“So, what do you do for a living?”
It’s a question that makes me cringe. “I’m a Ph.D. student in comparative literature,” I say. And even though this admission is almost always received positively, I’m still hesitant to tell people.
But now, after two years of study at University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature, I’ve been rethinking this attitude. Why should I be reluctant to tell people what I do? I wouldn’t respond so timidly if I were studying law, or medicine, or engineering. Why should comparative literature – or any discipline in the humanities – be so different?
For many the answer is obvious. Wherever you go, there is a huge demand for doctors, lawyers and engineers. But humanities scholars? What do they contribute? Even though thousands of undergraduate students continue to major in the liberal arts each year, many in society question the value of an education which grants knowledge and critical-thinking skills but little practical vocational training.
Another reason, perhaps, for society’s skepticism toward academics is the archetypical image of the university as an “ivory tower” whose existence has little bearing on the world outside.
After several years spent studying and working in various educational institutions, I’ve come to accept the validity of both these concerns. When I started my undergraduate education at Sarah Lawrence College, a liberal arts school in New York, I knew that I was choosing a rough road. Five years after graduation, many of my old friends are deeply in debt, shuffling from job to job, and still unsure of their place in society.
And after two years of advanced graduate study, in which I occasionally have read opaque, jargon-filled academic articles, I too must question the value of ideas that don’t make it outside of the ivy-covered walls and into the real world.
But all these doubts dissipate whenever I enter a classroom full of undergraduate students.
As a teaching assistant for a class entitled “Ancient and Medieval Literary Modes,” I spent this past year leading 25-person discussions on some of the great works of the literary canon: Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno, among others. As we discussed such topics as the meaning of honour, the nature of familial love, and the age-old question of what constitutes a good life, I dared to hope that my students’ insights would make their way beyond those classroom walls.
I chose to study the humanities because I wanted answers. I wanted to know why people who seem honest turn out to be liars. Why war, violence and injustice persist in every part of the world. I wanted to know how it is that people have overcome the most terrible conditions to fight for human dignity. And I wanted to know how, in this time of global terrorism, economic crisis, continued human rights violations and environmental destruction, we as individuals are supposed to live.
Jon Stewart is never off, but sometimes he is so on target that it is awe-inspiring, as in his new feature introduced on the Daily Show last night: “I Give Up”. Jon’s always been a superb sad clown, but his angry clown routine is the one he holds back for special occasions. This is one of those occasions. Please watch. Please.
Tomorrow is Andy Warhol’s birthday, and last week I started putting together a post to commemorate it. People tend to forget that Warhol for five whole years made nothing but movies, which, even today are exhilerating in their wonder and freshness and the challenge they offer. One critic has noted that, for the first time, thanks to Warhol’s films, we, the viewers of art, are allowed to see as a painter sees, in real time.
Their subject matter, of course, is often iconoclastic. The clip I opted to post is from the starkly titled Blow Job, which does not really capture the actual experience of the film, even if it accurately describes what is being very cleverly depicted without actually showing it.
That got me thinking about Frye and the issue of obscenity and — coincidentally coming across a clip I wanted to post in our regular TGIF comedy slot that is as obscene as it is hilarious — that led to a series of related posts on the subject of the artistic relevance of obscenity with Frye acting as our guide the entire time.
All that tomorrow.
Forgive me if, in response to Jonathan Allan’s latest post, I play the devil’s advocate. I am an admirer of his advocacy on behalf of the Centre, and I too have been thinking about the Centre constantly. But my thoughts are tempered by my own recent academic choices and my outsider’s perspective. Not being a graduate student at the Centre for Comparative Literature, I am thoroughly clueless about what goes on within, and all of Jonathan’s posts have provided a helpful perspective. My own perspective, however, is that of an undergraduate with a BA in Comp Lit who chose to abandon the field for the English Department. The reasons for that decision were many, but they ultimately hinged on the bet that, in the face of a fiscal crisis, the vernacular departments will likely stay open longer. That was a bet I made a year ago, and within just a few months the recommendation was made to close the program Frye created. It is not a hunch I ever expected to pan out so soon, nor is it one I relish. It is, however, one on which I have wagered my future career.
About half a year ago, Michael Happy linked to an article in the American Scholar titled “The Decline of the English Department,” the most damning passage of which exemplifies the reasons for my departure from Comp Lit:
What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of these books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in books.
Without wading into the swamp of what makes a discipline unified versus what makes it ideologically or bureaucratically centralized (in the manner Bob Denham condemned in his letter to President Naylor), it seems to me that if the scholar seeks to read a text as literature, he or she would benefit most from approaching that text as such. If literature exists, it has a literary context, which is a melancholy hypothesis to still have to pose after all these years. That the world of literary words is ordered and coherent is, if anything, a heuristic principle that can facilitate and articulate the critical impulses of the reader, as well as of communication between readers. There may be a certain equivalence here with the Periodic Table, a diagram that has expedited the discovery of further elements. And it is something that must be taught in an equally principled manner. This is not a constraint on diversity, but rather a facilitating context for it. This seems to be the Frygian position.
Taking postcolonialism as a “commonality” is an ideological centralization for the study of literature, and cannot help working against the diversity of background and opinion that it claims to promote. Such is also the case with taking any of the “secondary considerations” listed above as commonalities. Though such methods can bring an additional contingent of readers to the table and an essential expanded perspective, it certainly cannot engage the whole of the text or the totality of readers. While postcolonialism is a fascinating and broad perspective, and one without which the study of literature would be inconceivable today, it is still a canonical ideology and it cannot itself be a unifying principle. If it is, to advocate further for the devil, why read Proust? Just how subaltern is he, or how imperialist? If a text is read as a cultural artifact, would not the time one spends in seminar be better spent reading other (and shorter) artifacts such as newspapers, graffiti, and sundry bricolage? Would not the money spent on conducting the seminar be better spent on a course that does just that? And would not the literature departments be better off subsumed into Cultural Studies? I suspect that potential students and university administrators both share this view. It is possible that I may be very misguided in my characterization of Comparative Literature. But I hold a BA in the field, and my characterizations illustrate the gulf that lies between not only the undergraduate and graduate levels, but also the elementary, secondary, and university levels. The spiraling changes in emphasis give the student little idea of what to expect. And given the manner in which promising students are dissuaded from engaging the subject, and the confusion that identifies the department more than anything, the lack of a shared experience is hardly a merit.
From the perspective of an administration encumbered by ballooning budgets and debt, the option of a departmental consolidation makes a lot of sense. As someone who has worked in California public schools for a few years now, I know from experience that education is the first to suffer in any fiscal crisis. I am as against it as anyone, but a department of misfits must still make a case for how it fits in broader society (and not only by the manner that it digests broader society). If the arts—the academic body’s most fleshly and permeable organ, the skin that is most easily cut but also holds all other organs together—are to survive, they must be addressed in ways that take into account the creative, articulating impulse. As Glenna Sloan has attested here, the transfer of imaginative energy is primal to learning, and it should be primary to the study of literature.
Frye citing a folk song, which he describes as “a delightful bit that could only have come from one place in the world, southeastern Newfoundland”:
“Oh mother dear, I wants a sack
With beads and buttons down the back. . .
Me boot is broke, me frock is tore,
But Georgie Snooks I do adore. . .
Oh, fish is low and flour is high,
So Georgie Snooks he can’t have I” (CW 12, 241-2)