Saturday, January 20, 2007

My Life Among the Anglo-Saxonists: More Anomie, Despair, and Self-Immolation

Figure 1. Still image of Professor Dent in Dr. No (1962)

For a long time now, within medieval studies, the Anglo- Saxonists have identified themselves as the tribe most reluctant to come out of the bush and face modernity. I realize that what I just wrote, quite purposefully, is about as politically incorrect as I could possibly make it on several different levels, and I also know that what I am about to write further may get me in some trouble, so let me begin with two disclaimers and a caveat:

Disclaimer 1. Some of the most brilliant, humane, and thoroughly "modern" people I know work [and have worked] in Anglo-Saxon studies, and I do not mean to imply in my remarks that all Anglo-Saxonists are of a particular philosophical bent or stripe--that would be purely idiotic and stupid.

Disclaimer 2. The thoughts expressed in this post are mine and mine alone, and do not represent the feelings or beliefs of either Jeffrey J. Cohen or Karl Steel, nor do Jeffrey or Karl lend to my post, ahead of the fact, their silent imprimatur or approval.

Caveat. Blog posts, by their very nature, and although occasionally written in a very high, polished, and academic style, are meant to be [I believe] somewhat "spur of the moment" and reactionary. In other words, we don't treat blog writing the same way we treat essays and articles published in scholarly journals, or even papers presented at conferences. My comments here are just that: reactionary, in the moment, off the cuff, and as tenuous as the wind, yet also truly felt.

Having said all that, I recently stumbled across a post, "More on the State of the Field," over at Unlocked Wordhoard (Dr. Richard Nokes), which is a response to a post, "Again with the State of the Field," at Wormtalk and Slugspeak (Dr. Michael Drout), which is a response to the post, by Tiruncula, "What does a healthy field look like from the inside?" at Practica, which is a response to Michael Drout's even earlier post, "State of the Field." And since all of this, Drout has added some more comments, "An Example," with more comments likely to come. Whew.

In a kind of nutshell, the "upshot" of all this is the well-worn caveat that Anglo-Saxon [or, Old English] studies are in real trouble because: a) they are not valued by departments of English who do not any more embrace nor understand the worth of philology- and textual-based studies, and therefore actual positions and even resources for Anglo-Saxon scholars are simply cut away or lack requisite funding and support, from both academic institutions and publishers; or, b) they have refused to engage meaningfully with contemporary critical approaches to textual culture and are therefore the true "left behind." So, either, Anglo-Saxon studies have been purposefully marginalized [and even, excised] by Others, or Anglo-Saxon studies has willfully marginalized itself. OR, yet another way of putting it, via Michael Drout, might be this: "Using an ecology metaphor, you might say that Anglo-Saxonists are like a species that's healthy, genetically diverse and parasite free but whose habitat is being rapidly destroyed." By which he means: within Anglo-Saxon studies itself, there is a healthy development of "new" directions and approaches and subject matter, which nevertheless cannot flourish because of certain long-held prejudices against the study of the past, especially the medieval past. But while Drout, and others, are quick to point to their approval of "new" directions in the field, there is always simultaneously a kind of lament for [and anger toward] the supposed abdication of what Anglo-Saxon studies should really be about: language study, and language study only; or no, that's not it somehow--rather: language study first, before anything else.

There are few brave souls in Anglo-Saxon studies [Allen Frantzen is one of them and his book Desire for Origins pretty much sums up this whole argument, circa 1990] who are willing to argue that "b" is the more likely culprit than "a" [and, in some situations, "b" leads directly to "a"] for the supposed "state of affairs" in Anglo-Saxon studies, and there are some--typically those Old English scholars ensconced at places like Cambridge and Toronto--who will argue that things have, actually, never been better for the field. But putting all that aside for the moment, I am more distressed to hear these kinds of comments coming from scholars working within the field [not just of Anglo-Saxon studies, but even medieval studies more generally]:

It strikes me that the problem is that we have abandoned literature. Too often, the study of Anglo-Saxon literature is that it has been abandoned for the practice of philosophy-lite and history-lite. . . .we already have people who do philosophy and do it better than those in English departments do it. We call these people "philosophers" and house them in philosophy departments. [Nokes]

