Wednesday, July 14, 2004

I'm a Believer

The comments on this Crooked Timber post are entertaining, in a depressing way. Note the sneering, oh-so-superior tone in most of them, especially the one that called the Believer article's author "ignorant." (This means, I think, "not an insider, hence not worth taking seriously.")

The article in question, whatever its flaws, does make some criticisms that seem pretty accurate to me:

  • There is a huge flood of scholarly publication in English and other literary disciplines, most of it inconsequential, fated to be read only by its author, a couple of journal editors, a few referees, and possibly the author's colleagues.
  • A great deal of this publication is written in a rarefied, self-consciously obscure dialect that is incomprehensible to people who lack a graduate education in English.
  • Many scholars of English literature don't see anything wrong with this.
  • Perhaps there is nothing wrong with it. But of course that conclusion is hard to swallow for a lot of outsiders, given that the subject matter of this scholarship — literature — is arguably meant to be read and enjoyed and learned from by a larger group of people than the small number of professionals who get paid to study it.

    The question that Crooked Timber's commentators (with a few welcome exceptions) want to avoid addressing is the social utility of the current situation. Most literary scholarship goes unread by most of the profession, and even more so by ordinary readers. So if current literary scholarship has social utility, it must be indirect, by providing an atmosphere of continued scholarly inquiry for teachers that will, in some ways, filter down to students both while they are in college and in later life. (This is true for scholarship in other academic disciplines as well; there are few practical applications of number theory, for example, but it is still an indispensable subject in mathematics departments.)

    What concerns me is whether this indirect utility justifies the large expenditures that are currently being lavished on it. In most colleges, literature departments are the largest of the humanities departments. There are hundreds of journals of literary scholarship, and thousands of literature professors cranking out more articles to fill those journals. Is the money that goes to pay for the production and distribution and cataloguing and storage of this scholarship well spent?

    At a time when this question is being raised more and more urgently — by college financial officers and especially by students and their parents facing skyrocketing tuition — it might be advisable for the discipline to encourage the production of less scholarship of higher quality. It might be advisable in any case for literary scholars to focus on studying literature, instead of producing pastiches of scholarship in areas in which they have no real expertise — sociology, history, political theory, philosophy. And it is definitely advisable for journal editors and conference committee members to start exercising some good judgment by actively discouraging the meaningless jargon, radical-chic posturing, and adolescent obsession with bodily fluids and orifices that have become objects of ridicule both inside and outside the profession.

    But I see little chance of this happening inside the academic echo chamber. Right now, most English departments are like SUVs: they're comfortable and fashionable and they make the people inside feel important and powerful. But they're too damned expensive for the results we get. The money well hasn't dried up yet, but it will, and I feel for the people who have to make hiring decisions when it does.

    Crooked Timber: What for are English professors?

    The Believer: In the Penthouse of the Ivory Tower


    Blogger JBJ said...

    Yo Joe!

    I need to finish reading the Believer piece. Part of me thinks that making fun of young lit-crit scholars is so easy, it's unfair, like shooting fish in a barrel. And would you agree that all the humanities have similar problems to a lesser degree, e.g. incentives to be obscure and *avoid* appealing to a broad audience?

    But you're absolutely right, the relevance of English departments compared to the resources they consume is questionable. The number of US universities granting Ph.D's in English is utterly insane -- something like 200 schools.

    Congrats on the blog,
    your friend,
    John J.

    8:53 PM  
    Blogger Joe Victor said...

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    11:12 PM  
    Blogger Joe Victor said...

    Addressing those comments in reverse order: Yes, I do think that other humanist disciplines have similar problems and perverse incentives. But the literary fields have led the way, and still have the highest ratio of bullshit to serious scholarship. It's a shame.

    As for "shooting fish in a barrel": making fun of contemporary lit crit is easy, and many people have had fun taking cheap shots at the profession. I don't intend just to make fun, but to wonder why there seem to be few signs of a respite from the pomposity. Apparently the Kool Kids are still entranced by Lacan and Baudrillard, and everyone else is too timid to make serious efforts to return the discipline to sanity.

    11:13 PM  

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