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The Future of English?

No, not the language, I’m afraid, but the disciplinary area of English Literature.

My thesis being done, and as I wait upon one final graduate school’s response/some funding questions before making a final decision about my course of study next year, I’ve been doing some ’round-the-houses’ reading as ‘preparation’ for graduate study, particularly Terry Eagleton‘s anniversary-edition Literary Theory: An Introduction, with its nice new preface, and Michele Lamont‘s How Professors Think, a somewhat sociological approach to how funding panels work within academia and the production of a category of ‘excellence’ at the top of the academic hierarchy.

Both are interesting (in different ways), and both raise the question of how the discipline called ‘English Literature’ might or might not be in crisis through a self-multiplication (particularly due to the proliferation of literary theory) that raises doubt about any true way to define excellence in scholarship or literary works themselves.

To me, this is particularly interesting given my own crisis of disciplinary affiliation, transitioning from hard sciences to English Lit before pondering if Comparative Literature (with an additional focus on language skills and transnational viewpoints) or English Lit (with some ad-hoc, personal focus on language skills and transnational viewpoints) would be a better fit for graduate school. Oh, yes, and who could forget the historical, philosophical and political/social science interests thrown in there too, thanks to the Human Rights Scholars Seminar and my personal approach of texts in-situ with respect to historical, philosophical, sociological and artistic developments. Although I perform strong close-readings, I tend to feel on a personal level that they only find relevant meaning within a larger context (autobiographical through to national or even universal). I ultimately chose to define myself as an English Lit grad student because the locus of all my theoretical and contextual interests turns out to be, 9.9 times out of 10, English literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Lamont’s text, however, contains some very interesting—and somewhat troubling—quotes from unnamed professors who serve on American funding panels that consider English Lit proposals. Take, for example, this one:

When it comes to literature, there is no [a priori prestige] … [T]he sense in which projects [in English literature] are dismissed or rejected or questioned tend[s] to be more confident than the way other projects are evaluated … [O]ne of the real question marks is: Are these literary projects really calling upon information the way history does, or [on] a body of knowledge or a background that we can really trust to be scholarly in any even sort of commonsensical sense of that word?

The questioning of whether English Lit these days is even scholarly resonantes with Eagleton’s text precisely because he speaks of the discipline as stemming from a desire in the nineteenth century to establish a ‘poor man’s Classics’, accessible to those of the lower classes and to those of ostensibly lower intellects (i.e. women). Eagleton notes that this bias (particularly in the form of a preponderence of female undergraduates in English) still exists to a certain extent, and I wonder if that is part of what is visible in the negative attitudes from both English and non-English professors in Lamont’s book.

In a recent class discussion, this topic was raised viz “mobility studies”—whether or not such a discipline should be created, whether or not a “mobility studies” discipline would even be productive for those who affiliate themselves with the study of mobility as well as another discipline (the pertinent case-in-point was Professor Stephen Greenblatt, one of the biggest proponents of such studies in recent years). I personally see little value for “mobility studies” in becoming an independent discipline: it is precisely because it is an interdisciplinary field of study, because its members have their own sense of mobility, that it works.

Similarly, if the English discipline really is in the midst of a “legitimation crisis”, as Lamont argues, then there is no benefit in attempting to solve such a crisis via splintering into “women’s studies”, “literary theorists”, “Victorianists”, etc., precisely because the value of these pursuits is heightened by their interrelations, points of friction, and coalescences. “Women’s studies”, for example, may also be a segment of history, political science, sociology, psychology, even. Women’s studies within the English Literature discipline can easily borrow tools and approaches from these other disciplines, or even from literatures in other languages, but ultimately, the focus is literature written in English. This commonality with Victorianists, for example, creates readings and theories that are in dialogue with each other, rather than mutually unintelligible. Moreover, readings engage the techniques that are substantively belonging to the English Literature discipline: the skills of close-reading and intuitive response to and recognition of great writing. I don’t think there’s any other discipline I could situate myself in that would be so fluid, so flexible, and at the same time so wholly in tune with what is really striking and interesting to me. The future of English Literature is surely bright.

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Meetings with Etty

I’ve been a bit quiet recently, as I’m not in the last stretch of thesis-writing, but I’ve been doing some interesting things too, in particular the start of the Etty Hillesum Fellowship.

The fellowship is based around the work they’re doing on a new production, The Wrestling Patient, based on Etty Hillesum’s writings, particularly her journals. We’ll be work-shopping with some high-school students and attending rehearsal later on in the year, but the first few meetings are fellows-only. The last meeting really got me thinking about what it means to have a fellowship on “the meaning of leadership and mentorship” in our lives, particularly as women. Does this mean a detached discussion from a philosophical/historical/sociological point of view (which might take your fancy)? Or a sharing of personal experiences? Where does one become detached from the real world and the other become a support group? The last ‘women+leadership’ seminar that I did (at Harvard’s Institute of Politics) really focused in on practical skills: speech writing, negotiating, oratory, etc. I’m interested to see how this new fellowship will progress, as I don’t think it will do quite the same thing at all. Etty certainly was a remarkable woman, though, as are the two women who are running the fellowship.

I’m just pondering today, I think, which is good, because I have to write two journal entries for our next meeting on Friday.