Anglo-Saxon studies and philology are a highly irritating rebuke to most of the rest of the sub-disciplines in English because our intellectual practices are a direct refutation of one of the central dogmas of literary studies: that all "knowledge is situated and contingent." . . . The discipline of philology has, since Grimm (and maybe even since Rask and Bopp) built up a great deal of knowledge that is valuable exactly because it is not contingent and situated in any meaningful sense. . . .far too many English professors and graduate students don't really know much about how English works. Oh, they know all about how Language works, but this is all knowledge at an incredibly high level of abstraction (binary oppositions, prisonhouses of language). Ask a colleague to explain semantic shifts over time or phonological change or the influence of Old Norse on English and you'll get a blank look. . . . Anglo-Saxonists . . . do know how language works (and the most important thing about how language works is that it changes in certain regular, though complex, ways). But we are a distinct and embattled minority in English departments. And, I would assert, we are in such a minority position exactly because we possess knowledge and disciplinary practices that call into question the work that other members of the profession do, and so for them the easiest thing to do is to ignore and marginalize us. . . . [BUT] We practice, as one of my students said with joy and wonder, "English with right and wrong answers." We should show how this is valuable and how our colleagues do need us. . . . [what] we should do is to focus on language and how it works in a historical sense rather than an abstract philosophical sense. Literary studies suffers from a continuous pull in two directions: towards solipsism and towards politics--you end up with "that text means this to me" or "that text illustrates this political/social phenomenon." [Drout]


I am not making the argument that there should be no politics or sociology or philosophy in English. And I don't actually see how one could have language analysis without history. But those other disciplines should be subordinate to what we should be able to do best: analyze language, narrative and culture in ways that are not easily accessible to political scientists, sociologists or philosophers. Our game should be played on our home field. [Drout]


Michael Drout is by no means a conservative troglodyte in his scholarship, and anyone familiar with his work knows, as Tiruncula notes on her post [cited above], that he is not someone who just "does philology." He is as interested in politics and culture and history as he is in language, and he is adept at crossing disciplines in interesting and creative ways, but his comments above, similar to those of Richard Nokes, also cited above, belie a kind of lament for the idea that, somehow, language doesn't matter to us, as scholars of literature [whether medieval or modern], as much as it should, and further, that, somehow, language is so primary that it precedes everything else: history, culture, politics, identity, etc. And, like many laments of this type that I have tired of hearing ever since I was in graduate school [early to mid-1990s], it both exercises the either/or fallacy [either we're language study experts or we are pseudo-scholars pretending to know things we can't possibly know if we're not langauge experts first] while at the same time declaiming that what it really desires is both/and [of course we should talk about history and culture and politics and philosophy but only from the perspective of a language expert--wouldn't that be the best of both worlds?]. Because Michael Drout is, in fact, a language expert [much more so than I am, that's for damn sure], and I admire his expertise in that area, he is also very comfortable throwing around his disciplinary linguistics knowledge in order to criticize a paper he heard in the field of contemporary ethnic literature [see the link above to the post "An Example"]. Indeed, he claims that, due to that paper's seeming lack of engagement with "real" language study, it possesses a "hideous lacuna" at its center--while at the same time, he does not acknowledge work being done in the cognitive sciences that is challenging the idea that, as he would have it, language is not "situated" in any meaningful sense. For starters, it is situated in a human body, which is itself always situated somewhere, and that, my friend, is fucking meaningful. And even if it's true that Grimm's and Verner's and other semantics "laws" supposedly point to always-verifiable-and-unchanging-over-time "truths" or "facts," what to do with such knowledge? Is language reducible, then, to a kind of mathematics--in other words, is it really that abstract? Are we really going to claim, after all this time, that language study is a science? In some ways, this points to what Drout's arguments are really all about: techne versus arche.

Just some observations and questions. And speaking of science, I believe my laptop battery is about to go "kaput." So that's all folks. At least, for now. Cheers, Eileen

12 comments:

John Walter said...

