Are We Ready to Use Wikipedia to Teach Writing?

Several years ago I started asking students in my composition classes to compose entries for Wikipedia. Most of my students were familiar with Wikipedia as the most popular link at the top of a Web page after a Google search. But my purpose in bringing Wikipedia in to the classroom was not to use Wikipedia as a reference source; instead, I sought to bring a more authentic, immediate audience for student writing.

A little more than two years ago, this publication gave the story of the then typical higher education reaction to the use of Wikipedia in student writing, entitled “A Stand Against Wikipedia.” The story was centered on Middlebury's history department, but it could have spoken for academe's attitude in general. The message from faculty was clear: “Students, you cite Wikipedia at your peril.” While the article was nuanced enough to report that there was no outright ban of Wikipedia, but rather more a word of caution to students who didn't seem to understand the difference between a reviewed source and an open source -- or even an encyclopedia and primary source -- it elicited capricious screeds from readers like “Jim”:

BRAVO!!! I stand up and applaud at the professors who discourage Wikipedia being used. They are [sic] NOT, repeat, NOT, a valid source! They [sic] are loaded with so much wrong information, you would stand a better chance asking a complete stranger on the street about the same topic [. . .] As my students will tell you, if you site [sic] Wikipedia on ANY assignment, you WILL receive an F! Plus, I will take a point away for each source listed. Not only do you fail that assignment - you do get a chance to make up, but at a lower grade, but your overall grade will drop one point for each source you took from Wikipedia! We need to stand together, and teach these kids not to believe what just ANYONE tells them, including Wikipedia articles!

My purpose here is not to debate with Jim whether or not Wikipedia is an accurate resource. For those who are interested in that topic, I would refer you to the Nature study which found that while Wikipedia was less accurate that Encyclopædia Britannica online in its science entries, the aggregate difference in accuracy was not so large as to rule out the use of Wikipedia as a valid source for most readers (and there is no debate that Wikipedia is a vastly more comprehensive source and better able to update itself). No matter how counter-intuitive it might seem that an open source which anyone can edit would provide, on the whole, useful information, it is simply the case. And accepting the fact that a completely open source could render useful information is the price of admission for the ideas which will follow in this article. Useful information for a heart surgeon about to operate on you? Certainly not. Useful information for a general introduction to a topic? Certainly so.

Jim's reaction is fruitful to us as teachers in higher education because it provides a clearer picture of what the college classroom looks like for a contemporary student, who must use the wide range of information tools available to us all in a networked society. A few simple notions of information literacy could handle this teaching moment - such as explaining the role and nature of an encyclopedic source in a student research paper - but Jim's reaction is akin to decrying the advent of the telephone. Clearly, students shouldn't use telephones, since inaccurate information could be passed on them. We'll just ban the use of telephones in gathering information for our courses, penalize our students for using them, and later wonder why they seem under-prepared to succeed in a world dependent on the use of telephones. One can scarcely imagine the cognitive dissonance Internet native students still suffer in higher education, but comments like Jim's help us understand just how bad the problem might be.

While Jim's statement is indicative of how we have previously conceptualized the use of Wikipedia in the classroom, a little more than a year later another article appeared herein as a better indicator of where we might be headed. Mark A. Wilson penned “Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia,” an article which understood Wikipedia as an online intellectual exchange. Acknowledging Wikipedia's challenges with verifying the accuracy and relevance of contributions, Wilson encouraged scholars to join Wikipedia's online intellectual community to broaden and sharpen its discourse.

I write today, however, to ask you to consider making Wikipedia a project not only for the teachers of higher education, but for your students as well. In 2004, I started asking students in my composition classes to write for Wikipedia and developed an assignment I still use today. Working in teams or alone, students choose a film page for editing. Before they begin writing to Wikipedia, however, we use a series of low-stakes writing assignments to learn about the “discourse community.” We learn about the five pillars of Wikipedia, we read the Wikipedia film style guide, and we consider how we will react if our contributions are removed or criticized.

With an understanding of what kinds of knowledge “count” in Wikipedia, and what might improve a particular film page, we then compose contributions to individual pages. As a class we then observe how Wikipedians react to our contributions and get advice from each other to develop effective rhetorical strategies before we respond to our audience online. Lastly, students are asked to compose an essay where they reflect on the experience of writing for this large audience, and how the experience fails or succeeds in helping them to develop their writing skills. Their grade is determined mainly by their participation in these offline writing assignments, and not the text contributed to Wikipedia itself. (For those who are interested, the theory and practice of these writing assignments are more fully outlined in my new book, Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia.)

Teaching writing with Wikipedia has several advantages which serve to complement the traditional college essay. When teaching writing with Wikipedia, the audience is real and, often, writes back immediately.

One of the foremost problems in teaching writing in the college classroom is helping students gain a more profound concept of audience. Trained for years to write answers to short questions in text books, while writing fewer and fewer essays in high school, students often come to college first-year composition without much appreciation for the fact that real humans read their writing. Wikipedia changes this writing environment, and students are often shocked when Wikipedians respond to their contributions with a critical eye. Sometimes those responses are polite, and sometimes, not, but they are mostly accurate and engaging.

This puts the writing teacher in the role of assisting students in making meaning for an audience with their text - something surprisingly elusive. Teaching writing for Wikipedia audiences points up the fact that the standard arrangement in the writing classroom, where the teacher stands in as a surrogate for a fictional, idealized, audience, is painfully inauthentic and yields predictable results. I can tell students that they should not write for me personally, but as long as I alone evaluate their writing, I cannot remove my subjectivity entirely from the assessment process - and they know this. Which explains why, when my writers find out I am a Red Sox fan, essays on the merits of Georgia's HOPE scholarship might include casual references to Big Papi or Josh Beckett.

Of course, not all of the assignments in my class are based in electronic networks. Many students need the one-on-one framework of the writing teacher alone reading his or her work before the challenge of a larger audience, and there will always be a role in the writing classroom for writing topics which are more abstract than the audience of Wikipedia would want to read. Thus assignments during the semester are ordered so as to increase the number of readers in the audience for the students' work, starting with the only the writing teacher and ending with the world.

Wikipedia writing assignments also offer us the chance to consider student writers' responsibilities in topic selection. Most traditional writing assignments are narrowly prescribed, and would make little sense to readers beyond the classroom who didn't have access to assigned readings and or academic questions. Wikipedia writing assignments require greater autonomy. Students are asked to translate their knowledge for a general audience. Making this connection involves “laziness” (to appropriate a term from hacking culture), or the ability to identify our individual passions within the framework of the project's needs. For example, students who write for Wikipedia film pages as described above are free to write on most any film, but they have to also evaluate the needs of the Wikipedia page with very specific measures before writing. Wikipedia writing assignments are therefore more honest; rather than handing writers a set of constraints for composition, such as compare and contrast the role of melancholy in “The Raven” to “A Cask of Amontillado,” writers have to think through what an audience might want to know about a given topic.

Composition assignments in Wikipedia frame writing as a collaborative practice hosted within a network. This arrangement seems much more predictive of the environment our students will find themselves writing in after they leave the composition classroom, both in later college courses (as they collaborate across networks with fellow students in coursework) or in the workplace (as they collaborate with co-workers to prepare reports, proposals, or Web pages).

What's more, writers in electronic networks learn to write in an environment where their creativity is the scarcest resource. In describing the controlling dynamic of collaborative writing on the Internet, or Commons-Based Peer Production, theorist Yochai Benkler notes that in an industrialized society where the cost of printing is extremely low (most anyone can gain access to a word processor in a public library) and the cost of publication is similarly low (again, the cost of a library card), that for topics where all information is publicly accessible, the sole remaining scarce resource is human creativity. This simple but profound truth of the information age economy means a big stage for student writers. They intuitively understand that rather than only consume knowledge, they are helping to create it by writing for Wikipedia. Which is exactly the role their college educations are preparing them to fill.

But it's not only college writing which works on Wikipedia. After hearing about my class, a colleague in Biology recently created a class assignment where his students created a page in Wikipedia to define Dictyostelium discoideum. And we're not alone. Though some Wikipedians debate whether it is appropriate to use Wikipedia as an assignment space, there is a rapidly growing community of college instructors who are doing just that.

And what has been surprising in students' attitudes toward Wikipedia? Though my evidence is anecdotal, in the years of teaching with Wikipedia I have found almost no difference in the range of opinions about Wikipedia held by student writers and those held by their - mostly - older teachers. I find that roughly the same proportion of people have concerns about reliability, open access, and information literacy among students and faculty, just as I find roughly the same number of enthusiastic adopters among teachers and students. But when I query reluctant students about how and where they formed their negative opinions about Wikipedia, they usually point to a classroom environment where they were penalized for using it as a source. They almost never have had an experience which encouraged them to move from simply using Wikipedia to writing for it. As we move from seeing Wikipedia as only a resource to an online intellectual community, students are more than ready to accompany us.

