumstances by setting aside the conventional narrative of the profession.” That conventional narrative, shaped as it is by expectations of moving from the position of a student at one Ph.D.-granting department to the position of an assistant professor at another Ph.D.-granting department, excludes faculty members who consider it their good fortune to have traveled between and among diverse academic cultures.
How can we broaden notions of career success beyond the hierarchical Carnegie classification system of colleges and universities, research-intensive or not, to include considerations of the social impact of an institution, of the extent to which a work life fulfills professors, or of the match between the talents of Ph.D.'s and the needs of certain college, university, and/or community constituents?
Indeed, narrow definitions of career success limit professors’ self-definitions and their potential as public intellectuals. Humanists have devoted too little attention to the relations among the profession, higher education, and society. As Vladimir Lenin noted, “One cannot live in society and be free from society.” Demands from external stakeholders for accountability in the professoriate make active teacher-scholars a necessity for the future of the humanities.
Time and again I find colleagues like Robert Chierico, Fabiola Fernández Salek, Evelyne Norris, and Virginia Shen, who demonstrate to Ph.D.’s the meaning of accountability: teaching, service, research, and public outreach. They live in society, creating innovative undergraduate foreign language programs at Chicago State University for an urban student body consisting of “more women than men, many part-time students who work full-time, many students from low-income backgrounds, and a good number of returning students.” Echoing the themes of professors as change agents, of colleges as fundamental elements of communities, this team of professors works toward enabling student success by “delivering a high school–to–college transition program for minority students, providing special Spanish courses for native speakers, ensuring a strong study-abroad program, and offering a complete range of foreign language [courses], including ... Chinese and Arabic.”
As future faculty members prepare for the job market and as their professors who know best the rigors of research-intensive careers consider the market into which they are sending students, I hope they regard diversity in postsecondary education as a strength of the system rather than a problem to redress. Discussions with future English and foreign language faculty should include all the academic cultures in which professors establish gratifying careers. Listening to practitioners from teaching-intensive academic cultures (tribal colleges, community colleges of all sorts, art schools, baccalaureate colleges, and master’s colleges and universities) unsettles the provincialism of professors inhabiting different academic cultures, exposing them to a rigor unknown within the doctoral department.
My intended audience for Academic Cultures -- graduate faculty, doctoral program directors, and graduate students -- will find expressed in the essays of this anthology the unifying foundational ideals of higher education, albeit with different context-dependent definitions: teaching, service, and scholarship. While unity expressed in diversity is noble, change in graduate education is nobler.
Research is important, as is the dissertation. Teaching fellowships and assistantships serve graduate students well, on balance. But a physician would not dream of practicing medicine after having spent time in one medical school and one portion of the medical system. Much can be said for rotations, and doctoral candidates might do well to follow the medical school model by teaching at a range of institutions during their course of study. Graduate coordinators or directors can facilitate partnerships with local colleges and high schools, which would entail giving up some graduate student labor but gaining intellectual breadth.
If faculty members and administrators from different sectors of higher education communicated more systematically across academic borders to express distinctive features of their institutions, we might progress toward Ernest L. Boyer’s goal of “ diversity with dignity in American higher education,” thus affirming the various ways Ph.D.’s express their intellectual leadership within their careers and, of great consequence to the public intellectual, to their students and home communities.
It hasn’t been a problem for the last 15 years. Fall semesters have come and gone, and I’ve managed to keep up with my grading and on top of my reading and even get some research done. I’ve done the routine administrative work that has come my way and been a good academic advisor to my students. I’ve gotten eight hours of sleep a night.
That is, until this fall.
The Phillies are in the World Series.
At almost three hours per game, in first a best-of-five-game, then two best-of-seven series that adds up to a whole lot of hours I don’t have during the academic year.
But I have no option.
This is a team that last year hit a U.S. professional sports franchise record of 10,000 losses. A team that was, during my entire childhood and adolescence, referred to in my house as “those bums.” A team who managed to win its only World Series title one month after I moved away from the Philadelphia area to go to graduate school. (Try looking for a bar full of Phillies fans in Bloomington, Indiana).
The Phillies earned my love and loyalty when I was a kid via the unlikely channel of my report card. In the 60s and 70s, the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin sponsored a challenge that awarded two Phillies tickets to four different games over the summer to every kid in greater Philadelphia who got straight A's on her or his report card in June. My sister and I used to score big every year, earning us four tickets to each of those four games. Our parents chipped in for the other two tickets that would enable our family of six to attend, and we set off across the bridge from South Jersey, first to Connie Mack Stadium and then to the concrete behemoth Veterans Stadium.
We never went to any other professional sports events – who could afford tickets for a family of six to the Eagles or the 76ers or, later, the Flyers? Consequently, none of those other teams or sports ever really caught my attention.
But the Fightin’ Phils had me for life. Free tickets for straight A's? How cool was that? And what’s not to like about a professional baseball game? From the hot dogs to the Cracker Jacks to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” baseball is tailor-made for kids. It’s the only pro sport that woos fans so young, and it certainly worked on me.
So now I’m in trouble. Hours and hours of baseball-watching time, plus chatting with my sister and my mom about the games, plus repeated washing of my Phillies T-shirts and jerseys is interfering with my ability to get through October as a respected professional.
The first problem is my lack of cable television. Because I am one of those annoying academics who can’t keep up with pop culture conversations because I don’t get enough channels, I found myself, come playoff time, in a pickle. Given how badly the Phillies have always done (until last year, but we won’t speak of that sweep in Colorado), I haven’t had to worry much about watching playoff games. I actually pay Major League Baseball a sum that is the equivalent of two or three good books in my field in order to be able to watch Phillies games during the regular season on my computer. But that fee does not cover the postseason. And my lack of cable means that I had to spend late September in bars. This is a sad, sad thing. Is there anything more pathetic than a lone, middle-aged woman (sometimes in a Phillies shirt) sitting at a bar, nursing a beer? (Try finding a bar full of Phillies fans in Red Sox Nation.)
The second problem is the time. Time for the games has to come, of course, out of my sleeping time and any social life I might have had – the grading and the course prep and the meetings just don’t go away. And I learned early that I can’t drink more than one beer during a game and expect to be able to stay awake to read Thomas Carlyle afterwards. I plan my days around the games, at the expense of my partner and child (though, to be fair, they do sometimes join in the game-watching). We all must live around this postseason, and housework, and sometimes even cooking, will just have to wait.
Professional credibility would be a problem as well, were it not for the enthusiasm of folks in New England for their own baseball team. Last week, while the Sox were still in contention, I was walking through campus in my Eastern Division Champs 2008 Phillies T-shirt (discreetly hidden under a zip-front cardigan), when I spotted a colleague from the computer science department. I unzipped and pointed to my Phillies logo. He responded by pointing to his Red Sox cap. The silent acknowledgment of our mutual (yet not) passion comforted me.
And now, instead of grading or prepping to teach or, heaven forbid, getting some work done on my research, I am following the Phillies and, what is more, I am writing about not grading or prepping to teach or doing research because I am following the Phillies.
Still, no one gives me anything anymore for getting straight A's. I figure I owe the Phillies this.
Paula M. Krebs
Paula M. Krebs is a professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.
