|The Future of Literary Studies|
John Andrew Hicks
The origin of this essay was a dose of strong medicine I got from Michael Levenson when I was feeling some anxiety about graduate school admissions this year. In the place of reassurance, he simply said, “John, literary study is not a career; it is a way of life.” While this is some thing that is probably often said of many if not most fulfilling but not necessarily remunerative professions, I though I’d test the hypothesis by setting it up against the only other (non-scholastic) way-of-life or career I know: the restaurant life.
Hence my title: turning the tables on the future of literary study. At this point I could make some facile comparisons: the menu clearly would be the canon or the syllabus; I could refer to novels as entrées and poems as dessert, or Dickinson’s “liquor never brewed.” This keeps the poets in the kitchen with wage labor and benefits—not bad. The friendly or the snotty waiter and the restaurant’s ambience could refer to a certain interpretive spirit that shapes one’s experience of the meal. All up this would probably wind up equating digestion with “digestion,” food for thought, etc., etc.
But I don’t want to do that. Instead I’d like to take a look at the restaurant (or the academy) from the perspective of the literary busboy: the undergraduate who maybe one day wants to be a waiter or a cook. And what is the bus boy’s job but to bus tables? an integral part of the “table turn” as we call it. What’s more, the party’s almost over. The bill has been totaled: I count about 70 pages to graduation, not long until closing. The problem is, this table is dirty. It’s full of unfinished dishes, dirty silverware, spilt water glasses, and of course, however neat one tries to be, there are always crumbs—fragments of food—all over the table, the chairs, the floor. So the question is, how am I going to clean this up? How can I say that I finished college, that I studied literature, that I wrote on Whitman, or Joyce, or Pope, or Montaigne? Sure I turned in the papers, I made the table look clean at least, and if I did a good job, maybe I got a tip from the waiter. But there’s no way I can clean this mess up by May.
Forget for the moment the future of literary study; when I look at the past of literary study (mine or anybody else’s) I don’t see—or at least I hope I don’t see—any closed books. Rather, I see a table that looks like the people just got up and left in the middle of the meal. And it’s my job to clean it up in about 60 seconds (in a restaurant) or, say, half a semester here. My experience of literary study has been a fleeting one. It’s about all the food that I maybe glanced at or smelled from the kitchen, but couldn’t sit down to eat.
So, here I am on the other side of the classroom. I can use the blackboard if I want to. I like that. But apart from this moment and maybe a few class presentations, is the future of literary study in my future? Well, I don’t have any set plans for the next year at the moment, so it’s hard to say. I’ll be back in the restaurant at least for the summer, but there’s a good chance that I’ll get the opportunity to be a waiter—teaching high school—in the fall, and then maybe graduate school.
If it doesn’t work out immediately, I’m sure I’ll read a page here and there in the break room. And at any rate, I’ll have this table metaphor.
So when I think about the future of literary study, all I can think is—what a mess.
|TEI markup by John Unsworth|