January 12, 2007

This One's for You, LB

Further thoughts on the post below, brought on by Locomotive Breath's request in the comments to be told how, exactly, this whole theory thing works. And by a post I came across yesterday that seems to be dealing with some of the same issues I am in terms of the "whither the humanities" or "withered humanities" debate.

And so, let me enlighten some of my hard sciences brethren and sistren. Caveat - this is going to be pretty darn general, so cut me a bit o' slack, english folks.

Back when God was a child, in the days before the Rise of Theory, most English majors participated in straight textual analysis or reader response - you read a book and dissected the language the author used, the metaphors, word choice, tropes, etc., looked at the larger themes, discussed its relevance to the human condition, blah, blah, blah. Scholars often focused on painstaking dissections of the text, particularly when dealing with older works, or they did research on the author's life and times. Some people even dared use the phrase "authorial intent" unironically! All very interesting, and an English degree was a pretty good way to get a handle on history, the arts and the human condition in a "big picture" sort of way. It honed mental acuity and analytical/communication skills. In short, if you were an English major, you could apply those basic skills to any field you ended up in. It was a good, solid, all-purpose education for smart people who didn't have a particular career path in mind after college.

The obvious drawback, as most college freshmen point out, is that eventually you kind of run out of new things to say about Shakespeare. Now, this isn't actually true, because the best literature is "living," in that its lessons are applicable to the human condition in whatever new configuration it finds itself, and the study of language is always relevant to people who use it, but I think that those thoughts helped bring about the rise of theory, which was originally proposed as a useful way to open texts up to new interpretations.

Well, okay. I don't have a problem with situating a text in history, or looking at it from different perspectives, or even playing around with the nature of language and meaning, but here's where it went pear-shaped: english stopped being about analyzing a text, which implies that you will form your our own ideas about a text, and became all about applying someone else's ideas--or theories--to texts, which led inevitably to making the text fit the theory. And somewhere along the way, critical thinking gave way to parsing, and sometimes, to deliberate misinterpretation, in order to make the theory "fit."

So now, instead of just being asked what literary era or genre you specialize in, you're also asked "the theory question"--which theoretical school of thought do you subscribe to? Are you a marxist? A feminist? A new historicist? Lacanian?

And the balkanization of theories has gone hand-in-fist with the balkanization of literature. Where it used to be large chunks of eras in lit, so that you were exposed to the big picture and conversant in all of it even if you later specialized in a small area of it, now you have subgroups based on regions, races, religions, political ideas, and literary theories. And within those balkanized subgroups, smaller subgroups exist; for example, if you're a feminist, do you follow the French or the American feminists? If so, which one? And this being academia, the inevitable, tired politics of the academy ensue, so that the discipline is now politicized, and balkanized, and snippy about it.

So you have a bunch of PhDs who come out of the educational process pigeonholed into a tiny area of expertise, training students who don't have a broad enough base of knowledge to understand that what they're learning is only a fraction of reality, or a particular view, and so you get people with English degrees who have a bit of surface knowledge about the entire discipline, and a lot of narrowly focused knowledge in one tiny area, and that area tainted with one particular theorist's ideas. It's knowledge in a vacuum, as opposed to the university's original ideal of "unity from diversity"--all areas of learning building upon each other. (It probably doesn't surprise you that I subscribe to the latter notion.)

I think the end result has been that it's very difficult to get a solid, broad-based education in english anymore, and I think that our communication skills have gone down the toilet as a result. We're focused on being glib, on parsing the language and twisting the texts, on questioning whether meaning exists instead of finding it, and you can see the end result of that when people start asking you to define "is." In other words, we're not doing anyone--least of all ourselves--any favors.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at January 12, 2007 11:01 AM

Thanks very much. So, in short -

"theory" = using literature as a vehicle to talk about your own ideology.

Fair enough?

Posted by: locomotive breath at January 12, 2007 12:34 PM

And to add, "the dreaded theory question" is simply a way of "outing" someone's ideology during a job interview?

Posted by: locomotive breath at January 12, 2007 12:41 PM

LB -

On the first comment, it's even more pathetic: theory=using literature to talk about someone else's ideas that you've adopted as ideology. This is what I mean when I say things like "theory has killed true critical thought and imagination in literary studies." It's really just a bunch of parrots now.

On the second comment, yep, pretty much. It's like asking without asking, and the dept. can always come back with, "Oh, we've already got a New Historicist blah, blah, blah" and make the vague "non-collegial" argument to get rid of you.

Posted by: BAW at January 12, 2007 01:43 PM

Actually, I read it as theory meaning "a vehicle for talking about someone else's ideology, who hopefully is popular with the right people". So it's doesn't even require the level of creativity to come up with your views, the viewpoints are pre-packaged for the student. All scope for actual thought is removed.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 12, 2007 02:06 PM

Gah! I took too long to write my response.

Can I blame Boy Two for pestering me about getting his computer game running while I was typing?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 12, 2007 02:09 PM

"theory = using literature to talk about someone else's ideas that you've adopted as ideology"

Heh heh heh - I get it now. Thanks again.