We don’t know how soon it will happen, but it is happening and it will be consummated soon. The commodity of the book, as we have known it for the last few decades, is vanishing and being replaced by new electronic media. Paper-and-binding books have irrevocably begun to fade away as products of mass consumption and will soon transform themselves into curios like vinyl records. The age of the massive emporium bookstore is coming to an end under the crushing, virtual weight of the Internet. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader is doing well and it promises to get better and cheaper in the future. Textbook companies have developed publishing platforms, like www.ichapters.com, for textbooks to be digitally delivered to students through a price-per-chapter system. And worst of all, if you’re a paper-and-binding book lover such as myself, people are reading less paper than before.
In the diverse, mostly Latino first generation student population that I teach, responses to the paper-and-binding book are often mediated by practical economics. A few years ago I assigned Antonio Skármeta’s beautiful, hardcover children’s book about dictatorship, The Composition,to a Latin American literature class. The Spanish edition I assigned cost about $25, which I didn’t consider to be too much, especially because the total cost for all the books in my class was under $70. All but one of the books I assigned were books that I thought were beautiful as artifacts and as stories. These books, I believed, would command students’ minds and hearts to such a degree that students would want to keep them after the class was over. Most of all, Skarmeta’s book, with its color illustrations and poignant lessons about life and death issues was a book that I was excited to teach to my students. When we got to discussing the book in class, several of my students did not have the book, only black and white photocopies because they could not or did not want to buy the book. I felt a strange mix of powerlessness, disappointment and distance. I had conscientiously made my class inexpensive compared to other classes, but it was not inexpensive enough.
Lest you think that this was an isolated situation, a few examples from one of my current classes come to mind. I have one student who has not bought any of the books on the syllabus because he reads the 19th-century classics I have assigned off of the Internet on his laptop, which he brings to class for discussions. Another student has already begun returning the books we’ve read in class so far, after confirming that they would not be covered in the final exam. A third student, a talented and curious young man who arrives to class with an ipod plugged into his ears, is a graduating senior who had never read a novel before my class. They are all bright, responsible and hard-working students but they are not consumers of books. This is also reflected in the reaction that dozens upon dozens of students have had upon entering my office over the years and noticing my 5 or 6 huge bookshelves full of books. They ask: “Have you really read all of these books?” Which sometimes leads to an interesting conversation about my library, in which I explain which parts are my teaching reference and which parts are the books that I’ve read cover to cover.
The fate of the book in the university classroom is impacted by many factors: the use of instructional technology, the economics of textbook publishing and the pedagogical idiosyncrasies of professors, who either promote the disappearance of the paper-and-binding book or try to reinforce its value in the classroom. Let’s look at each one of these factors for a moment. Naturally, in some contexts and disciplines, it is relatively easy to teach a class without books thanks to the wealth of realia and sources on the Web, whether they be freely available, or available through institutionally subscribed databases. In fact, I find great material online and value its role in my courses. I think that we can agree that some material may be best taught off of the Internet.
The economics of textbook publishing is a little bit more complicated and ties in with the surprising choices some faculty members make as teachers. The bottom line is that a lot of textbooks are just too expensive for what you get. There are certain kinds of textbooks, ubiquitous in certain disciplines, that have become monsters of paper and color, a carnival of colored insets and attention-getting graphic design and layout. They are alternately exciting or stupid, but always exhausting. Worst of all, they are dreadfully disposable. The dizzying rate at which one edition substitutes another so that a publisher can make a profit or stay in business makes these books as valuable and as enduring as colored photocopies. This wasteful, pathetic cycle is the best argument for doing away with over-saturated textbooks altogether and going to an online, subscription model.
Other textbooks are more modestly priced and dispense with the graphic fireworks and multiple editions. These thoughtful anthologies or edited volumes are reasonably priced and straddle the border between textbook and stand-alone book. You can see their classroom application immediately but you can also see these books sitting on a public or university library shelf, and yes, even resting on your average reader’s night table. These books are the innovative work of professors, not a corporate marketing team, and are designed for other professors to use in their classes. Although reasonably priced, you would be mistaken to think that all professors value such books. Many professors will spend countless hours putting together elaborate and voluminous course packets of photocopies for classroom use (I used to be one of them). And now, it is more frequent for technologically minded teachers to file-share large numbers of PDFs through password protected sites on campus. This is so wrong it hurts. We are killing our own chances to have readers in the future or be remunerated for the scholarship we do. It’s not only about the modest royalties that faculty authors may or may not receive, it’s about the principle of valuing each other’s scholarship and editorial work. I order good, attractive and useful paper-and-binding books or textbooks for my classes because I want there to be a system in place to support my work as an author and editor in the future.
If the paper and binding book vanishes as a dominant commodity, as it seems to be, maybe the new virtual system of book distribution, reproduction and delivery will allay some of the problems I describe in relation to photocopies and PDFs. It is becoming increasingly easier to put together affordable ‘readers’ or anthologies culled from existing print material without bypassing rights and fees and without overloading students with unnecessary expense. If this wave of the future takes hold and becomes the new standard in textbook publishing, I think it will be good for all parties involved. But what about the paper-and-binding book? Say you are teaching David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and you had a choice between an excellent paper-and-binding edition by a major academic press, with useful footnotes and front matter, and an electronic edition that students could download to their handy e-book readers, along with selected secondary articles you have selected for them to read? What if their e-book readers had a stylus and/or a network that enabled the class to annotate those assigned texts, and share them over the class network? I don’t think anyone’s nostalgia for paper-and-binding can replace the pedagogical value of my not-so-fanciful or far-fetched e-book scenario.
And yet I am sad about the fading of the paper-and-binding book and I am not going into the good night without putting up a good fight. I am committed to making the cost of my assigned books affordable. I order my books with care and I try to use them in their entirety, so that students get affordable books that are actually used in the class. This does not mean that I limit myself. I do use the occasional supplement (or two or three) and I share with my classes my disagreements with the books or textbooks that I am using. I continue to pick books that I believe are worth keeping and treasuring, both for the words they contain and for their tactile beauty as works of art and design. I want the books that my students hold in their hands to have the heft of what is important and of what is beautiful. I want that student who never read a novel before my class to value the physicality of the reading a paper-and-binding book. This endangered act, after all, will connect him to a centuries-old, vanishing tradition that has touched the lives of millions and altered the course of history on many occasions. That’s just too good to pass up.
Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages and faculty co-chair of the University of Texas Arlington One Book Reading Program. He is currently editing a book designed for classroom use that will be very reasonably priced.
Ideas have seldom been the currency of American politics. (Most of the time, currency is the currency of American politics.) But this seems like a moment in history when new thinking is a matter of some urgency.
Over the past few days, I've been conducting an utterly unscientific survey of academics, editors, and public intellectuals to find out how -- if given a chance -- they might try to influence the incoming occupant of the White House. The question was posed by e-mail as follows:
"Imagine you are invited to a sit-down with the president-elect and given the chance to suggest some recommended reading between now and the inauguration.Since we're trying to keep this fantasy of empowerment at least slightly plausible, I'd ask you to limit yourself to one book. (He will be busy.) Something not yet available in English is fine; we will assume a crack team of translators is standing by. Journal articles, historical documents, and dissertations also acceptable.
