January 10, 2007

How to Get a Decent Education in English

Step 1: Decide to specialize in either Medieval or Renaissance writers.

Step 2: Obtain an advisor who matriculated before 1980.

Step 3: Remain strong in the face of temptation to apply any of the following theories to Medieval or Renaissance writing: feminism, marxism, post-colonialism. New Historicism might do in a pinch. Yes, I realize that by doing this you will actually be forced to think, as opposed to excising passages from different theorists' books, inserting them block-quote style into your paper for maximum page-wasting impact, and then ignoring the actual text in favor of performing a series of simplistic mental gyrations that magically transform Troilus and Criseyde into a Marxist pamphlet, but trust me - the extra work will be worth it, because you'll actually learn something useful.

There are a number of additional tips that I could pass along to the determined English major on which classes to avoid at all costs, and which are unfortunately predicated on simply looking at the professor's door decorations and sartorial choices--yes, I realize that this probably makes me guilty of "obeying the imperative of the objectifying gaze" OMG--but it can really be summed up like this: If the syllabus contains any of the following words - hegemonic, privilege, the Other - or more than 3 words ending in the suffix "ist" that precede the word "analysis," RUN. RUN, AND DO NOT STOP UNTIL YOU FIND A COURSE IN READING BEOWULF IN THE ORIGINAL OLD ENGLISH. PREFERABLY ONE TAUGHT BY A PROFESSOR WHO IS OLD ENOUGH TO HAVE KNOWN GRENDEL PERSONALLY.

Wondering what brought this on? This did.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at January 10, 2007 09:30 AM

I read the same thing. VDH is almost always on the mark. However, I would like to know where were you when Kyle Dowd needed you?

Posted by: locomotive breath at January 10, 2007 10:43 AM

LB -

Alas, I had not yet codified my ideas into a simple formula for success that I could pass along to the youngsters out there.

This whole lacrosse thing has got me thinking about the hows and whys of the decline of the humanities, and how I managed to escape relatively unscathed even though I was in grad school during the heady heyday of Deconstruction and Jacques Lacan.

Really I think it boils down to the fact that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are remarkably hard to corrupt with the taint of theory, and that the types of people who are drawn to those eras also tend to look upon the latest academic trends with a gimlet eye. Plus, in order to adequately study that source material, you have to be familiar with a host of "classics"--mythology, Boccaccio, romance languages, ancient history, etc. So you end up getting a roundabout education in what used to be the classic Western Canon.

Posted by: BAW at January 10, 2007 03:09 PM

For those of us who are non-majors in English, could you do a post on what is this "theory" of which you speak. I'm not trying to be a wise guy.

For example, I once read an account of someone who went to the MLA which is apparently where the English departments do their academic job interviewing and he kept refering to the "dreaded theory question" without ever explaining what it was. What's that all about?

Posted by: locomotive breath at January 10, 2007 05:05 PM

Here here on the medieval studies angle. I think that you're spot on about the Middle Ages being so hard to corrupt with theory (the Renaissance less so) because if you are reading source material in the original Old English or in the Gawain poet's Middle English for example, by the time you have fully immersed yourself in it, it's like being on another planet. It's almost laughable to apply Lacanian or post-modern theory du jour to it. Just two cents from another medieval studies gal.

Posted by: Feral Girl at January 11, 2007 09:12 AM

Vicki Hearne, in _Animal Happiness_ ``Oyez a Beaumont'' p.97

``in T.H.White's The Sword in the Stone. The great hound (lymer) named Beaumont is on the ground, his back broken by the boar, and the expert, the master of hounds, William Twyti, has been hurt also. Twyti limps over to Beaumont and utters the eternal litany : ``Hark to Beaumont. Softly, Beaumont, mon amy. Oyez a Beaumont the valiant. Swef, le douce, Beaumont, swef, swef.'' He nods to Robin Wood and holds the hound's eyes with his own, saying ``Good dog, Beaumont the valiant, sleep now, old friend Beaumont, good old dog,'' while the huntsman kills the dog for him : ``Then Robin's falchion let Beaumont out of this world, to run free with Orion and to roll among the stars.'' ''

Of course that's French, not medieval, but you might look for dog stories anyway.

You don't have to be postmodern to miss the scene, a short google turns up this analysis :

``Another contrast in the hunting scene occurs when the Wart spies tears on Twyti’s face after he finds Beaumont with a broken back: ``He stroked Beaumont’s head and said, ``Hark to Beaumont. Softly, Beaumont, mon amy. Oyez Beaumont the valiant. Swef, le douce Beaumont, swef, swef.'' Beaumont licked his hand but could not wag his tail.'' Twyti’s speaking in French and Beaumont’s inability to wag his tail evoke a sense of pity from the reader; ironically, all the violence of the hunt is not as effective as this odd scene. (White’s description of Robin’s killing Beaumont is also sentimental, because he is not described as killing Beaumont but instead as allowing him to run free with Orion, the mythical hunter made famous in a constellation.) Even a man as accustomed to blood as is Twyti can reveal his fragility at the strangest moments.''

Cliff notes meets PETA.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at January 11, 2007 06:28 PM

Everyone should major in history, in the surprisingly common departments where intellectual rigor is still valued, and where VDH wouldn't get tenure, because everyone would know he was a jerk who was impressed with no one but himself.

Posted by: Michael at January 11, 2007 10:52 PM

Amen, BAW! Amen times infinity plus one.

Totally aside from the absurdity of theory, I find the slavish devotion with which graduate students adhere to it somewhat ridiculous. When, oh, when will the tide turn and English departments undergo a coup by disgusted anti-theorists?

Posted by: Jordana at January 12, 2007 08:53 AM

Everyone should eat Hostess Cupcakes, in the surprisingly common stores where freshness is still valued and Little Debbie wouldn't get shelf space because everyone knows what a bitch she can be.

Posted by: marc at January 12, 2007 10:12 AM

"...and where VDH wouldn't get tenure, because everyone would know he was a jerk who was impressed with no one but himself."

Horse's assery is a bar to tenure? Who knew?

Posted by: PersonFromPorlock at January 12, 2007 04:55 PM

PfP -

It's been my experience that horses assery generally FOLLOWS tenure, but maybe I'm just unlucky that way...

Posted by: BAW at January 12, 2007 08:28 PM

I matriculated before 1980, so I guess I'm good to go.

I actually give my students an introduction to those kinds of theories before they do their research papers, because otherwise they are flabbergasted by the seemingly nonsensical.

For example, looking at Oyez a Beaumont...

In feminist criticism the dog might be an icon of women, with back broken, accepting useless sympathy from men who are planning their murder. (I've seen equally extreme ideas.)

So, I give them examples of what particular types of criticism will say about our novel. It helps, I think. And they all skip certain kinds of criticism when they find them.

Posted by: Suzi at January 13, 2007 10:19 AM