Why there’s a VCR in your English literature classroom

RALEIGH – I write a monthly column for Carolina Journal entitled “Course of the Month,” which is a Golden Fleece Award for courses in North Carolina universities that feature “overt political content, rabid infatuation with pop culture or sexuality, [or] abject silliness.” Over the years, one of the recurring themes in these columns is the English literature class that has little to do with English or literature. The course I chose for my August column is a Duke University literature class whose description says “[t]his course will live and die on our ability to remain passionately ignorant about what we think we know about sex and sexuality. To be open to being startled by the material we’re reading we need to start with the understanding that we mostly don’t know what we’re talking about when we talk about sex and sexuality.”

I received my undergraduate degree in English literature, so the subject is very dear to me. I cannot help wondering about its present state. Why has this discipline in particular become so cluttered with academic detritus? I think it is because of a combination of ills affecting the university: the scholastic war against merit, the many outcroppings of the “political correctness” fad, the inflexible tenure system, disinterested students, and distracted professors.

The study and scholarship of literature has seen a generation of professors arguing against the idea of Great Books and instead for the notion that all texts are equally worthy. In other words, they removed from the debate whether a text was “great” enough to deserve scholastic attention. In this manner of reading, naturally, texts are not limited to books, pamphlets, stories, works of literature — they include any “story” that an author or authors wish to tell, including by film, television, music, style of dress, home décor, choice of soft drink, ad nauseam.

Furthermore, deconstruction and other schools of literary criticism emerged to question whether language and by extension literature mean anything at all. Whatever meaning may be inferred from the language, they taught, is larded with politics, making it the reader’s responsibility to wring from the texts all objectionable politics, according to today’s standards within the university, and decry them. The author is sidelined in the creative process, and the readers take over, letting their imaginations run trite in uncovering and hooting at all the current bugaboos.

Some texts, of course, will fare well in those analyses because they portray this process in action; i.e., the author tells how he reads the text of, say, America, distilling and denouncing all objectionable politics he could infer from it. Reading literature thereby becomes an act — whether done individually or in concert with the author — of protest and purging. Allowing oneself to become captivated by or find inspiration through so-called great works is verboten. That would amount to complicity with their offensive political undertones.

At the same time, as their peers in other disciplines, literature professors in modern academe need tenure, and tenure decisions rely in no small part on a professor’s publications (the “publish or perish” quandary). Old, formerly “great” texts such as the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton have existed and been written about for centuries. It seems there is little to nothing “new” a literature professor can bring to illuminate these texts, unless one applies the extratextual analyses described above. Meanwhile, there is a rapidly evolving selection of pop-culture “texts” to analyze, with the novelty of the “text” selection and the analysis tending to help secure publication. Furthermore, it’s easier to “read” and respond to elements within one’s own culture, helping to speed chances of publication along.

By the same token, it’s easier to engage students with their own culture. Exploring the literature of older cultures requires more preparation on the part of the professor — i.e., less time to publish. It requires more on the part of the students, too. Great Books are challenging, making them seem boring. Paradise Lost might be a masterpiece, but it won’t play in the VCR, unlike so many of today’s texts. Bored students are more likely to receive lower grades and consequently less likely to give favorable reviews of the professor. Unfavorable reviews also hurt a professor’s chances at receiving tenure.

Troubling those waters is the fact that universities usually require all students to take at least one English class in order to graduate. It used to be that many colleges reserved their choicest English selections — surveys of great works of literature — for those college-wide requirements. Now many students attend college because they think it’s something they must do, and they make up what Prof. Paul Trout called the “disengaged” students, seeking only vocational training and bereft of intellectual curiosity. They find the great-works surveys boring and difficult. So they especially benefit from the notion of equality of texts, because the texts are much more approachable and the answers are pat.

In such an environment, it’s wiser to choose a topic interesting to students, then select among the myriad omnipresent “texts” to fit the topic. Popular TV shows therefore become excellent choices upon which to base a literature class. The same goes for sports, movies, fads, the nation in general, etc., and of particular interest to college students, sex.

A literature class “reading” sexuality provides the ultimate vehicle for interesting classroom discussion among normally somnolent college students, exciting and unburdensome lectures for professors, more time for publication and less room for review griping. Ironically, university English departments have largely abandoned Shakespeare in favor of making much ado about nothing, as you like it.

Jon Sanders (jsanders@popecenter.org) is a policy analyst for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.