"What would you propose? Why? Is there a special urgency to recommending it to the attention of the next Chief Executive at this very moment? Remember, this is a chance to shape the course of history. Use your awesome power wisely...."
I tried to cast a wide net for potential respondents -- wider than my own political sympathies, in any case. Not all who were invited chose to participate. But everyone who did respond is included here. The suggestions were far-ranging, and the president-elect would no doubt benefit from time spent reading any of the nominated titles. (To make tracking things down easier on his staff, I have added the occasional clarifying note in brackets.)
In reality, of course, it's a long shot that the new president will take any of this advice. But the exercise is serious, even so -- for it is matter of opening a wider discussion of what books and ideas should be brought to bear on public life at this pivotal instant. An election is a political process; but so, sometimes, is thinking.
Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California at Davis and author of The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, recently published by Oxford University Press.
If they were asking me I'd suppose they were familiar with my own modest works, so I'd try to point out a perhaps neglected or forgotten classic.
Suppose it's John McCain, who has often expressed admiration for Theodore Roosevelt. I'd humbly suggest President-elect McCain revisit the chapters in George Mowry's classic Era of Theodore Roosevelt dealing with Roosevelt's first full term of office (1905-1909), when he worked hard with Congress to craft landmark legislation regulating business, affording protection to consumers, and providing for workers' compensation.
Suppose, conversely, it's Barack Obama, who would be the first northern Democrat elected since the party sloughed off the South in the Civil Rights era (i.e., since John Kennedy) and who would, like the greatest northern Democrat and perhaps the greatest president of all, Franklin Roosevelt, take office in a time of profound crisis. I would humbly remind him of Isaiah Berlin's classic essay on Roosevelt, in which he describes how much could be accomplished by a deft politician, sensitive even to minute ebbs and flows in political opinion, who while not lacking vision or integrity nevertheless understand—as Berlin wrote—"what to do and when to do it."
[The essay on Roosevelt can be found in the Berlin omnibus collection The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, published ten years ago by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Or here, while the link lasts.-SM]
Elvin Lim is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush, published by Oxford University Press and discussed recently in this column.
The president-elect should read Preparing to be President: The Memos of Richard E. Neustadt (AEI Press, 2000), edited by Charles O. Jones. Richard Neustadt was a scholar-practitioner who advised Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton, and, until his passing in 2003, also the dean of presidential studies. Most of the memos in this volume were written for president-elect John Kennedy, when the country was, as it is now, ready for change.
At the end of every election, "everywhere there is a sense of a page turning ... and with it, irresistibly, there comes the sense, 'they' couldn't, wouldn't, didn't, but 'we' will," Neustadt wrote years ago, reminding presidents-elect that it is difficult but imperative that they put the brake on a campaign while also starting the engine of a new administration. Campaigning and governing are two different things.
Buoyed by their recent victory, first-term presidents have often over-reached and under-performed, quickly turning hope into despair. If there is one common thread to Neustadt's memos, it is the reminder that there is no time for hubris or celebration. The entire superstructure of the executive branch - the political appointees who direct the permanent civil service - is about to lopped off, and the first and most critical task of the president-elect is to surround himself with competent men and women he can work with and learn from.
In less than three months, the president-elect will no longer have the luxury of merely making promises on the campaign trail. Now he must get to work.
Jenny Attiyah is host and producer of Thoughtcast, an interview program devoted to writers and academics, and available via podcast.
We don't have to agree with everything we read in this country. Reading is not unpatriotic. So may I suggest that the future commander-in-chief actually read the speeches by Osama bin Laden? At a minimum, he can read between the lines. As Sun Tzu said, "know thine enemy". But we know so little about bin Laden. We don't even know where he lives. Supposedly, he "hates our freedoms" – but he would argue that what he hates is the freedom we take with our power.
After these videos were released, it usually took some effort to dig out a transcription. In the end, I had to go to Al Jazeera for a translation. What I remember most clearly is grainy video of the guy, holding his index finger aloft, but with the volume silenced, so our talking TV heads could impart their wisdom in peace. Let's hope the next president is willing to turn off the mute button on our enemy. Ignorance is no longer an excuse.
[Verso Press made this much easier three years ago with the collection Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, which provides as much OBL as anyone should have to read.-SM]
Daniel Drezner is a professor of international relations at Tufts University. He also blogs.
I'd probably advise the president to read the uber-source for international relations, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Too many people only read portions like the Melian Dialogue, which leads to a badly distorted view of world politics (the dialogue represents the high-water mark of Athenian power -- it all goes downhill after that). The entire text demonstrates the complex and tragic features of international politics, the folly of populism, the occasional necessity of forceful action, the temptations and dangers of empire, and, most importantly, the ways in which external wars can transform domestic politics in unhealthy ways.
Chris Matthew Sciabarra is a visiting scholar at New York University and a founding co-editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.
Given my own views of the corporatist state-generated roots of the financial crisis, I'd probably recommend The Theory of Money and Credit by Ludwig von Mises, so that he could get a quick education on how the credit policies of a central bank set the boom-bust cycle into motion. Perhaps this might shake the new President into a truly new course for US political economy.
Irving Louis Horowitz is professor emeritus of sociology and political science at Rutgers University and editorial director of Transaction Publications.
While I seriously and categorically doubt that any one book will shape the course of history, and even less, do I feel touched by a sense of "awesome power" much less preternatural wisdom, I will recommend a book that the next president of the United States would, or better should, avail himself of: On Thermonuclear War by Herman Kahn. Released first by Princeton University Press in the dark days of the Cold War in 1960, and reissued by Transaction Publishers in 2007, this is the painful reminder that peace in our time is heavily dependent of the technology of war in our time. The howls of dismissal that greeted this book upon first blush have been replaced by a sober appreciation that the global threat to our Earth are very much a man made product.
Kahn's book can serve as a guide in the stages of diplomatic failure and its consequential turn to military activities at maximum levels. Kahn does not presume pure rationality as a deterrent to war, and in light of the nuclear devices in the hands of dangerous nations states such as Iran and North Korea, where notions of life and death may give way to Gotterdamerung and the preference of destruction and self-immolation, such presumed rational behavior discourse may prove dangerous and even delusionary.The unenviable task of the next president will be to avoid taking the world to the proverbial brink - and making sure others do not dare take the fatal step to do likewise. Oddly, for all of its dire scenarios, Kahn's classic is a curiously optimistic reading, rooted in realistic policy options. It deserves to be on the shelf of the next head of the American nation.
Dick Howard is a professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and editor of the Columbia University Press series Columbia Studies in Political Thought/Political History.
I'd have him read Polanyi's The Great Transformation. Why? It's short, clearly argued, and makes a simple but fundamental point: capitalism is not the natural way that people relate to one another (including in their "economic" relations). It is the result of several political decisions that create the framework within which it can emerge. The next president will have to recognize that he too will make political decisions with economic consequences (and should not deceive himself into thinking that his decisions are simply a reaction to economic "necessities").
To be noted as well: Polanyi, a former banker in Austria, was writing in the wake of the Great Depression, whose causes he was trying to understand. It was the inability of "economics" to understand what had happened to the world economy that led Polanyi to his pathbreaking and brilliant study.
A hubristic final note: I of course recommend this only because my own study of the history of political thought from the Greeks to the American and French revolutions, titled The Primacy of Politics, will not yet be on the market.