For starters, it is situated in a human body, which is itself always situated somewhere, and that, my friend, is fucking meaningful.
Indeed. Language may change "in certain regular, though complex, ways," but it's also an embodied phenomena. And we need to remember that the discipline of philology, and the greater Grimmian Revolution, as Shippey calls it, developed for nationalistic purposes.

And for all of Drout's talk of English with right and wrong answers, I find Drout arguing that what we should study is knowledge that contingent and situated: "[what] we should do is to focus on language and how it works in a historical sense rather than an abstract philosophical sense."

I don't think that Drout and Nokes are aruging the same thing even if one or both of them think they are. While Nokes suggests that we can study literature and language without history, Drout states that he doesn't see how on could study language without history.

I'm really not sure where I'm going with this, but the issue seems to not be a debate over the nature of knowledge or literature vs. theory. The issue seems to be the extent to which we engage language, literature, and culture from a historical and comparativist approach.

Thanks for this post. I'm glad to see this discussion pushed in additional directions.

Eileen Joy said...

John--thanks for your comments, and hopefully, you will continue to think about this and post on it some more. I appreciate some of the distinctions you are drawing that, in one sense, differentiate some of Drout's and Nokes's comments--they are not necessarily saying the same thing, while at the same time, they are both, in different ways, diss-ing the idea that one could, say, "do" literary studies from perspectives *outside* of language-based literary studies--whatever that might actually mean, I honestly don't know. I appreciate that Drout is interested in the historical dimension of language [I mean, duh, I *get* that], while at the same time, it blows my mind that he also avers that it is not "situated in any meaningful sense." Perhaps there is some frisson in the space between these remarks that Drout himself can clarify.

Having said that, and having charged my laptop battery and returned to the scene of my former blog crimes, I have these other observations regarding the recent comments, mainly, on Drout's blog:

In his post, "Again with the State of the Field," Drout suggests a way that "we" [meaning Anglo-Saxonists"] might reinvigorate our field. To whit, he writes,

"I believe that a renewed focus on language would thus re-invigorate the discipline, bringing in more students and helping us to argue to parents, legislators and critics that what we do is valuable not just in terms of some kind of nebulous 'critical thinking,' but in really specific terms. This would mean a serious engagement with contemporary synchronic linguistics as well as historical linguistics, and with the cognitive psychology of reading and memory, as well as with conditions of physical and economic production, distribution and evaluation of literature (the kind of work which is done outside of medieval studies)."

Sounds like a great plan, but there are some seriously misguided assumptions here. First, who are "we" Anglo-Saxonists, anyway? I didn't realize that "we" all stood together or shared assumptions about the supposed "plight" of our field. Perhaps "I"--an Anglo-Saxonist who is less interested in language study and *more* interested in that stuff that, according to Drout, is "done" on the *outside* of medieval studies, do not want to conduct my classes in this way. Okay--YES, as an Anglo-Saxonist, I understand very well how important an attention to language is in our discipline [it is de rigeur, in fact], but I also know who and what sources to consult to get my facts straight on Old English linguistics, and I spend more time in my own work and teaching focusing on, yeah, more philosophical subjects. There are many many different ways that many of us in the field could teach our subject with an eye toward developing genuine student excitement about our field. There is and never will be just *one* way to do it. On top of which, if we were to all follow Drout's suggested model, then we would *all* have to be experts in, as he writes, "contemporary synchronic linguistics as well as historical linguistics, and with the cognitive psychology of reading and memory." The assumption here is that all Anglo-Saxonists are already well versed in these areas, but many of them are not--does this mean that they are not good Anglo-Saxonists? Am I not qualified to write on "Beowulf" if, although I can read the language and am familiar with all of the debates over the language and orthography of the manuscript, and am also well versed in the history of the scholarship on the poem, yet I am not at all familiar with contemporary synchronic linguistics? The scholarship in our field on the "metrics" of "Beowulf" is immense, yet I cannot claim much knowledge in that area as it doesn't interest me in the slightest. Am I deficient, then, in my understanding of "Beowulf" and ill-equipped to either write about it or teach it? This is gate-keeping at its worst, in my mind. Anglo-Saxonists do not constitute a "we" and it is precisely because many in the field believe we do consitute a "we" that we have so many problems. The future of our field will not depend on circling the wagons, but on sending them in as many different directions as possible.

