Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Miscellany: a response to comments from the previous thread There's a lot to respond to in this the previous thread. Too much, in fact, which is why I'm turning my response into a separate post. Here goes: On Jobs: You're way off on the numbers and you know why. But I'm not! According to the MLA's annual forecast on job listings: In English the fields with the greatest percentage of positions are rhetoric and composition (20.1 percent), British literature (17.9 percent), multiethnic literature (13.7 percent), creative writing (7.0 percent), and American literature (6.1 percent). So I'm off about the composition numbers, but not about the American literature: I merely did a little further math to account for the jobs I could reasonably apply for, which cut the dismal 6.1 percent into even-more-dismal-because-decimal territory. [J]ust like I'm not allowed to give up on my chosen profession because the market hasn't been offering me anything but kind and condescending smiles yet this year, you're not allowed to declare yourself a failure because you haven't secured a TT job yet. I'm not considering myself a failure, though. That is the one thing getting lost in the parallel conversation I'm about to address: what I'm teaching now is neither less complicated nor less rigorous than what I taught previously. I'm no longer of the opinion that people who end up like me should be considered failures. This sounds more like sour grapes rationalization than a serious argument[.] Except that, as per above, I'm not bitter. On Teaching: I think that one of the imperative points that is being overlooked here is the possibility that critical thinking within a localized context can, with the right guidance, lead to the formation of a skill set that can be put to use in contemporary society. Wally handled this better than I would have, but to second what he said: when we teach undergraduate courses in "Critical Theory from Aristotle to Žižek," we're not teaching students the tools they need to interpret the world in which they live—we're teaching them how to talk to us. The critical discourse they enter is not the one that is most useful to them as members of the contemporary body politic, but the one most useful to us as literary scholars. I'm not piss[ing] on the work of your colleagues who find similar success and gratification teaching literature and theory to English majors? Because I'm not surprised that my colleagues who teach English majors are successful in getting those students to understand the significance and applicability of literary theory. But to rehash the old argument, it's a mistake to conflate literary theory and critical theory, especially when teaching non-majors what might otherwise learn portable skills. To put this in less polemical terms: I'm baffled by the fact that most composition programs teach their largely non-English-major populations how to quote and cite material in MLA format. It's not that I have anything against MLA style per se, only that I think the needs of the students would be better served if they...
On the significance of J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn. Learning that J.D. Salinger died a day after learning that Howard Zinn had qualifies as a sufficiently surreal experience for that type of person who very much resembles me. Catcher in the Rye taught me how to channel my anger into antisocial behaviors—reading books in my bedroom foremost among them—but as I read it with the same critical acumen that led me to wear out not one but two VHS copies of Pump Up the Volume, the less I say about the book the better. (That and it violates the Five Year Rule three times over.) Within two years of reading Salinger, I'd affected all the trappings of The Young Punk Who Would Be Vegan and read A People's History of the United States, but unlike Salinger's novel, Zinn's history resonated with me until my sophomore year of college, when I was disabused of its importance by the man himself. I had attended a lecture of his and somehow weaseled my way into a dinner that followed. I told him how significant A People's History had been to my political and intellectual development and that I had read it four or five times and that I was about to start it again when he stopped me short: "My little book has served its purpose," he told me. "Perhaps it's time you started on the bibliography." He smiled and was about to say something else when he was whisked away by some other sycophant eager to bend his ear, but after talking to other people who had very similar conversations with him, I think I know what he was going to say: namely, that his "little book" was meant more as a point of departure than a destination. Treating it the way Matt Damon's Good Will Hunting character did (and every newly-minted hipster firebrand does) violates the spirit of its polemic, because the book isn't meant to replace traditional histories so much as supplement them. For example, if the significance of the Christian tradition is given short-shrift in the book, it isn't because that tradition's unimportant to the development of the nation, but because a robust canon addressing that issue already exists. Zinn never intended his book to be an education in itself, but many readers—especially non-serious ones involved in any of a variety of Zinn-friendly scenes—inflated its importance until it became the definitive source for the entirety of American history. The extensive bibliography in the back-pages indicates that it had no pretensions of being anything of the sort. I could prattle on about its faults—foremost among them, Zinn's subscription to a dualism so powerful and pervasive that his accounts of internecine conflicts on the left border on unintelligible—but it is impossible to deny the attraction the book has for young adults whose knowledge of American history comes from the skeletal outlines of a public education. The simplicity of its dualistic worldview appeals to the adolescent in the first throes of rebellion because that worldview is itself adolescent. That sounds like...

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