Archive for March 4th, 2023

Edmund and Fanny reading Cowper together (1983 Mansfield Park), discussing it …

[Edmund] made reading useful by talking to [Fanny] of what she had read (Mansfield Park, close of Chapter 2)

Dear fellow readers and friends,

I wonder if you have noticed that alarm bells have been ringing these past few weeks, shall I say once again? Literary criticism has lost its way (Stephan Collini, “Exaggerated Ambitions,” from the LRB), with academic politics as the main culprit (Merve Emre, “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism,” The New Yorker). The larger and (for teachers of English literature and other humanities subjects) pragmatically worrying developments of sudden and catastrophic-feeling declines in enrollment, have lead over the past few years to what Bryan Alexander, a professional futurist, has been cataloguing as “the Queen Sacrifice:” many colleges simply get rid of their humanities departments. They are not generating enough income from outside places (grant authorities, corporations), or respect, and the fundamental cause cited is lack of interest, lack of enrollment (This time Virginia).

When a department is thrown out so are all the tenured faculty.

It’s this overhaul of college curricula and not just in the US (I’m referring to the UK universities, also English speaking and reading) so as to eliminate whole areas of study that has motivated seriously meant essays, e.g., Evan Kindley, “Departments on the Defensive,” NYRB; and again from The New Yorker, Nathan Heller’s accurately titled analysis, “The End of the English Major: Why humanities are in free fall. The immediate explanation is the astronomical fees for a degree, and the purpose of college as providing training and certificate for a good job, something you can do someone will pay you for, so future with healthy financial prospects, especially if you spent a lot. The Atlantic tells us the students are wrong to think these other majors will produce better job prospects: Benjamin Schmidt, “The Humanities are in Crisis,” with huge numbers of persuasive statistics going back to 2008. But no one believes this.

And of course then come (also from The Atlantic) sneers, scepticism and mockery

One important mechanism causing this not mentioned in any of the above, is the withdrawal of state funding from many colleges and the necessity of the college turning to corporations for funding. When I first when to work for George Mason University more than half its income came from the state; I believe when I left it was under 20%. Corporations get to put influential people on boards and they want studied in colleges what will make them money: docile students. I saw with my own eyes politically conservative people preferred for jobs over liberal ones.

Thus no one should be surprised another aspect of this is the slow elimination of anti-colonialism and anti-patriarchal militarism as embodied in “Women Studies” — in some places long ago become “Gender Studies,” having got rid of the objectionably narrow (!) or “red flag” word (“Women”).

There is no need to be apocalyptic. Another angle of this seems to me eternal: when I was in graduate school, many of the other students hated the requirements for reading older literature.  Spenser’s Fairie Queene is still a favorite work to decry when imposed on everyone. Among the first “reforms” in the Vietnam era when college students demanded change, was the removal of required courses, and within majors like English, the removal of hard courses that to me made it into a discipline with a recognizable area of knowledge all were to know: a course in linguistics for real; requirements that you read other languages; requirements that you take survey courses and then pass exams outside the classes on the history of what you were learning. In the 1970s the demand that English majors study Anglo-Saxon literature in the original was dropped from British colleges’ curricula.

I have had the (to me at the time) shocking experience of being told by fellow graduate students that they hated to read long or hard or old books, or read at all. One guy told me he was there to read and learn to imitate Hemingway. Around the 1980s mark it was common to find departments made up of students there to become modern writers themselves, or, worse yet (as Collini would doubtless say), use and read theory to “interrogate” what the canon had been, and begin our job of saving the world by deconstructive close readings (now I’m mocking this post-Leavisite point of view) of older canon-based books by mostly white males and adding to these books by women, by people of color, by non-privileged and marginalized peoples.

And apart from the pressure of relentless unconditional (unmitigated) capitalism as a way of life all have to endure in the US (and elsewhere) what we study as part of the English canon is to many outdated — for example, Cowper’s beautiful later 18th century autobiographical meditative poem, The Task (what Edmund and Fanny are reading just above). Latin and Greek went at the turn of the 19th century, to be eventually replaced by scientific medicine. I remember how when I told Jim in the 1990s of the suggestions made in one of the Chair’s meetings on how to make the English major more attractive, he laughed and said they were trying to argue their buggy whips were better than anyone else’s buggy whips when cars had now replaced the horse and carriage. He himself was a computer software scientist who had switched from the higher mathematics for his Ph.D. to software inventor, teacher and finally Program Management (he worked at the famous DARPA) for his quarter of a century career.

What we seeing a cumulative effect: the slow erosion is become landslides.