Robert E. Cummings
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Robert E. Cummings is assistant professor of English and director of First-Year Composition Program at Columbus State University, in Georgia. His new book is Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia (Vanderbilt University Press).

These Kids Today!

At the National Book Critics Circle awards event last Thursday, I had the pleasure of presenting this year’s Balakian citation for excellence in book reviewing to Ron Charles, the weekly fiction critic for The Washington Post -- and once, in a previous incarnation, an assistant professor of English at Principia College. He has been a finalist for the award several times, displaying great patience with NBCC as we’ve climbed the learning curve. His acceptance speech was, by acclaim, the highlight of the evening.

But to judge by the blog chatter, the high point of Ron’s public impact actually came earlier this month, when his essay on the extracurricular reading habits of college students appeared. Citing recent best sellers reported from campus bookstores, he noted that you found nothing even vaguely akin to The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the poetry of Sylvia Plath or Allen Ginsberg. Instead, there were novels about wizardry and adolescent vampire romance.

“The only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, the choice of a million splendid book clubs. Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they're choosing books like 13-year-old girls -- or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment. ... In the conservative 1950s, when Hemingway's plane went down in Uganda, students wore black armbands till news came that the bad-boy novelist had survived. Could any author of fiction that has not inspired a set of Happy Meal toys elicit such collegiate mourning today?”

As much as I like its author, some aspects of this complaint strike me as problematic. In general, of course, Ron Charles is pointing to a real phenomenon, a tendency towards juvenilization that seems all-pervasive at times. His observations call to mind Andrew Calcutt’s Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood (Castells), an insightful book from the late 1990s that still seems quite on-target.

To suppose that things were really that much better in decades past, though, may be the historical equivalent of an optical illusion. I don't know whether anyone was tracking campus bookstore sales in the 1950s or '60s. If so, the record would probably show Peyton Place and Happiness is a Warm Puppy doing pretty well – and Diana diPrima's poetry, or Herbert Marcuse's social criticism, not so much. When I arrived on campus as a freshman in 1981, my first roommate was quite devoted to Jonathan Livingston Seagull while the rest of my dorm was trying to imitate Hunter S. Thompson (in lifestyle, not prose style). The number of young people reading anything serious at any given time tends to be pretty small.

Via e-mail, I ran some of these thoughts by Ron -- who answered with good humor that he’d “just [been] giving a twist to the Old Man rant about Young People Nowadays,” after all.

“The presence of a few numbers and stats gave my essay the gloss of a piece of sociology that it doesn't really deserve,” he says. “I couldn't find much data about what college kids were reading in the '50s and '60s, and even the data available today are far more suspect than we usually acknowledge. For one thing, Follett and Barnes & Noble control a huge portion of the college bookstore market, so what's promoted on college campuses is far more homogenized and commercialized than in earlier decades. Also, many of the reporting college bookstores serve their communities at large, so there's no way to tell what's really being bought by college students and what's being bought by the professors' own young children or just people who happen to live near the university.”

Much of the discussion generated by his article has ignored such questions and gone directly to the argument that Ron Charles is a conservative dinosaur who must have been a teenager circa World War Two.

Either that, or he lives on a commune in Vermont where he went into hiding during the Nixon years and wrote his essay out of disappointment that he can’t recruit kids to the Weather Underground. (Possibly both.) Actually he is in his 40s, lives in a suburb, and has the demeanor of someone who sat out the Culture Wars as a conscientious objector.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” he told me, “by the number of respondents who felt I wanted college students to start reading the works of Abbie Hoffman and other '60s and '70s writers. Or that I was complaining that they weren't reading more Serious Literature. That wasn't really my point: I was actually disappointed that they weren't reading more age-appropriate material: not stuff for middle schoolers and not stuff for adults, but all the kinds of crazy, wild, naïve, in-your-face, big-think literature that young people should be reading during that magical moment between high school and the first soul-crushing job.”

Usually, he says, adults complain that “college students are too wild and irresponsible; I wanted to claim that their reading habits imply that they aren't nearly wild or irresponsible enough: mostly books borrowed from the Young Adult shelf and their parents' book clubs. Where's the real college lit?”

A fair question -- but one that I suspect cannot be answered with marketing survey data. As the late John Leonard put it, the work of a writer is “experienced by the reader as a competing solitude. It’s not communal. It’s intimacy to intimacy, one on one, down there with the demons.” (Or seagulls, as the case may be.)

Last year, as a Christmas present, I gave a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 to an old friend. But his daughter got to the book first, reading its nine hundred pages in a weekend marathon and promptly drawing connections to the work of Ernst Jünger. She is fourteen.

I am not prepared to make any generalizations about the Younger Generation on the basis of this small data set. But there are moments when gloom doesn’t seem completely appropriate.

Scott McLemee
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Kass Backwards

Last week Leon Kass, chairman of the Council of Bioethics under President Bush, took to the podium to deliver the Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment for the Humanities -- an event I did not go to, though it was covered by one of IHE's intrepid reporters.

My reluctance to attend suggests that, without noticing it, I have come to accept Kass’s best-known idea, “the wisdom of repugnance.” There is, alas, all too little evidence I am getting any wiser with age -- but my visceral aversion to hearing a Bush appointee talk about human values is inarguable.

As you may recall, Kass wrote in the late 1990s that biotechnological developments such as cloning are “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.” In our rising gorge, he insisted, “we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.... Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

Judged simply as an argument, this is not, let’s say, apodictically persuasive. Anyone who as ever taken an introductory anthropology course, or read Herodotus -- or gone to a different part of town -- will have learned that different groups feel disgust at different things. The affect seems to be hard-wired into us, but the occasions provoking it are varied.

Kass invoked the "wisdom of repugnance" a few years before he joined an administration that treated the willingness to torture as a great moral virtue -- meanwhile coddling bigots for whom rage at gay marriage was an appropriate response to “the violation of things we hold rightfully dear.”

Now, as it happens, some of us do indeed feel disgust at one of these practices, and not at the other. We also suspect that Kass’s aphorism about the shallowness of souls that have forgotten how to shudder would make a splendid epigraph for the chapter in American history that has just closed.

In short, disgust is not quite so unambiguous and inarguable an expression of timeless values as its champion on the faculty of the University of Chicago has advertised. Given a choice between “deep wisdom” and “reason’s power fully to articulate,” we might do best to leave the ineffable to Oprah.

There is no serious alternative to remaining within the limits of reason. Which means argument, and indeed the valuing of argument -- however frustrating and inconclusive -- because even determining what the limits of reason themselves are tends to be very difficult.

Welcome to modernity. It’s like this pretty much all the time.

The account of Kass's speech in IHE -- and the text of it, also available online -- confirmed something that I would have been willing to wager my paycheck on, had there been a compulsive gambler around to take the bet. For I felt certain that Kass would claim, at some point, that the humanities are in bad shape because nobody reads the “great works” because everybody is too busy with the “deconstruction.”

It often seems like the culture wars are, in themselves, a particularly brainless form of mass culture. Some video game, perhaps, in which players keep shooting at the same zombies over and over, because they never change and just keep coming -- which is really good practice in case you ever have to shoot at zombies in real life, but otherwise is not particularly good exercise.

The reality is that you encounter actual deconstructionists nowadays only slightly more often than zombies. People who keep going on about them sound (to vary references a bit) like Grandpa Simpson ranting about the Beatles. Reading The New Criterion, you'd think that Derrida was still giving sold-out concerts at Che Stadium. Sadly, no.

But then it never makes any difference to point out that the center of gravity for argumentation has shifted quite a lot over the past 25 years. What matters is not actually knowing anything about the humanities in particular -- just that you dislike them in general.

The logic runs something like: “What I hate about the humanities is deconstructionism, because I have decided that everything I dislike should be called ‘deconstructionism.’ ” Q.E.D.!

Kass complained that people in the humanities fail to discuss the true, the good, and the beautiful; or the relationships between humanity, nature, and the divine; or the danger that comes from assuming that technical progress implies the growth of moral and civic virtue. Clearly this is a man who has not stopped at the new books shelf in a library since the elder George Bush was Vice President.

And so last week’s Jefferson lecture was, perhaps, an encouraging moment, in spite of everything. With it, Leon Kass was saying farewell to Washington for, with any luck, a good long while. Maybe now he can spend some time catching up with the range of work people in the humanities have actually been doing. At very least he could read some Martha Nussbaum.

Then he might even pause to reflect on his own role as hired philosopher for an administration that revived one of the interrogation techniques of the Khmer Rouge. The wisdom of repugnance begins at home.

