Reading, Writing and Representing

The graduate students and young professors who teach writing have a unique role to play in fighting attacks on academe in general and English in particular, write Frank Gaughan and Peter Khost.

February 6, 2006

Many now consider the humanities to be facing a relevancy “crisis.” Partly because of the culture wars, the humanities -- if not the whole university -- appear to have lost their reason to be. To choose just one compelling example, Bill Readings argues in The University in Ruins that the primary role of the university is no longer to inculcate national culture, so it now resorts to rhetorically convenient but substantively empty and ideologically suspect vagaries like the term “excellence” to justify its existence. As one result, faculty in English and composition also suffer from what some recent publications are casting as a labor “crisis.”

While the public grows increasingly skeptical of the nature and purposes of liberal arts education, academics generally, and we suspect English scholars particularly, have not been as effective as they could, should, and must be when representing the value of their work, especially teaching. In a colloquial nutshell, public criticism tends to follow some version of this reasoning: English departments aren’t teaching my kids to write and read well enough because they’re too busy trying to turn them into Marxists, feminists, homosexuals, or -- worse -- grad students. Meanwhile, our scholarship is derided as obtuse, cryptic, or absurd. It matters little that such descriptions are inaccurate, unfair, and often advanced in service of narrow-minded ideologies at odds with the democratic underpinnings of a liberal arts education. The fact remains that our work is nevertheless perceived at turns as irrelevant or threatening, a fact which directly and indirectly contributes to the deplorable state of labor conditions in English.

Because the value of work in English studies is so poorly understood, even among ourselves, negative stereotypes become entrenched in the general cultural psyche in the form of common sense: e.g., literature is boring, difficult to understand, and best left to experts who talk about it in ways that are also boring and difficult to understand. And the value of writing is often reduced to its correctness, which, to many, is valuable only to the extent that it earns, as in earns good grades and jobs. This leads (or likely will lead) to further decreases in the number of English majors (currently about 4 in every 100) and this, in turn, will lead to fewer tenure-track lines and increased stratification of faculty, in the form of part-time and other non-tenurable lines. For example, a 1999 Modern Language Association survey found that only 37 percent of English faculty members were on tenure-track lines. While jobs in composition, tenure-tenure track and otherwise, have proven more available than those in, say, 19th century American literature, such jobs often consist of administrative positions, or what both critics and reformers are now calling the middle-management class of faculty, wherein one or two tenured faculty are charged with supervising a large and shifting class of part-time faculty.

As faculty continue to stratify, it will become increasingly difficult to represent the purpose, direction, and value of work in English studies beyond the rudiments of business writing and the cultural capital afforded by cocktail party knowledge of Shakespeare or Melville. The vicious cycle can be simplified as follows: A managed and stratified faculty often has difficulty representing itself effectively in the culture wars, which in turn exacerbates the level of stratification, which in turn leads to increasing difficulty with representation. The consequences of poor representation and increased stratification harm all faculty and students in nearly every imaginable category, including infringement on academic freedom, especially in matters of curriculum design and assessment, as well as decreasing job security, inequitable pay scales, little or no benefits, high teaching loads, large class sizes, and pitiful office conditions.

James Piereson, writing in a recent issue of the conservative periodical The Weekly Standard reflects the views of many non-academics who haven’t been made to care or care enough about our problems and, in fact, resent academics for our seeming disengagement with their values. He writes: “When this year’s freshmen enter the academic world, they will encounter a bizarre universe in […] institutions that define themselves in terms of left wing ideology. […] which is both anti-American and anticapitalist.” Piereson approvingly refers to university trustees who (in his words) contend that “if their institutions are to be rescued, they dare not rely on faculties to do it.” Piereson’s variety of culture-war mongering and his apparent comfort with making outlandish claims without much more than scatter-shot anecdotal evidence, often lead to equally bombastic and antagonistic counter-statements, and so go the culture wars.

Citing findings from the National Center for Educational Statistics, Louis Menand points out in his 2005 contribution to MLA’s Profession that between 1970 and 2001 the number of English majors dropped, roughly, by a third; however, “the system is producing the same number of doctorates in English that it was producing back in 1970. These Ph.D.'s have trouble getting tenure-track jobs because fewer students major in English, and therefore the demand for English literature specialists has declined.” There are many theories about the causes of this discrepancy (e.g., students who would have previously majored in English are now turning to interdisciplinary programs, in, say, cultural studies, or students are driven by the increasing costs of college education to specialize in areas, such as, say, computer science, which have a reputation for more immediate financial pay off than does a B.A. in English). Regardless, more and more conversations in English studies seem to be focusing on ways to reinvigorate the work of English studies in the 21st century, so as to make it more relevant to the public, especially students.

The various strands of this already vast and quickly growing debate are difficult to summarize and properly attribute in the space that we have. For the moment, suffice to say that the main idea is that work in the humanities, both critical and imaginative, seems to be increasingly alien and perhaps irrelevant to the public. It is often said that scholarship in the humanities has become too insular for its own good. One possible solution to the perceived problem of insularity is often described with the phrase “going public.” In 1995, Linda Ray Pratt uses it in her contribution to the influential collection Higher Education Under Fire. In 1998, Peter Mortensen uses the phrase as the title to his article in the journal College Composition and Communication. More recently, it has been invoked in a Duke University panel on academic publishing, and Henry Boyte makes “going public” the focus of his 2005 occasional paper for the Kettering Foundation. If the catch phrase for the late 90s was “critical thinking,” the phrase for the early years of the 21st century may just be “going public.”