[ Primacy will be published by Columbia University Press in late '09.-SM]
James Marcus is the book-review editor for The Columbia Journalism Review and has translated several books from Italian.
It's not often that the POTUS asks me what to read next, and at first I thought I should rise to the occasion with something suitably canonical. I considered Democracy in America, The Federalist Papers, maybe even The Education of Henry Adams (although I'd allow the leader of the free world to skip the virgin-and-dynamo stuff at the end). Then I decided that it made more sense to submit a narrow-gauge production: a book that grappled with public issues through the prism of personal experience, not unlike Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father or John McCain's Faith of My Fathers. If, like the two titles I just mentioned, it included a dash of Oedipal ambivalence, so much the better.
What I came up with was Tobias Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War. As the next president ponders the best way to extract the United States from its Iraqi quagmire, a memoir of Vietnam seems like a useful reality check. The author, a self-confessed screw-up, spent part of his enlistment in the Mekong Delta, advising a Vietnamese artillery battalion. There are very few heroics in his book, and no argumentation about the wisdom of being there in the first place. What we do get is the endless confusion of fighting a popular insurgency. And an insistence that even the survivors of such a conflict are permanently marked: "It's the close call you have to keep escaping from, the unending doubt that you have a right to your own life. It's the corruption suffered by everyone who lives on, that henceforth they must wonder at the reason, and probe its justice."
Over the next four years, the president will almost certainly order U.S. troops into battle. In its modest, personal, anti-rhetorical manner, this book reminds us of the price to be paid.
Claire Potter is a professor of history and American studies at Wesleyan University, and is also known as Tenured Radical. She contributes to the history blog Cliopatria.
My contribution to President Obama's reading list is Nancy Cott's Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000). While the history of marriage has been augmented considerably since this book came to include important volumes on the history of interracial marriage, the demand for gay marriage, and the fraught relationship between Christianity and marriage, all other scholars have relied, more or less, on Cott's argument that marriage is first and foremost a contract with the state.
It's not primarily a contract with another person – although it is that; it is not a contract with your local community – regardless of their approval and disapproval; and it is in no way a contract with any religious hierarchy – although it can be critical to the terms of inclusion in a religious community.
Marriage, President Obama, is about citizenship. You, along with nearly everyone who hedges his bets on gay marriage, reiterates that the most important fact about marriage is that it is between "one man and one woman." But that's not true. In the United States, as Cott shows, marriage has been primarily about the qualifications of a man "to be a participating member of a state."
While over time political authorities in the United States have allowed marriage to "bear the impress of the Christian religion," if marriage is a public institution at all, its function is to mirror the political community and to be the arm of the state that functions to "shape the gender order." In other words, Mr. President, the history of marriage is a political history, not a religious one; and it is a history of inclusion or exclusion from political power.
George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?, a collection of essays forthcoming from Pressed Wafer in March 2009. He was profiled in this column two years ago.
Dear Citizen Obama (I'm afraid the overly deferential "Mr. President" encourages the aggrandizement of the Executive Branch):
More than thirty years ago, your predecessor Jimmy Carter described America's tax system as "a national disgrace." Since then, it's gotten much, much worse. It is now so complex and irrational that only two groups of Americans understand it: tax lawyers and readers of David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times reporter and author of Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich -- and Cheat Everybody Else. The abuses and evasions detailed in Perfectly Legal (and its companion volume, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense – and Stick You with the Bill) may raise your blood pressure dramatically. You should read them, but only under a doctor's supervision.
Continued tax avoidance at current staggering levels by the wealthy is your mortal enemy. Unless the tax code is drastically reformed -- and effectively enforced -- there will simply not be enough money to accomplish your goals. It will take courage, persistence, and all your celebrated rhetorical skills to vanquish this dragon in your path. But unless you do, your hopes will be thwarted and your administration will be no more than a ripple on the surface of American history.
Since I have more than once in the past few months mourned the unkind timing of Norman Mailer's death this year -- What might the author of one of our finest war novels have made of the trials of Senator McCain on the campaign trail? How would the instigatory commentator on so much of our nation's cultural, political, and existential foment make sense of the long and disciplined loneliness of Senator Obama? And, last but by no means least, how would an imagination precocious and peculiar enough to have set a novel called Why Are We in Vietnam? in Alaska have illuminated the passage of Sarah Palin through the national psyche? -- I'd recommend to the new chief executive Mailer's piece on the 1960 Democratic convention, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket."
Coming out of the exhaustions of electoral combat, I might even give him a pass and ask him only to read the first paragraph -- forgive me, Norman -- if he promised to spend some time thinking about it:
"For once let us try to think about a political convention without losing ourselves in housing projects of fact and issue. Politics has its virtues, all too many of them -- it would not rank with baseball as a topic of conversation if it did not satisfy a great many things -- but one can suspect that its secret appeal is close to nicotine. Smoking cigarettes insulates one from one's life, one does not feel as much, often happily so, and politics quarantines one from history; most of the people who nourish themselves in the political life are in the game not to make history but to be diverted from the history that is being made."
Jodi Dean is a professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and author of Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, forthcoming from Duke University Press.
I would recommend that President Obama read Our American King by David Lozell Martin.First, Obama is already familiar with Marxist, feminist, structuralist, and post-colonial theory from his days as a student at Harvard. So there is already some coverage here. Second, Obama has lots of advisors providing lots of advice on policy matters. Anything added here would end up just another item in the mix. Third, the new President faces so many enormous challenges that it is highly unlikely he'll have much time to devote to pondering a complex text, no matter how important.So I recommend a novel published last year, bedside reading that will provide the new President with food for thought. It captures, I think, the fears of many of us for the future of democracy in a time of extreme inequality, the sense that our country is leaning heavily on the wrong side of a precipice.
Our American King depicts what remains of the United States after a great economic calamity: the top .1 percent of Americans have appropriated all the wealth and goods for themselves and left the rest of the country to fend for itself. As the super-rich live in heavily defended enclaves, the suburbs and cities descend into violence, starvation, and death. Social order collapses. The President and Vice President that oversaw the calamity, that presided over the great transfer of wealth from the many to the few, are hung upside and backwards on the White House gates. The central drama of the novel involves the man who comes to power next. He is set up as a king, a uniter, the great hope of the people. Through him, they begin to work together, to imagine again the possibility of collective responsibility. The new king's authority draws from the people's fear and desperate longing for hope, a fear and a longing that, as Martin makes clear, may not always lead to the best outcomes.
My hope is that President Obama will read this book and recognize that people's longing for a leader, the One, is powerful but precisely because of that power should be redirected toward common projects, toward faith in each other and belief in equality, toward a renewed conviction that the conditions of the least well off--not the best--tell us who we are.
As a playwright, I want the next president to read a play. Plays are perfect fodder for the chief executive-to-be: they are short, can be digested in one sitting, and offer the advantage of distilling larger currents of thought into character, dialogue and action. And such an opportunity should not be wasted on agit-prop (Bertolt Brecht, Clifford Odets) or classics that should already have been imbibed by the civilized soul. (So let’s shelve Henry V and Major Barbara for now.) The play should talk to the president about the human cost of tough times, the dignities and foibles of ordinary citizens, and the dire alternatives to forceful and human courses of action.