Scott McLemee
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A Gladiator of Letters

Near the end of an interview with Roberto Bolaño for the Mexican edition of Playboy magazine in 2003, there comes an interesting question: "What kinds of feelings do posthumous works awaken in you?"

Many of the questions -- as shown in the transcript now available in The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House) -- had been flip and silly. This one was different. Bolaño had endured more than 10 years of a severe liver disease; he was waiting on a transplant. He had shifted from poetry to fiction and completed a series of novels, including The Savage Detectives (1998), but every page he produced was written with mortality hanging over him. So it does over everyone, but some of us more urgently than others. Around the time the interview appeared, Bolaño died at the age of 50.

"Posthumous," he responded to the interviewer: "It sounds like the name of a Roman gladiator, an unconquered gladiator. At least that's what poor Posthumous would like to believe. It gives him courage."

Bolaño's reputation in English, almost entirely posthumous, has involved one victory after another. His unfinished novel 2666 (a sprawling work that moves from a cloistered group of literary scholars to a hellish landscape of torture, rape, dismemberment, and death) received this year's National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. And The Last Interview, while slender, amounts to an ardent love-letter to literature that will reward more than one reading. With the Modern Language Association meeting later this month, it might give bleary convention-goers a little inspiration.

"I ask for creativity from literary criticism," says Bolaño, "creativity at all levels." The critic should be "capable of arguing a reading, of proposing diverse readings," thus creating "something completely different from what criticism tends to be, which is like an exegesis or a diatribe." He cites as an exemplary figure Harold Bloom: "I am generally in disagreement with him and even enraged by him, but I like to read him. Or [George] Steiner. The French have a very long tradition of very creative critics and essayists who are very good, who illuminate not just one work but a whole era of literature, sometimes committing grave mistakes, but us narrators and writers also commit errors."

The volume opens with an essay by Marcela Valdes, now a Nieman Fellow in Arts and Culture Journalism at Harvard University. Among my Bolañophile friends and colleagues, Valdes is by far the most ardent and informed. We recently exchanged e-mail about the author's work and posthumous career. A transcript of the exchange follows.

Q: In these interviews, it seems Bolaño's favorite way to praise a writer is to call his or her work "enormous." It doesn’t mean that any given book is bulky or the oeuvre necessarily large, but that the author’s work possesses some vastness of inner space. "Enormous" is a good word for Bolaño's own output, on all fronts. He seems like a writer who believes in masterpieces and is not afraid to try to create one. Where does this faith (and the will to act on it) come from?

A: I don’t know that Bolaño had much faith in the idea of masterpieces. What I find more striking is his fascination with courage in the face of failure. His novels, stories, and interviews are filled with portrayals of and allusions to crushed poets, slaughtered bank robbers, outcast detectives. All of which fit perfectly, of course, with his romantic, noir aesthetic. Certainly, one can easily read The Savage Detectives as a paean to young people who destroy themselves by devoting their lives to an ideal of Art.

And perhaps such a belief in brave failure is exactly what a writer needs to produce masterpieces. Because what else could reliably sustain an intelligent, older man undertaking ambitious works that he knows he might never live to complete? (Remember, Bolaño was diagnosed with a chronic liver ailment in 1992, long before he’d published any of his major works.) In such a case, it might be better to cherish, as Bolaño did, the idea of the gladiator who fights to the brutal end, rather than the hero who’s bedecked with praise and laurels. Especially, if you come from a part of the world where the people who do get laurels are often morally corrupt.

Yet this fight is worthy only if it tests a writer’s courage and aims at magnificent ends. This may be why “enormous” works garner so much of Bolaño’s praise. As you rightly point out, the term has nothing to do with the books’ actual length. What matters is the “vastness” of the project, and the daring needed to undertake it. Incidentally, in his nonfiction essays, Bolaño also praises the works he loves as “black holes” -- talk about vastness of inner space!

Q: There is some grumbling about American Bolaño-mania these days. One charge is that it masks a profound indifference to the rest of the world's literature; one non-anglophone writer will catch on every so often, but that's it. Another complaint is that "the Bolaño myth" (sex, drugs, death in his prime) has overshadowed appreciation of his work, as such. What do you think of those accusations?

A: I assume that you’re referring not just to cocktail party or conference chatter but also to Sarah Pollack’s article, “Latin America Translated (Again).” Pollack does a terrific job with the history of the translation of Latin American works in the U.S., and I agree with her assertion that Americans practice a kind of “cultural essentialism” when it comes to the region. My problem is with her apparent expectation that the landscape for Spanish-language in the United States could ever be as broad and diverse as it is in Spain or Latin America.

She cites for example, the fact that Oprah Winfrey’s book club has chosen only 3 Spanish-language books (out of 66). To her, this appears to be an rotten statistic, but I think that 4.5 percent is actually pretty good. Especially when you consider that Spanish is only one of many languages in which great works of literature are being written and when you remember that Oprah draws an audience that is interested, above all, in self improvement, not literature.

And the fact that American publishers have used Bolaño’s life story to sell his books? Is this really a mortal sin? The book industry is in such terrible shape these days that publishers are trying everything to sell books. Why is the deployment of an author’s life story so much worse than setting up a fan group on Facebook? The important thing is that Bolaño was not chosen for translation and promotion in the United States because of his life story but rather because of the quality of his work and the acclaim he had already received in Spain and Latin America.

Do you know how Bolaño’s fiction came to be translated in the United States? It wasn’t because someone wanted to capitalize on “the Bolaño myth.” It happened because the novelist Francisco Goldman told Barbara Epler of New Directions that Bolaño’s work was not to be missed, and not long afterwards she heard from another American editor that a galley of Chris Andrews's translation of By Night In Chile was lying around neglected at his publishing house.

So she tracked down a copy of it from Harvill Press in England, fell in love with it, and convinced them to sell her the rights to publish most of his works in the U.S. Epler is a champion reader and she’s done the same with dozens of important authors. Some of them have gone on to gain cult audiences in the U.S.; others haven’t.

So, as a journalist, my view is both more pragmatic and more cynical. I don’t think that Americans have a basic indifference to world literature. I think they have a basic indifference to literature, period. And that’s not so different from what I’ve witnessed among people in Chile, Mexico, or Spain. Serious readers -- the kind of people who prefer reading a book like 2666 to the kind of pabulum that’s generated to be consumed primarily on airplanes -- have always been few on the ground. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon. To the extent that it does, it may change precisely because publishers and critics get better at luring general audiences to the hard stuff through narrative and persuasion, in hopes that they’ll get addicted to the special highs that only great literature can provide. What encourages me most is when someone who fell in love with Bolaño’s books asks me, What should I read next?

Q: This collection of interviews with Bolaño is slender, but dense with references to the authors he loved. (Or, on occasion, despised.) What do you find most striking about Bolaño's taste as a reader?

A: The thing that I like most about Bolaño as a reader is his passion. He rarely expressed lukewarm sentiments about any writer and, unlike so many contemporary authors, he seemed entirely unconcerned with whether his opinions would offend. That latter attitude, in particular, is refreshing, and aligns Bolaño more with professional critics than with most authors who dabble in literary commentary. I like, for example, when he tells Mónica Maristain that he’s not upset that the Chilean writer Diamela Eltit was angry with him after he published the scathing essay “El pasillo sin salida aparente.” “Diamela doesn’t hurt me,” he says, “Other things hurt me.” Perhaps that’s one of the advantages of being so cognizant of your own impending death: lesser concerns are stripped away. Though, we know that not everyone who’s seriously ill reacts like this… Eltit, by the way, is a terrific author worth checking out, and I think that Bolaño himself emerges as a problematic figure in that notorious essay.

As for Bolaño’s taste itself -- he’s not that radical. Most of the Latin American authors he champions are well known to the region’s serious readers: Borges, Rulfo, Ocampo, Cortázar, Bioy Caceres, Javier Marías, Daniel Sada, Carmen Bullosa, Sergio Pitol, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, etc. And most of the other authors he mentions as favorites are also renowned: Kafka, Breton, Jarry, Philip K. Dick, Pascal.

Still, there are a few notable patterns to his choices. First, with the exception of a few particular books, he prefers the precursors to the Boom to the Boom writers themselves. Second, he keeps up with contemporary literature and is generous with praise for young writers. Third, he is a champion of gay writers and of smart women writers who are often overlooked here in the U.S, like Pedro Lemebel and Belen Gopegui. Fourth, and most obvious, he loves comic and detective fiction. Fifth, and most important, he is hugely concerned with literary forms. As he tells Carmen Bullosa in one of the book’s interviews, he believes that plot finds a writer “by chance,” while form “is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death.” All the authors he praises are cunning in this literary way.

Q: You've written about Bolaño's critical prose. Do you know if we'll be getting Bolaño the essayist and reviewer in English anytime soon?

