When I entered graduate school, my goal was to become an English professor. I had loved literature from an early age, and teaching as a graduate student only deepened my resolve to be a professor. But the job market for humanities professors was wretched, and the gallows humor of my professors and other graduate students was enough to send me scurrying on my way. I finished my master’s degree and went to work for the Department of Pensions and Security, a part of the welfare program in the State of Alabama.
It was only later when I took on work as an adjunct that I cobbled together the courage to finish what I had started by getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor. And the wherewithal came from an unexpected place: my students.
I signed on to teach general education classes as an adjunct at Troy University’s campus at Fort Benning, Georgia. Most of my students were soldiers. I brought to the class all of the assumptions that often afflict young, smartass humanities graduates. I was opening the eyes of the nearly blind. I certainly never expected my students to open my eyes. I didn’t even know how blind I was or how little I knew about literature or about teaching — about life itself.
Wilfred Owen’s "Dulce Et Decorum Est" taught me to see my students in a new way. I had taught it many times as a teaching assistant, finding the anti-war theme of the poem one that resonated with me and the traditional undergraduates I taught. The narrator discovers what I supposed all of us in a post-Vietnam War America had learned: that Horace’s famous phrase "it is sweet and becoming to die for your country" (in Latin Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori) is a lie. Since Owen was a soldier who died in World War I, I thought the poem would be particularly interesting to my soldier students. But the single phrase “fitting the clumsy helmets [gas masks] on just in time” opened the poem in an unexpected way.
The narrator describes mustard gas canisters falling on his platoon as he and his comrades are marching. They struggle to get the "clumsy helmets on just in time." One in the group is not fast enough with the gas mask. Helplessly, the others watch him die. A private in the room stopped me on the word "clumsy."
"All soldiers complain about the gas masks," he said. "There’s not an easy way to put ‘em on, Sir." He then demonstrated the process of putting the mask on. Looking around at the fatigues, I realized that I was the only one in the class who didn't personally know what it felt like to put on a gas mask. I had never even seen one except in movies.
When we got to the passage in the poem where Owen describes the soldier who dies — "guttering, choking, drowning" — because he doesn’t get the gas mask on in time, a sergeant raised his hand. "Mustard gas causes the lungs to produce fluid, Sir. This man is drowning on dry land." I then read aloud the narrator’s description of the body of his fallen comrade, thrown into the wagon as the platoon continues to march: "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs." We were all suddenly inside the poem, living together the horror that Owen described. It was 9:15 p.m. on an average Wednesday night.
I had gotten up at 6:00 a.m. to prepare for class. I had worked all day at my state job. Most of the soldiers had reported for drills at 5:00 a.m. Some of them had come from the field so late that they had not had time to put their weapons away. They lay on the floor near their desks. And yet at that moment, every eye in the room was focused hard and tight on the page. Through the power of Owen's words, brought to life by my students, we were living the poem together, caught in its deadly magic.
When we got to the end of the poem, I stumbled upon the most important surprise of the evening. Most of the soldiers in the room agreed with Owen: Horace did lie -- it is not "sweet and becoming" to die for one's country. Still, like Owen, they had taken that risk for the array of reasons that people do what they do. Some were there because their fathers and their father’s fathers had served and it was in their blood; some because they felt called to defend their country. But all of them had taken the oath to sacrifice themselves if the occasion arose. And yet as far as I could tell, nobody in the room disagreed with Owen. In fact, they had earned the right to agree with Owen in a way I never would: by taking the risk that their time of service would coincide with a war, that they too would be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.
I taught as an adjunct professor at Troy State at Fort Benning for three years. Some of my students were distracted and uninterested, just the way most college students sometimes are. But others were the smartest, most well-informed, most disciplined students I have ever taught. More important, they brought to the literature classroom an array of experiences that I had never had. For that reason, they taught me to teach literature. They also taught me about real-life choices, real-life risks, real-life consequences: the reality that stands behind works of great literature.
When it works the way it should, a beginning literature classroom is a place where teacher and student sit at the knee of the storyteller. And through the vehicle of the story, they help each other piece together the mystery of human existence. The teacher brings to the classroom a knowledge of literary form and history that the students most likely do not have. But the students will often have an array of experiences or reactions that the teacher can never guess or predict. This is particularly true in a class of nontraditional students. Again and again at the end of long, weary days, with the help of my soldier students, we summoned long-dead poets to life, brought fictional characters into flesh and blood, and pondered words that had rung in the ears of generations of men and women. And when I left the classroom, there was inside me a kind of awe. In part, it was for literature, which despite my years in school, I had never really understood before. But another part of it was simply for the students. They gave so much of themselves to be there, and while there, they brought my classes to life.
The final gift I got from my students was the willingness to tread uncertainly into a profession that was at best a dare, given the bleak job prospects for English Ph.D.s in the 1980s. I did not take half the risk that my students did — the risk of dying in the midst of enemy fire. I did not take the risk that Wilfred Owen took. After writing some of the best war poetry we have and discovering just how much a wretched lie Horace had told, he was killed one week before World War I was over. He died on November 4, 1918, and his parents got the news of his death on November 11th as the armistice bells were tolling. But I did in those years find the courage to risk failure. I went back to school, earned a Ph. D. in English, and became a professor.