Posted by: locomotive breath at January 12, 2007 02:43 PM

May I add that you've improved the life of my mind? :)

Posted by: locomotive breath at January 12, 2007 03:01 PM

I'm here to help!

Posted by: BAW at January 12, 2007 03:12 PM

Read Michael Berube's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts. He does a good job of showing what theory is when used properly by people who also know history, literature, context, and everything else that English profs are supposed to know.

Posted by: Michael at January 12, 2007 06:44 PM

All I know is, today was the first day of Peter's English 112 class at the Comm College. When we walked in, I took one look and knew what was in store for him this semester. All the students were sitting at desks arranged in a big circle.
We were told that everyone would introduce themselves and tell the class about why they were taking the class, there college goals, age, pets, family, blah....
I was this close to snatching Peter from his desk and running as hard as I could. Two class periods to listen to folks ramble about themselves. That means 2 classes of missed learning opportunity. After class, I spoke with the teacher about an unrelated thing. She is excited about class discussions and the many new ideas the class may share. She admitted she's a feminist and will be sharing her agenda with the class and sincerely hopes that others with differing opinions will be sharing theirs also.
Since you were kind eough to enlighten LB, can you please give me any idea how I can help my son survive this class? Is this the norm for today's English classes?
In the interest of fairness, I have to say that I am still holding a grudge against the Comm College for the last Eng teacher P had - she managed to work in the word "vagina" in a poetry lesson and when most of the class gasped (out of confusion) she went on to explain that she didn't think the class would be so shocked, aren't we all adults here? blahblah and, going for more drama, tossed in "hymen" for good measure.
Please, please, oh please - what does a feminist agenda, or ANY agenda for that matter, have to do with rational argument and research papers?

Posted by: middleagedhousewife at January 12, 2007 07:32 PM

Michael -

Emphasis on the should. Reality nowadays is very different, because once students discovered how easy it was to use theory not to think, they kinda stopped doing it.

As I said in the post, most reasonable people don't have a problem with using a larger variety of tools for opening a text. The problems arose when they began focusing on the theory for theory's sake, and all the other stuff--history, context, the stuff you took for granted that was learned under the reader-response model--took a backseat.

And now you've got a generation of new profs who were educated under that new model training the next generations of scholars.

I'm not going to assign these people evil motives, unless you think that creeping intellectual laziness is evil, but I also think that Berube writes about scholars that are in danger of becoming the minority, and fairly quickly to boot.

Posted by: BAW at January 12, 2007 08:09 PM

Middleagedhousewife -

Behold the product of the new english educational model and theory for theory's sake.

At our university, the 112 level is an intro to lit and writing. If it's the same for you, what this means is that every text discussed will be looked at through a feminist "lens." This will become annoying fairly quickly, but it shouldn't hamper your son's ability to hone his written argument skills.

If he knows the theoretical perspective beforehand, he's at least slightly ahead of the game, and can take it for what it is - theory.

If the prof is genuinely open to other points of view about texts, then your son will get a valuable education in defending his viewpoints cogently and in writing, which is exactly what the 112 class is designed to teach.

Good luck!

Posted by: BAW at January 12, 2007 08:23 PM

Many, many Thanks ! I can't say that I'm thrilled about the 'lens' part, but I understand what you're saying. Peter is only 14, takes classes under the gifted and talented program. He has a brilliant intellect, a sharp wit and a good grasp of politics and I'm sure he can handle whatever he meets in the class. It's only that poor Mom would really like it if he could get pure English 112, without the agenda. Heaven help us all when he starts an actual 4 yr college next fall !
Oh well, maybe it's good training for life in the world today. Thanks again, I knew I could count on you to give me the straight skinny.

Posted by: middleagedhousewife at January 12, 2007 10:00 PM


What a breath of fresh air this post was! I'm currently working on my PhD and am so fed up with Theory speak. It is empty and strikes me as so meaningless. It devalues really creative and critical ideas about texts and instead promotes the ability to regurgitate badly written, minimally digested prose from the seventies. The end result is incomprehensible, but don't dare critique its value as a model argument or its applicability to lit in a class or you risk losing all intellectual capital. Oddly enough the youngest students (and almost all of the students from comp lit) are Theory's loudest defenders - well, them and the middle generation of professors who came of age academically during the late seventies and eighties. My younger profs are less wedded to it and are much more like my "old school" undergrad profs. One can hope that this is an actual trend. I know that a lot of my fellow classmates are also fed up with Theory and think it is on its way out. My fingers are crossed.

Keep your doses of rationality coming; I need the window of real world perspective and skepticism that your blog provides. BTW, as a scholar interested in the early modern period (but who reads lit from other periods too), I agree completely with your post from a few days ago.


Posted by: LAU at January 14, 2007 10:46 PM

As indicated by then number of posts it seems we struck a nerve. Maybe more about the nonsense in the English departments in the future?

Posted by: locomotive breath at January 15, 2007 11:15 AM