Tuesday, March 08, 2011

the purview of English class

Excerpts from an email exchange with an English prof who shall remain nameless. I wrote:

I read your on-the-spot essay topic: "gender roles: nature or nurture?" and found myself once again pondering just what it means to study English. What is the purview of this field? Are students in an English class expected to give rigorous answers to questions-- such as the nature/nurture question-- that might better belong in fields like psychology, sociology, anthropology, and even biology (endocrinology and cognitive neuroscience come to mind)? I don't ask this facetiously or mockingly; I'm honestly curious as to what English (if I may personify the field) considers its purview. Is its purview, as some suggest, the entire universe, since language is the key to expressing anything?

I've wondered about this before, especially in my own frustrated dealings with PoMo/PostStruc thought. Very often, it seems to me that what starts off as perfectly plausible lit-crit theorizing gets extended (overextended?) into domains like hardcore philosophy (see Derrida, Foucault, or Baudrillard, for example), where it really doesn't belong. How much did Later Derrida, for example, have to backpedal from metaphysical claims made by Earlier Derrida (that's a rhetorical question; he backpedaled a lot, as it turns out)? So you've got students tackling a nature/nurture question that is rife with complexity. I think it's great that they're being exposed to the question and are wrestling with it, but are the articles they're reading giving them the scientific ammunition to handle the topic? If not, then what ammunition are they getting?

The biggest overlap I see tends to be between English, as a field, and psychology. The study of characters in fiction, for example, often requires students to tread psychological ground: students explore characters' thoughts and motivations, and may even explore the author's headspace in order to understand the text. I suppose this overlap of disciplines is inevitable (and it explains the presence of a thinker like Jacques Lacan in the PM/PS canon), but in the case of English, how far does it go?

A necessary concession: English isn't the only field that gets imperialistic. Read EO Wilson's Consilience to what happens when an entomologist tries to unite pursuits as disparate and super-specialized as biology and fine arts. Wilson, of course, sees his own field, biology, as the key to understanding all others-- a tendency I've seen in thinkers in other fields as well (religious studies, theoretical physics, etc.). But [if] Richard Dawkins, another biologist, is ill-equipped to handle meaty philosophical questions by retreating to the idiom of science, is English a field that can plausibly tackle questions like nature versus nurture? Obviously your answer is yes, which is why you assigned the topic... but why yes?

It's truly a fascinating and frustrating question for me: what purview does English, as a field of study, see itself possessing? In what disciplinary pies does it stick its fingers, and why?

The prof's reply:

Yeah, what goes on in comp classes these days has a lot to do with the great cultural-studies turn English departments have taken in the last twenty years. Live in a society that no longer gives a rat's ass about the artistic/cultural expressions you and your colleagues have devoted your LIVES to studying? Well, maybe you'd better persuade the world that the same critical apparatuses you'd devised for illuminating literary texts can also be brought to bear on movies, TV sitcoms, pop albums, and advertisements.

So what happens when we decide as a society we're in no way benefitted by conducting critical inquiries into THOSE sorts of "texts"?

Well...that might really be the end of English departments.

Though maybe we'll still have comp departments.

At least until we decide that writing (and an attendant activity called THINKING) is (are) no longer relevant.

But anyway....

That cultural-studies turn explains why a whole lot of the material in the "gender" and "social class" and "race" reading units in comp readers like the one I use (Rereading America) are ABOUT pop-culture stuff. For instance, my comp class today discussed an article by a woman named Joan Morgan who was agonizing about whether a good feminist can also be a HIP HOP fan.

But I guess the premise behind HAVING "gender" and "race" and "social class" units in comp readers and classes (rather than just "movie" and "sitcom" and "advertisements" units) is that as long as we've got to do a lot of thinking and writing in this class, we may as well think and write about issues playing out in national headlines every day. Don't squander an opportunity to create smarter CITIZENS, or something like that.

My students, of course, can't write with any particular AUTHORITY about, say, gay marriage after doing two or three or four class readings on the subject. But they can hopefully express some reasonably cogent opinion on the matter in the shape of a three page, seven-paragraph essay that nicely incorporates words and ideas from a couple experts they've read.

So...my school's freshman-comp class -- and this makes it totally unremarkable -- winds up being a sort of social-issues class. Which is fun, believe it or not. We get to talk lots about the differences between liberals and conservatives, and why these groups of people have the feelings they do about gay marriage or welfare or income taxes. It keeps the youngsters -- who very often, shockingly enough, have never HAD a class where they get to talk about this stuff -- reasonably awake and alert, since they're naturally curious about, say, all the ire they've heard directed at Obama, or what it's going to mean for their school that we Pennsylvanians just elected as governor someone who says Chris Christie is his hero.

Gives me a chance also to try to recruit them to the Leftist Cause. Which sounds naughty, of course, but I figure the fact that I tell them straight-out where I'm coming from -- and that I assure them they don't have to express liberal opinions in their essays to do WELL on said essays (no shit: they really don't) -- makes it okay. I even point out to them that their textbook is ITSELF wildly liberally biased.

Like ALL comp readers.


1 comment:

  1. The dilemma of English as a school subject is it has no obvious, inherent content. Reading, writing, speaking are processes. You can't do a process without content (though I think some people in the ed biz try from time to time), but the process doesn't define the content. This is why English teachers spend so much time arguing over curriculum. I mean, we all do, even us math people, but pretty much all other school subjects have some obvious content to be included. English once had "the canon", but not so much any more.

    I first realized this back in grad school, when one of my classmates presented her research, which had to do with HS departments and how they operated. What I took away was that the English departments spent the majority of their time arguing over curriculum--what books to include, etc., i.e. content--while math departments spent their time talking about the kids and how to best reach them.

    I could go on and on about this, but I'll spare you.




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