Saturday, December 09, 2006

Student Dilemma

I've been having some email exchanges with a student whose smart, thoughtful, and critically stuck in the 50s. He's realized that when he reads, he reads like a white male from the 1950s or so. He's concerned, and not really finding much new to say. As my first Shakespeare prof told me, it got to a point where it was hard to come up with basically competing close readings of the same canonical texts and it wasn't rewarding to read more close readings of canonical texts.

Our conversations have me thinking about Frankenstein, the part when Victor Frankenstein's new professor can't believe he's been spending all his time reading Paracelcus instead of more recent science texts.

I've suggested some ideas to help him write a good paper for my class, but it's the longer term I'm thinking about.

He says he's totally uninterested in cultural criticism; he reads articles and is just uninterested. He wants to read Shakespeare for Shakespeare, as Shakespeare. He's mostly self-taught about his Shakespeare, and read the one or two books you'd guess he'd have picked up at the local bookstore, uncritically, with much admiration. Those one or two books are very big in his experience.

I'd really appreciate some suggestions of readings for him, not about Shakespeare, but readings that will help him get a better sense of the development of the profession and of the value of understanding cultural contexts for any text.

It's hard, because I like Shakespeare a LOT, but for me the real pleasure comes in trying to understand the complexities of the culture, theater, history, textuality. I understand how valuable close reading skills are (invaluable for teaching, especially), but I want more of a pay off to reading criticism than I find in most close readings.

So, wisdom of the blogosphere, what would you suggest?

Am I totally off base thinking that he's going to find a lot of frustration trying to do new criticism now?

How can I help him find what he's looking for in literature AND succeed in his graduate program.

There's a lot to be said for just enjoying and appreciating Shakespeare (or any lit), but that's not really what graduate work in lit is about. Or is it? Should it be?

5 comments:

  1. To respond to your questions at the end first: I wonder whether we would entertain the notion that graduate education in say, biochemistry, should be about enjoyment and appreciation. Or math. It's not that one shouldn't enjoy literature or appreciate it, but going to graduate school to study literature is about entering a discipline. (As in "discipline and punish"? Perhaps :) )

    Now, there is a lot going around in the world about a movement away from theory and back toward more "close reading," but I think the issue here is that those who are making this move most successfully have engaged with the theory and come to terms with it only later to reject it, or if not to reject it to give it a bit less central of a place in their criticism. It sounds like this student is just refusing to engage with the past 50 or so years of criticism. At the end of the day, that's anti-intellectual, and if the student can't get past it, I don't think he belongs in graduate school period.

    The bottom line for me is this: if one is interested in becoming part of the discipline of literary studies, one has to engage with a lot of stuff that one isn't necessarily interested in or that one doesn't necessarily experience pleasure in relation to. For me, those things include the novel The Wide World, Derrida (I know, but I've got a block), The Last of the Mohicans, Paradise Lost. But I read them. And I read the criticism about them. And I did my best to come to terms with them. And in that there is a kind of intellectual pleasure and one becomes interested, even if one is not innately interested. I think that's what graduate school is about - it's about finding the interesting thing even in what makes one uncomfortable. If this student refuses to do that, I'm not sure there's much you can do with him.

    (Sorry to be so long-winded, but I really hate students who refuse to engage in this way. Or I hate it when they refuse to engage - I don't "hate" them, that's too strong.)

    As for suggested reading, wouldn't any good reader of literary criticism be a good place to start? Maybe Berube's The Employment of English? Maybe have the student look around at the MLA job list to see that nobody is looking for a Shakespearean who has a secondary area in "reading Shakespeare for who he really is"?

