Friday, March 28, 2008

William Deresiewicz in "The Nation," and a Blogger's Response

Start with William Deresiewicz in The Nation, for what ails the English department, according to him (via English @ Emory).

It's been said many times that English enrollments have declined nationally because of "theory," but that's been shown, I think conclusively, not to be true. (A starting point might be this 2003 ADE report (PDF), which shows that the biggest decline in the number of English majors happened in the 1970s and 80s, though there was some recovery from the losses in the early 1990s -- notably, the peak of the culture wars moment. But the ADE's report also suggests there's been a general decline in the Arts & Sciences as a whole; more and more students are getting degrees in other parts of the university, such as engineering, business, education, and the life sciences. A much smaller proportion of college degrees now are B.A.s than used to be. In short, the problem is not the turn to "theory" or the "epochal loss of confidence" Deresiewicz talks about, but a structural change in American higher education.)

Then, proceed to Ads Without Products, for a blogger's response. The most striking observation for me had to do with the frame -- what does it mean that Deresiewicz is publishing this essay in The Nation?

This move on Deresiewicz’s part feels like consummate culture wars base-touching, like he’s filling out the form that a venue like The Nation require those who would write on the literary humanities to complete before proceeding to other issues and arguments. (Why The Nation, ostensibly a left magazine, would implicitly condone or even require this sort of move is a long, long story, and one that is bound up with both micro-histories of the long standing academy vs. grub street turf war that has been going on in NYC for a long time as well as macro-histories of the anti-intellectualism of the American journalistic left… More on this another day…) (link)

Obviously, one wants to hear the "more on this" part, but there's still quite a bit to chew on here as is.

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Anonymous LARS said...

Buckminster Fuller explained that specialization leads to extinction. What job can one secure with an English degree? In business schools we find experienced people invited in to lecture teams, while a physics person like Bob Laughlin from Stanford is hired to consult in Korea. Meanwhile English professors are teaching MFA’s how to apply for grants. Some time ago an English professor at Reed College published a short article in the Reed magazine, attempting to sell the English degree, but the job list the degree prepared one for was anemic, which is not to say that the potential list is short, but that the professor did not seem adequately prepared. But Amardeep suggests a longer survey; rightly so, for one will find, for example, that prior to WWII, one could go into a bank in this country and secure a loan with only a college degree for collateral. Now students must borrow absurd amounts or second mortgage their parents’ house and if an English major think they’ll never be able to repay. But the degree as collateral would have been limited to the WASP male, for the most part the only college graduates there were at the time. How can we expect cultural privilege to extend downward if access does not extend upward? Put another way, or as Pierre Bourdieu might have put it, English professors are powerless; they are becoming the most dominated of a dominated class. There are many more reasons for this than enrollment: union associations, which discourage open competition and secure and limit jobs using the bureaucratic tool of credentialing; the absurdity of tenure, ensuring an effete ruling class and a disgruntled few milling about in the quad; the aging of the post WWII generation, which is filling the community colleges not with English majors but with nursing programs; all things electronic, which as McLuhan predicted renders obsolete the individual effort of writing and reading. English departments should begin to function more like businesses, just as businesses have learned to adapt and function more like campuses. English departments should recruit from outside – pull someone in with an MBA and business experience to teach Dickens, Sinclair Lewis, and Jack London; invite someone in with the stature of Clarence Darrow to teach “Using the English Major as a Pre-Law Program”; bring someone over from Cuba to teach Hemingway and Faulkner. Invite someone in from AIG to teach "Death of a Salesman." There are still those who believe the illiterate should be left illiterate, so ask not what the English department can do for you, ask what you can do outside the department to help the department grow profitably. Someone mentioned why the Nation (ad hominem); the Nation is exactly the right place for the discussion. As Atul Gawande has explained, the med schools are already too late to prepare enough gerontologists to doctor the aging population. I suspect the English departments are already way too late to solve their crisis. Supported by the masses who can no longer afford it, the college country clubs will have to close more doors; and as soon as the nursing programs realize they can teach their own to write, the English department will have to close its doors. Back to the opening here - specialization leads to extinction: English professors are going to have to figure out a way to teach standard grammar and usage, Shakespeare, Pierre Bourdieu, Charles Bukowski (as he relates to the building of a publisher), and how to build a bookcase all in the same class. But more than that; they are going to have to get out of the campus, give up their tenure, get involved in the business community, create local programs like 826 Writing and tutoring programs, such as Dave Eggers has done - quoting from his recent TED prize acceptance: "I wish that you—you personally and every creative individual and organization you know—will find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area, and that you'll then tell the story of how you got involved, so that within a year we have 1,000 examples of innovative public-private partnerships." Not to mention a few more English majors who have goals to give back to their business community.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Zack S. said...

Here's a similarly contentious piece on a closely-related enough topic:
There are obvious problems with much of what Nemko suggests, but his concerns aren't baseless. I think it was Bill McKibben on To the Best of Our Knowledge recently, who summed it up a bit less aggressively: people are competing for jobs that don't pay much, aren't secure and that they're overqualified for - and which conflict with their values. That's going off on another subject (the job market and doing by oneself & our environment [social & natural]), but I see these things as fairly related.
Do you know if the Ads Without Products blogger has returned to this idea he mentions, of "anti-intellectualism in the American journalistic left" (a mouthful to be sure)?

12:16 PM  

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