I have something simple to say. Paradoxically around the time of the spread of theory (and its horrible jargon) and the resultant switch from aesthetic and moral points of view to seeing texts as mirrors of cultures and history so that the literature class becomes a kind of cultural study I felt “we” were having a failure of nerve. People just didn’t believe that literature, that reading books and understanding them for just for themselves mattered. The book was a way of learning cultural history. In several of the above articles, college students today are quoted as loving to read and wanting to, but not seeing literature as anything but personal entertainment, in function a hobby.

What did I learn when I studies literature as a graduate student: I learned how to read a book, so that when I finished it, it had some meaning for me outside the particulars of the stories’ action, evaluative gossip of characters’ personalities, and a kind of literal appreciation for beautiful or riveting description (setting), clever witty allusions to other works. I learned also how to write and to talk about (recognize first as in Forster’s Aspects of Fiction) the imagined elements that make up books and many years later films so as to make sense of them so that they were relevant to my world, my inner life. Learning to write that way lead me to learn how to teach others to talk and to write that way.

Now I’m not the only person in this world that thinks learning how to understand a book (or movie) and disseminate it to others is an important matter. In my Sylvia I blog last week I wrote about the lawless (no longer will any degree or knowledge of education be required in people who manage and rule colleges) and Nazi-like censorship and erasure of whole areas of knowledge going on in Florida and elsewhere: scary ruthless policies of repression across Florida Colleges. How this is spreading to other states. Where does Nazism come from, fascist movements, the inability to grasp who or what it is in your interest to vote for? Ignorance, a lack of real education or miseducation.

Anyone who has read my blogs regularly has to have come across my analysis of books and movies, of authors’ works, of kinds of books and movies (genres) — that’s what this blog and my Austen reveries are predominantly made up of. Or I hope they are. Last week over on my Austen blog I was on about Women’s Holocaust Memoirs; if you haven’t picked up from this blog I’m a feminist who nonetheless loves romance, you must’ve been skimming (see my Outlander series).

So, my friends and fellow readers, that’s what it is. People have not been making clear what is being learned at the core of the humanities or literature or history or other subjects for study and for ourselves adding to about and by the human arts. We don’t want to admit this simple set of formulae are at the heart of what is taught and what is learnt and what is disseminated.

I will close with the latest example of my education. The London Trollope Society is having a conference in Oxford, Somerville, this coming September and they called for papers on Women and Trollope. After having read The Belton Estate recently (I’ve been meaning to write a blog but have been remiss), I came up with this:

Intriguing Women in Trollope’s Fiction

Using a gendered perspective, I will discuss women characters who act, think, and feel in unexpected ways, whom recent readers find hard to explain, and cause controversy. I’ll focus on lesser known as well as more familiar presences.

My first & central pair will be Clara Amedroz and Mrs. Askerton from The Belton Estate. Most essays have been about how Clara at first prefers the glamorous, guarded, demanding and upper-class Captain Aylmer to the open-hearted, farmer-like, affectionate Will Belton. I will dwell on Clara’s refusal to give up her friendship with Mrs. Askerton, a woman who fled an abusive husband and lived with him before her husband died, thus enabling Mr. Askerton and her to marry.. Mrs. Askerton is stunningly unexpected in her generosity of spirit and mix of conventional and unconventional views. The first half of my talk will move from Clara to other young about to, just married or not marriageable women whose lives take them in insightful directions, e.g., Lily Dale, Miss Viner (“Journey to Panama”), Lady Glencora, Emily Lopez.

The second half of my talk will move from Mrs. Askerston to sexually and socially experienced disillusioned women, e.g., Madame Max, Mrs. Hurtle, Lady Mabel Grex, Mrs. Peacocke (Dr Wortle’s School), as well as older mature women who are mothers, and whom Trollope takes seriously, e.g., Lady Lufton, Mrs. Crawley, Lady Mason.

Trollope dramatizes what might seem perversities of behavior these women resort to as contrivances to get round a lack of concrete power (used against them, sometimes by other women, e.g., Lady Aylmer) to try to achieve results they can be happy or live in peace with. The point of the talk is to show how Trollope probes and makes visible psychological and iconoclastic realities in his women characters’ lives..

I believe that if I wrote this paper, I would have something to bring to other women — and men too — about Trollope’s depiction of women that could be important to them to realize. Now it might be rejected. Probably will be. I’ll be in competition with people with titles of all sorts, fame, and it’s not presented conventionally, and not aimed at what fans of Trollope might find reassuring. Or not what’s wanted for other reasons. But I believe in it, I believe it’s good. I believe in good readings as useful. I don’t want to compliment myself further. The point here is to defend the humanities and English majors as serious people learning something as important as Program Management.


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