So what if there were no jobs? So what if I finished a Ph. D. and had to go to work as a hack writer or a sales associate? It was worth the risk because of those classes and those students. And I knew then what I still know: that every day of my life, they and those like them took a much larger risk than I ever have.
I have never regretted my decision, nor have I ever forgotten the students who taught me how to make it. I will forever be in their debt.
H. William Rice is chair of English at Kennesaw State University.
A familiar story about the modern university goes something like this: Once upon a time, the freshman arrived already knowing at least the basic mechanics of writing: what a paragraph was, how punctuation marks worked, the existence of nouns and verbs (and the obligation that they agree in a given sentence), that sort of thing. But the expansion of higher education throughout the 20th century, and especially in its second half, meant that a steadily growing portion of the student body needed basic training in such things.
The job naturally fell to professors of English, even though composition stood in relation to the study of literature roughly as long division did to algebraic topology, over in the math department. Still, it was necessary. Teaching this basic (even remedial) course helped justify offering the more advanced sections in literature. As the demand for writing instruction grew, it ceased being one task among others that the English faculty performed. It was became a function planned and administered separately from the courses on literature, and sometimes it even broke off from the department entirely, to do its own thing.
And that is why there is now a writing center on campus, probably in a basement somewhere, largely staffed by graduate students. There are faculty who specialize in composition studies, every single one of whom remembers that Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors, once called them “comp droids” pursuing an activity devoid of any real intellectual content. That was more than 10 years ago, and in the original context it was a critique of literary scholars' attitudes. But the comp people still quote it sometimes, with bitterness, as if they've made a slogan of the militant online group Anonymous their own: “We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget.”
There are various problems with this narrative, including the fact that happy compositionists do exist. (I have met them.) But the most important is the fable about the golden age when secondary education produced literate students, so that the English faculty could keep its attention focused on higher things. In The Managerial Unconscious in the History of Composition Studies, published by Southern Illinois University Press, Donna Strickland quotes various exasperated statements issuing from Harvard University in the 1890s. Professors were obliged to instruct “bearded men [in] the rudiments of their native tongue,” so that “a large corps of teachers have to be engaged and paid from the College treasury to do that which should have been done before the student presented himself for admission.”
Teaching composition was the manual labor of the mind: “In quantity,” said a committee appointed by the Harvard Board of Overseers in its report from 1892, “this work is calculated to excite dismay; while the performance of it involves not only unremitted industry, but mental drudgery of the most exhausting nature.” And keep in mind that the students in question -- the raw material to be processed in the sweatshops of the Harvard English department – were typically the product of prep schools, in an era when the only distracting form of electronic communication was the telephone.
’Twas ever thus, in other words. But demolishing the belief that basic writing instruction at the college level reflects some recent dysfunction in secondary education (especially public schools) is a fairly minor element in Strickland’s argument.
The author, an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri at Columbia, reconfigures the history of composition studies, rejecting the commonplace view that the field took shape on the margins of another discipline -- a humble (but all too necessary) pedagogical supplement to literary studies. The Managerial Unconscious is remarkably compact book, its points made with much concentration. Reading it more than once seems like a good idea. Here is a brief survey, offered with with all due trepidation by someone who has been through it just once.
The title might be a good way in. It alludes to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981), which offered “always historicize” as a slogan for cultural analysis.
Strickland follows this injunction by stressing an important thing about the emergence of university-level composition courses in the U.S. at the close of the 19th century: it coincided with a rapidly growing market for white-collar labor. As companies expanded, their internal structures became more complex. Mechanization and the division of labor in manufacture increased productivity, but coordinating manufacture and distribution required new layers of managerial staff, able to turn out reports, memos, press releases, and the like.
When bearded men at university were unable to write coherently, that, rather than how prepared they were to compose a theme on Keats, was the real issue. To occupy a slot in the corporate chain of command, they had to be able to put a pen intelligibly to paper. One member of the Harvard committee that scrutinized undergraduate writing in the 1890s was the chairman of the Massachusetts Railroad Commission -- an early expert on what would soon be called systematic or scientific approaches to management. The committee’s stress on the drudgery involved in handling thousands of student compositions per semester echoes the managerial theme that work can and should be organized for greater efficiency.
“Whether the ideas of systematic management were employed consciously or unconsciously,” writes Strickland, “articulating the correct divisions of labor in the teaching of English was clearly the burden of the committee’s report.” To produce enough skilled labor to manage American business, the university itself needed to retool.
So by Strickland’s account, English professors did not shove composition out of literary studies like an unwelcome stepchild. Another dynamic was at work. Writing instruction became a discipline in Foucault’s sense – a way of inculcating both skills and the capacity to perform in a corporate workplace. Can the student rework a paper to the prof’s satisfaction, as a mid-management person might be called upon to revise a handbook? “Writing programs,” says Strickland, “… were made possible not by the devaluing of student writing in the university but by its central function in an institution that depended on writing as a tool for surveillance and assessment.”
The quest for managerial efficiency just happened to reinforce other power relationships: “The teaching of required writing [became], in the process of being divided from the English department in the name of efficiency, sometimes an entry-level position, more frequently in recent decades a position completely outside the tenure track. Because more stable, better paying faculty positions tended to be awarded to men, women often had little choice but to take on low-paying instructorships in composition.”
