|The Future of Literary Studies|
Discussions about the future of literary studies should be forward-looking & inspirational, but I’m not up to that. I want to talk about a problem that doesn’t admit of any real solution the way things stand right now; my thinking leads me to propose a solution, but it is a highly impracticable one, & I will put it forward less in the hopes of having it seriously discussed than to make the problem a bit more visible.
The problem is the dissertation. That product is central to our profession: it separates the PhDs from the ABDs & everyone below them. It’s closely linked to another professional institution, the first book, which is crucial to that tier of institutions that insist on a book for tenure; the first book is in the usual practice an upscaled version of the dissertation. Many people who write one never write another, for reasons with which I very much sympathize. But I want to talk mainly about the dissertation, & particularly an aspect of dissertation-writing that has troubled & baffled those of us involved in the graduate program since as long as I’ve been here: the sheer difficulty & length of time that it seems to require for graduate students not just to complete a dissertation but even to get properly started. This is too widespread a phenomenon to be due simply to defects of talent or character among our doctoral students. The Department has labored in various ways to address the problem: squeezing more money for dissertation fellowships out of the system, juggling teaching schedules to secure time off for writing, instituting the Dissertation Seminar to provide a kind of forced march through the first stages, & vowing (repeatedly, & with great sincerity) to crack down on statutory deadlines for progress. 15 minutes isn’t long enough to couch negatives with polite qualifications, so I’ll just assert my own impression that none of this has made a really huge difference. & I’ve come to suspect that nothing at the level of the individual program really could make a huge difference; the key problem is a confused & dysfunctional set of expectations that the profession as a whole—no, let me be more specific—the academic job market has come to visit upon the dissertation, expectations that are almost impossible to satisfy in most particular instances & quite rightly baffle, distract, & depress doctoral students trying to gear up to do so.
What is a dissertation supposed to do? As my own director put it to me—in the context of warning me not to take too long to finish it—it’s the thing that gets you your union card. It is a major effort of individual work, beyond the guided tour world of the courses one takes, that satisfies the institution—& the profession—that you have a level of scholarly learning & ability that fits you to be a member of the guild. That seems to me our legitimate bottom line, & I’ll return to it. But beyond just demonstrating competence, we also like to think of the dissertation as a specific & original contribution to available knowledge—a virtuous expectation: but how exactly do we recognize such a contribution? &, while we’re at it, why are we confident that everyone we might want or need in our guild would be capable of making such a contribution at the start of a career? The expectation is perhaps reasonable for some understandings of what constitutes knowledge, but not for others.
I would place this problem in the context of our profession’s history over the last half century, a history which I write somewhat differently from many of my fellows. It’s commonplace to draw the big line between us & the New Criticism, whose intellectual sins can be readily catalogued to point us toward our own desired virtues; but I think the real break is on the other side of the New Criticism. I can’t be entirely sure, since that break had already occurred before I got into things; but what I know of the situation suggests that before the New Criticism the primary source of competitive prestige in literary studies was breadth of specific knowledge: memory of texts, dates, historical & biographical information. You impressed your learned colleagues by having more of these on your cerebral hard drive than others did; it’s a disposition that we now find rather horrifying to think about—pedantry as critical method—& we flee from it when it seems to be rearing its fearsome head. We do so because we think we’ve moved onto something better, giving prime honor not to the possession of information but to the agility & ingenuity with which that information can be interpreted & manipulated. This is what the New Criticism taught us—it’s certainly what it taught me as an undergraduate—that you don’t necessarily need to know that much in order to be impressively subtle in talking about what you do know. & I think we are still working in that dispensation: the ability to detect paradox & ambiguity is our prime way of showing off to one another; I don’t think it matters as much as we may say whether such paradox & ambiguity is imagined as reconciled in triumphant art or as revealing irreparable fissures spreading out through culture & society.
Theoretically these two dispensations aren’t incompatible, & theoretically what we still want, & think we can have, are agile-minded people who know a whole lot; but time is short, & especially early in your career you pay most attention to what seems to be earning the most respect, & choices have to be made. None of this might have been the problem that I think it has become if it hadn’t been for the other big event in our recent professional history, one which I think has conditioned almost everything we’ve done in the last 30 years: the catastrophic collapse of the academic job market & the wildly irrational oversupply of PhDs that resulted. Fluctuations over the years haven’t really changed the underlying situation—one aspect of which has been a major ratcheting upward of the sense of our intellectual life as a game of intense competition for a very small number of prizes. I don’t think that’s an entirely accurate perception of what’s going on in the actual job market (too many different schools are looking for too many different kinds of things), but willy nilly it’s one that’s settled deep into our collective psyche, & conditioned a widespread sense that what you need to do to find your place in our business—in other words, you need to do it early & fast—is to display an intellectual ingenuity perceptibly in excess of that of your immediate predecessors.
