Friday, January 4, 2013

Academia and the missing readers...

There has been an interesting debate brewing (for a number of years and involving a number of different angles) and the latest lob tossed into the fire is by Slate writer Ron Rosenbaum.

What Rosenbaum suggests is that graduate school, and graduate school in literature in particular, is a waste of time. He describes certain academics who argue that specific parts of Hamlet should be excised for various reasons that he (Rosenbaum) argues are precisely the problem which happens when one spends too much time studying literature in academia:

It's emblematic of a whole academic mindset, of the sort of tin-eared arrogance that would consign to the dustbin on no good authority 35 eloquently tormented lines of self-reflection by one of the greatest characters in world literature - a character defined by his penchant for introspection and self-reflection - on the basis of a half-baked theory.

Hyperbole aside, Rosenbaum makes an interesting point here though I certainly wouldn't suggest that academia has the market on arrogance.

What strikes me, though, is the fact that I find academics often don't even read that much. Of course, they read: they read papers, they read a handful of books on theory that are fashionable. But more often they skim: they skim papers, they skim journal articles, hunting and pecking for lines or lines of reasoning that pertain to them or their particular research. They certainly don't read novels to any large degree (excepting, of course, every single Jane Austen novel and paper and secondary source that a Jane Austen expert would be expected to have read).

The Ivory Tower: devoid of readers?
And while some academics certainly are readers, I am very often surprised at how many academics I encounter in my work or social life who simply aren't readers (even those involved in literature): they don't read contemporary fiction, they don't know international writers, they don't read The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books or Granta or a host of other publications which contribute to the discussion on literature today, they don't read essayists or poetry or graphic novels. They don't know contemporary writers or anything outside of their specialty.

Yes, some do and a quick glance at a roster of one of these magazines does show a high proportion of academics as writers.

But I talk about literature frequently (maybe almost daily) to people from all walks of life and I find no general difference between what academics know about literature in comparison to the general public. The only group of people who I can say read a lot are writers, translators, editors and some journalists.

What this has to do with whether one should study literature at the graduate level is, I think, noted in Rosenbaum's piece when he reflects on what people actually do in a graduate level literary program. And I remember from my own background, too.

When I was an undergraduate I read: I went to a small state school in a small western state. It wasn't a famous school but I had excellent teachers (and it was CHEAP at the time to study there) and what I did do was read: I read contemporary Russian and Soviet fiction, I read Victorian novels, I read Edwardian novels, I read modernist poetry and philosophy and Native American authors. Reading as an undergraduate allowed me to read Dostoevsky, William Least-Heat Moon, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Tatiania Tolstaya, Anna Ahkmatova, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, E.M. Forster, Henry James, and many many others.

If Elvis can do it...
Ten years later when I went back to school to do a graduate degree, I was disappointed at how little we actually read. Or I should say, we did read but we read few novels or primary sources. Instead, we read about primary sources in theoretical books. And while theory has its place and while I can appreciate a certain amount about theory, I was never much of a theory person.

I couldn't wait to get done with my graduate work and do something else: I wanted to read again, to be involved in the discussion about contemporary literature again, and anyway, I was never much of a scholar. Thank God!

I don't know if studying literature at a graduate level is a waste of time (a professor in my graduate programme discouraged me from doing a PhD. "Study law," he used to tell me, "If I had to do it over, I never would have spent all these years studying in this field.") and I don't mean any disrespect to any of the many people I know who have studied in or are in the midst of studying in graduate schools around the world. And I'd never suggest that not studying humanities isn't important! But one doesn't have to do it in a formalized, rigid system that has little financial incentives beyond. I am also not suggesting that this applies to undergraduates because I do feel strongly that a literature degree as an undergraduate is an excellent idea and has many benefits.

But let's face it, with tenure-track positions harder and harder to get and far too many people graduating in the humanities than job vacancies could ever absorb, Rosenbaum may have a point about graduate level work in literature.

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