For such times, the German playwright Odon von Horvath is just the ticket. Before his tragic death on the cusp of World War II, Horvath offered a window on the brutalities of economic collapse and the roots of fascism in desperation and human folly. But which Horvath to select? Tales from the Vienna Woods is Horvath’s masterpiece, but I’d worry that its deep subtleties and epic canvas of pre-war Austria would confound a reader pressed for time. So I’d opt instead for Horvath’s tiny jewel of human desolation: Faith, Hope and Charity.
In a mere 52 pages, the play follows Elisabeth, an ordinary young woman down on her luck, as she is hounded to death by close encounters with unfeeling bureaucracy and casual cruelty. It is a succinct and powerful play with a simple lesson: if our political institutions are not suffused with the moral values of the play’s title, they can be perverted into engines of personal annihilation. It is a message the new president should consider as sweeping changes in government and its powers are proposed and enacted.
Every so often a word become charged with a certain magic. One example, in decades past, was “alienation.” A more recent instance is “exile,” which for a while now has enjoyed a degree of glamor wholly distinct from the normally miserable experience of real-life exile itself. Such has been the case in literary and cultural studies, anyway.Somewhere along the way, it ceased to refer to the circumstance of being expelled from one’s homeland, or otherwise obliged to flee and unable to return. It took on vaguer connotations, and ever more charm.
Reading books from university presses or listening to papers at MLA, one learned that almost any kind of relocation, displacement, or out-of-sorts experience counted as exile. It seemed, more and more, to be a state of mind, if not an existential condition. In that regard “exile” came to resemble “alienation,” except that the earlier term had grown passé.
Given what exile means in the more pedestrian, agonizing sense -- the loss of one's home, citizenship, and wherewithal -- it was hard not to cringe at the metaphorical and metaphysical bloating of this once-meaningful term. The best you could do was bite your tongue.
Either that, or push the exaggeration into overdrive. The fascination with exile is a kind of self-melodramatizing by proxy. We’re all exiles now – maybe especially the adjuncts. I am considering a memoir of life “in exile” from my home town in Texas, a tiny gemeinschaft that only got its second stop-light a few years ago. (Clearly some conditions of exile are easier to bear than others.)
No freeze-dried profundities about the exilic condition are to be found in Ha Jin’s book The Writer as Migrant, recently published by the University of Chicago Press. This seems all the more remarkable given that the author himself – a novelist who is now a professor of creative writing at Boston University – has been in exile, in the most exactingly literal sense, for almost two decades, ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre.
In fact, Ha Jin uses the word “exile” itself sparingly, instead preferring a more expansive category.
“My choice of the word ‘migrant,’” he explains, “is meant to be as inclusive as possible – it encompasses all kinds of people who move, or are forced to move, from one country to another, such as exiles, emigrants, immigrants, and refugees.” The migrant has not simply left a homeland, whether willingly or by necessity. He or she has arrived in a new place and must make a life there, with or without ties to the old country. And that entails a possibility that the old ties will be replaced or transformed. Ha Jin’s emphasis is on the potentials (and the dangers) this creates for a specific kind of migrant: the writer.
Obviously his own experience as a Chinese emigre has written all of his fiction in the adopted language of English forms the backdrop to his reflections. “When I began to write,” he says, “I longed for a return to China, and I saw my stay in the United States as a sojourn, so it felt almost natural for me to claim to be something of a spokesman for the unfortunate Chinese. Little did I know that such a claim could be so groundless.”
For one thing, the day of return did not arrive. And sooner or later, there was a challenge to his moral claim, whether from other people or from his own conscience: “You sell your country and your people abroad.”
Creative labor in a new language, too, entails a sense of betrayal, even as it also opens up the possibility of making a new way in the world. “I have been asked why I write in English,” says Ha Jin. “I often reply, ‘For survival.’ People tend to equate ‘survival’ with ‘livelihood’ and praise my modest, also shabby, motivation. In fact, physical survival is just one side of the picture, and there is also the other side, namely, to exist – to live a meaningful life.” As he later puts it, “your homeland is where you build your home.”
But this book, which began life as a series of lectures at Rice University, is not a memoir. Ha Jin presents his reflections chiefly by way of short comments on the work of migrant writers, some of them exiles (Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Kundera) while others repatriated by choice (Conrad, Lin Yutang, Naipaul). “My observations,” Ha Jin avers, “ are merely that – my observations. Every individual has his peculiar circumstances and every writer has his own way of surviving and practicing his art. Yet I hope my work here can shed some light on the existence of the writer as migrant.”
Ha Jin’s approach is atheoretical and ahistorical, and so devoid of any tendency to ponderousness that the lack is quite conspicuous. It is a modest book; almost aggressively modest. But it leaves the non-migrant American reader (one whose travels have always been voluntary and round-trip) better prepared for the future, as more of our literature is written in English as a second language.
In Talking Out of School: Memoir of an Educated Woman(Dalkey Archive Press), Kass Fleisher reviews her education and her career in college teaching -- without holding back criticism of herself or academe. Sexual politics, class politics and academic politics all figure prominently. The following excerpt is from a section in which she recalls her years as an adjunct. Spoiler alert/warning: There is explicit language throughout the book -- including a few choice words in the excerpt that follows.
1998. I’m adjuncting, and have precisely one friend on the faculty, the guy who got me the gig. We have lunch together every week and we’ve had precisely one argument in the entire span of all our lunches, about a relationship he had with a student once. He tells it as a personal horror story. She’d been bright, talented, precocious -- and ultimately unstable. She filed harassment charges against him, he spent good money to hire a lawyer, he was forced to detail to his department chair some embarrassingly intimate details...
... and the chair let it go. When the university affirmative action officer agreed that the relationship had been consensual that the relationship made sense given consent the charges were dropped.
He comes to my office one day, disturbed. One of his older-women graduate students has written an angry letter, distributed to the chair, the vice-president and the president -- by way of demanding her tuition money back -- complaining that he swears too much in class shitpissfuckcuntcocksuckermotherfuckertits. The chair of the department does not inform him that he and the big boys have received said letter. The chair sits on the letter for a week or two and then, without conferring with the instructor, conducting a hearing, or even remembering (apparently) that grievance procedures have been established and printed in the faculty handbook, he writes my friend a formal letter of reprimand, stating that he’ll be subject to “disciplinary action” if ever another such complaint arises.
“She may, with some justification,” the chair writes, “formally bring a charge of harassment against you.
“Copies of this and the student’s letter will be placed in your personnel file.”
To sabotage your tenure review next year, the letter does not say.
Unlike the chair (apparently), my friend and I consult the faculty handbook and find that this letter indeed violates multiple personnel procedures...
... and further, that the only “disciplinary action” listed is termination.
Fuck, man. You mean you can lose your job for saying “fuck”? You call that fucking “ harassment”?
A month later, when the instructor’s student evaluations come back from the students who remained in the tech writing course after the complaining student left -- 40 percent of whom are women -- he will get a solid 5.0 on a 5-point scale—unanimous enthusiasm.
The chair will never comment on this....
1998. “I will no longer tolerate,” the chair writes in his letter to my friend, “what can only be described as your insensitive, vulgar, and obscene language in the classroom.”