Intellectual life has always been competitive, but at least competitive pedantry, while unearthly boring, has the advantage of being relatively easy to score: whoever knows the most things when he dies wins. But interpretive ingenuity is by its nature much much harder to systematize into some kind of sport: there are almost no dependably objective criteria for victory, & the scorekeepers are also players. Market conditions have put extraordinary pressure on this problematic situation, & it is in this context that I tend to see the rapid, diverse, & highly combative permutations of critical methodology in our time; I think the whole scene is driven at its core by a propulsive need to trump in some conspicuous way the interpretive style of the moment, but of necessity without ever finding any point of rest. Our idea market demands a constant new supply of seemingly dramatic methodological breakthroughs, which fairly quickly become fodder for a new round of radical revision; & I wouldn’t expect the idea market to achieve any kind of stability until the job market does, a prospect which is still not in view.
If you’ve already got tenure, & if you’re more or less content with where you are, & if you can still remember why you wanted to do this for a living, you can deal; but a beginner is going to feel faced with the task of solving what seems to me a basically insoluble problem before, well, beginning. What this comes down to in practice is the nerve-jangling business of trying to figure out several years ahead of time what kind of dissertation the market is going to, you know, “want.” There is of course no lack of incoming advice—from faculty, from peers, & from individual graduate students’ own infinitely creative insecurities—as to what that will be. Such advice is necessary, well intentioned, & often good; & I certainly understand why my colleagues cringe at the sight of graduate students who seem naive—sometimes defiantly so—on the question of what does & does not sell these days. But that doesn’t seem to me the most dismaying sight in front of us; what makes me cringe far more is watching doctoral students trying earnestly to figure out how to internalize the unstable & often contradictory dictates of a market that won’t actually exist for a couple of years before they can even properly get down to work—how, if you will, to get the market to write their dissertation for them. This is seriously ass-backwards; the sane thing to do is to block off something that engages you & will allow you to do your own best work, make it as good as possible, & then figure out how to sell that. Doing it the other way is, I think, not only harder but a major setup for midlife despair—to which I suspect academics are more prone than many professionals—when it can all feel like an immense expense of spirit in service to something you don’t especially believe in or care about.
The effort to locate dissertation work on the cutting edge, as we sometimes call it, of our professional competitiveness usually necessitates a slow start, with a lot of waste energy trying to decide where to merge with the traffic: “In the early 90s it was A; everybody’s now saying Not A; but maybe the time has come to say Not not A; but maybe the cool thing would be Not not not A.” The topics that emerge are often extremely abstract in their definition, & more & more these days try to draw their material from a very wide range, not confining themselves to individual works or authors or genres or to literary material as such. The eventual descriptions of these projects can often sound impressive—which is of course the idea—but I believe the feeling is widespread (I’ve heard colleagues voice it regularly at defenses & during job searches) that the results are often unsatisfying, incomplete, misshapen, big on generalization & short on evidence: this bafflingly enough from people we often know are smart, talented, & serious. The conclusion I’ve come to is that the fault is not with the people writing the dissertations but with the expectation they’ve accepted for what they’re supposed to be doing: which is in effect to execute the kind of ambitious task that a person might be able to do justice to after several decades of teaching, study, & reflection. To gain entrance to the guild, we make candidates attempt, under extraordinary pressure, a cunning imitation of someone with the benefits of having been in it for quite a while.
The right thing to do under the circumstances—& in most cases what we do do—is to make our judgment more on the basis of promise & talent than of achievement. Still, you’d think there would be a more rational & humane way to do it. & I find my thinking here leading me to the notion of in effect removing from the dissertation the burden of looking like a contribution to available knowledge, at least by the terribly uncertain scale of current professional practice. Why shouldn’t a dissertation, conceived in practical terms as the entitlement exam for a union card, be a readily definable task that could be more or less efficiently executed within a reasonable amount of time & judged by fairly straightforward criteria? The specific possibility that pops into my own mind is the editing & annotation of a particular literary text, with an appropriately interpretive & contextual introduction. It would be serious work (it actually might produce something in the way of a contribution to available knowledge according to the older scale of values), it would tell us a lot about a student’s capacity to move beyond the platform of course work, it would be comparatively easy for us to evaluate, it would of necessity engage many of the larger issues in our profession without forcing the student to try to solve insoluble problems before getting started, & it could in almost all cases be done within a finite & even predictable amount of time. It would also be the kind of work that we would think any of us theoretically ought to be able to do—would we in fact want someone in our business who really couldn’t do something like this?
On the other hand, as a serious proposal it is DOA. It would strike too many people—probably most of the people in this room—as at best boring & probably retrograde intellectually. & I cannot imagine a scenario for implementing it. No individual department would dare do so; even if it believed in the notion, the change would likely be suicide for its own graduate students on the market; & there really isn’t any mechanism for getting hold of & changing what the market thinks it wants, since the market, like the Internet, isn’t anywhere in particular & can’t be talked to or reasoned with. In practical terms, I think the best to be hoped for is heightened awareness that the expectations generated by the competitive dynamic of that market are, as I said, earlier, confused & dysfunctional & cannot really be met—& for more in the way of individual clearheadedness about the need somehow to balance the needs of marketability with one’s own sense of intellectual integrity & personal sanity. & somehow not to take forever to actually write the damned thing.
|TEI markup by John Unsworth|