Thursday, February 14, 2008

A job well done

A former student came by yesterday to tell me that she's been accepted into graduate school for the fall. For a community college instructor, this is roughly equivalent to winning the Nobel Prize. My initial excitement was only slightly tempered when she told me that she's decided to enroll in a graduate program in history, not English. While I wasn't really disappointed, I was curious, so I asked her about her decision. I knew that she had left HHCC a couple of years ago to major in English at Humble State University (not to be confused with Humboldt State U) and had then transferred to Slightly Less Humble State University, where she plans to graduate in May. She told me that she had grown disenchanted with the study of English, mainly due to her experiences at SLHSU.

"What happened?" I asked.

She paused. "Well," she began with obvious trepidation, "I really enjoy literature. But at SLHSU it seemed like they weren't particularly interested in teaching literature. They were really teaching...I don't know...philosophy, I guess."

I smiled. "You mean theory, right?"

She was clearly relieved that I knew what she was talking about. "Ohmigosh," she said, "we spent an entire semester reading Barthes." She looked like she was in physical pain remembering it, and I tried to look as sympathetic as I could.

"I'm sorry," I said with real conviction.

"And it seemed like the professors were biased against me because I had transferred from HHCC and HSU. One of them, in fact, when he found out, said, 'Well, I guess we'll just have to reteach you everything.'" It got to where I was afraid to wear my HSU sweatshirt to class."

"Well," I said, grasping for some comforting words, "it takes all kinds..." Somewhat less profound than I was hoping for.

"Anyway," she sighed, "I don't think I ever want to study English again. The people in the History department were a lot nicer, and I can at least understand what they're talking about."

So it looks like our field is healthy and in the good hands of the caring, competent professionals who are its appointed stewards.

Good work, everyone.



Anonymous said...

Funny. Interesting, not haha. That's why I quit English 15 years ago. I'm now a sociologist. I suppose it's probably ironic that I actually now am a social theorist, but it feels really different from the way theory was done in English lit BA. It's not theory for its own sake and/or bad French philosophy masquerading as substantive, empirical theory, and/or humanists trying to justify their existence by sounding smart with pomo lingo. Looking back, the best of my English (and French, I double majored in English and French lit) classes were those with old skool professors who actually worked to interpret the literature and treated it as art and sources of possible meaning.

Only recently have I returned to literature, and remembered what I used to love about a finely crafted sentence, evocative imagery, moving narrative, compelling characters... It's a relief to be able to read a text without wondering what Derrida would say.

Prof. de Breeze said...

I don't know that I ever, even in the thick of the theory wars, wondered what Derrida would say about something I read. But that's probably just because I would have no idea what he would say. For me it would be like wondering what my cat would think about my work: an interesting exercise perhaps, but ultimately fruitless.

But I didn't mean the post as a poke against theory or those who teach it. I'm fine with a postmodern approach to literature. But when we use that approach to discourage students from studying literature, when we use it in an exclusionary way, I think we're losing sight of what we're supposed to be doing.

Anonymous said...

Two not directly related vignettes:

1) My father, a literature professor, claimed that only people of a certain class could understand literature, because the values embodied in it were imparted over long years at genteel dinner tables. He looked down upon historians and social scientists as mere technicians, all the while berating me for not knowing enough history.

2) My colleagues at elite schools think English classes now need to be about television so that students will stay interested - especially students not of the class my father refers to (above). *My* students, however, are in fact first generation college students, etc., and they want to read (real, hard) literature in a literary way.

They say: "I already know how to deconstruct television. I can download things from the torrent, and I can blog better than you. I came to learn the things you know and I don't."