The colleague’s intent in a graduate-level, academic tech writing class (i.e., not a vocational training workshop) is not just to teach students how to type memos, but rather to challenge students to consider how they know what they know as tech writers. This can be achieved while they expand their knowledge of their field, which exists right in the oily hinge, right in the fishy craw of the intersection of higher education and the corporation. Given the mess such a collision must be, he and I agree, some form of institutional critique is vital, and this sort of three-dimensional, reflexive analysis can, over time, only make students better tech writers. To know your context is to know your work.
Like many of his grad students, the complainant is his age, and already works as a tech writer. For much more than his salary.
From the first class meeting, she’s been unwilling to question herself in this manner. She’s uninterested in engaging his “message.” She pronounces the first assignment “a waste of time.” She simply wants to be told what she needs to “know” in order to cough up a master’s degree and presto! get a still higher salary.
“Withdraw me from this class, and do not charge my account.”
My “vulgar, obscene” colleague has been working with a search committee all fall. The chair calls him the week of Thanksgiving break and tells him that he’s being removed from the committee.
When my friend asks why, the chair explains that it’s political. A colleague with opposing pedagogical values has demanded to be included equal time on the committee.
The work’s almost done.
“He’s making this demand three weeks before we interview candidates at the MLA convention?” my friend says.
The chair nods.
“He just up and got pissed off at this late date?”
The chair has no real answer for this.
“At this late date?”
“It’s about fairness,” the chair says. “It’s about making sure both sides are represented.”
The only added perk for taking on all the added work of reading 300 application files is that you get reimbursed for the trip to the hiring conference, the Modern Language Association convention that meets annually between Christmas and New Year’s. So aside from losing all the work he’s put into this search so far no credit = no merit raise, teeny as that would be the instructor will have to pay his own way to MLA, where he has naturally two interviews himself.
“Is this your way of punishing me for the problem with the student who doesn’t like fucking cursewords?” the instructor asks.
“Certainly not,” the chair says.
Students will blame the discomfort of a learning transition on anything they can find. My friend’s experience illustrates clearly that in academe, it’s OK for instructors to fuck students...
... you just can’t say “fuck.”
Kass Fleisher is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Illinois State University.
In the early 1960s, Susan Sontag lived in that liminal condition known as ABD. She was in her late 20s. While working on her fiction and criticism, she held brief appointments in philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and at City College in New York, followed by a few years teaching in the religion department at Columbia University. Something of her attitude towards academic life perhaps comes through in the novel Sontag was writing at the time, The Benefactor (1963). Its narrator says he made his reputation with a scholarly article presenting “important ideas on a topic of no great importance.”
This sounds less like a Wildean epigram than something muttered under the breath about a visiting lecturer. In Sontag’s case, the weariness ran much deeper; it was colored with both distaste and uncertainty about the texture and direction of her own life. So one gathers from Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, the selection of personal writings edited by her son David Rieff and published, like all of Sontag's books, by Farrar Straus and Giroux.
In a third-person account of her life written in 1958 (shortly before her 25th birthday) Sontag complains about “the tense careerism of the academic world, the talkativeness of it. She felt sick of talk, of books, of intellectual industry, of the inhibited gate of the professor.” This passage stands out by contrast with the rest of her journal – filled with lists of books to buy, words to learn, ideas to analyze. The final lines of the Reborn refer to “the intellectual ecstasy I’ve had access to since early childhood... Intellectual ‘wanting’ like sexual wanting.”
But passion is not always good for you. Another entry mentions her realization that reading could be an addiction: “I was like an alcoholic who nevertheless experiences a bad hangover after each binge. After an hour or two browsing in a bookstore, I felt numb, restless, depressed. But I didn’t know why. And I couldn’t keep away from the stuff.” She would go on benders, reading in a “greedy way” until she passed out – keeping “several books beside the bed at night, in order to fall asleep.”
Her cinephilia was dipsomaniacal as well: it takes Sontag four pages to list all the films she saw over two weeks in the spring of 1961. The desire to become a writer was there, inside her. But it had to fight to get out, and that struggle involved overcoming the temptations all around her: academic ambition, the distraction of bookstores, the pleasure of sitting in front of the screen and its secondhand dreams.
In one of her earliest essays -- a discussion of the then newly published diaries of the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese, published in 1962 -- Sontag describes the “peculiarly modern literary genre” embodied in the writer’s notebook or journal. “Here we read the writer in the first person,” she says; “we encounter the ego behind the masks of ego in an author’s works. No degree of intimacy in a novel can supply this, even when the author writes in the first person or uses a third person which transparently points to himself.”
She returned to the topic the following year in another essay, this time on Albert Camus. “The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer [for] himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself.... Solitariness is the indispensable metaphor of the modern writer’s consciousness, not only to self-declared emotional misfits like Pavese, but even to as sociable and socially conscientious a man as Camus.”
These passages apply to Sontag’s own notebooks at least as much as they do those of the authors she is ostensibly discussing. They are a workshop in which she fashions a sense of identity. Passages about love and will abound.
At the age of 17, she met and married Philip Rieff, a professor 10 years her senior – this being a matter of will, one quickly surmises, for her erotic preference was for other women. The seven years of her life as faculty spouse roll through the pages of Sontag’s journal like a gray fog, clammy with resentment. A fellowship takes her to Oxford during the fall of 1957 – away from Rieff and their son. By the start of the next year, Sontag is in Paris, where she crosses paths with an old girlfriend; the renewal of their affair has a catalytic effect. “The thought of going back to me old life,” she writes, “it hardly seems like a dilemma any more.... I’m already on the other side from which it’s impossible to return.”
This is not quite the tale of self-creation through self-acceptance it may warm the liberal heart to imagine. The women Sontag then falls in love with prove to be neurotic and abusive (physically so, in one case) and she remains in the closet to some of her closest academic colleagues. Absorbing the “all-out assault on my personality” conducted by one of her lovers, she comes to identify with the aggressor. The degree of critical self-consciousness grows. Analysis of her experience begins to display an edge. The complaints she once directed at her spouse now become reflexive. "I have grown complacent in the years with Philip,” she writes. “I grew accustomed to his flabby adulation, I ceased to be tough with myself, and accepted my defects as loveable since they were loved.... Perhaps it was necessary, this turning inward and deadening of my sensibility, my acuteness. Otherwise I should not have survived. To remain sane, I became a little stolid. Now I must begin to risk my sanity, to re-open my nerves.”
No coincidence, then, that Hyppolite, the narrator of her first novel, would complain about professors who “raised problems only in order to solve them, and brought their lectures to a conclusion with maddening punctuality.” Instead, he goes to excesses that leave him half insane. For all her interest in the avant garde, Sontag never pursued any course quite so dramatic as that. Perhaps the stolidity won out in the end. She ended up, in her later years, much closer to Philip Rieff’s perspective on culture than either of them might have admitted.
“To write,” notes Sontag in 1961, “you have to allow yourself to be the person you don’t want to be (of all the people you are).” Self-creation, like self-consciousness itself, leads to all sorts of paradoxes. Reborn gives readers a glimpse of this process as it unfolded at the start of Sontag’s career. Two forthcoming volumes will carry the story to the close of her life. (David Rieff’s recent book on her final days, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir, offers a sort of preface to this body of posthumous writings by his mother.)