A: I believe that New Directions will be bringing out Between Parentheses (Entre paréntesis) Bolaño’s posthumous collection of nonfiction, sometime in 2011. I’ve heard it’s being translated by Natasha Wimmer, who did a terrific job with both The Savage Detectives and 2666, neither of them easy projects. For the serious reader of Bolaño’s work, Between Parentheses is a must. The style varies quite a bit since it’s a grab bag of speeches, essays, and columns – plus his most controversial story “Beach” (“La Playa”). Some of the essays are quite personal and nostalgic, like the one where he recalls the books he stole as a teenager in Mexico. Most of the columns are lightly conversational. The speeches tend to begin angry and combative, and then ease into something more thoughtfully provocative.

Bolaño was a strange combination of a fierce ironist, a technical virtuoso, and a hopeless romantic; the result is an engaging, complex perspective and voice that that I can’t easily find a parallel for among English-language critics. (Though it is, of course, the exact same combination as Bolaño’s favorite writer, Borges.) In the piece I wrote about the collection for The Nation, I said he was like a T.S. Eliot or a Virginia Woolf. What I was referring to is not so much his style or opinions but rather his omnivorous reading, his position as a tastemaker (or at least as an articulator of certain shared tastes), and his belief in the value of intelligent criticism as a sister to literature itself.

Of course, it matters what kind of criticism one does. Bolaño is too absolutist to be a great critic like Edmund Wilson -- a professional critic, I think, needs to be able to see shades of gray -- but his writing about books is lively, informed, and committed. And Between Parenthesis allows you to spend time with the analytical half of his mind.

Scott McLemee
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The Task of the Critic

Going to MLA for the ideas these days is like attending a funeral for the food. You can’t fault the appetite, but it’s inappropriate given the ambiance, no matter how good the hors d’oeuvres. All the more so this time, given the imploding job market. And the job market, after all, is the real reason for the season.

This year, for the first time in a long while, I decided to stay home and order delivery instead. It arrived in the form of a compulsively readable book of interviews, The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue, due out from Verso in February, which I can’t recommend enthusiastically enough.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to having awaited this book for a long time, with growing impatience. A volume called "Conversations with Terry Eagleton" was announced as forthcoming from Polity Press at least five years ago, but at some point it went into limbo.

Evidently the spirit then transmigrated to Verso -- which seemed appropriate given that the press has lately reprinted Eagleton's Criticism and Ideology (1976), a work of cultural theory that loomed large over my own initiation into literary study in the early 1980s. I also recall feeling some awe when Eagleton published The Rape of Clarissa (1982), if only because it was so hard to imagine actually reading all of Samuel Richardson’s fiction and still having the energy to write a book. He somehow then produced Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) -- a sly but sturdy work of basic orientation that explains and evaluates various approaches to criticism. Currently in its third edition, it has sold something in the neighborhood of a million copies.

Success at that level never goes unpunished. Someone who cribs sophistication from Eagleton as an undergraduate will usually learn to dismiss him as a "mere popularizer" in short order. This is unfair in more ways than one. He has published dozens of books that include a series of studies devoted to aesthetics, ideology, and tragedy. He's also written fiction and plays, which I haven’t read, along with The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (2001), which is amazing. It is so carefully observed and brilliantly written -- not to mention funny -- that I sometimes stop people and read passages from it aloud to them, in hopes of spreading the appreciation.

Eagleton comes from the Irish Catholic immigrant stratum of the British working class. He ended up as an Oxford don. That is the kind of social mobility that generates a certain amount of rage on the way up. Eagleton managed to sublimate much of it into wit -- some, if by no means all of it, at his own expense. But this never turns into cynicism. One chapter of The Gatekeeper recalls his experience as a member of a small Marxist group that distributed leaflets at the gates of an auto factory in Oxford and struggled to keep from getting itself thrown out of the Labour Party. (Hardly the sort of thing his faculty peers were doing.) His account of the group is wry at times, but without a trace of bitterness.

The Gatekeeper is a memoir but not an intellectual autobiography. We have the latter now in The Task of the Critic, which is based on transcripts of extensive discussions with Matthew Beaumont, a senior lecturer in English literature at University College London, who proves to be the ideal interlocutor. He is thoroughly grounded in Eagleton’s work (which is no small task, since this now runs to dozens of books and hundreds of articles) but not uncritical of it. He is knowledgeable enough about the academic and political context of Eagleton's career to ask questions that put the whole of it into perspective.

Eagleton’s first books, published in his early twenties, reflected his involvement in the New Left current within the Catholic Church -- a product of the combined impact of Vatican II and the campaign to end nuclear proliferation. He also came very much under the influence of Raymond Williams – not simply his books, important as they were, but his living example as a working-class “scholarship boy” who carved out an embattled position for himself at Cambridge.

Over the past decade or so, Eagleton’s work has undertaken a complicated rapproachment with Catholic theology. During that same period, he has been writing about the genre of tragedy -- one of Williams’s interests as a critic. But someone who knew Eagleton primarily through his books of the 1970s and ‘80s (as I did until recently) might never suspect that he had ever been anything but a secular radical – and one who upheld a much stricter sense of historical materialism than Williams, with his relatively untheoretical temperament, ever did.

So it seems natural to think of Eagleton’s career as having a certain arc. Departure and return: his early affinities and affiliations are repudiated, then recapitulated. In fact, I don’t really see any way around framing his work this way. But Eagleton, for his part, insists on the continuities running throughout his work. The interviewer is able to parry with that claim in ways that add something to one’s reading of Eagleton’s work.

Because I want to frame this week's column as a recommendation (rather than as a review) it seems best not to go off on any of the essayistic tangents that the book invites. Instead, it might be appropriate to end quoting a passage from The Task of the Critic that stands out as fitting, just now. It's something that people heading home from MLA might want to take back to the work place with them.

“I am sometimes horrified," he says, "by the implicit acquiescence in academicism maintained by even supposedly quite radical thinkers and writers. This is particularly objectionable in the case of literary theory, because I believe that -- contrary to all appearances -- it is a genuinely democratic activity. Genuinely democratic in the sense that what it sets out to replace is a kind of criticism that says: ‘Look, in order to be intelligent, you have to have a certain kind of intuition, one bred into you by a certain sort of culture.’ It’s a matter of blood and breeding. Literary theory stands out against this and says, ‘Anybody can join in this activity if they are prepared to learn certain languages.’ ”

Eagleton calls it “particularly scandalous that people engaged in what is basically a democratic enterprise should write in such an obscurantist way. But to say that one shouldn’t write in a deliberate and willfully obscure way isn’t of course to say that one should always be easy to read.”

Nobody expects an engineering textbook to require anything but diligent attention. This is not a matter of the intrinsic elitism of engineers. “And just as in engineering, there is a specific set of skills and languages to be learnt in literary theory in order to understand it. What I’m saying is that populism need not be the only opposition to elitism.”

A good point, and a fine one. The complexity of the situation is there, right out in the open, but Eagleton evokes it in terms that, while simple, do not understate what is at stake. That tends to be much harder than it looks.

Something worth adding to the list of new year’s resolutions: “Read more Terry Eagleton.”

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Afterglow From the MLA

I felt the need to get away, even as the pile of student papers I had to grade slowly dwindled. With final grades submitted, I still felt the impulse. I resisted as well as I could, but something within nagged me.

I considered a spiritual retreat, one to recharge and rest after a busy, even frenzied, semester. I had worked at three campuses, two writing centers, one community center. I did freelance writing. I’m not a workaholic, just a teacher trying to make ends meet. These days, it’s getting harder.

Catholic, Buddhist, ecumenical -- the retreat path did not matter. But calling and surfing for such a place, I found it was too late. Everything was filled. There was only one possibility -- in the twisting hills of Arkansas. I would have to bring my own food and get transportation from a distant airport. I appreciated the offer but felt too tired. Maybe in spring...

Then I had another thought. A whim. Just ninety minutes away, if I could get a direct flight… Could I?

I did.

I joined the Modern Language Association after 30 years in academia and flew to Philadelphia for the 2009 conference, tantalized by conference titles I had only read about before and noticing more than a few that dealt with the ups and downs of academia that I not only know but are etched on my heart. Student assistant, secretary, graduate assistant, writer/editor, teacher…

Although I was just beginning to recite poems when some of the long-term veterans joined, I’ve chalked up my flight miles in the classroom. If I had a banner across my chest like the Girl Scouts used to wear, I’d have badges for adjuncting at up to four institutions at a time, loving words, and being midwife, doula, mother to students in the classroom. A former boss called me a composition worker. Some people think people in my line of work are exploited. I call myself a professional muse.

Maybe going to a professional conference does not seem like a big deal to some. For some, it’s draining. For others, routine. For still others, a dreaded initiation or the key to a job.

