Monday, October 11, 2010

The New York Times Dispenses Advice to Scholars of Literature

Nothing is as annoying about the hateful New York Times as their constant attempts to earn their conservative credentials by ridiculing the long-haired, Derrida-reading elite hippie professors. This newspaper is especially virulent against the scholars of the Humanities, which is understandable since we are overwhelmingly progressive in our politics (as opposed, for example, to our colleagues in sciences, many of whom are, for some incomprehensible reason, very conservative and even vote Republican.) Recently, The NY Times joined the campaign to destroy the institution of tenure in this country. The Times can't fail to realize that the destruction of tenure will mean the end of any respectable system of higher education in the US. Of course, if that happens, this newspaper can expect a huge influx in subscribers, since the level of stupidity in this country will sky-rocket.

Today, The New York Times decided to attack the scholars of literature, ridiculing us and presenting us as complete losers who have no idea what we are doing. Some paid gun from the University of Chicago wrote a piece called "In Defense of Naive Reading" where he makes a series of completely disingenuous claims about the way literature is supposedly taught in universities. These completely spurious claims are enough to make the helicopter parents who read the paper flip out and go on a perennial "What is our children learning?" rant.

So here are some statements the author of the essay makes:

1. Too much theory is being taught in college literature courses. According to the author of this piece, we expose our students to the endless lithany of "psychoanalytic criticism, new or formal criticism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, discourse analysis, reader response criticism or “reception aesthetics,” systems theory, hermeneutics, deconstruction, feminist criticism, cultural studies." Now, this is just a lie, pure and simple. There was an explosion of interest in literary theory that occurred in late 70ies and early 80ies. This all came to an end, though, over 20 years ago. After the huge progressive gains of the 70ies, American society shifted dramatically to the right. A strong push to turn away from theory originated in Ivy League universities in the mid-eighties. Today, this de-theorizing tendency has won a resounding victory. (If you want to argue with me about this statement, try mentioning the word "deconstruction", or even worse, "feminism" in a literature class at Yale. Then, we can continue this discussion. As somebody who has tried writing a doctoral dissertation that mentioned - just mentioned - reader response criticism and cultural studies at an Ivy League school and paid the price for trying to do it, I can tell you that the author of the NYTimes piece is either a complete dufus or a liar.)

For those who want an informed (and a beautifully written) account of this turn away from theory, I highly recommend After Theory by the amazing Terry Eagleton who, unlike the author of the NYTimes article, is a world-famous scholar of literature.

2. Professors of literature still haven't figured out how to evaluate their students' work. If that were true, as the author of this offensive article suggests, we should all be fired on the spot. Or at least have our tenure taken away because we obviously have no idea what we are doing. Of course, Robert Pippin has no idea what he is talking about. His claim that there is an "absence of any consensus" on "whether the student has done well or poorly" demonstrates a profound ignorance of our field of knowledge. Pippin could have talked to any of the excellent scholars of literature on his own campus, who would have enlightened him on our methods of evaluation students. A small hint: using the clumsy expression "the fact that" twice in such a short article and creating an argument based on false assertions would have earned him a grade of C- in any of my courses.

3. The last accusation that Mr. Pippin (I'm not trying to be offensive to the guy, that's his real name) wages against professors of literature is that we are on the verge of applying voodoo science in our classrooms: "One already sees the “application” of “results” from the neurosciences and evolutionary biology to questions about why characters in novels act as they do or what might be responsible for the moods characteristic of certain poets. People seem to be unusually interested in what area of the brain is active when Rilke is read to a subject." Why we should waste time on reading Mr. Pippin's delusional visions is left unexplained in the article. There is also no explanation for who these mysterious "people" he mentions are. Of course, they sound like complete quacks, and I wouldn't want them in my field of knowledge. The only problem is that they are a figment of Mr. Pippin's over-active imagination. Nothing like that is happening in the field of literary studies. For some reason, though, the author tries to make the impressionable readers of The Times believe that the field of literary criticism is filled with quacks who apply brain measurements to the work of Rilke.

Mr. Pippin ends his rambling and weird article with an attempt to provide a "good" analysis of a work of literature. What's truly funny, though, is that his reading is heavily indebted to psychoanalytic theory, which has been outdated for about 30 years. This reminds me of Moliere's immortal character, M. Jourdain, who had no idea he was speaking in prose. Mr. Pippin should realize that in his attempts to berate scholars of literature he looks just as ignorant and foolish as M. Jourdain.


misskate said...

I skimmed through your post, having read your thoughts on it in the comments of your post on NRC rankings.
I went to a conservative college for my undergrad. I took some literature courses for my electives. We looked at texts strictly from the perspective of the author's experience and the context of the time period in which it was written.
Not that one can't learn a lot from that, BUT when I started my master's program in children's literature, it meant my brain just about dribbled out my ears. Separating author from text? Implied reader, implied author? Feminist and Marxist theory?
Holy crap, it didn't just change how I read, it revolutionized my politics, my perspective and how I live my day to day life.
And it was hard. I developed a whole new level of respect for literature majors.
Which is kind of how I found your blog. :)

Clarissa said...

"Holy crap, it didn't just change how I read, it revolutionized my politics, my perspective and how I live my day to day life."

-These are words that a teacher of literature lives to hear. :-)

Richard said...