I should share here that I share with Drout and others who have critized postmodern philosophy some healthy skepticism toward the idea that "everything is contingent." It's only right that we not dogmatize the knowledge of our disciplines, whether that knowledge is philosophical, linguistic, or otherwise in nature. But whether we like it, yes Virginia, everything really is political--it's just that, sometimes, nothing much is at stake.

J J Cohen said...

What's up with that "everything is contingent" / "the cultural construction of everything" aspersion anyway? So easy to volley at one's straw enemies (guaranteed easy ignition of them), so tough to attach with any good bibliography to a particular deep thinker. Not Foucault, certainly, not Derrida ... who? Some crazy person on the internet? It'd be useful to have more specificity in such arguments.

It's also interesting how even a deep knowledge of language change doesn't necessarily put all that much in your tool box for explaining the processes, catalysts, motivations of such change, or of historical change more generally.

An intriguing post, Eileen: polemical and provocative. And you've been very much missed on this blog. Welcome back!

J J Cohen said...

PS Interesting, too, how much of the posting of late has been about gate keeping and who gets to set out the parameters and history of identities.

Liza said...

I'm not sure I'm entirely equipped to speak to the contingency of knowledge just yet, but what struck me as a bit odd was Drout's (The Nokes link didn't work for me) emphasis on *language* as *the* primary node of analysis. At a talk I heard by the author of University Diaries [alas, don't know how to html tag -- it's on JJC's blogroll I believe], she argued that literary studies should not focus on politics, say, but should do something no other departments were able to do (close readings of literature); that way, when it came time to doll out money amongst departments we had, as Eileen beautifully puts it, circled our wagons way in advance. (I will point out, though, that changing our focus in order to attract more money seems like a very political argument to me indeed, though perhaps a different kind of politics.)

The difference here is that Drout doesn't seem to mind drawing from other departments, or rather, department: linguistics. While he mourns the combination of early-med, late-med, and Shakespeare -- and while he complains of literary studies' doing "philosophy-lite" and "history-lite" -- he seems to imagine the ideal step as a merge between English (or just Anglo-Saxonists?) and linguistics. This quote is couched at a key point in his (second) argument as if it is a crippling blow:
That's what a philosopher of language (and frequent interlocutor of Derrida) thinks of the English department's use of philosophy of language: "embarrassingly incompetent." His point is that there are scholars who know how language works, but they are in departments of linguistics, not departments of English.

The location within the argument, and the self-emphasizing structure within the comment itself (repeating "embarrassingly incompetent" as a punchline you have to wait for rather than up-front, for example) seems to shout out that this is an incredibly important point ... but doesn't it *make sense* that scholars in linguistics departments would have a better sense of "how language works" on the close (historically contingent, according to john walter), right-or-wrong level that he requires? It might be a useful experiment to go back and reread Drout's argument replacing "Anglo-Saxonists" with "linguists" in his statements along the lines of "Anglo-Saxonists are essential": how would that alter his argument? And what would it mean if it didn't alter it much? Don't Anglo-Saxonists have a lot more to offer?

Don't get me wrong, I love linguistics as much as the next -- both the abstract philosophical and the nitty gritties of phonology, syntax, historical plotting, and so on -- but at the same time it seems limiting to make this, as Eileen points out in her follow-up comment, *the* first and sometimes only mode of analysis. Sometimes a literary work requires close linguistic study, and sometimes it doesn't.

Drawing on JJC, I'd like to point out that both the UD argument (for English departments) and Drout's argument (for Anglo-Saxonists) have the same central drive behind them: we are important because no one is quite like us. Other people need us because we can do something others can't.