Having read this selection from her journals three times over the past couple of weeks, let me close on a note of impatient enthusiasm. And also, come to think of it, a passage from that essay on Camus, published when Sontag was 30:
"Great writers are either husbands or lovers. Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness. Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover—moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality—that they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling. In the same way, readers put up with unintelligibility, obsessiveness, painful truths, lies, bad grammar — if, in compensation, the writer allows them to savor rare emotions and dangerous sensations. And, as in life, so in art both are necessary, husbands and lovers. It's a great pity when one is forced to choose between them."
This seems more complex, and less amusing, than it did on last reading.
"Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos." -- The Big Lebowski
After almost five years teaching writing, English, ESL, and humanities courses to high school students and undergraduates, I have come to the conclusion that it is a serious mistake to ground undergraduate instruction in writing in the basics of Aristotelian rhetoric. I believe doing so is increasingly common, and that it is increasingly normal for universities to reframe composition jobs as being in “rhetoric and composition.”
This is a discussion somewhat rooted in the practicalities of teaching first-year undergraduates to write, but it has much broader implications. It is part of a larger conversation about what, exactly, the humanities are supposed to mean at a historical moment when college-level reading and writing skills are quite valuable, yet also when the political and economic conditions put “anti-ideological” pressure on institutions of higher learning. In other words, universities increasingly see themselves as preparing students to write fluently on any topic, from any perspective.
This is not the “end” of ideological instruction, naturally, since its final consequence is to encourage students to write for the highest bidder, making every young writer into a copy writer. But it is worth examining how rhetorically themed instruction in writing -- especially in ethos, pathos, and logos -- arose as a natural way of resolving political conflicts between Western institutions, and to consider the consequences of this paradigm shift for our students. My objection is not merely political; it is also pedagogical, since "rhetoric and composition" forecloses many other valuable ways of teaching reading and writing.
How Critical Thinking Evolved Into Rhetoric
From the middle of the last century until fairly recently, the idea that the purpose of undergraduate education is to foster “critical thinking” has had a virtual monopoly in both academic and popular circles. This goal has been institutionalized around the globe, wherever students are tested on "critical reasoning" skills.
It is an answer I myself have given on many occasions, and it holds up well for an old chestnut. It is a difficult code to enforce in a humanities classroom. It is a concept best suited to the inspection of evidence. Education researcher Lion Gardiner described critical reasoning as "the capacity to evaluate skillfully and fairly the quality of evidence and detect error, hypocrisy, manipulation, dissembling, and bias." Unfortunately, presented with something like a Max Ernst painting or a Martin Luther King speech, students will be hard-pressed to find error, hypocrisy, or bias. Critical reasoning will not help them to “unpack” the text, as we say in the humanities, though it may help when they are called upon to construct a rigorous argument.
Equally important, critical reasoning is pushed to its limits by contemporary culture and politics. Perhaps the greatest exemplar and champion of critical reasoning was Theodor Adorno, who was driven by his own feeling of integrity to extreme positions of dissent and hysterical rejections of popular culture. What are we to tell students about critical reasoning when the president and his cabinet simply lie about Iraq in order to drum up popular support for a war? If you watch one hour of television programming, you see about 20 minutes of advertising, all of which is likely contaminated with “error, hypocrisy, manipulation, dissembling, and bias.” While Westerners have invented all sorts of defenses against this assault on reason, they are leaky dams at best; most of us simply cannot keep track of every sort of irrational appeal we are simultaneously trying to ignore, or ridicule, or protest against, or embrace in the name of glamor or kitsch.
Teaching a class too much in this mode produces an unhappily smug series of field trips through “our stupid popular culture,” “our stupid political landscape,” and so on, along with the depressing feeling that nobody, the instructor included, will follow through in practice on the overwhelmingly negative evaluations of culture that the “critical thinking” method produces.
Rhetoric solved many of these problems by giving critical thinking a positive, broadly applicable core; rather than merely giving students a way to filter out misinformation, we were empowering them to persuade audiences. All of a sudden, a speech by Martin Luther King that had been almost unreadable (was King giving us good evidence about the lives of African-Americans or not?) became full of content, now that we were seeing it through Aristotle’s Big Three: ethos, pathos, and logos.
Furthermore, the rhetorical approach seemed to resolve the increasingly tense problem of what students ought to be reading or otherwise studying. There were visual and auditory rhetorics earning the attention of scholars in every field; in fact, anything that had an audience apparently had a rhetoric, so you could finally teach pop culture alongside of canonical literature without drearily insisting that pop culture was lies, damn lies, and false advertising. You could seamlessly blend new media into traditional writing curriculums, which was good since students had less stomach for reading, less training in it, and more of an appetite for mixed media or short pieces. Overall, the rhetorical approach tended to produce surprisingly positive evaluations of, well, just about everything, because rhetoric became a pleasure in and of itself: the film Thank You For Smoking is a product of the New Age of Rhetoric, where even a cigarette ad can be the object of much grudging classroom admiration. If an audience liked it or was influenced by it, you were hard-pressed to say, as a detached rhetorician, that the audience was wrong.
The Politics of Teaching Rhetoric
In addition to substituting something more agreeable for the relentlessly negative core of the “critical thinking” curriculum, rhetoric solved an urgent political problem: how institutions of higher education were supposed to weather the Bush years without being relentlessly punished for “extreme” political leanings. After 9/11, when David Horowitz’s star was on the rise, the Congress was majority Republican, governorships were going Republican all over the country, and Dubya had consolidated his popular base, there was a feeling among academics that blindly going forward with some version of leftist theory was simply irresponsible. Doing so created easy targets for Horowitz and his kind, and excluded professors from thrilling conversations about how the Internet could foster a better, more sustainable, more user-driven global market and global culture.
Many academics, abandoning the radical politics of theory, began to talk and write as though they were trying out for a new edition of The Best and the Brightest — as though they were the cabinet advisors to some non-existent moderate Democratic administration, presumably run by Martin Sheen. I remember being dumbfounded when a famous interpreter of the Frankfurt School (a group of philosophers that included Adorno), coming to give a talk at UC Irvine, chucked all that critical nonsense about dialectics to discuss how Bush could have done better at international diplomacy. This was also the period, you may remember, when the American right pushed the hardest for “balanced” course readers and syllabi. It was the second coming of the Intelligent Design movement. All across the country, TAs and adjuncts murmured to each other about how to teach critical thinking without “silencing” conservative perspectives.
Of course, looking back, the post-Clinton years seem like some kind of bad dream, an epiphenomenon that has now been brought to an end by Obama’s election. That may be true at the highest levels of American government, but institutional changes within the academy do not reverse themselves so quickly, particularly when a whole generation of graduate students is trained under a certain politically ambivalent model. Rhetoric, which was already prominent for the reasons I mentioned earlier, easily adapted itself to this environment by simultaneously avowing its neutrality (let’s analyze a speech by George W. Bush!) and promising a sort of sideways “rhetorical critique” that would lead students to the truth. In theory, you could show students that Bush’s speeches used all kinds of logical fallacies in order to divide the word along axes of good and evil, or that his rhetoric was inconsistent in its appeals and therefore untrustworthy.
