My seminar students are working in groups to bring in critical essays for which they're supposed to lead a discussion that focuses on the argument as an argument. It's not going well. Today, the group chose an essay that uses a postmodern structure to make an argument for a postmodern reading(s) of a play. It's not a bad essay, not at all, but it's hard. And the group sort of bombed.
The essay basically jumps up and down waving and says, "I'm doing this as a postmodern essay to make a postmodern argument!" because making a postmodern argument without a postmodern structure would be less effective.
The thing is, my students didn't recognize that gesture (which was more jumping up and down waving a bright flag than subtle), and so couldn't make out what the argument was doing. And it took me a while to figure out that they weren't. So then I sort of stopped things and had them read the first part of the jumping up and down paragraph, and learned that they had no clue what "postmodern" might mean, nor what "modern" means. And then I despaired. And tried to teach them (by showing them graphic art, because you can look at a cubist piece and know it's doing something really different from a Turner). And maybe it worked a little, and maybe it didn't.
I guess the whole thing just brings out two real weaknesses in our English majors' preparation and training.
1) They have no idea of intellectual movements.
2) They haven't read much, so they don't have lots to compare things to.
I'd rather not think of myself as a stodgy old traditionalist, but maybe I am. But I think when you say "Renaissance" or "Modernism" or "Realism," an English major should be able to name a century and think of a piece of literature or art that might fit, and be able to tell you in what ways it fits.
I was venting to a colleague about my class, and my colleague, commiserating, said that she'd had a student in a class recently complain that everyone talked about Heart of Darkness but that she'd never read it. And, fortunately for my colleague's sanity, the other students in the class said that she should go out and read it.
(I hear there are these places called "public libraries" where they'll let you borrow a book for two weeks FOR FREE! And you can renew it, even!)
I'm going to go yell at the neighbor kids to get offa my lawn now.