If we're going to define our field(s) by identity, by identifying ourselves, might we start by bringing in theories of identity to ask what that means? (For example, I started last night, and became engrossed in, Manuel deLanda's Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, and he begins by reviewing Deleuze's method of, when questioning something's identity, replacing intrinsic essences by active transformations. In this new system, "figures are classified by their response to events that occur to them.") If there's anything I learned in undergrad and graduate school, as I slowly and awkwardly come to "identify" myself as a scholar of literature, it is that I'm not mastering an area by difference (I do ____ while philosophy does philosophy and linguistics studies language), but mastering an ability to sense -- and provide for -- when a text needs more historical analyses and when it asks for philosophical analyses (insert various "ical"s here). In short ... I would identify myself not by what I do, but by how the texts I read transform my scholarly work, and transform what it means for me to be (or become -- I've got a way to go yet) a scholar.

Good to see you back, Eileen!

Eileen Joy said...

Liza, thanks so much for your fabulous comments, and also for pointing out problems with some of the hyperlinks in the original post, which I have now fixed.

Liza's attention to the issue of professional *identity* speaks to what I believe is the real subject the percolates within the anxieties [and even, hostilities] of some of the comments we hear [whether from Margaret Soltan, Michael Drout, or others in English studies] regarding what it is, exactly, we are supposed to be doing/safe-guarding. [It has to be, noted, too, that sometimes these commentaries have nothing to do with professional anxiety or anger but simply stem from good, old-fashioned grouchily elitist tendencies, which is, frankly, how I often read many of Nokes's and Soltan's blog posts]. This issue is not wholly unrelated to the dialogue that has been spawned by JJC's post on "Women, Monsters, Identity," where a lot of anxiety has been voiced over the issue of various "essential" identity markers [such as "real woman"] coming up against more radically fluid identity markers [such as transgender "monster" who also happens to be "man" and "woman" and Other to both]. I lean, as always, toward the cause of a radical pluralism that, in Kristeva's words, would be "unamenable to bonds and communities."

But let's return, once again, to Michael Drout's blog, where in his latest [and frankly, really interesting] post, he tells us this:

". . . with the help of a colleague in Computer Science, I am developing an interface that will take data about a manuscript and present it in graphic form. If this works, a user will be able to see the relationships within the manuscript."

Drout includes a very cool sketch that illustrates how this might look, and also tells us that he is in the final editing stages of his audiobook project "Beowulf Aloud." [Go here for more on all of that: http://wormtalk.blogspot.com/2007/01/visual-display-of-manuscript.html.]

My reason for highlighting this is that, by his own admission, Drout is a scholar who crosses disciplinary lines--from literary criticism to linguistics to computer science to performance to manuscript studies, and on and on and on. And let's not forget that he is also the editor of "Tolkien Studies" [meaning he is also--ohmygod--a modernist]. The field of Anglo-Saxon studies is greatly enriched by the work of Michael Drout and there is no one quite "like him," just as, I hope, there is no one quite "like me." To have discussions about which department or discipline one's work most properly *belongs* in is so utterly ridiculous on the face of it, I don't even know where to begin. In the humanities, at least, you cannot separate language studies from literary criticism, which itself cannot be separated from history or philosophy, which themselves need language study, literary studies, and textual studies. Throw in new technologies for textual studies and linguistic analysis, the cognitive sciences, etc., and you've got a big mix of all sorts of knowledge disciplines which are utterly dependent upon each other. The idea of disciplinary "divisions" is utterly artificial and is both historically and culturally constructed. This is not to say that certain narrowly-defined knowledge specializations aren't either utterly essential or interesting for their own sake--think heart surgery or painting--but even these cannot operate in a complete cultural or disciplinary vacuum. We mark boundaries either to make our work more manageable and/or directed to a specific objective, to claim a piece of turf, or to keep others out [or all three]. Disciplinary boundaries can be beneficial and useful, but they are not necessarily "natural" nor "hallowed." I think that, sometimes, traditions, which can be quite useful as repositories of wisdom and history, can also sometimes harden into oppressive and strangulating regimes that suck all the air out of innovation and creativity. Creativity, in this scenario, is often feared, or treated as the foreigner without the proper "papers."