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  2. Bardiac, I have a rather different take on this from Dr. C's. I think ontogeny needs to recapitulate phylogeny here: the student/reader needs to move from seeing texts as unproblematic, to seeing where problems might be, to working with some approaches to those problems, to finding those approaches not fully satisfactory, to moving on in search of newer critical tools. I don't think beating him over the head with the threat of the job market and the need to get with the program is going to do it. I speak as someone who's moved through this process myself. I remember experiencing Capital-T Theory, when profs tried to coax me into "adding some Theory" to my undertheorized papers, as a conspiracy to separate me from the texts I loved AND MAKE ME HATE THEM, and I simply refused to have my attitude to MY TEXTS predetermined for me. At the same time, in my little crit-free bubble, I was starting to ask sophisticated enough questions at the level of close reading that I found I could make good use of old-fashioned philological methods, and my critical faculties were gradually honed - but in a very 19th-c. way. It wasn't till several years later that I finally began asking questions to which the methodologies with which I was comfortable couldn't provide answers, and at that point I was genuinely motivated to engage with other critical methodologies.

    For your student, I'd suggest a twofold approach. In his own work, try to push him to focus on problems in the text - not with reference to other critics, but just to see that he can love Shakespeare more the more complicated he becomes. The ulterior motive is to try to push him faster to the point where he sees that he needs critical insight, without pushing him into reactionary shutdown. Then, on the second front, maybe ask him to start acquainting himself with the history of critical theory as a kind of anthropological experiment, and with the purpose of being able to move confidently among the theory-heads even if he chooses (for the moment) not to go native.

    I think that's enough mixed metaphors for one comment!

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  3. Its wonderful that you have a student who genuinely loves literature. Show him that he can love it more deeply and in new ways. Here are some ideas.

    First, he doesn't like the hardcore theories of the later 20thC, and for good reason. Much literary theory from the period had little to do with literary criticism-most of it is applied theory from other disciplines. LitCrit was sexy, and happy, and popular. It was a sitting duck for the embittered from other faculties, who were generally unpopular and had all seen their budgets cut. So in they piled. The Marxists came from Sociology, Derrida and chums from Philosophy and Linguistics, anyone still left in Languages followed suite. Each had a go to try to prove that we were doing it all wrong, it wasn't hard enough, we didn't use enough jargon to be taken seriously, and in fact, LitCrit wasn't actually possible. It was a land grab for the hearts and minds. None of them really cared about literature, they were all using it for their own ends.

    Worse, in came the jargon from all these other disciplines, and some new stuff created especially. LitCrit wasn't going to simply coast along enjoying itself, it was going to be invaded and made to suffer.

    It was a bad time to enjoy literature.

    The demands of the academic industry are such that you cannot have a good idea and convey it simply in plain English. You have to write a book about it, pad it out, turn it into an entire field, give it a name, and then allow for your acolytes to all jump on the bandwagon too.

    I can see why your student isn't enjoying going forward through the slough of modernism. Hold his hand and lead him gently and quickly through all of this.

    Every invader (as we shall call them) left an important mark on LitCrit (a bit like 'What did the Romans do for us' in Monty Python). These can easily be distilled from simple guides, and rapidly applied to exemplary texts. Explain that this is Introductory Literary Theory, an academic suppository which all LitCrit students are forced to take. A bit like forcing an engineer to study valve technologies, and a programmer FORTRAN. It'll put hairs on his chest. Have a good communal laugh at the extremes that each group of invaders went to, and then point out that each of them contributed one small nugget that is useful, and should be remembered when working on a text.

    It is vital to be honest: most of this stuff is irrelevant, obsolete, and very silly, but like all philosophy, linguistics, and language theory, bits of it are of use to us.

    OK, thats the painful stuff done. Now to bring him up to date.

    He loves Shakespeare right? Good. Tell him that Shakespeare is a little like a sodden sponge, and critical practices, improving as they are, offer more ways to squeeze that sponge to get more out. Surely then he'd want to see if there's any more in there. The latest work stems from New Bibliography, and asks the critic to simply do what is logical. Consider the reader, the writer, the text, and the context. Now study each as fully as possible.

