|The Future of Literary Studies|
I had planned on saying some very positive things about literary study at UVA, but then I heard about the additional discussion hour for 381 next semester; unfortunately, as is the case with too many of my papers, I hadn’t allotted time for redrafting (just kidding).
At the time of matriculation I had everything planned out. I would spend three years here studying government and possibly economics or environmental science, and then I’d head to law school, the ultimate destination. But I just had to go and ruin everything by taking an English class my first semester. If my Dad—who, by the way, is reeling from my reconsideration of law school—were writing this story, it would include a villainess by the name of Karlyn Crowley. Not only did Karlyn make her class on literature and religion incredibly fun and engaging by incorporating movies, music and diverse activities into our study of novels ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Dharma Bums; she did so while simultaneously challenging us to probe texts more deeply than I had ever imagined possible. I’ll never forget my reaction when she suggested writing my paper on the potentially homoerotic bond between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. I was like, “wow, you can do this, you can read literature this way.” Well, I did. . .and it was fun.
Unfortunately, it took me two full years to admit to myself how much I was enjoying literature classes. Why? Masochism? My southern Baptist upbringing? An anal retentive refusal to digress from my intended trajectory? Maybe, but I think my hesitation had more to do with society’s altered conception of college’s purpose. At least among many of my friends, including ones I’ve met here, college serves a purely economic function; according to their logic, one should either pursue a disciplineeconomics, commerce, accounting—that readies one for a career right out of college, or one should waste one’s time in the humanities merely to obtain the B.A. required by law schools and med schools. Gone, or quickly evanescing, is the belief that college should make one more knowledgeable, insightful, self-reflective and equipped to interpret the world.
I might scream if one more person asks, “but Ben, what are you going to do with an English degree?” In the past I could assuage my interlocutors’ touching anxiety by replying, “well, I’m going to law school.” But what do I say now? Well, I suggest to my fellow English majors that we get angry. If some boorish person questions the relevance of our major, let’s no longer respond, “oh, actually there’s a lot you can with a degree in English.” Why must we be apologists? Instead, let’s respond, “Are you implying that everything’s worth should be measured by its pecuniary return? Maybe I won’t have a thousand job offers after college, but right now I’m more concerned with broadening my perspective on the world.”
Literature does, after all, provide us with a language for describing both ourselves and the world around us. It also provides referents for our daily experiences. Everyday I’m amazed at how many times, as I ponder something or the other, I’m reminded of a line from a poem, a lyric from a song or a character from a novel or movie. Not only am I more able to explore, express and make sense of my emotions, I also feel less alone in the world, as if every character from every novel I’ve read is like an old friend whom I can visit whenever I please. Which makes it even more important that English departments continue to incorporate historically marginalized voices and genres into the canon. After all, I don’t want all of my literary companions to be white men from centuries ago. To be frank, I think it’s awesome that in one day’s time I can go from reading Troilus and Criseyde in Professor Kinney’s class to listening to Public Enemy in Professor Saul’s class; from reading “Ozymandias” in Professor Jost’s class to discussing “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in Professor Flatley’s class. In short, I’m having fun and don’t mind saying so. I may never be the “legislator of mankind,” but at least for now I’m learning how to name my world and enjoy myself in the process. Who needs marketability?
1. Taken from the movie Network.
|TEI markup by John Unsworth|