And by the later third of the 20th century, the consolidation of composition studies as a distinct field (with its own journals, graduate programs, academic organizations, and book series) had an odd effect. In keeping with Strickland’s title, the specialty behaves like one of Freud’s patients -- running away from “the managerial unconscious,” only to find it returning, just ahead. Comp studies established itself as an intellectual discipline. But one career track in it leads to supervising the labor of adjuncts and graduate students, preparing a syllabus that others will follow, and trying to keep the writing center’s costs down and statistics up. Still, thinking of the field as having a managerial component meets resistance, given the “negative connotations for traditional humanist intellectuals,” Strickand writes, “who have tended over the decades to distrust management as, at best, nonintellectual and, at worst, soul-murdering.” Management is where you land after doing a really good job at Pizza Hut for a couple of years.
But if the shoe fits.... "Once organizations of any kind are organized hierarchically," writes Strickland, "with a class of experts structuring and overseeing the work of a group of nonexperts, management happens. Professionalism calls for control and systematization of knowledge, and management is the group of people who reinforce that." Much of the book is devoted to how the evasion of its managerial function has played itself out over the years, even after the Council of Writing Program Administrators was established in the late 1970s. Strickland’s tone is never harsh. But when she writes that “almost from the beginning of the organization, the WPA discourse showed an aversion toward so-called managerial tasks,” somebody’s ox is being gored.
Strickland's argument implies consequences – but only implies them. Greater lucidity about how the managerial legacy of composition studies is the prerequisite for creating better working conditions; she also suggests that it will help make writing instruction a way to develop students' critical intelligence. But just how any of that will happen is left unaddressed. The Managerial Unconscious feels like the first volume of something, rather than the last word. If its implications are hard to read, that is because they remain to be drafted.
In 2007, before releasing its first title, Open Letter Books, a literary press based at the University of Rochester, began running a blog called Three Percent. The title comes from an estimate of how large a share of the annual U.S. book output consists of translations. If anything, that figure may have been a little high even at the time. Given the continuing surge in the number of new titles published each year (up 14 percent between 2009 and 2010, thanks in part to print-on-demand), the portion of books in translation is almost certainly shrinking. Whether or not globalization is an irresistible force, provincialism is an immovable object. But Open Letter, for its part, is dedicated to doing what it can. The press brings 10 foreign-language books into English each year (most of them novels) and Three Percent tracks what is happening in the world of literary translation. The blog also sponsors the annual Best Translated Book Award, now in its fifth year.
As it turns out, the latest work from Open Letter was originally written in English. The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading is an e-book consisting of material that Chad W. Post, who is OL's publisher, has culled from his blogging over the past four years. (“Some were speeches that I had to give and wrote them first for Three Percent,” Post said by e-mail. “Two birds and all that.”) It can be downloaded from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $2.99 -- with all of the profit going to pay translators. You could read all this material for free online, of course, but that would be miserly.
So cough up the three bucks, is what I’m trying to say. It goes for a good cause -- and besides, the book is a good deal, even apart from the low price. The pieces have been revised somewhat, and arranged by topic and theme, so that the whole thing now reads like a reasonably cohesive attempt to come to terms with the developments in book culture during the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. As John B. Thompson showed in his studyMerchants of Culture (Polity, 2010), dealing with any particular change in publishing requires you to grapple with the whole system -- the vast apparatus of production and distribution that connects writer and public. Translation is one aspect of it, of course, but it links up in various ways with the rest of publishing. While Post was making his running assessment of the state of literary translation, he also had to think about the new ways we buy and consume texts. One of essays is called “Reading in the Age of Screens,” which indeed could be an alternative title for the whole book.
Notification that the book was available came to me last week via Facebook, which is amusing given Post's definite ambivalence about the "all digital, all the time" tendency of contemporary life. "In the digital world," he said in a note, "we tend to stick to what we already know we want, reinforcing certain patterns, and losing some of the serendipity that a lot of readers point to as a huge influence on their life." True, and yet I did buy the book and start reading it (on a screen) within a few minutes, and was able to ask the author questions later that afternoon. The lack of serendipity was not a big problem.
One of the things I wanted to ask Post about was the peculiar role of academe in regard to translation. University presses undoubtedly account for a larger share of each year’s crop of translations than trade publishers do. At the same time, the actual work of bridging language barriers has long been undervalued as a form of scholarship. An uninspired monograph generates more institutional credit than a much-needed translation. The Modern Language Association began taking steps in a more encouraging direction a couple of years ago, when Catherine Porter (a prolific translator of books from French) was its president. And this spring, MLA issued guidelines for evaluating translations as part of peer review. But without stronger institutional recognition of the value of translation, the American tendency toward literary isolationism will only get worse -- apart from the occasional surge of interest in, say, Swedish mystery fiction.
According to a database kept by Three Percent, academic presses bring out roughly 15 percent of the translated fiction and poetry appearing each year. “I suspect this figure would be much higher if we tracked nonfiction works as well,” Post told me. “As it stands, nonprofits, university presses, and independents account for 80-85 percent of the published translations.” He mentioned the presses of Columbia University, Texas Tech, and the University of Nebraska as examples of imprints bringing out excellent books in translation. But talking with literary translators working in academe means hearing “a bunch of terrifying stories about their translation work interfering with getting tenure, etc.”