I remember sitting behind my desk as a secretary in an English department in the early 1980s, hearing that people interviewed at MLA.

Over winter holidays? I thought. How strange.

“How did you like the meat market?” said a friend, hearing I had been there.

Actually, I didn’t even pack anything formal to wear. I went just to learn. Without expectation, I found myself transported back to a joy I have not felt since my undergraduate years.

“Yes, undergrad is a carefree time,” a colleague said upon patiently listening to my post-conference euphoria.

Actually, for me the undergraduate years were also full of care. But in tough times, it’s literature, art, music, drama that gives me hope, words, perspective.

“You know, those conference titles are often obscure, even ridiculed,” said another friend.

Well, I loved the sessions. Translation and Kafka. Awesome Yiddish. When will I be near Yiddish scholars again? Why study literature? Packed. Langston Hughes. Well worth the trip. Hurston screening. Couldn’t squeeze in. And others…

I’m old enough to feel like a mother to some of the presenters. And I’ve been to other conferences; I have one foot in English, one in counseling, and one in journalism. How is this possible with two feet? I keep shifting my stance, my focus, my efforts. In a world thought to be increasingly interdisciplinary, perhaps I can create a new dance. MLA, for me, was an imaginative leap. I am glad I took it.

Books, stories, and poems have added meaning to my life since I was a little girl. I was imaginative, as kids are – maybe beyond imaginative into the quirky. I “became” Cinderella and Snow White, responding not to my own name, but to the name of the character of the week. I learned French in an innovative, public elementary school and my parents spoke German. Whitman and Golding were among my beacons in junior high, with words I couldn’t utter but could understand. I devoured “the classics” my much older sisters brought home from their demanding high school. A sonnet by Shakespeare and a poem by Millay provided solace through very dark times as a teenager.

My heart further opened to and through the humanities as an undergraduate English major, even with a foot in psychology and another in other interests. I have not changed that much.

The humanities gave me some range to explore, and I majored in English for several reasons. Philosophy had beckoned, but one day I asked a question in a philosophy class and was told “that’s a question for an English class.”

In English class a few months later, a question I asked about what I now know was the teacher’s formalist analysis of The Scarlet Letter yielded an even harsher response from a teacher.

“Do you think the unexamined life is worth living?”

Teachers have bad days.

That teacher, like most of my mentors from school, is deceased now. With the strange quirks of fate, right before I began graduate school (in English), my path crossed his. “Of course I remember you,” he said. “You were the best student I ever had.”

I negotiated my way through the canon in graduate school in English, in a world before composition and rhetoric, but devising my own intuitions about the teaching of writing, and teaching writing, and beginning a career as a writer and editor.

I considered comparative literature studies in graduate school but thought that English was more -- I almost can’t type it out -- practical.

Fate landed me in a hotel room in the Loews in Philadelphia, where many of the modern language sessions were held. Just riding the elevator was fun. People entered and exited, speaking many languages.

Across the street was the Marriott and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where many English sessions were held. I jaywalked with abandon, with absolute certainty that here on this side or there on that side was where I needed to be.

This jaywalking is a metaphor for my life; as the daughter of immigrants who struggled with English, I sometimes struggle with words, too. Why else would I strive to become a writer?

In my home town, I don’t jaywalk. But what is travel to a professional conference if not an expansion of boundaries?

I befriended three women by chance, each with Ph.D.'s and following different, intriguing, winding career paths.

One had been a high school teacher for 15 years and had also taught on Indian reservations and in China.

Another, formerly on the tenure track, was derailed and maintains energetic writing and teaching.

A third, originally from China, turned out to be a presenter.

As is my wont, I asked questions of everyone I met, no matter whether scrunched in a shuttle or in an elevator. Mainly I asked, “Are you enjoying your sessions?” “Did you get what you came for?” My response to one question from a man in a uniform covered by an overcoat was a gentle, “I work here.”

Enough of my questions. MLA for me was an immersion experience, a cross-cultural journey. The academic paper sessions I attended were mind-stretching. Translation was an echoing theme, and what could be more apropos as the academe struggles to define and express itself in difficult economic times. The sessions on the state of affairs in academe reassured me that I am not alone. And the session on writing teachers who write reassured me that I am on a valid path.

I also learned, among other things, that some people perceive rifts in the MLA. Other languages over there, English over here. Full-time issues there, part-time here. Writing here, literature there.

“I don’t know if I’ll come back,” one new friend said. “Some of this feels elitist.”

If so, that is a shame. What more powerful bridge between human differences than the humanities?

I had the good fortune of encountering people, at random, who attended sessions I wanted to make but couldn’t. On two-year colleges. On analyzing “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop. On standings of academic journals. Even my missteps seemed well-orchestrated.

I ate energy bars, instant oatmeal, salmon at a French restaurant, a side of mashed potatoes for a meal, a meal in Chinatown courtesy of a spontaneous Philadelphia friend. I am too shy for cash bars, so I drank cups of tea and coffee in my room.

I’ll be paying off the trip for a while. But it was worth it.

In the three decades that seem like three days that I have spent in academia, I was a student assistant in a college of education, secretary in an English department, a graduate assistant, a publications writer, a liaison with the news media, an adjunct lecturer in three departments at one school, a teacher without walls (adjunct) at four other schools.

In this economy, I won’t be retiring or stopping learning any time soon.

When I told my teenage son I planned to go to the conference, I asked him if he knew what MLA is.

“Those are the people that make the rules I use when I have to write a paper.”

When I have taught documentation in the classroom, MLA or APA, depending on the course, I typically have pointed out that scholars in these groups are not strictly documentation experts, but explorers, researchers, lovers of learning.

Finally, I have decided to count myself among them, even if all I did was sign up.

One new friend was, to my surprise, a presenter. We shared costs of our hotel the last day. She approached me as I indulged my habit honed in a pre-ecological, pre-Internet era. I was seeking out fliers. She offered that we share costs. Why not, I thought.

I had a room with two beds. I rushed across the street again to clear off my avalanche of paper. I had the joy of listening to part of her paper the night before. And, attending her session, by sheer chance. I got a stunning view of Philadelphia from the 33rd floor.

Returning to Cleveland was, of course, a descent. And the stacks of papers are piling up again.… It’s just a few weeks after, and I’m still walking around in post-conference delirium.

Few believe me when I say there is hope for the humanities. There has to be. The most difficult times in my life, the more I have needed books, art, music, drama. I have seen the value of humanities study for students of all ages, at colleges private and public, large and small. My memoir students, some in their eighth decade of life, still turn to the written and electronic word for solace, support, and inspiration.

What did I leave behind? My wide-tooth comb and fliers I could not stuff in my carry-on. That’s all right. It’s hat weather in Cleveland -- and there’s always the Internet.

Maria Shine Stewart
Author's email:

Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.

Gerrymandering the Canon

In a recent New York Review article on Byron, Harold Bloom makes the following passing remark: “In the two centuries since Byron died in Greece [...] only Shakespeare has been translated and read more, first on the Continent and then worldwide.” Bloom does not cite any statistics, and one cannot help but wonder: Really? More than Homer and Dante, or, among the moderns, more than Sartre and Thomas Mann? Of course, what Bloom really means is that Byron was translated and read more than any other English writer, and he may well be correct on that count. Yet this omission is telling, as it highlights an unfortunate tendency (recently diagnosed by David Damrosch) among certain English professors to equate literature in general with literature written in English. This disciplinary bias, less prejudice than habit, can distort their scholarship – the authors that they admire tend to be far more catholic in their reading. But this pattern also raises a larger academic question: Why do we still partition the literary canon according to nationalist traditions? Is this really the most intellectually satisfying and authentic approach to literary studies?

For an example of how disciplinary blinders can affect scholars as well-read as Bloom, we need only turn back to his article, where we find Byron described as “the eternal archetype of the celebrity, the Napoleon of the realms of rhyme... the still unique celebrity of the modern world.” What such hyperbole masks is the fact that the model for such literary celebrity is in reality to be located in another author, who unfortunately did not have the good sense to be born in England. Indeed, anyone familiar with the inordinate fame of Jean-Jacques Rousseau knows that he was the first genuine literary celebrity, lionized and sought out across Europe, much to his growing despair and paranoia (as this brilliant study by the historian Antoine Lilti details). Byron himself was smitten by Rousseau, touring the Lac Léman with his friend Shelley to visit the sites from Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse. Rousseau may not have provided his public with the same devilish scandals as the naughty Lord, but his Confessions, with their admission of a fondness for spankings and exhibitionism, were sultry enough.

