What I hate the most about today's language and literature departments is how easily they believe in their own irrelevance and how apologetic they are inclined to feel about their own existence. While going through my daily blogroll I just encountered the following announcement: "Professor Scott Calhoun of Cedarville University in Ohio has found a modern approach that avoids the pitfalls of Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter. Old stories don't have the messages that resonate with the modern college students. They've found other spokesmen for the current generation.All are welcome to an academic conference scheduled for October 2 at North Carolina Central University in Durham. No coincidence that U2 will be performing in Raleigh, NC, that weekend. The academic conference is all about U2.U2: The Hype and the Feedback will feature guest speakers delivering lectures that relate to English literature studies, but without the great white whale."
Academic conferences and doctoral dissertations on rock stars only turn our field into one huge joke. With all due respect towards U2, what they do has nothing to do with literature. We can "analyze" their lyrics for fun (say, at a drunken party this type of "analysis" always entertains people). But trying to milk their songs for enough content to be discussed at an academic conference is pointless.
The idea behind this joke of a conference is that students find classical literary texts "irrelevant." This attitude betrays the pedagogical impotence of the teachers who are incapable of helping their students discover the beauty of these texts. Such professors think that conferences on rock stars and classes dedicated to analyzing the lyrics of what are in reality very silly songs will make them seem cool and hip to the students. Of course, they will achieve some easy popularity with the C-students who want a course where no work needs to be done and no intellectual effort expanded. But I don't think that smart, motivated students who actually want to get an education and not just have a good time will be interested.
As to "irrelevant" canonical texts, I don't want to blow my own trumpet too much here, but when I was teaching Cervantes to high school kids ages 13-16 (as an extracurricular course), I couldn't force them to go home 45 minutes after the end of class. Even after I started walking away from the classroom, the students kept following me and trying to continue the discussion of Don Quijote. If it's possible to make Cervantes relevant to a 15-year-old, I don't see why it would be all that hard to make The Scarlett Letter relevant to a 19-year-old.
I hate it when people try to present the younger generation as stupid and only interested in texting and Facebook. Today's students are great. They are smart, motivated and they are dying for someone to introduce them to the finer things in life. They are perfectly capable of finding out everything they need about U2 on their own. It's our help with understanding Cervantes, Jane Austen, Flaubert, and Thomas Mann that they need. Let's not let them down and substitute real education with senseless blabber about equally meaningless songs.