As Liza beautifully points out,

"If there's anything I learned in undergrad and graduate school, as I slowly and awkwardly come to 'identify' myself as a scholar of literature, it is that I'm not mastering an area by difference (I do ____ while philosophy does philosophy and linguistics studies language), but mastering an ability to sense -- and provide for -- when a text needs more historical analyses and when it asks for philosophical analyses (insert various "ical"s here). In short ... I would identify myself not by what I do, but by how the texts I read transform my scholarly work, and transform what it means for me to be (or become -- I've got a way to go yet) a scholar."

Very well put, and the way I would re-state it is to say that we need to possess, as scholars of literature, a certain *open-ness* to texts--that we need to approach our work with all of our specific-to-our-discpline skills "at the side," so to speak ["ready" for our use of them when helpful], but also with a mind able to be surprised at what cannot be anticipated or un-covered only with what we already think we know. We read, furthermore, in other disciplines--sometimes disciplines that are even widely distinct from our own: particle physics, lets's say--also to be surprised, to find what we didn't know we were looking for, and to always be refreshing our thought and scholarly work outside the loop of our so-called "tradition."

Eileen Joy said...

Because I am worried that my statements could appear overly polemical, and even unfair, I just realized that I also really need to say this:

Michael Drout is absolutely, 100% right to worry about the lack of support--from institutions, but also publishers--for the kind of tools and resources that are absolutely essential to the work of Anglo-Saxon studies, and medieval studies more generally. And the work of someone like a Michael Drout or a Kevin Kiernan [who produced, with The British Library, "The Electronic Beowulf"] or a R.D. Fulk and Robert Bjork [who are working on the fourth edition of Klaeber's edition of "Beowulf"] is absolutely essential to the work I want to do with Old English poetry. Drout is right to be worried about the devaluing [and even de-funding] of language- and manuscript-oriented work, since that would, indeed, have a direct impact on those of us who absolutely depend on that work being done--by somebody, somewhere, although it has to also be admitted that a lot of that work *is* getting donw--witness the "Dictionary of Old English" project at the University of Toronto. I just want Drout to know how much I value his work [and him], while I also simply cannot agree with him at all regarding what it is "all of us" should be doing in our work, or that language is not "situated in a meaningful way," or that "critical thinking" is a somehow nebulous enterprise, or that literary studies without knowledge of fields such as contemporary synchronic linguistics is somehow bogus.

John Walter said...

Eileen,

You're not going to get any argument from me and I hope I didn't come across as doing so. I'm not keen on the being told what I need to do to be a "real" Anglo-Saxonist or a medievalist or a literary scholar either, but I think I'm now unconsciously ignore such statements most of the time. After all, I don't fit anywhere by their accounts. (And I get it from certain elements in the rhet/comp community as well.)

Mainly, I wanted to respond to the line I quoted because it's one of the best lines I've read in quite a while. And I also wanted to point out that I read a distinction between Nokes and Drout. I'm not really sure what of make of Drout's posts because I read too much conflict within them: I don't think his posts actually support his claim that a renewed study in language is what's needed to save literary studies, English studies, or Anglo-Saxon studies.

I'm sure I'm also reading some of Shippey into all of this as well, which Drout himself invites. What that means, however, is that when Drout writes "[what] we should do is to focus on language and how it works in a historical sense rather than an abstract philosophical sense," I can't but help include branches of sociolinguistics such as pragmatics, stylistics, and discourse analysis (all of which I've learned from Shippey) as well as psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics (which I've stumbled into), all of which are, in one way or another, rhetorical studies of language. I agree with Drout that we, at least in the US, have largely left such issues to departments of linguistics.

But the problem with claims that all we need to do is focus on "x" is that X gets its meaning from its relationships to everything that's not X.

I've always liked Walter Ong's take on what English studies is. When asked in a letter why he went into English for graduate school when his background was in classics, theology, philosophy, and biology, Ong responded, "[why] I took up with English for my MA and PhD, I might say that English seemed intellectually and culturally roomier and more open than other subjects. It could encompass what they did and more--could open the way into almost anything." And in a 1971 publication, "English 2000 A.D.," Ong wrote:

"I suspect that at its best English in the future will continue to develop by reaching out and pulling in around itself as many as possible of the other always burgeoning humanistic subjects (including the sciences in their manifold humanistic dimensions)....Perhaps the end result will be the emergence of a multidisciplinary field of study, which we can hope will not be invincibly chaotic and which we might be styled anthropology in the deepest sense of this term, with various foci, these for English being around the verbally produced artifact."