Bloom is certainly no provincial, and his own, published version of The Western Canon includes German, Spanish, French, and Italian works – although this canon, too, is heavily tilted toward English authors. But can this be avoided? No doubt French scholars would produce a version of the canon equally tilted toward the French, just as scholars from other nations would privilege their own authors. To an extent, this literary patriotism is normal and understandable: every culture values its heritage, and will expend more energy and resources promoting it.

From the viewpoint of literary history, however, such patriotism is also intellectually wrongheaded. To be sure, writers are often marked most strongly by their compatriots: one must read Dante to understand Boccacio, Corneille to understand Racine, or, as Bloom would have us believe, Whitman to understand T. S. Eliot. But such a vertical reading of literature (which Bloom himself mapped out in The Anxiety of Influence) overlooks the equally – sometimes far more – important horizontal ties that connect authors across national borders. T. S. Eliot may have been “hopelessly evasive about Whitman while endlessly revising him in [his] own major poems,” yet by Eliot’s own admission, the French school of symbolist poetry had a far greater impact on his work. Some of Eliot’s first published poems, in fact, were written in French. Conversely, the French novelist Claude Simon may have endlessly revised Proust, but his own major novels – such as La route des Flandres and L’herbe – owe far more to William Faulkner. Such examples could be multiplied ad infinitum: they are, in fact, the stuff that literary history is made of.

To this criticism, English professors have a ready-made answer: Go study comparative literature! But they have only half a point. Comp lit programs are designed to give students a great deal of flexibility: their degrees may impose quotas for number of courses taken in foreign language departments, but rarely, if ever, do comp lit programs build curricular requirements around literary history. Yet that is precisely the point: Students wishing to study English Romanticism ought to have more than Wikipedia-level knowledge about German Idealist philosophy and Romantic poetry; students interested in the 18th-century English novel should be familiar with the Spanish picaresque tradition; and so on and so forth. Comp lit alone cannot break down the walls of literary protectionism.

The fact that we even have comp lit departments reveals our ingrained belief that “comparing” literary works or traditions is merely optional. Despite Bloom’s own defense of a “Western canon,” such a thing no longer exists for most academics. This is not because the feminists, post-colonialists, or post-modernists managed to deconstruct it, but rather because our institutions for literary studies have gerrymandered the canon, department by department. Is it not shocking that students can major in English at many colleges without ever having read a single book written in a foreign language? Even in translation? (Consider, by contrast, that history majors, even those desirous to only study the American Revolution, are routinely required to take courses on Asian, African, and/or European history, in many different time periods, to boot.) Given that English is the natural home for literary-minded students who are not proficient in another language, it is depressing that they can graduate from college with the implicit assumption that literature is the prerogative of the English-speaking peoples, an habeas corpus of the arts.

But wait a minute: how dare I criticize English curriculums for not including foreign works, when the major granted by my own department, French, is not exactly brimming with German, Russian, or Arabic texts, either? To the extent that French (or any other foreign language) is a literature major, this point is well taken. But there are differences, too. First, it is far more likely that our students will have read and studied English literature at some point in high school and college. They will thus already have had some exposure, at least, to another national canon. Second, and more importantly, a French, Spanish, or Chinese major is more than a literature major: it is to no small degree a foreign language major, meaning that the students must master an entire other set of linguistic skills. Finally, language departments are increasingly headed toward area studies. German departments routinely offer classes on Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, none of whom are technically literary authors. Foreign language departments are sometimes the only places in a university where once-important scholarly traditions can still be studied: Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes tropiques probably features on reading exam lists more often in French than in anthropology departments. A model for such an interdisciplinary department already exists in Classics.

I do not wish to suggest that English professors are to blame for the Anglicization of literature in American universities: they reside, after all, in English departments, and can hardly be expected to teach courses on Russian writers. The larger problem is institutional, as well as methodological. But it bears emphasizing that this problem does not only affect undergraduates, and can lead to serious provincialism in the realm of research, as well. An English doctoral student who works on the Enlightenment once openly confessed to me that she had not read a single French text from that period. No Montesquieu, no Voltaire, no Rousseau, no Diderot, rien. Sadly, this tendency does not seem restricted to graduate students, either.

Literary scholars are not blind to this problem: a decade ago, Franco Moretti challenged his colleagues to study “world literature” rather than local, national, or comparative literatures. He also outlined the obvious difficulty: “I work on West European narrative between 1790 and 1930, and already feel like a charlatan outside of Britain or France. World literature?” While the study of world literature presents an opportunity for innovative methodologies (some of which were surveyed in a recent issue of New Literary History), students already struggling to master a single national literary history will no doubt find such global ambitions overwhelming.

What, then, is to be done? Rearranging the academic order of knowledge can be a revolutionary undertaking, in which ideals get trampled in administrative terror. And prescribing a dose of world literature may ultimately be too strong a medicine for the malady that ails literary studies, particularly at the undergraduate level. In fact, a number of smaller measures might improve matters considerably. To begin with, literature professors could make a greater effort to incorporate works from other national literatures in their courses. Where the funds are available, professors from neighboring literature departments could team-teach such hybrid reading lists. Second, language and literature majors could also require that a number of courses be taken in two or three other literature departments. A model for this arrangement already exists at Stanford, where the English department recently launched an “English Literature and Foreign Language Literature” major, which includes “a coherent program of four courses in the foreign literature, read in the original.” To fulfill this last condition, of course, colleges would have to become more serious about their foreign-language requirements. Finally, literature students would be better served if colleges and universities offered a literature major, as is notably the case at Yale, UC San Diego, and UC Santa Cruz. Within this field of study, students could specialize in a particular period, genre, author, or even language, all the while taking into account the larger international or even global context.

Will such measures suffice to pull down the iron curtain dividing the literary past? Unless they manage to infiltrate the scholarly mindset of national-literature professors, probably not. Then again, as many of us know firsthand, teaching often does transform (or at least inform) our research interests. A case could of course be made for more radical measures, such as the fusion of English and foreign language departments into a single “Literature Department,” as exists at UC San Diego. But enacting this sort of bureaucratic coup carries a steep intellectual (not to mention political) price. It would be unfortunate, for instance, to inhibit foreign literature departments from developing their area-studies breadth, and from building bridges with philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, religious studies, political science, and international relations. English departments, moreover, are developing in similar, centrifugal directions: in addition to teaching their own majors, English departments contribute more widely to the instruction of writing (including creative writing), and have their own ties with Linguistics and Communications departments. This existing segmentation of the university may appear messy, but has the benefit of preventing new walls from being erected, this time between neighboring disciplines.

Dan Edelstein
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Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.

Andy Warhol, Then and Now

In two weeks, the National Book Critics Circle will vote on this year’s awards, and so, of late, I am reading until my eyes bleed. Well, not literally. At least, not yet. But it is a constant reminder of one's limits -- especially of the brain's plasticity. The ability to absorb new impressions is not limitless.

But one passage in Edmund White’s City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s (a finalist in the memoir category, published by Bloomsbury) did leave a trace, and it seems worth passing along. The author is a prominent gay novelist who was a founding member of the New York Institute for the Humanities. One generation’s gossip is the next one’s cultural history, and White has recorded plenty that others might prefer to forget. City Boy will be remembered in particular for its chapter on Susan Sontag. White says that it is unfortunate she did not win the Nobel Prize, because then she would have been nicer to people.

But the lines that have stayed with me appear earlier in the book, as White reflects on the cultural shift underway in New York during the 1960s. The old order of modernist high seriousness was not quite over; the new era of Pop Art and Sontag's "new sensibility" had barely begun.

White stood on the fault line:

"I still idolized difficult modern poets such as Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens," he writes, "and I listened with uncomprehending seriousness to the music of Schoenberg. Later I would learn to pick and choose my idiosyncratic way through the ranks of canonical writers, composer, artists, and filmmakers, but in my twenties I still had an unquestioning admiration for the Great -- who were Great precisely because they were Great. Only later would I begin to see the selling of high art as just one more form of commercialism. In my twenties if even a tenth reading of Mallarmé failed to yield up its treasures, the fault was mine, not his. If my eyes swooned shut while I read The Sweet Cheat Gone, Proust's pacing was never called into question, just my intelligence and dedication and sensitivity. And I still entertain those sacralizing preconceptions about high art. I still admire what is difficult, though I now recognize it's a 'period' taste and that my generation was the last to give a damn. Though we were atheists, we were, strangely enough, preparing ourselves for God's great Quiz Show; we had to know everything because we were convinced we would be tested on it -- in our next life."

This is a bit overstated. Young writers at a blog like The New Inquiry share something of that " 'period' taste," for example. Here and there, it seems, "sacralizing preconceptions about high art" have survived, despite inhospitable circumstances.

White's comments caught my bloodshot eye because I had been thinking about Arthur C. Danto's short book Andy Warhol, published late last year by Yale University Press. (It is not among the finalists for the NBCC award in criticism, which now looks, to my bloodshot eye, like an unfortunate oversight.)