While we believe it is important to go public with academic work in the humanities, this phrase, however catchy, raises more questions than it answers. Go public with what, exactly? And what venues qualify as appropriately public? Further, Louis Menand invites us to consider the possibility that going public may not be as easy or as desirable as it may at first sound: "The last premise academic humanists should be accepting is that the value of their views is measured by the correspondence of those views to common sense and the common culture. Being an intellectual and thinking theoretically are going outside the parameters of a common culture and common sense." (Menand’s emphasis)

This is to say that the duty of academics, be they physicists or humanists, is not to the public but to knowledge, dare we say truth. And the public is not necessarily concerned with either. Menand concludes: "Ignorance has almost become an entitlement. We are living in a country in which liberals would rather move to the right than offend the superstitions of the uneducated. As always, the invitation to academics is to assist in the construction of the intellectual armature of the status quo. This is an invitation we should decline without regrets."

Here, Menand raises some valuable points of caution. In his line of argument, going public may mean caving in, stripping our ideas of nuance, and abandoning precision or critical thinking for the sake of public acceptance. Of course most of us agree that teachers who passively abide by common sense notions and status quo values are not acting like responsible academics, and none of us would endorse this behavior. However, as noteworthy as such cautions may be, the distinction between the academic and the public seems overdrawn here. After all, there are nearly 5,000 college campuses in the United States, enrolling more than 14 million students, with enrollments projected to increase through the year 2014. This is to say that the question of “going public” has already, to a very large extent, been settled: academic work is quite thoroughly situated in the public realm, and if the public considers ignorance to be “almost an entitlement,” then we are at least partly to blame for this state of affairs. Gerald Graff goes so far as to claim that the “university is itself popular culture -- what else should we call an institution that serves millions if not an agent of mass popularization. But the university still behaves as if it were unpopular culture, and the anachronistic opposition of academia and journalism continues to provide academics with an iron clad excuse for communicative ineptitude.”

Going public, therefore, is a useful but not entirely adequate phrase, since it does not explain how more public exposure will improve the current state of the humanities or the public’s view of work done within it. Therefore, we would like to focus on improving the work which is, far and away, the most public and the most popular -- that is to say, our teaching. It will be necessary for educators in English studies to make the case for the work of English studies. Increased and accessible public discourse about teaching literature and writing may be a first step, but one which would require more questioning of what we mean by teaching, to whom it is valuable, and why. As opposed to (re)fighting the culture wars with those like James Piereson, or resisting the public face of academic work, we might practice our discourse theories with the public, rather than merely attempt to report on them, even in jargon-free language. This assumes a dialogue that transforms not only the content of the humanities but also the participants of the conversation -- especially, teachers and their students.


Taking up this point in his recent book, English Composition as a Happening, Geoffrey Sirc bemoans the dulling influence of academic routine, which has led many of us to (re)produce the sort of polemical prose and responses which have, thus far, not proven particularly effective tactics in the culture wars. Instead Sirc urges us, as educators and scholars, to define teaching and writing in ways that articulate the value of innovation and imaginative thinking. And we would like to see Sirc’s suggestion enacted both internally and externally, that is in forums such as this one and in public venues such as newspapers, periodicals, and community meetings, in short, any of a variety of venues that serve to establish dialogue among academics, students, administrators, parents, media members, and legislators. The better we are able to do this, the better we will be able to supplant negative and inaccurate representations of our work.

While critics such as Sirc and Menand are clearly influential here, we understand this task to be of particular importance to graduate students, not least of all because the future of work in the humanities is quite literally in our hands. Should we continue the tradition of predominantly insular and/or antagonistic discourse, our degree of leverage and relevance with the public will continue to decrease, as will our prospects for tenure-line work. It is incumbent upon us to open the lines of communication and to make known the good work that is already being done in our classrooms.

Scholarship on this issue is already underway. For example, at the 2005 MLA conference, Michael Bérubé and Cary Nelson spoke to issues of contingent labor; others such as Peter Mortensen and David Shumway attended to matters of representation.  We regard these two issues as linked; that is, the better we understand and represent our work (especially teaching), the better our working conditions stand a chance of improving. For this, we conclude with the following proposals that take from and build on the work of these and other scholars:

1. Cultivate existing trends toward interdisciplinarity, such as linked or clustered courses, in ways that effectively demonstrate the value of English studies, particularly in terms of accomplished reading and writing.

2. Realize that the Ph.D., as a credential for teaching, requires civic responsibility and ethical action. The better we collectively attend to this fact and make this work known, the better we will be able to build a platform from which to argue for improved working conditions.

3. Accept and embrace the possibility of working through cultural debates in ways and venues that are accessible to the general public. This is not to suggest necessary agreement with the public, but to encourage a variety of discourse that holds the public in vital partnership.

4. Encourage hiring, promotion, and tenure committees to value the above efforts or else they simply will not happen, or at least not to the extent that they should. In other words, in order to improve the representation of our work, it will be necessary to appeal effectively not only to the public but also to our senior colleagues.


Peter H. Khost is a lecturer in writing and rhetoric at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Frank P. Gaughan is an instructor in English and first-year writing at Hofstra University. Frank and Peter are both doctoral candidates in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This article is adapted from a talk they gave at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.


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