That's what I want, though I'd add visual artificats was well as verbally produced artificats.

If I had to guess, I'd suggest that attempts to define the field and the larger disciplines as "X" are attempts to reign in the chaos, which for them, has seemingly become "invincibly chaotic" whether or not it really has. I find it among those with good, old-fashioned grouchily elitist tendencies, as well as among the neo-formalists, the philologists, and even the high theorists. Not all, of course, but some.

And when I look at what Drout does, and even at some of what he says in these posts, I can't take his argument at face value, at least not in any narrow sense. And it's in trying to reconcile his word and deed that has be both puzzled and intrigued.

Karl Steel said...

A small point, one you're welcome to ignore, but as Drout is writing in part against the destruction of our profession, I want to offer this, from "Thomas H. Benton" in the Chronicle, yet another threnody about the state of the profession:

At many places, it's already too late for the MLA's band-aid solutions. We have arrived at a point at which the tenured faculty, to paraphrase Grover Norquist, is small enough to drown in the bathtub. Maybe some of us can continue to eke out a livelihood in the humanities as we know them for another 10, maybe 20 years, but, unless you are close enough to the end of your career, I would recommend preparing some kind of professional exit strategy.

Better advice: Do not go to graduate school in the humanities in the first place -- not unless you are independently wealthy or, for some reason, you don't mind the strong possibility that six or more years of hard work and lost opportunity will come to nothing but competing at a disadvantage against new college graduates for entry-level jobs.


It's nice to see that this discussion, which could have very well collapsed into a flame war, has been advancing with collegiality: thanks to Joy, Noakes, Drout, and their commentors. But I worry about whether or not the talk of how to characterize ourselves to save our profession, which is after all where this particular version of this conversation started, is missing to point. To wit, I'm afraid it might not matter very much how we market ourselves to other departments. We can explain ourselves whichever way we like, but there are systematic "problems" in our profession that can't be fixed without destroying the profession itself. Because we're not moneymakers for schools, because our graduates don't get anywhere near as wealthy as graduates the vocational disciplines, and because, well, we can't compete with the sciences in offering ways to stop global warming or whatever this week's apocalyptic horror is, we're fundamentally, irreparably disposable.

I offer this comment only as a parentheses, knowing that finally all I might be able to offer in defense of my profession is: I love it; and my students seem to like my classes. And, as a medievalist, I do work--as Drout observed--with the past in languages and discourses that would, without medievalists, be utterly inaccessible. I'm just not sure that's enough to preserve us.

letty said...

Good discussion.
I do notice a certain 'fear' of linguistics among undergrads and administrators that can lead to the marginalisation of Anglo-Saxon studies (and Middle English, too):
a lot of students here claim that learning Old English is too hard, and some administrators are eager to humour them. In one place (not my present uni), we were even asked whether we could provide Chaucer in translation rather than in the original.
My boyfriend can see the same thing happening in classical studies, where more and more students only do the 'in translation' component.

The Heroic Age said...

Well, I'm about to leave, and invite further and deeper discussion on the issue, but I'd like to seriously question whether "linguistics" is really "anothter department" or another discipline, at least as an Anglo-Saxonist practices it generally. Let's not forget that modern linguistics was born from the English dept and our study of language.

I would also like to invite (ok, I'm inviting a lot of people to comment on this in Heroic Age, more anon Eileen because I haven't sent you an invite yet just having read this blog) a scholar or 2 or 3 outside North America to comment on this too. Suggestions?

Eileen Joy said...

Larry [Heroic Age]--thanks for stopping by! I'd love to participate in a more formal forum relative to this debate. As to scholars outside of North America, perhaps Michael Lapidge, M.C. Godden, or Hugh Magennis? Just some thoughts. I have a lot MORE I want to say, relative to recent comments, but have to hold off until I return from Chicago on Saturday. Cheers, Eileen