It was in his article “The Artworld,” published in The Journal of Philosophy in 1964, that Danto singled out for attention the stack of Brillo boxes that Warhol had produced in his studio and displayed in a gallery in New York. Danto maintained that this was a decisive event in aesthetic history: a moment when questions about what constituted a piece of art (mimesis? beauty? uniqueness?) were posed in a new way. Danto, who is now professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University, has never backed down from this position. He has subsequently called Warhol “the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced.”

It is easy to imagine Warhol's response to this, assuming he ever saw The Journal of Philosophy: “Wow. That’s really great.”

Danto's assessment must be distinguished from other expressions of enthusiasm for Warhol's work at the time. One critic assumed that Warhol's affectlessness was inspired by a profound appreciation for Brecht’s alienation effect; others saw his paintings as a radical challenge to consumerism and mass uniformity.

This was pretty wide of the mark. The evidence suggests that Warhol’s work was far more celebratory than critical. He painted Campbell’s soup cans because he ate Campell’s soup. He created giant images based on sensational news photos of car crashes and acts of violence -- but this was not a complaint about cultural rubbernecking. Warhol just put it into a new context (the art gallery) where people would otherwise pretend it did not exist.

“He represented the world that Americans lived in,” writes Danto in his book, “by holding up a mirror to it, so that they could see themselves in its reflection. It was a world that was largely predictable through its repetitions, one day like another, but that orderliness could be dashed to pieces by crashes and outbreaks that are our nightmares: accidents and unforeseen dangers that make the evening news and then, except for those immediately affected by them, get replaced by other horrors that the newspapers are glad to illustrate with images of torn bodies and shattered lives.... In his own way, Andy did for American society what Norman Rockwell had done.”

It seems like an anomalous take on an artist whose body of work also includes films in which drag queens inject themselves with amphetamines. But I think Danto is on to something. In Warhol, he finds an artistic figure who fused conceptual experimentation with unabashed mimeticism. His work portrays a recognizable world. And Warhol’s sensibility would never think to change or challenge any of it.

Chance favors the prepared mind. While writing this column, I happened to look over a few issues of The Rag, one of the original underground newspapers of the 1960s, published in Austin by students at the University of Texas. (It lasted until 1977.) The second issue, dated October 17, 1966, has a lead article about the struggles of the Sexual Freedom League. The back cover announces that the Thirteenth Floor Elevators had just recorded their first album in Dallas the week before. And inside, there is a discussion of Andy Warhol’s cinema by one Thorne Dreyer, who is identified, on the masthead, not as the Rag’s editor but as its “funnel.”

The article opens with an account of a recent showing, of the 35-minute film Warhol film “Blow Job” at another university. The titular action is all off-screen. Warhol's camera records only the facial expressions of the recipient. Well before the happy ending, a member of the audience stood up and yelled, “We came to get a blow job and we ended up getting screwed.” (This anecdote seems to have passed into the Warhol lore. I have seen it repeated in various places, though Danto instead mentions the viewers who began singing “He shall never come” to the tune of the civil-right anthem.)

Dreyer goes on to discuss the recent screening at UT of another Warhol film, which consisted of members of the artist's entourage hanging out and acting silly. The reviewer calls it “mediocrity for mediocrity’s sake.” He then provides an interpretation of Warhol that I copy into the digital record for its interest as an example of the contemporary response to his desacralizing efforts -- and for its utterly un-Danto-esque assessment of the artist's philosophical implications.

“Warhol’s message is nihilism," writes Dreyer. "Man in his social relations, when analyzed in the light of pure objectivity and cold intellectualism, is ridiculous (not absurd). And existence is chaos. But what is this ‘objectivity’? How does one obtain it? By not editing his film and thus creating ‘real time’? By boring the viewer into some sort of ‘realization’? But then, is not ‘objectivity’ just as arbitrary and artificial a category as any other? Warhol suggests there is a void. He fills it with emptiness. At least he is pure. He doesn’t cloud the issue with aesthetics.”

And so the piece ends. I doubt a copy ever reached Warhol. It is not hard to imagine how he would have responded, though: “It gives me something to do.” The line between nihilism and affirmation could be awfully thin when Warhol drew it.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Doing More With Less

Every so often while visiting a university library, I will go through the periodical room and gather up an armful of journals, often fairly impulsively. This seems like a good way to get a quick glimpse of what is going on outside the rut of my normal preoccupations. It is, so to speak, the higher eavesdropping.

And so it was that some years ago I came across a publication called Weber Studies. Grabbing issues from the shelf, I figured, given the title, that it would be full of articles on Protestantism, bureaucracy, and social-science methodology. In fact, no -- though that probably happened a lot. It was named, not after Max Weber, but rather its sponsoring institution, Weber State University, in Ogden, Utah. In fact Studies was a general-interest publication of literature and the humanities with a focus on the culture and history of the region. A couple of years ago, it changed its name to Weber: The Contemporary West. (Which still sounds kind of Teutonic, somehow, but so it goes.)

Making the rounds last week, I caught up with the Fall 2009 issue and saw that it opened with a long editorial notice to readers. It announced that, for the time being, the journal would be doing more with less. (The phrase "doing more with less" was not actually used, but such was the upshot.) "Weber State University," the note explained, "was hit with a double-digit retrospective budget adjustment for the 2008-09 academic year and is projected to face similar downward corrections in the years to come." And so the journal would be appearing twice a year, instead of three times. Weber had to suspend the modest honorarium it paid to contributors, and so on. And yet (here was the surprising part) it would keep on publishing. You cannot take that for granted -- certainly not in this economy.

Just before getting in touch with Weber's editor, Michael Wutz, I visited its website, which showed no activity beyond the end of 2009. This was not as bad a sign as it seemed. Wutz, who is a professor of English, explained that he had been busy putting together the new issue, just back from the printer. He sent a copy. It is handsome, with a portfolio of color reproductions of paintings by contemporary Western artists, as well as the annual section of essays on international film (local angle: the Sundance festival is held in Utah), and much else besides.

Wutz is author, most recently, of Enduring Words: Literary Narrative in a Changing Media Ecology, published last year by the University of Alabama Press. We followed up our phone conversation with an interview by e-mail. A transcript follows.

Q: Your journal, Weber, has avoided the two most probable effects of a budget cut -- either shifting to online-only publication, or just shutting it down altogether. Did either possibility come up?

A: The possibility of shutting the journal down altogether was not, fortunately, openly on the table, but it was a distinct possibility in the background, especially in light of the severe budget cuts Weber State University, along with the College of Arts & Humanities, was facing. Given that we are facing another budget cut for the coming fiscal year, and perhaps for the year after that, we may end up feeling some of those effects as well.

Fortunately, we have farsighted administrators -- from my department chair and the dean for arts and humanities to the provost -- who see/saw value, aesthetic appeal, and perhaps promotional potential for the University in a tangible print version, even if that print version is published only twice a year instead of only three times.

Q: While reading the editorial note in your fall issue, I assumed that the journal's survival could only mean that people with administrative clout regard it as creating some kind of value for the institution as a whole. At the same time, it is definitely not a "service" publication like, say, an alumni magazine. How do you understand its role vis-à-vis Weber State?

A: Even though we have a number of national and international subscribers, the home base of our readership is the Intermountain West. As part of the journal's original vision (that is, as de facto in-house publication), the new Weber is coming back to its roots by serving, when appropriate, as a vehicle for faculty to publish their work. The work -- typically an essay -- is of course subject to the same review criteria as any outside submission. But by publishing the work of WSU faculty, the journal closes a kind of feedback loop between faculty research and the immediate dissemination of that work within our predominant readership within and outside of Utah.

Most generally, perhaps, Weber also does (genuinely, I feel) help promote the discourse within the arts, broadly conceived -- painting, literature, film, topics of relevance to the West, interviews. Our administrators appreciate the contribution the journal makes on that level. Given the emphasis most public universities seem to be mandated to place on the sciences by state legislatures, a journal such as ours can help re-validate the humanities and, in addition, seeks an active, interdisciplinary dialogue between the sciences and the arts.

Q: You said that submissions from WSU faculty are "subject to the same review criteria as any outside submission." Just to clarify -- the journal is peer-reviewed?

A: Yes, the journal is peer-reviewed, in the traditional sense, as you can also see, in part, from the editorial review board on the inside front cover. Typically, our submissions are reviewed by two members of our board, though if a submission comes back with a strong "yes" or "no" from one of our reviewers (that involves an explanation on our evaluation sheet), we tend to let the other reviewer know so that he/she can conserve their energy for the other work to be judged.