Even so, there are young professors interested in the study of translation -- “and surprisingly,” Post said, “I know at least a few who are being urged (and evaluated) by their departments to continue translating." At the same time, the classroom is a front line in the effort to overcome resistance or indifference to the rest of the world’s literature. “It always shocks me at how few books from France, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe, etc., that students read during their studies,” he says. “It's as if American and British authors exist in a bubble, or as if students are just supposed to find out about the rich history of world literature in their spare time.... I think it would be ideal if more international works were taught in classes, giving students a chance to explore the issues of translation and helping defuse the trepidation some readers have when approaching a translated book.”
Open Letter works with the program in literary translation studies at the University of Rochester. Students “take a theory class, produce a portfolio of their own translations, and intern with the press.” Post admits that the trends in the publishing world do not point to a future in which translation will be a booming field. Thanks to "depletion in the number of bookstores (especially independents), increased focus on the bottom line, [and] the immense increases in the number of published titles," the portion of translated books "will remain around 3 percent, or even decrease when you start counting self-published titles.” At the same time, a number of small presses with a commitment to publishing translations have emerged over the past decade or so, besides Open Letter. They include Archipelago Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, Europa Editions, Melville House, PEN World Voices, and Words Without Borders.
Calling it an issue “as fraught as it could be,” Post notes that Amazon is not only “funding a lot of organizations involved in translation, but they've started AmazonCross, a publishing enterprise focused exclusively on literature in translation.” In 2010, the online bookseller gave $25,000 to the University of Rochester so that the Best Translated Book Awards could begin offering a cash prize to the winning authors and translators.
Someone willing and able to spend the money “could make a huge difference in the landscape for international literature in a short period of time,” Post told me. “This doesn't have to be a corporation at all.… I think that over the next decade, as more small presses come into existence thanks to advances in technology, changes in distribution methods, and general dissatisfaction with a lot of the stuff coming out from corporate presses, the audience for international literature will continue to increase. There may not be that many more titles being published, but the publishers doing this work will get more and more savvy at getting their titles into the hands of interested readers, academics, reviewers, etc. -- people who aren't put off by the idea of reading a translation.”
That last part is, in the final analysis, the real crux of the matter. Even when books do get translated, they are sometimes promoted very poorly. In The Three Percent Problem, Post refers to one university press that seems committed to describing the foreign novels it publishes in terms that are strangely unappealing. Without naming the press I can confirm that the complaint is all too valid: the publisher's catalog always makes the books sound desiccated, lugubrious, and inaction-packed.
It's the kind of thing that reinforces what Post calls "the overriding prejudice" about books in translation: "that they won't sell, that only the most sadomasochistic of people will read them, that reviewers will view these books as being secondary to the original version, etc." The only cure is for enthusiastic readers to communicate among themselves, to strike a spark of interest.
Spurred by a “Why are you in college?” discussion I held with my Penn State composition students one day late last semester when rumors swirled of potential state education funding cuts and tuition hikes, an enthusiastic freshman journalism/English major from outside of Pittsburgh came to my office to “talk about her future.” She’s a good writer, works hard, talks a few times per class. She got right to the point: “Can I get a job with an English degree?”
I wanted to tell her not to worry about the college-to-job equation, that she’s in college to broaden her mind, to question, to grow intellectually -- all the learning clichés that hold true. And anyway, what gets a person a job? Solely a degree typed on a resume? The direct skills learned within the major? The subtle, everyday-acquired social and organizational and problem-solving skills? But it is pompous and insular for me to expect my students -- most 18 or 19 years old -- to consider scoffing at this simplified college-to-job equation and just learn for learning’s sake -- meaning, maybe, that hard learning now should lead to a solid, dare I say, happy, future. Be it as it may.
After all, I can relate. I began college in 1999 as a business major because that was the box I checked off on my college application. I slogged through a year of accounting and management classes that I couldn’t get interested in. My sophomore year, on a whim, I took Literature of the Jazz Age and Introduction to Creative Nonfiction Writing, and I found myself thinking about these classes outside of the classroom: I imagined Langston Hughes’s character Simple rambling down a busy Harlem street; I felt driven to write at length about my experience as a counselor at a fledgling summer camp for children from low-income families. In short, literature and writing just clicked for me. So I filled out a change-of-major form, following what I guess I could have defined as my…fervor. (Let’s not use the “passion” word yet.) I was, then, an English major.
But while I was getting into the major, it seemed like everyone else was getting out. William M. Chace, former president of Emory and Wesleyan, writes in The American Scholar that from 1971 to 2004 humanities majors at universities dropped from 30 percent of students to 16 percent, while English majors dropped from 7.6 percent to 3.9. Coincidentally, business majors increased from 13.7 percent to 21.9. It was not easy for me making the jump in major. Business, while tedious to me, did feel practical, safe. I perceived some sort of direct path to a company, but I also never seemed to care to read The Wall Street Journal or think about business ideas or controversies that interested some of my classmates. The English degree was exactly not safe, some might say even impractical, but in my new classes I felt more secure than I had in years. Did I think about a job? No. Was it a difficult time? Yes. Does it matter? I don’t know.
