|The Future of Literary Studies|
It’s always daunting, now, near the end of the semester, how much we still have to cover. And it’s worst, of course, for those among us who have intense multidisciplinary obligations. I’m thinking, for instance, of an instructor I know whose students in a single class must, before the spring is over, be able to do all of the following: they must be able to use meteorological tools like a barometer, hygrometer, and anemometer (Science 4.6, page 4); to use “concrete materials” towards a mathematical computation of probability (Mathematics 4.19, page 3); to explain early American systems of “money, banking, saving, and credit” (Virginia Studies: 1607 to the Present 4.3, page 8); to contextualize the accomplishments of important twentieth century Virginians such as Woodrow Wilson and Arthur Ashe (Virginia Studies: 1607 to the Present 4.6, page 9); “to compare the use of fact and fantasy in historical fiction with [sic] other forms of literature” (English 4.4, page 6); and “to write rhymed, unrhymed, and patterned poetry” (English 4.6, page 6).1 I’m listing, of course, some of the obligations of every fourth grade public school teacher in the state of Virginia; I’ve been quoting from the commonwealth’s Standards of Learning for the fourth grade, standards that now shape the assessment of students and teachers and that will soon determine the survival of schools.
My father likes to say, “There’s pressure and there’s pressure.” To wish to leave nine-year-olds with knowledge of weather measurement (as well as botany, zoology, and physics), of statistics, of state and national history, and of historical fiction and the writing of verse seems to me to be pressure, but to have the state determine for you how much of that knowledge you’ve got to inculcate in all your students, and to have that state threaten not only their academic future and yours but also the continuing existence of your school on the basis of its statewide measure of such teaching is pressure.
This talk amounts to a kind of infomercial, since I’m here not only as a faculty member who teaches in the English department but also as director of something called the Center for the Liberal Arts (CLA).2 Members of the University of Virginia English Department joined colleagues in a few other disciplines to found the Center in the 1980s, and an American literature professor named Hal Kolb served as its tireless director for its first fifteen years. CLA’s founding principles were simple: they said that primary and secondary school teachers need to know a lot of stuff; that university scholars in the arts and sciences know some of that stuff especially well; and that the two groups might work together in ways that would result in the teachers of Kindergarten-through-12th-grade students’ knowing more stuff and in the university faculty members also perhaps becoming more adept at their own work. Thousands of K-12 teachers have participated in CLA weekend and summer courses, as have hundreds of members of the UVa faculty, with the English Department having continued to take a conspicuous role, some of its most distinguished scholars having been among its most active workers—none more so than its two most recent chairmen, Michael Levenson and Gordon Braden, alongside Jahan Ramazani, Deborah McDowell, Hoyt Duggan, Karen Chase, Steve Cushman, Ray Nelson, and others really—really—too numerous to mention in my allotted time.
CLA has tended to assume that professors in the arts and sciences might have much to offer K-12 teachers in the way of content—that we might help English teachers know more about literature and composition, say, and help social studies teachers know more about history and anthropology and economics, and help science teachers know more about physics and chemistry and biology—but we’ve been more reticent about pedagogy, guessing that most arts and sciences professors lack sufficient acquaintance with the conditions of pre-college classrooms to be able to offer specific guidance there. We’ve found, anyway, that teachers either prefer to make their own applications from what they learn in our programs or to see our programs as a chance to think about their subjects in ways detached from the pressures of their classrooms. While those assumptions, findings, and deferrals have allowed us to focus our efforts in ways that speak to the scholarly strengths of the arts and sciences faculty, they have also permitted us to treat the divide between K-12 and what comes after as absolute—just as most university practices do.
Exceptions may be found in departments and disciplines that conceive of their introductory courses as transmitting some agreed-upon body of information and practices; if you feel sure that your students must have attained a specific level of competency by the end of your freshman year course, then you’ll want to know exactly what arriving students can and can’t do. But for a discipline or department that shares no clear consensus about what students need as an intellectual foundation for college study, there may seem little practical incentive for coming to understand the common knowledge bases of one’s arriving students. I’m trying to suggest here that we have particular intellectual incentives for being interested in the way knowledge and skills are treated in primary and secondary school classrooms: indeed, I am trying to suggest that the combination of vast, intense obligations and limited resources that faces our K-12 colleagues makes them some of the best possible partners in considering issues such as textuality, disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, definitions of and approaches to culture, the deployment of diverse media, conceptions of academic professionalism, and the functions and properties of literature.
The University of Virginia learned last week that it may have a substantial incentive for thinking of our interests as continuous with those of K-12 schools: it learned that it’s been asked to apply for a five-year, five-million-dollar grant aimed at conjoining us with our education school colleagues towards the reform of teacher preparation, and towards reforming it in ways that combine deeper knowledge of content with more sustained pedagogical training. The granting agency, that is, believes that a qualified teacher needs not only to have majored, while an undergraduate, in the subject he or she will teach, but moreover, “integrative knowledge of the nature of his or her discipline, its premises, modes of inquiry, and limits of understanding.” Thus, says that agency, “faculty appointed within the disciplines of the arts and sciences must be fully and functionally engaged in the education of prospective teachers,”3 engagement it foresees as including mentorship not just while teachers are receiving their own educations but also once they have gone into their classrooms.
