- That last post was also inspired by a conversation with my mother. She worried that I shouldn’t go around shooting my mouth off, otherwise I’d gain a reputation as a trouble-maker. She means well: as do all mothers: but her frame of reference was the other big institution she knows, the British Civil Service. And being a lay inspector of schools.
Mother dearest: no, I’m not sticking my neck out. I’m doing my job. I’m doing what every academic working in literary studies should be doing. The critical element is essential to the work of literary studies, and what distinguishes a tertiary/higher level from the primary and secondary ones. The same goes for our students, what’s required of them, and how they’d be expected to grow and flourish. Developmentally, at a stage for reflection and abstraction. Alas, the elements of fun, enjoyment, and play mysteriously vanish between kindergarten and grad school. One of the hardest things for some grad students, I’ve often found, is rediscovering the joy. Hoping against hope that it hasn’t been excised or beaten out of them completely.
I’m doing my job properly and responsibly. It’s irresponsible to forego the critical side; lazy perhaps, a bad example to students for sure, criminally appalling if you compound the error and actively dismiss criticism (in all shapes and sizes and forms) in front of them. It’s a disservice to them. They are one’s charges, for whom one is responsible and to whom one owes a duty of care. It’s also a disservice to colleagues. Colleagues: here’s another difference between schools and universities. College, university, academia: it’s a fundamentally social and sociable employment. Collegial, community, discursive.
2. A real danger: big classes, the sausage-machine. Encouraging results-driven pseudo-education: “studying” for exams; the objective being getting a qualification; the tangibles. It’s not an education in the sense that we see in Plato: lots gets stuffed in, there’s nothing coming out in exchange, and the stuff that looks like it’s coming out, in an exam, is just the stuff that went in being regurgitated: mixed up and half-digested, often nauseating, often a disgusting stinking mess.
Students become numbers. They already are numbers. I am always disturbed when a new student in a new class introduces and signs themselves with their name and their number. Sometimes even number first. That really distresses me.But the big classes exacerbate the problem: if I can’t count them and pay attention to them individually, they no longer count. I’m crap at names. I also get the blanking-out–I’ve been known to forget my own sister’s name when introducing her to friends. Names take me a lot of effort. And I’ll get them wrong, and then we’ll all have a laugh and thus the bonding goes. Names are one key part to showing students they’re still individuals; and marking individual work, slowly and attentively and properly, is the other. I hate that we have big classes, and that we need them to be that size to demonstrate quality through quantity and economic viability, and to show that we deserve the counterbalance of some smaller classes at the final-year and graduate levels. That’s unfair: it’s using the large classes as pawns in university politics.
I loathe being manipulated by the fact of large class sizes into becoming a part of the dehumanizing machine: because I can’t get all the student names and I can’t read and mark their work the way I’d like to. I feel disgusted and used, against my will, better judgement, and everything that screams out fairness, justice, and basic human decency.
3. Curious position of literary studies: suspended teetering between science-envy and arts-envy. On the arty side: see, we’re not artists when we’re doing literary criticism. It’s insulting to actual artists to say we’re doing the same thing. We’re just not. We may be doing something similar when we use the same talents and tools in a similar way that’s pretty and satisfying–words, for instance. The odd person will have feet in both camps–Morris and indeed much Art Nouveau–or will bring non-fictional forms like the essay to giddy new heights–Orwell, Le Guin, Carter. Scott McCloud manages all that and in the neuvième art besides. Blogs such as this one are messing around with hybrid combinations of the onzième art and experiments with the essay (kinda 5e). But basically us lit studs folks, we’re craftsmen.
On the other hand: we’re dealing in association and analogies. Like any other human artistic production, criticism is figurative; our basic tools are the usual ones, so usual it feels like, well, a commonplace. Our methods and point are metaphor, translation, and making sense. Each of the three in its broadest sense and loading. So here’s another curiosity–a cliché to the point of banality to anyone working on trobador poetry, and yet one that reappears time and time again in that poetry itself, even though it was a cliché then too. What we make is sense, in an active way, as our work; and still, at the same time, sense is what we’re finding as we dig out knowledge.
4. Freedom = disengagement from the world: no, the opposite. Academics have if anything greater obligation to engage with the world. People working in the humanities: ditto, with emphasis on the human and an even greater obligation still to engage with their fellow-humans.
It being the scholar’s job, point, and purpose to make sense of it and explain that: to peers, to students, to the larger community… to humanity as a whole. And to record their findings for posterity (their benefit, and also entertainment). Share the wealth. An analogy: “serve and protect” works for us as it does for any other public service folks. We serve and protect the public, and the public interest and public good. This can mean what it says, and what’s intended. Not the recent NYPD version: policing and being secretive, keeping information inside, not releasing it to the outside world: and thus increasing the gulf from the public.
5. The academy and ivory towers: irritating notion that we should be pure and untainted. Newsflash: this is 2011, and these are universities. Not monasteries. Even older universities, based on a monastic model, have got rid of much of the culturally and temporally specific baggage that had, by a few hundred years thence, turned into ritualised nonsense (think: Gormenghast or Institute Benjamenta). Yes, there are good things from the older structures that are worth preserving; some defunct aspects might be worth reintroducing, their time might have come again, and they might even be more relevant now than ever. I’m thinking of meritorious undergraduates becoming “scholars,” and scholarship being associated with privileges: money, entitlement to the best rooms in college, extra free dinners. Geek power and respect.
But it’s a historical mistake to keep research pure by rejecting the worldly, repudiate the World. It’s worse than repudiation. It’s reneging: in the sense of breaking a contract compounded by the older underlying sense of breach of promise, trust, obligation; feudal betrayal and treachery. Medieval monastic history–not to mention the history of relations between monastery and university–is far from a simplistic temporal/spiritual division of labour. The regular clergy went through far worse than our current hand-wringing and fist-waving, with divisions and splinters-offs (not to mention heresies) from over 1500 years ago until, recently. The question of life in the world and engagement with humanity isn’t off the agenda by any means: contrast (cough–not my favourite saint, let’s just say) Thérèse of Lisieux with Father Damian and more recent Rwandan and Brazilian religious.
I say: give me Franciscans any day, for worldliness and a lack of self-important pretention, worthiness and decency, and a respect for their fellow human.
On which topic of Franciscans: I should pass you on to John V. Fleming’s Glady lerne, gladly teche. This week’s post dovetails delightfully with today’s stuff and nonsense over here:
(Warning: includes Marx. Which seems to have deeply upset and shocked a commenter, who commits an epic reading fail compounded by a reasoning one. Sigh)