Many of my Penn State students hail from blue-collar households, while some are the first in their families to attend college. It’s clear that many of them view college as purely an investment or a transaction: pay large amounts of money (often from loans) to learn defined skills to land a job. The 2009 “Educational Planning Survey,” conducted by the Division of Undergraduate Studies at Penn State, asked students to select one reason out of a list of nine for attending college. Out of 16,693 Penn State first-year students, almost 50 percent selected “To prepare for a vocation, learn what I have to know in order to enter a particular career,” with “To pursue scholarly activities for intellectual development” a distant second. Third, “To discover and develop my own talents,” and fourth, “To become more mature, learn how to take on responsibility and become an adult.”
I can assume that at least half of my students are in college primarily to get a job. Do they actually worry about procuring a job (even in their freshman year) or is that just their parents speaking through them? Is their future a looming monster, an opportunity, or something foggier? Could the pressure they’re feeling be a result of the depressed economy, the general uncertainty this new generation faces, or some gloppy mix? Whatever reason, that pressure is real and feels heavier than when I was in school. According to the 2010 Survey of America’s College Students conducted by the Panetta Institute For Public Policy, “Fully 68 percent of college students worry very (37 percent) or fairly often (31 percent) about finding a good-paying quality job.” This is up from 60 percent from 2009.
As my composition student posed her “Can I get a job with an English degree?” question, I imagined myself in a similar position nearly a dozen years before, wide-eyed, talking similarly with the very understanding philosophy professor who taught my freshman seminar. I could have told my student that, like her, I had eventually declared as an English major, that teaching here was my fifth job, not all of which were academic. I’ve done fine, not great, if we’re basing career success on earnings. (This could be you! I wanted to joke, looking down at my scuffed dress shoes.)
But there’s a fundamental difference between me and my students: I graduated college with zero debt in a much stronger economy. Being debt-free has significantly altered my post-college path. My first year out of college, I interned for a professional football team in Florida and made about $1.50 an hour. But I didn’t have loans to pay back, my rent was cheap, and even though I didn’t stay in the sports management field, the internship helped me land other jobs. (It’s a good interview conversation-starter. Working this internship also showed me what I didn’t want.) Most of my students won’t be this lucky. According to the annual report from the Project on Student Debt, 2009 graduating seniors had an average student loan debt of $24,000, up from $22,750 in 2008. Unemployment for recent college graduates also increased from 5.8 percent in 2008 to 8.7 percent in 2009. The numbers are even higher in Pennsylvania: 72 percent of graduating students have debt, with the average student debt falling just over $27,000.
Will this debt keep my students from pursuing graduate school? Will it force them to take a job they don’t want? To forgo a low-paying or unpaid internship? Is it a stretch to call this unenviable situation the students’ Academic Purgatory?
“You could go to law school?” I advised my student. I mentally chastised myself: if she likes her literature and writing courses, she should work hard at them and not worry about a job in three years. But then I found us discussing the ways in which the field of journalism is changing at warp speed and how one needs to adjust to these changes; I mentioned the words “internship” and “experience” and “writing samples.” I just couldn’t find it in me to say what I truly believed: just write, and read a lot, and have complicated conversations with your peers, and don’t be afraid to try to be smart and nerdy. Follow what feels right; that’s why you’re here. That’s what I did, and… look at me. At the time I was an adjunct instructor making under $3,000 per course. No health insurance. I taught at two Penn State campuses to try to stay afloat.
Okay, bad example.
But instead the two English majors — one entrenched and one unsure she belongs — talked on of this real-world, job-related stuff. And I don’t feel bad about that.
Nine years out of college my English degree is beginning to “pay off” in the traditional college-to-job equation, if that’s how we want to look at it. At the end of the semester I was promoted to a full-time lecturer at Penn State. While I’m not tenure-track, my salary jumped, and more importantly the job comes with good health coverage and benefits. But finding this sort of stability took longer than it did for most of my high school and college friends, and most of them out-earn me. Sure, maybe I could have taken my degree to a PR firm or law school or, well, Target or stayed at any of my past jobs, but at the end of the day, I’m following what years later I’m realizing is my passion. I’ve felt plain happier, far more intellectually challenged and emotionally fulfilled teaching at the college level than I have as that football intern or working in alumni relations at a college or tutoring in a writing center, or teaching tenth graders. I’m energized working with college students — I believe truly that every one of them has important ideas, or can develop these, and express them at various levels on paper. As long as they show genuine effort, I will work hard to help them become better writers in whatever their futures hold.
Sure, I get frustrated; last semester (my final as an adjunct) my fourth composition class in a 14-hour day was an evening class composed of 25 students, 22 of them male, and most of whom worked jobs during the day. At 8 p.m. these students weren’t exactly eager to discuss variety in sentence structure or in-text citations. (No, the period goes outside the parenthesis!) So when I’d catch some of these students chirping at each other or texting, I admit it was easy for me to loathe them. (Do they think I don’t notice them gazing at their crotches? Or do they just not care?)
It would be just as easy to say: Screw it. I’m tired, I’m not paid well enough for this crap, and some (many? all?) of you don’t want to be here anyway.
To hang it up and find a cubicle.
But then, as if arriving on tiptoe, things like this happen: late that semester I gave this fourth class of the day a copy of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. In the speech, Wallace discusses breaking from our “natural, hardwired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered,” and “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
That advice, I think, has little to do with the “practical” learning many of the students are expecting. I stress grammar and clear thesis statements and structure in essays and steps to writing and rewriting. We do all that repeatedly – building defined skills – but I would be remiss if I didn’t often slide in these nuanced pieces, and just listen to and challenge what the students had to say.