In reality, however, teachers tended to fall back on dogma whenever they tried to perform a rhetorical critique of politically successful discourse. For example, if you wanted to prove that George Bush presented an overly polarized picture of nations and human beings, you had to invoke your own personal theory that out there, in the real world that transcends discourse, things weren’t so “black and white.” Or, in a different example, you might have to just announce that most scientists believe in evolution or global warming, thus giving your students the “right answer” independent of audience or Aristotle’s categories of appeals.
Students will, of course, dutifully reproduce this kind of information in the essays they submit, but the frame created by the focus on rhetoric makes such information look like bias. Hanging over every discussion is the idea that all perspectives contain bias, or the equivalent idea that everyone has a valid belief. This relativism is inherent to rhetoric itself, when it is isolated as a field of study. It is something that Aristotle narrowly avoided by simply announcing that his essentially technical discourses on rhetoric were subordinate to truth, and that only truthful orators could use rhetoric rightfully. His important corollary has been lost in the contemporary revival of ethos, pathos, and logos. If everyone is right, or everyone is biased, then alliances, not truths, are the highest values.
It may seem strange to talk about evolution or global warming or geopolitics period in this context. After all, our subject is writing courses, which are taught mostly by people with apolitical degrees (English, history, philosophy, etc.). In high school there is a much sharper delineation between English or language arts, which covers literature, expository writing, and creative writing, and other classes that cover recent history or introductory political science. Well, it is strange. The centrist politicizing of the writing classroom is not especially helpful to students, who are neither challenged politically nor pushed as hard as they could be as writers. The political focus is simply the result of the growing power of composition as a discipline, a discipline that blindly attempts to separate writing from literature, and that justifies itself intellectually by citing the supposed political value of rhetorical analysis.
Teaching Them What They Already Know: Composition and Literature
Most people have, within certain familiar realms, a very sophisticated, intuitive understanding of rhetorical strategy. Teenagers know how to shift from one vocabulary to another, depending on audience, and sound completely different in their essays than they do in casual conversation or on IM programs. They have different ways of speaking to parents and friends, and they work hard on crafting online and offline persona that others will find appealing. One of the gratifying things about teaching rhetoric is that students “get it” right away, because it relates to certain fundamental social skills. Thus, when a class works together on a rhetorical analysis, students often manage to rapidly produce useful observations. This is especially true when they are dealing with something comfortable, like a scene from a movie.
Less discussed, though, is the fact that students “get” rhetoric (and we find it easy to teach) because it follows an intersubjective logic similar to that of capital. Rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with advertising, the dominant language of contemporary desire. Students find themselves growing up in a world where demographics — audiences — are created out of thin air by advertising in its various forms, and where mass production aligns itself to the desires of a consumer audience. Furthermore, rhetorical analysis is dissociative: Anyone who has tried to teach ethos, pathos, and logos as operations to be performed on a text knows how students arbitrarily divide the text up into “emotional” sections and “argumentative” sections, even though such divisions are rarely defensible.
This is not the students’ fault, as we send them gunning for whatever holism a text possesses. The lysis of the text feels oddly familiar, though, because contemporary culture is similarly dissociative. Logic is the calculated process of competition and oppression, emotion is the catharsis of sentimentality, and personality is likability; to put the matter crudely, ethos, pathos, and logos correspond to the capitalist triptych of the advertiser (the “front man”), the consumer, and the accountant.
Holism is not always wanted. There are times when ad hoc writing is the most logical response to a particular situation, and there is also a place for the modest ambitions of, say, a humor column. Nonetheless, I believe that teachers of writing ought to see it as their particular mission to teach holism, particularly as it manifests in the peculiar written technologies of literature and longer creative nonfiction. In short, our mission is to teach English, not composition or writing, regardless of what our students choose for their major.
Literature tends to be de-emphasized in composition courses because it is hard to abstract arguments from it, impossible to put your finger on the “speaker’s ethos,” and tough to separate the emotional resonances from the ideas. Even earlier works of non-fiction are less invested in ethos: I taught both Joseph Mitchell and Chuck Klosterman this year, and found that Klosterman but not Mitchell can be easily analyzed for ethos. Klosterman is a 21st century writer, eager to tell you about what he bought at the Gap or how he seduced a woman in Michigan. Mitchell, on the other hand, writes “I caught up with Joe Gould…”, and then writes about Gould, not himself. Over the course of a whole book like Women In Love, we certainly get a sense of something like the breadth of D. H. Lawrence’s personality, but always indirectly, mediated as it is by plot, character, setting, and all the conventions of fiction.
The same problem recurs with studies of literature’s audiences; especially in 2008, trying to discuss the “audience” of Jane Austen is frequently unhelpful. The people Austen was ostensibly writing “for” did not include Edward Said, but by now Said is an important part of any discussion about Austen. There are texts that are heavily determined by (and determining of) audience, and others that are not. There are historical claims to be made about literature’s audiences, but these claims never exhaust the work itself.
There is a great deal of general anxiety among teachers that students will not read big books, particularly big books that aren’t anthologies. This premonition is very often correct; over the course of my life, I have been assigned a lot of big books that I didn’t finish. Nonetheless, by setting the bar high, we get more from students than we otherwise would. The big problem occurs when the alternative, having students write about short opinion pieces and pop culture, gets so entrenched that instruction in writing becomes completely generalized, indistinguishable from the incidental flow of words that fills up the day. It is true that other artistic forms are just as holistic as literature, but unfortunately they do not simultaneously teach writing. That is why writing curricula must emphasize longer texts, and why universities must take a more enlightened view of how undergraduate instruction in English will translate into real-world skills.
At first glance, it seems useless to have engineers or business majors practicing creative writing or analyzing literary form and content. Yet this training is exactly what will make them imaginative, subtle, and compassionate writers. Without such practice, they will be competent, but not compelling. A mixed approach, focusing on literature, serious creative non-fiction, and criticism, with rhetoric as a useful but limited subcategory, will give students the horizon they need to excel as writers, regardless of what kind of writing they eventually do. The field of rhetoric ought to remain a discipline in its own right, instead of becoming simply another word for using language, and as a discipline it is not broad enough to cover all the moments of aesthetic discovery and delight that initiate students into the writer’s world.
That kind of mixed curriculum in today’s academic environment requires immense dedication on the part of students, and it means leaving enough room in student schedules so that they can puzzle over long and unfamiliar texts. Out of discussions of character and circumstance, real conversations about situational ethics and diverse viewpoints can take place, on a far more sophisticated level than discussions of rhetorical efficacy that boil down to relativism. Society can be judged complexly; it does not need to automatically be scolded in the name of “critical reasoning,” or praised because it runs on rhetoric. Out of the intricacies of narration, criticism, and poetics, a conversation about style can take place that allows students to discover authorial voice and to take a writerly approach to individuality that goes infinitely beyond Bush’s “cowboy” schtick. Finally, the classroom can be a place where a felt response to imaginary circumstances prepares students for a world in which they will frequently have to make ethical decisions whose implications go far beyond anything they can directly see or experience.
Such courses seldom reflect what undergraduates “already do” every day, and success will be a struggle for them. It is probably not what they already know, but I fully believe it is what they hope to learn.
Joseph Kugelmass is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. During the summer, he teaches ESL and SAT Prep at Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass. He is a co-editor and contributor for The Valve, and also blogs at The Kugelmass Episodes.