    If he is sure that nothing new can be added to his knowledge by current research, get him to do an essay on Francis Beaumont's poetry. Then when he has finished it, get him to read William A. Ringler, Jr's article: 'The 1640 and 1653 Poems: By Francis Beaumont, Gent. and the Canon of Beaumont's Nondramatic Verse'. Studies in Bibliography, (Vol 40: 1987) [pp. 120-140]. This disattributes most of them. Oops. You have introduced him to the shifting sands of scholarship.

    I can understand any student not wanting to read much literature written beyond the 1950s. Much of it has the artificial whiff of the Ivory Tower, written by EngLit grads wanting their place in the hall of fame. Much of it is superficial, derivative, provocative for the sake of it, mannered, trite, experimental for show, and a good chunk of it simply wrecks the construct of its own being in seeking to be different (if you take away the fundamental parts of the prose narrative, what you have left is simply literary jelly). So much deliberately denies the reader pleasure as if pleasure was a sin. In a sense all of this reflects our society. More stuff than any previous society, and all as stressed and miserable as poo.

    To do a LitCrit course, he does have to 'do' all this. What he doesn't have to do is 'suffer' it (this is LiCrit, not catholicism). Let him do as little as he needs to prove to you that he *understands* it. Then he can happily reject it, or condemn it, as is his right. He does need to understand it all, and read a little bit of it all, to qualify to join the gang.

    Just don't make him to read too much raw Lit. Theory. You will simply drive him away without needing to. We really do need to be honest and point out that much of the 'Literary Theory' out there has very little to do with LitCrit, although despite the pressures, some good stuff does get written. Sadly, most of the invaders simply stayed, and begat new generations in our territory. Sometimes they say something useful, hidden away in their enormous, impenetrable chunks of exotic babble, atop the Ivory Tower of Babble (I'm pushing this one as far as I can take it).

    Perhaps more than all of your other students, this one needs gentle guidance. Tell him 'An Introduction to Literary Theory' is a lot like going to the dentist. Once its over, he will be able to chew his books better. And if he feels dirty, after all the applied linguistics, applied philosophy, and applied language studies that he is forced to do, he'll live. Tomorrow is another day.

    You can also try and get him to research early studies of Shakespeare, examine early editions of Shakespeare, the generally hideous rewrites of Shakespeare, and Alan H. Nelson's wonderful 'Shakespeare and the Bibliophiles' in 'Owners, Annotators, and the Signs of Reading'.

    Despite what Mr. STC said, we do not murder to dissect (Poets eh? Tch). He will still enjoy his Hamlet.

    Even should you do The Skinhead's Hamlet, which I recommend. ;-)

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  4. This is deeply offensive as well as stupid:

    "I can understand any student not wanting to read much literature written beyond the 1950s. Much of it has the artificial whiff of the Ivory Tower, written by EngLit grads wanting their place in the hall of fame. Much of it is superficial, derivative, provocative for the sake of it, mannered, trite, experimental for show, and a good chunk of it simply wrecks the construct of its own being in seeking to be different (if you take away the fundamental parts of the prose narrative, what you have left is simply literary jelly). So much deliberately denies the reader pleasure as if pleasure was a sin. In a sense all of this reflects our society. More stuff than any previous society, and all as stressed and miserable as poo."

    A sweeping dismissal of fifty years of literature in English, or perhaps in all languages. Bracing! I presume the author is a professor. That's too bad. I would suggest that the author of such sentences has a narrow & very dim sense of "pleasure."

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  5. Thanks for the suggestions, Dr C and Tirincula. I think my student is honestly trying, and will work things out; this is an MA program, and a good place for people to try out the discipline. I'll suggest the Berube book. Thanks again :)

    Clanger, I'm going to respectfully disagree with you. Recent lit crit can be difficult to read, but usually because it's working with complex thoughts in very specific ways. But some of it's incredibly insightful, and helps me understand and appreciate lit in new ways. I also find more recent works of literature (especially plays and novels, oh, and some poems... and...) exciting and challenging and wonderful to read.

    Joseph Duemer, thanks for commenting; I, too, think pleasure in reading is more complex.

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