My students read the piece quietly, and as they finished they didn’t joke with one another or snicker as they are sometimes wont to do. Not a one whipped out a cell phone to text. This sounds hugely airy, but they were simply, I believe, thinking in the moment. Not two or three or whatever years ahead, as many of us fall prey to. And as is typical, I asked them to write. A few minutes later they spoke reverently, and I admit, surprisingly, about owning their thoughts in traffic or the coffee line, or about being more aware of what other people might be thinking in a particular situation. They listened to each other. They pondered a different reading of Wallace’s words after we discussed his suicide. A few students appeared visibly angry, said his premature death should wipe out his words. Others defended him and cited the complications of depression.
This discussion, and similar others, would qualify as “pursu[ing] scholarly activities for intellectual development,” what one could call the “little brother reason” for attending college on Penn State’s “Education Planning Survey.” How many of my students checked off this box? For many, I’m sure it’s not their primary reason for attending college.
Without the college classroom there is little refuge for these discussions. I can understand that many of my students are focused on jobs, and of course universities should teach the skills necessary for obtaining them, but I ask my students to also try to remain open to those learning clichés of a diverse core curriculum: to broaden one’s mind, to question and to grow intellectually. To find what the heck one enjoys doing, and then doing it well. Those skills, along with the skills attained in their major, will prepare students for beyond a job, for the myriad things that they will encounter in their future.
Eventually we ran out of time. The students filed out of the classroom, and feeling for a few minutes so fully satisfied, a floating man liberated of money and job title and slapdash insurance and general worry, I decided to linger. Despite my flimsy position at the university, this little brother reason — pursuing scholarly activities for intellectual development, being stimulated, challenged, and bumping minds with other people around me — is the reason I’m here. And I realize I’ve been making this decision since I signed that change-of-major form way back in my college days. I’ve been choosing this little brother reason for years. I heard voices coming from the hall, the students absconding to their cars or dorms and whatever lay ahead of them. The voices were loud and soft. I stood in the empty classroom a beat or two longer.
Casey Wiley teaches writing at Pennsylvania State University.
Complaints about student writing have always been with us. In 1893 James Jay Greenough wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, "A great outcry has been made lately, on every side, about the inability of the students admitted to Harvard College to write English clearly and correctly... The [preparatory] schools are to-day paying more attention to composition than they did 20 or 30 years ago; and yet, notwithstanding this increased study and practice, the writing of schoolboys has been growing steadily worse... With all this practice in writing and time devoted to English, why do we not obtain better results?"
When Greenough wrote this in the late 19th century, many colleges were growing more concerned about student writing and, following Harvard's lead, moving to require expository writing courses. With first-year composition and writing across the curriculum now long-established, complaints today are more likely to be aimed at removing or reforming rather than adding writing requirements.
Every year or two you can pretty much count on someone standing up in a faculty senate meeting and posing a variation on Greenough's question: With all the course requirements devoted to writing, why do we not obtain better results? Complaints about other competencies -- public speaking, critical thinking, quantitative proficiency, scientific literacy, historical knowledge -- also circulate, but complaints about writing are more universal, more persistent, and more likely to be delivered in a tone bordering on disgust. What is it about writing that triggers so much anxiety?
When a faculty member at the University of Connecticut questioned our policy of requiring two advanced writing-intensive (W) courses in 2008, the senate formed a W Course Task Force to consider the future of our writing requirement. The task force included faculty from a variety of disciplines, directors of selected campus writing programs, and staff from several departments (advising, library, public relations).
The task force met for two years to consider whether to revise, reduce, or retain our upper-level writing requirement. We devoted the first year to planning how best to carry out our charge, consulting research on writing across the curriculum, and reviewing both institutional data and assessment projects from our university, which revealed areas for improvement but also affirmed much that was going well.
In both years we discussed current national controversies about writing, including the findings in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's controversial Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,which finds that students taking courses requiring more than 20 pages of writing per semester and more than 40 pages of reading per week scored higher on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, and previous studies revealing that the frequency of sentence-level errors in student writing (grammar errors per 100 words) has remained remarkably consistent since 1917, even if the kinds of mistakes that students make have changed over time.
Because we needed more local knowledge, in our second year we conducted two surveys (one of faculty members, one of students who had taken W courses) and a dozen focus groups (half with faculty members, half with students).
The student and faculty focus groups were perhaps the most useful thing we did. Indeed, we found that questions about the W requirement regularly led to deeper conversations about teaching and learning, ones that traditional workshops haven't got us to but that professors were eager to discuss.
Five key findings emerged. A healthy majority of faculty members and students support our W requirement despite a vocal minority against it (72 percent of faculty members preferred either the current two-course requirement or three or more courses; 61 percent of students were similarly inclined). Students value faculty feedback above all else in helping them improve their writing. Professors also see feedback as the key to teaching writing, but they worry that what they're doing isn't working well. The efficacy of using peer review in teaching is a point of real debate, and even some of those who believe in it struggle to make it succeed in their classrooms. (Peer review is not required, although making revision a central part of the course is.) And many faculty and students believe that several shorter writing assignments are more effective than a single large end-of-semester writing project. (At least 15 pages of formal writing must be assigned, but instructors can apportion assignments in whatever way they think best.)