Given that faculty across the country, not just from WSU, publish work in their journal that becomes part of their tenure/promotion file or is important to their (annual) "productivity record," in today's administrative parlance, the competitive review process ensures a level of professionalism so that Weber can legitimately be listed as a "peer-reviewed" journal.

Q: The journal can no longer pay an honorarium to contributors. You've also had to ask for people to hold off on making submissions for a while. No doubt you'd want to get back to the old way of doing things just as soon as possible. But do you have a gut sense that perhaps some corner has been turned -- that you're stuck with this situation for the indefinite future? (Short of a new federal stimulus package for rebuilding intellectual infrastructure....)

A: Much of that depends on the support we receive from the Utah Arts Council, which in turn is partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. For this coming fiscal year, for the first time in many years, they have chosen not to support (or have not been able to support) Weber with funds that used to be restricted to honoraria for our contributors. Should any monies from that source materialize again, and come with said restrictions, we'd be able to make token payments to our authors and artists once again.

That being said, we are doing more with less. We've had to let go of a salaried managing editor (three-quarter time) and have had to replace that position with a non-salaried person who works about 20 hours per week for currently $12 per hour. That person is no less qualified than the formerly salaried position.

The dean of the college of arts and humanities, who is very supportive and understanding, had to cut my reassigned time from 9 hours per semester to 6 hours per semester as part of a comprehensive savings initiative in our college. This is on the assumption that one issue is the equivalent of one class (3 issues yearly = 3 classes per semester) and that we are now down to two. In terms of actual time commitment, it doesn't quite work out that way. Which, in essence means that if you combine my teaching load and work on the journal, I now work more and longer than I previously did.

Q: You have written a book on how literary narrative has responded to changes in the media environment. Any thoughts on what role the general-interest journal of literature and the humanities can or should play in the second decade of the new millennium?

A: My, this is a tough one. Generally, my "approach" is to think of print or any other media in terms of a larger media ecology. Various cultural forces enable the development of new/other (typically post-print) media, while pushing older media into a new niche if they don't want to get exterminated altogether.

If general-interest journals of literature and the humanities in the second decade of the new millennium and beyond want to survive, they will in effect have to reinvent themselves -- or at least make themselves responsive to the cultural pressures that post-print media put on it.

Specifically, I'd hazard the observation that precisely because digitization seems to become the new lingua franca of delivery, print media might be able to draw attention to their own material heft, to the feel one gets from holding a journal in one's hands. Both aesthetically pleasing (in terms of visual appeal/design) as well as materially specific (because of paper's haptic properties), literary print journals might get a new lease on life, perhaps paradoxically, because of the digital mediaverse surrounding them.

Maybe I am just naive and don't want to see the digital writing on the wall, but for the time being, I am guardedly hopeful that small literary and humanities magazines, just like the novel more generally, will continue to be viable (though not lucrative, of course) vehicles for enlightened public discourse.

For more information on Weber: The Contemporary West, including material from previous issues, see the journal's website.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Why 'Writing'?

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

These lines from Romeo and Juliet are often quoted to indicate the triviality of naming. But anyone who has read or seen the play through to its end knows that the names Montague and Capulet indicate a complex web of family relationships and enmities that end up bringing about the tragic deaths of our protagonists.

Lore also has it that Shakespeare's lines were perhaps a coy slam against the Rose Theatre, a rival of his own Globe Theatre, and that with these lines he was poking fun at the stench caused by less-than-sanitary arrangements at the Rose.

I write now in response to the naming of a newly created department at my large state university called "the Department of Writing and Rhetoric." This new department is being split off from the English department and given the mandate to install a new Writing Across the Curriculum program, convert adjunct positions to "permanent" instructor positions, and establish a related B.A. degree.

While the acronym WAR may seem appropriate to some of my colleagues, many of them think we have more important things to worry about than a name right now. We have also been repeatedly told in the face of previous protests that referring to Composition as Writing is a trend nationwide. Nonetheless, I believe that this title is an indication of bad faith and a negative harbinger for the work of the new department and programs like it elsewhere.

Since the announcement of this change, I attended a tenure party for a colleague in another department. Every single person I spoke with at this party assumed from the title of the new department that "all" writing would be taught there, including my field of Creative Writing. People repeatedly asked me what I thought about being in a new department, and I repeatedly corrected them as confusion spread over their faces. They couldn't understand how the Department of Writing and Rhetoric would not include the writing of fiction, poetry, and so on. I repeatedly had to say that “Writing” in this usage means Composition. They repeatedly asked me why, then, the department will be using the title Writing.

That's a very good question, and one that indicates something disturbing, not just here, but in that nationwide naming trend mentioned above and so often cited. Referring to programs in Composition by the title "Writing" indicates that this field is the authority over all meaningful types of writing – in all other fields. By implication, it implies that no other type of writing but what Composition Studies teaches is valid or important – or even exists. Both of these claims are demonstrably false, although they are the silent assumptions that often underlie Composition's use of the term Writing to describe itself.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that using the name Department of Writing and Rhetoric indicates a willingness to write badly in order to empire-build. Good writing is always about clarity and insight, precision and accuracy. Therefore, this confusing name calls into question the very quality of the writing instruction that will be given in the new department. If the department cannot and will not name itself accurately, then what does that bode for the students to be educated there?

Don't get me wrong. I also differ from some of my colleagues in that I am happy about the creation of the new department. Composition is an upstart field that, like my own of Creative Writing, has often not gotten its due. Partly this is because it stems from a remedial function -- Composition became necessary when the sons and daughters of the working class began attending colleges and universities and were not adequately prepared in the finer points of belles lettres.

Naturally, due to the fact that the background -- and the goals -- of these individuals differed from those of the upper classes that had established belles lettres, Composition began to explore and defend less artistic, more practical forms of writing. This evolution differs from that of such programs in mathematics, for instance, where remedial algebra still focuses on the same formulas as those used in advanced courses. In Composition Studies and Writing Across the Curriculum programs, there has been a focus on supplanting the literary scholarly essay as the gold standard of writing. In the past few decades, Composition as a field has worked hard to establish the legitimacy and importance of other forms of writing and their teaching. Much of this effort I admire.

I am also happy that Composition will be given resources long absent. Having taught Composition courses myself for several years, I understand the need for acknowledgment and support, even if the specifics of the plan at my university have not been widely shared or discussed and seem to me based on suspect methods. I wish the new department nothing but the best in its attempts to improve basic writing instruction for our students.

However, many in the field of Composition have also brought resentment of old wounds and insults to bear by attempting to claim that it is foundational and that it is the expert in all types of writing. Advocates for the field have accomplished this by theorizing what they do and by selling it to those in other fields as the answer to literacy. Among other things, they have also tried to change its name to something less associated with its remedial roots and more grandiose in its scope. However, it remains the case that Composition Studies does not represent a universal approach to literacy, critical thinking, or writing.

In my own field of Creative Writing, for instance, we have far different assumptions about what constitutes effective writing instruction. Admittedly, we have somewhat different purposes. But let me also point out that the rise of Composition Studies over the past 30 or 40 years does not seem to have led to a populace that writes better.

In fact, it has coincided with a time when literacy rates have dropped and where complaints about the poor writing skills of college and university graduates (especially of large public universities) have continued to rise. Obviously many complex social factors contribute to this. It is also debatable whether universities have contributed to this state of affairs because the changing methods of teaching Composition are misguided or because there simply haven't been enough resources. I'm all for giving Composition the resources it needs, respecting its right to self-determination in its field, and letting us see what happens. I am all for the general population writing better, even if it is in an instrumental and limited form disconnected from the literary traditions that have fed most love of and respect for the written word in our culture.

Beyond the details of these various professional debates, my negative reaction to the new departmental name stems from the corruption of language that is so prevalent in our society today, where advertisers and politicians and many others lie through exaggeration, omission and indirection. The best analysis of this is perhaps Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature. In it she talks about uses of language that are destructive, about language that obscures rather than clarifies, and how so often such language "tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind."

If we put the writerly education of our students into the hands of people who insist on rejecting the accurate term Composition for the grandiose and unclear one Writing, what will they learn? They will learn, I am afraid, that they can say whatever they want, even if it is sloppy, confusing, manipulative, or a knowing lie.

Misnaming this department also evokes the negative definition of the title's other half: Rhetoric. In academe we know that rhetoric can be "the study of effective use of language," but most of the world is more familiar with rhetoric defined as "the undue use of exaggeration and display; bombast." This latter definition seems apt when combined with Writing in this name.

I, for one, will never call it the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. I will call it what it actually is: the Department of Composition and Rhetoric. If its practitioners truly respected their own history, they would call it that, too. A "rose" sometimes can smell not so sweet, especially if it turns out not to be a flower at all.

Lisa Roney
Author's email:

Lisa Roney is associate professor of English and coordinator for the undergraduate Creative Writing program at the University of Central Florida.


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