UVa has decided to target half a dozen subject areas in its planning for the grant, and English is, unsurprisingly, one of them. This would quite explicitly mean continuing to consider the future of our discipline, since the foundation is dedicated to national reform and will only approve ideas that are plainly replicable, ones that we might pass on to our colleagues in other places. There is good reason to think that the Modern Language Association is prepared to be an able and willing vehicle in that process, for its Teacher Education Project published the 1999 volume Preparing a Nation’s Teachers that highlighted work of this kind done here and elsewhere, and since MLA has since continued to focus on its members’ relation to the schools. It was indeed in the 1994 MLA forum presided over by Patricia Meyer Spacks that UVa Spanish Department member and CLA co-founder David Gies urged, “We must help students hone their teaching skills, since they will be called on to be Jacks and Jills of all trades.”4
The toughest group for the Center for the Liberal Arts to reach has long been elementary school teachers, because the range of knowledge that’s required of them seems significantly removed from what our faculty usually profess. Now that the commonwealth of Virginia has assigned knowledge of “the characteristics of folk tales, biographies, and autobiographies” to the third grade, knowledge of the characteristics of “free verse, rhymed, and patterned poetry” to the fifth grade, and analysis of “the possible cause-effect relationships between mass media coverage and public opinion trends” to eighth grade English, there are specialists we can direct towards those grade levels; but we’ll need to organize the knowledge we export in new and efficient ways if we are going to help third grade teachers consider how their pupils’ study of autobiography might usefully coincide with their learning about “relationships among organisms in aquatic and terrestrial food chains” or how eighth graders’ introduction to media analysis might usefully coincide with learning about ancient Greece from 2,000 to 300 B.C., as well as exponents, heat and heat transfer, and their required development of “hypermedia ‘home page’ documents.”5
The grant’s also going to challenge us to think about developmental patterns for the kinds of learning we mean to foster. One of UVa’s ideas for the money is to fund university courses in subjects that teachers need but that seem outside departments’ usual priorities: subjects like algebra, geography, and earth science. Surely there are equivalents in English: that is, there are kinds of knowledge we assume students must arrive with if they are to be satisfactory participants in whatever beginnings we initiate in our department. But since our principal traditional subjects—literature and writing—are described in identical terms at all levels (without clear and distinguishable stages such as algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus), the developmental processes inherent in what we teach may be harder to mark. And the fact is that English studies have a future, a mandated future: the children of Virginia are required to learn English and American literary history, as well as principles of genre and interpretation, presented in vocabulary that’s not very different from the categories traditional to introductory college English courses: eleventh graders must, for instance, “describe the development of American literature in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries” and must be able to “contrast” such “periods in American literature.” As we have gotten better and better in recent years in studying the consequences of literary study for the formations of the early American Republic, Victorian Britain, and anglophone colonies, we may continue also to think of contemporary school curricula as among the key proving grounds for the skills and content we have long professed, or as necessary preparatory sites for what we now think we ought to profess.
A lot of CLA’s work is with social studies teachers in the local county schools, and last week their social studies coordinator asked me for help with what the College Board—the educational testing people—calls “vertical teaming.”6 A vertical team begins with an 11th or 12th grade teacher who has been taught by the College Board to know what he or she should offer students a course designed to achieve something like college equivalence. Then they work backwards: the 10th grade teacher learns to prepare her or his students so that they can successfully enter that 11th or 12th grade Advanced Placement course, and the 9th grade teacher learns to prepare students for entering the 10th grade course, and so on, all the way back through middle school. College membership in those teams is ghostly: that is, we are represented through the Advanced Placement program’s approximation of our aims in the way it describes 11th and 12th grade courses that may ultimately issue in college credit. Much of the way our discipline has developed in recent years has prepared us in fact to be very able active participants in vertical teams; and in such teams we could learn better to understand the consequences of our work for the students we inherit, for the teachers who train them, and for our own classrooms. The near future at UVa may provide graduate students and faculty with financial incentives for making such connections, and our local technologies, intellectual resources, and past experience qualify us particularly to undertake them; the skepticism of politicians about the value of our scholarship means, I think, that we can expect other sorts of incentives—call them pressure—to assess our work in terms of a broader American future. I think that’s good news. I think we’ll be good at it, and I think it’ll be fun.
1. All quotations are from “Grade Four Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools,” http://www.pen.k12.va.us/VDOE/Superintendent/Sols/4sol.pdf.
2. The Center’s mission, history, and recent programs are described at http://www.virginia.edu/cla/.
3. See http://www.carnegie.org/sub/news/teachers.html for the Carnegie Corporation’s announcement.
4. David T. Gies, “Responsibilities? Dream On!” Profession 95 (published by Modern Language Association).
5. See http://www.pen.k12.va.us/VDOE/Superintendent/Sols/home.shtml for a full account of the Standards.
6. The program is described at http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/teachers/pre-ap/0,1289,153-175-0-0,00.html
|TEI markup by John Unsworth|