Ultimately we didn't recommend a change of policy, nor did the senate propose any changes, which might seem like a non-outcome, or as if the committee's work was an empty exercise (which some colleagues predicted it would be -- just another series of committee meetings and a report for the files).
The real outcome, as we discovered only midway through, was the quality of the dialogue in the focus groups. While we organized them with a utilitarian aim to gather opinion and supplement the survey data, many of the sessions grew into opportunities for sharing teaching ideas, comparing assignments, debating the merits of pedagogical strategies such as peer review, and speculating on how students grow as writers from one course to another. Focus groups gave faculty that rare peek into each other's teaching practices and became venues not just for opinion gathering but also for faculty development.
Our university sponsors its fair share of teaching workshops, and the usual suspects show up time after time. Compared to those, the task force focus groups brought a wider range of people into the room, and the talk was more animated, perhaps because university policies were at stake. This pleasantly unintended consequence has given us a cue about faculty development that focuses on improving teaching. Not all faculty development sessions should to start with teaching strategies. Some might also start by considering high-stakes policy questions -- even cranky complaints. Good talk about teaching is likely to follow.
Thomas Lawrence Long
Pamela Bedore, Tom Deans, and Thomas Lawrence Long are on the faculty at the University of Connecticut. Bedore is assistant professor of English and writing coordinator for the Avery Point campus; Deans is associate professor of English and director of the University Writing Center; and Long is associate professor-in-residence with joint appointments in the School of Nursing and the department of English.
I gave a paper recently as part of a colloquium at George Washington University whose general title was "Futures of the Field." The tension in that plural -- "Future s" -- carried the weight of much of what I had to say about the current state of literary study.
My audience and I were seated around a seminar table in what has long been called, and continues to be called, an "English" department. The name "English," I pointed out, designates a primary activity involving the reading and interpreting of literary texts in English. (This would include foreign literature translated into English.) If we want primarily to involve ourselves with historical texts, we go over to the history department; philosophical, the philosophy department, and so forth. What distinguishes our department, as Judith Halberstam wrote in her essay, is the "appraisal of aesthetic complexity through close readings." Not philosophical or historical, but aesthetic complexity.
This model of the English department, and the carefully chosen canon of great aesthetic works which comprised its content, has in most colleges and universities collapsed. The value and nature of our reading (that is, when English departments feature reading at all, film, television, music, and material culture courses having displaced to some extent written texts in many schools), has radically changed, with the inclusion of cheap detective novels and poorly written political essays, for instance, now routine in departments that used to disdain prose that exhibited little aesthetic complexity and/or stylistic distinction.
On the other end, there's also now the inclusion of notoriously over-complex -- to the point of unintelligibility, never mind stylistic ugliness -- advanced critical texts in our courses. A character in Don DeLillo's White Noise says of his university's English department, "There are full professors in this place who do nothing but read cereal box tops." But there are as many professors there who read nothing but the densest, most arcane, and most poorly written critical theory.
All of which is to say that there is no "field," so there can't be any "future" or even "futures." That "s" in our GW lecture series title is trying to reassure us that instead of a profession-killing chaos what we have now is a profession-enhancing variety, richness, flexibility, ferment, inclusiveness, choose your reassuring adjective. Yet when there's not even a broadly conceived field of valuable objects around which we all agree our intellectual and pedagogical activity should revolve, there's no discipline of any kind.
Instead, there's a strong tendency, as Louis Menand puts it, toward "a predictable and aimless eclecticism." A young English professor who has a column under the name Thomas Hart Benton in The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it this way: "I can't even figure out what 'English' is anymore, after ten years of graduate school and five years on the tenure track. I can't understand eighty percent of PMLA, the discipline's major journal. I can't talk to most people in my own profession, not that we have anything to say to each other. We don't even buy one another's books; apparently they are not worth reading. We complain about how awful everything is, how there's no point to continuing, but nobody has any idea what to do next."
The English department mainly survives as a utilitarian administrative conceit, while the English profession operates largely as a hiring and credentialing extension of that conceit.
If we wish to say that we've retained disciplinary integrity based on our continued close attention to texts of all kinds -- aesthetic and non-aesthetic -- that sharpen our ideological clarity about the world (or, as Menand puts it, texts that allow us to "examine the political implications of culture through the study of representations"), then we have already conceded the death of the English department, as Halberstam rightly notes. Indeed, since highly complex aesthetic texts tend to be concerned with personal, moral, and spiritual, rather than political, matters, we shouldn't be surprised to find in Halberstam an outright hostility to precisely the imaginative written texts in English that have more or less from the outset comprised the English department's objects of value and communal study.
Menand notes that the "crisis of rationale" I'm describing here has had serious negative consequences. Among a number of humanities departments that are losing disciplinary definition, English, he says, is the most advanced in this direction: "English has become almost completely post-disciplinary." (Menand has earlier pointed out the inaccuracy of another reassuring word -- interdisciplinary: "The collapse of disciplines must mean the collapse of interdisciplinarity as well; for interdisciplinarity is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. The very term implies respect for the discrete perspectives of different disciplines.") The absence of disciplines means the "collapse of consensus about the humanities curriculum," and this at a time of rapidly escalating outside scrutiny of the intellectual organization and justification of the expensive American university.