You wrote good response to a rather presumptuous article. I would like to point out that the University of Chicago and the discipline of philosophy are not what they used to be. The University, home of the “Great Books” approach to learning, essentially became a mausoleum of ideas unwilling to experiment for fear of losing its status as a “great” university.
At one time philosophy was closely allied to literature philosophers thought of themselves as men of letters. Today there are scores of professors of philosophy, but no practicing philosophers. I wrote the Stone about this asking why with all the moral and ethical issues now facing the country, no philosophers have come forward to at least pose questions which might help our leaders develop more informed judgments. I received a non-sensical answer to the effect that it couldn’t be done.
I consider my self a non-academic customer of literary scholarship. I find great enjoyment and enlightenment in reading English and French literature (and Russian and German literature in translation). While I have no interest in literary theory as such, literary criticism derived from theory often makes my reading more enjoyable

Anonymous said...

"...for some incomprehensible reason, very conservative and even vote Republican."

I call it "engineeritis," though more than engineers are susceptible. The syndrome seems to be made up of two parts. The first is that they are systematizers, and to systematizers outside of their field of expertise easy, consistent and wrong explanations are appealing.

The second symptom of engineeritis is that they are convinced because they are an expert in one, small field, then they are experts in every field, even over those with 12 years of training and 30 years of experience in the field (see the global warming debate for examples).


Pangloss said...

Your blog is clearly refreshing, and I'm happy to see that you place a premium on accuracy. (You mention, for example, the "false assertions" that you find in the NYT piece.)

Given that, perhaps your readers would be interested to know that Professor Pippin is, contrary to what you claim here, an internationally known scholar. He's been invited to deliver a trimester-long series of lectures (in French!) at the Collège de France. He was invited to the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. He won the extremely prestigious Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award (more or less equivalent to the MacArthur ["genius"] grant). These are not things that happen to unknowns.

Your readers may also be interested to know that literary darwinians are not "a figment of Mr. Pippin's over-active imagination." They include people like Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, Denis Dutton, Jonathan Gottschall, and Michelle Sugiyama.

I respect the independence of your thinking, but I believe you may owe Professor Pippin an apology. He is not a "quack" or a "hired gun," and literary darwinism is not a figment of his imagination. You are clearly a noble individual with a firm commitment to the truth, so I trust you will look into matters and issue a correction in due course.

NancyP said...

I confess that I am theory-less, having finished college in 1977, before the Foucault - Lacan - Derrida holy trinity were taught at the undergraduate level. I was inclined to follow an historical approach in reading literature, not least because I majored in history (primarily classical, medieval, Renaissance, early modern Europe) and took "matching" literature classes. Feminist and Marxist analyses of literature grew out of their concurrent use in historical, political, economic studies. I was unaware of literary theory, and was still at the phase of "A Room of One's Own".

After college, I read primary works "in my spare time" and didn't pick up the new theory.

eric said...

This is just the latest in a long line of diatribes appearing in high-profile popular publications berating professors in the Humanities (Cultural Studies particularly) for shirking their responsibility to teach objective truth. I read a similar article in Harper's ten years ago, and even then, "theory" has already been consigned to the era when MTV still played music videos--so the author's point was fairly moot, and his political motivations were obvious.

Now, it seems that the new trick is to proclaim the inevitability of evolutionary biology or neuroscience of rendering criticism or philosophically-informed reading obsolete, and that Humanities disciplines will be conducted with all the exactitude, rigor, and predictive power of the sciences. But pace "Pangloss" above, naturalism has never been taken seriously in the humanities, despite inroads by some scholars. In fact, it was the butt of jokes while I was doing my M.A. in the oft-maligned field of Cultural Studies, because the motivations for such research were questionable (for instance, evolutionary biology harbors the tendency to essentialize gender, among many other problems relating to its application to the Humanities). So deactivating programs (such as the one from with I received my degree), abolishing tenure, etc., seems like the way to go for parties with interest in producing a population incapable of any sort of critical thought or cultural dialogue, only interested in reading literature with the same hermeneutic acumen as with the TV Guide.

Richard said...

Pangloss has rather obliquely made a good point. In any discussion it is always a good idea to treat people with courtesy and respect even when disagreeing with them.
That being said the rest of this comment borders on irrelevance. Mr. Professor Doctor Pippin is a professor of philosophy apparently specializing in German Idealism as focused on Hegel. He also has a forthcoming publication on the political philosophy found in Western Movies of such greats as John Ford. Pangloss does not actual mention any of Pippin’s publications, but rather provides a litany of evidence that he is widely known and respected in the fled of philosophy. Pangloss also rather gratuitously notes that Pippin has been invited to address a French learned society in French!
As I noted earlier it has been a long time since philosophy and literature have been two sides of a single coin. It is fair to ask why the fact that Pippin is “internationally known” and recognized in the field teaching philosophy makes him an expert on literature and the teaching of literature? There is nothing in his publications or background (saving the ability to speak intelligible French) to suggest that he knows any more about the fields of English and non-English literature than I do (which is very little).

NancyP said...

London Review of Books or NY Review of Books had a recent (within 6 mo) review of a spate of evolutionary psychology lit-crit books.

When I want to read science, I pick up Science, Nature, Genes and Development, etc journals. When I want to read humanities topics - don't give me no stinkin' EvoPsych merde. It doesn't take much education either in science or in the humanities to see through 99% of EvoPsych assumptions.

Anonymous said...

Guess what? Professor Pippin will paticipate in Cornell U's Summer School of Critical Theory in 2011!

Clarissa said...

That's going to be very funny, given their insanely strong derridian bent.