Professing Literature

Every so often I check in on my old life, and every time I do, it seems like not much has changed since I left university teaching in 1999. It’s reassuring to know that I haven’t missed out on some terrific new developments, but also it’s troubling. 

Yale English professor William Deresiewicz reads the twentieth anniversary edition of Gerald Graft’s famous Professing Literature and considers the current state of literary studies. It doesn’t look good. The job market is pretty much the same as it was when I was looking for a teaching post, except there seems to be more film studies jobs. Post-colonial literature is still popular; I would have thought that theoretical zeal would have cooled in that area by now. Also still popular are the overstuffed backpack jobs. Exaggerating only a little, Deresiewicz gives some mock examples: "Asian American literature,
cultural theory, or visual/performance studies"; "literature of the
immigrant experience, environmental writing/ecocriticism, literature and
technology, and material culture"; "visual culture; cultural studies and
theory; writing and writing across the curriculum; ethnicity, gender and
sexuality studies." I remember laughing with my fellow grad students over an MLA job listing looking for a post-modern medievalist. It was the only time we laughed during job search season.

Despite the strained optimism of job listings, English departments are dispirited places these days.  College students are abandoning English as a major, and universities are slowly starving English departments to death. Everyone seems to be going through the motions. Deresiewicz writes,

It’s the fact that no major
theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith
Butler’s Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard
professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are
writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in
1990. Nor has any major new star–a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold
Bloom–emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a
sense of intellectual adventure. The job market’s long-term depression
has deepened the mood. Most professors I know discourage even their best
students from going to graduate school; one actually refuses to talk to
them about it. This is a profession that is losing its will to live.

It seems that literary studies’ great experiment in combining esoteric theory with rabble-rousing populism is now over and nothing else has taken its place. What would seem to be an obvious solution–simply returning to close readings of great works of literature–isn’t possible any more for a variety of complicated reasons, most of them to do with the current state of university education in the United States.

It’s sad that the intellectual adventure really does seem to be over. That was one of the reasons why I left: I seemed to be stuck in place, and so did the whole profession. This isn’t my fight any more, but I hope the profession solves its considerable intellectual and institutional problems.

One final note: I’ve wondered aloud if the architecture profession is now in the same condition literary studies was twenty years ago: dominated by stars, but having trouble translating cutting edge work into a popularly accessible medium. It seems like every week a startling new museum or skyscraper goes up, but private houses and small business facilities look pretty much the same way they did two decades ago. And once the starchitects start retiring, there’s no guarantee that a new set of architects will have the clout to forge ahead with new design ideas.

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