Further, "the discipline acts as a community that judges the merit of its members' work by community standards." When there's no self-defining and self-justifying community, English departments, Menand continues, become easy marks for downsizing administrators. "Administrators would love to melt down the disciplines, since this would allow them to deploy faculty more efficiently - and the claim that disciplinarity represents a factitious organization of knowledge is as good an excuse as any. Why support separate medievalists in your history department, your English department, your French department, and your art history department, none of them probably attracting huge enrollments, when you can hire one interdisciplinary super-medievalist and install her in a Medieval Studies program whose survival can be made to depend on its ability to attract outside funding?"
Halberstam acknowledges these effects and proposes that we "update our field before it is updated by some administrations wishing to downsize the humanities." By "update," though, she means provide a decent burial: "The discipline is dead, we willingly killed it," and we must "now decide what should replace it." In place of the "elitism" inherent in close readings of aesthetically complex works, Halberstam proposes an education in "plot summary," a better skill for making sense of our current reactionary political moment (as Halberstam sees it).
Indeed throughout her essay, Halberstam attacks religious Americans, conflating religious seriousness with politically reactionary positions.
Now, a huge amount of Western culture's high literature involves religious seriousness. If, like Halberstam, you regard contemporary America as a fundamentalist nightmare, and if your very definition of the American university is that it is, as she writes, "the last place in this increasingly conservative and religious country to invest in critical and counter-hegemonic discourse," then you have a problem. You either want to steer your students away from much of this literature, since, though perhaps not fundamentalist, it assumes a world permeated with religious belief (or, as in much literary modernism of Kafka's sort, as suffering from an absence of belief), or you want to present this literature in a way that undermines, to the extent possible, its own status as a document that takes religion seriously.
It's just this sort of cognitive dissonance relative to the very body of knowledge that, as an English professor, Halberstam has been trained to teach, that in part accounts for the death of English. Halberstam's primary motive as a university professor is political and social - she has situated herself in an American university because that location is our last best hope for changing the politics of the country. Indeed, if there is a "consensus" about anything in many English departments, it lies here, in the shared conviction, articulated by Halberstam, that focusing upon and changing immediate political arrangements in this country is our primary function as teachers and scholars.
One assumes, that is, a socially utilitarian attitude toward what one teaches.
There was nothing inevitable about this turn outward to the immediate exigencies of the political and social world, by the way. As Theodor Adorno writes in Minima Moralia, the intellectual is, more often than not, "cut off from practical life; revulsion from it has driven him to concern himself with so-called things of the mind." But this withdrawal also drives the intellectual's critical power: "Only someone who keeps himself in some measure pure has hatred, nerves, freedom, and mobility enough to oppose the world."
No one's arguing here that we return to a very narrow canon, to uncritical piety in regard to the literature of our culture, and to monastic withdrawal from the world. Instead, what I'd like to suggest is that we return to the one discrete thing that our discipline used to do, and still, in certain departments, does.
A few years back, in The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco, an English professor at Columbia University, announced "the sad news… that teachers of literature have lost faith in their subject and themselves… . English today exhibits the contradictory attributes of a religion in its late phase - a certain desperation to attract converts, combined with an evident lack of convinced belief in its own scriptures and traditions."
Delbanco continues: "The even sadder news is that although students continue to come to the university with the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow register one's own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate by and for oneself, this craving now, more often than not, goes unfulfilled, because the teachers of these students have lost faith." In similar language, Robert Scholes writes, "As our Romantic faith in the spiritual value of literary texts has waned, we have found ourselves more and more requiring knowledge about texts instead of encouraging the direct experience of these texts."
Notice the language here: direct experience, contact. The political and more broadly theoretical abstractions that have been thrown over the artwork from the outset, as it's often presented in class, block precisely this complex, essentially aesthetic experience. This experience, triggered by a patient engagement of some duration with challenging and beautiful language, by entry into a thickly layered world which gives shape and substance to one's own inchoate "cravings" and "longings," is the very heart, the glory, of the literary. Students -- some students -- arrive at the university with precisely these powerful ontological energies. Certain novels, poems, and plays, if they let them, can surprise these students, both with their anticipation of particularly acute states of consciousness, and their placement of those consciousnesses within formally ordered literary structures.
One of the noblest and most disciplinarily discrete things we can do in the classroom is to take those ontological drives seriously, to suggest ways in which great works of art repeatedly honor and clarify them as they animate them through character, style, and point of view.
One of the least noble and most self-defeating things we can do is avert our student's eye from the peculiar, delicate, and enlightening transaction I'm trying to describe here. When we dismiss this transaction as merely "moral" -- or as proto-religious -- rather than political, when we rush our students forward to formulated political beliefs, we fail them and we fail literature. Humanistic education is a slow process of assimilation, without any clear real-world point to it. We should trust our students enough to guide them lightly as they work their way toward the complex truths literature discloses.
Margaret Soltan's blog, University Diaries, chronicles all aspects of contemporary American university life.Â HerÂ essay "Don DeLillo and Loyalty to Reality"Â appears in the MLA's forthcoming Approaches to Teaching White Noise. She and Jennifer Green-Lewis are completing a manuscript titled The Promise of Happiness: The Return of Beauty to Literary Studies.