In The Nation, of all places, William Deresiewicz scans the MLA job listings for a clue to what ails the teaching of literature. This is an acceptable form of intellectual inquiry these days, particularly among the kulturkampfers, though I have to say it doesn't seem much more rigorous than the areas of study it's usually intended to attack.
His first complaint is that there's an overemphasis on minority literature, which means that people who haven't studied it are going to have a hard time finding honest work.
[Y]ou can be a brilliant young scholar, from a top program, but if you're an expert in Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, or Malamud, Bellow and Roth, or Gaddis, Pynchon and DeLillo, or all of them plus Dreiser, Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Mailer, Salinger, Capote, Kerouac, Burroughs, Updike, Chandler, Cheever, Heller, Gore Vidal, Cormac McCarthy and God's own novelist himself, Vladimir Nabokov, plus Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Cynthia Ozick, Flannery O'Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, but not in African-American or ethnic American fiction, then there are a lot of jobs you just aren't going to get.To which one is tempted to reply, "Boo fucking hoo." There was a time - a long, long time, which overlaps to a great extent with our own - when the idea of "minority literature" was virtually a contradiction in terms; we have quite a ways to go before we're in any danger of overcompensating. More to the point, there's no harm in having a wider frame of reference for what constitutes literature, and for how literature is produced and recognized (or not recognized) as such, whether you're a teacher or a writer. And obviously, courses dedicated to American literature ought by definition to highlight minority writers (Burroughs and Barnes spring to mind, for some weird reason). These are really not difficult concepts.
Deresiewicz goes on to wonder whether these schools might actually be looking to fill gaps in their curriculum, rather than to shoehorn more nigger-lovers into a staff already glutted with them. It's a good question; instead of answering it, he proceeds immediately to safer ground: hatin' on "the purely rhetorical realms of deconstruction":
More revealing in this connection than the familiar identity-groups laundry list, which at least has intellectual coherence, is the whatever-works grab bag: "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." The items on these lists are not just different things--apples and oranges--they're different kinds of things, incommensurate categories flailing about in unrelated directions--apples, machine parts, sadness, the square root of two....There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children's literature, even in something called "digital humanities."I hear you, man; things are tough all over. Hell, just the other day, I saw this book on nuptial arithmetic. I mean, seriously....WTF is that all about?
As a critique of education, this is about as compelling as Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." I have no doubt that there are problems with American academia, but it's not possible to demonstrate them simply by naming fields you don't understand, or don't care about, and heaping scorn on their terms of art. The subjects listed here are reasonable things to study, in and of themselves, and if evidence really exists that they're "incommensurate" or "flailing about in unrelated directions," Deresiewicz can't be bothered to present it. Instead, he assumes that the average reader will be befuddled enough by the concept of "material culture" to assume that it couldn't possibly have anything to do with literature and technology. Of course, they'd probably be just as confused if you peppered them with concepts out of Plato and Kant and Alfred North Whitehead, the conceptual relations between whom aren't exactly obvious either, and are much less pertinent to everyday life.
The idea that one can sneer at science fiction as some backwater of literature, and offer courses about it as proof that "the profession's intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers," is pretty fucking astonishing too, in this day and age, especially given some of the people who appear on Deresiewicz's list of "important" writers.
Still, it's fairly typical axe-grinding, so far. Here's where the going gets very tricky indeed:
[N]o 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.In order to believe this, we'd have to ignore Franco Moretti's literary mapping, and the growth of border studies, and the booming popularity of Donna Haraway and her transhuman ilk, just for starters. Worse, we'd have to ignore the fact that the Internet, with all its intellectual lures and snares, is a post-1990 development and can therefore be said to have given graduate students a new tool, as well as something new to theorize about (digital humanities, for instance).
Also, we'd also have to overlook the fact that any "major new star" might well address issues relating to visual culture, or science fiction, or who knows what non-canonical nonsense. Which means that when a new school does arrive, we'll probably know it mainly because commentators like Deresiewicz will treat the names of courses dedicated to it as proof of our intellectual decline.
Not a bad little racket, all in all.
UPDATE: Phi Beta Cons calls Deresiewicz's grab bag of grievances "damning," and sheds crocodile tears over "the killing of criticism," which as everyone knows had no tendency towards opacity or ideological rigidity until quite recently.
(Illustration from "Skippy" by Percy Crosby.)