Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Why I Teach Literature Meme

We here at In the Middle have been tagged for the Why I Teach Literature meme, and I thought I’d take some time this morning/afternoon to respond to that tag. But first, an anecdote: For years, back in college, I thought that “meme” (used in the context of livejournal, facebook, etc) was a compound of “me-me” – i.e., the first person pronoun. As in, “this post is all about me! Me and my thoughts! Me! ME!” I’ve since learned it references Richard Dawkins and mimetic theory, and refers to a unit of cultural information that is passed on (like a virus! or a gene...) in the information-web that is the internet. But if it’s a selfish meme, maybe my first interpretation holds a bit. And speaking of selfish memes, I wouldn't want my meme to make you miss ITM's other post today, from JJC, in which the Middle Ages get ecologically sustainable (if only in model form).

I’ll admit, when it comes to speaking of the supposed “value” of the humanities, I have an instinctual urge to cringe. Even though I’ve only been in grad school for three and a half years, I’ve learned what inevitably comes next. It’s either a massive number of people yelling “of course what I do matters, how can this not matter, here’s how I matter!” or – to pick on someone who is no doubt steeled against the arguments and quibbles of mere graduate students to the point of not even noticing them – Stanley Fish’s recent NYTimes blog posts that began the Spring 2008 semester with a hearty “We are worthless.”

I quote Fish at length:
It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.
To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

Will the Humanities Save Us? Stanley Fish says: No. They won’t. To which I respond – Of course the humanities can’t save us. I do interesting research, I hope, but it’s not life-saving. However, his more specific question – that of their use – is, I think, disingenuous. I find it disingenuous because it does not address the single thing academics in the humanities do that does influence the world around us: we teach. Teaching must have a use, surely, else why do it?

A number of my blogosphere colleagues have responded to this debate, and generated some debate of their own in doing so. I've not read all of them as yet (and have only linked to the ones I have read through) -- but you can get a full list of those who have responded at Free Exchange on Campus. What I'd like to outline here is teaching literature as teaching connections, and teaching tools for making connections. I'm also interested in hearing what the blogging population of scholars thinks about this question -- my co-bloggers, and readers of ITM, this means you! Eileen has responded at bit at the Kugelmass Episodes.

I teach because analysis matters. I wrote a paper my first year of graduate school – before I’d ever taught a class – on “The Future of Literary Studies”. Highly idealistic, I wrote the following:

What is perhaps most striking, however, is that in literature, theory, science, religion, art and even history—the only thing humanity can consistently prove it is doing is telling stories.... [I also argue that we therefore should analyze all stories, not merely fictive ones.] Literary study is the critical reading and evaluation of literature. And what is literature, if it is not the (scientific, realistic, and even purely fantastic) stories we tell?

Now, ignoring my endless optimism and belief in my field (which has been tempered, though only a little, by the passing years) I think I would stand by this statement as one of the reasons I teach literature: humans need to be able to analyze the stories they are told. In my University Writing class, I do not teach “literature” per se and I certainly don’t teach medieval literature – but if there is one thing I hope my students learn from my course it’s that the stories we tell are not confined to the “classics” they are taught in Lit Hum. Just as influential are the narratives told by scientists (Richard Dawkins, for example, in his Selfish Gene and historians (Adrian Hastings in The Construction of Nationhood, or even Herodotus and Orosius!). More importantly, there are the political narratives: the speeches, the political discourse which in our sound-bite culture trades meaning and thought for a witty turn of phrase or a catch all assumption. I teach, then, because I hope to help students realize that the facts don’t always speak for themselves – in fact, they are often spoken for, used in ways that are ethically charged and moreover contested. Those assumptions need to be tested, questioned – engaged.

I cite it often, but perhaps you, dear readers, will forgive me if I cite it one more time. Kathleen Davis’ article “Time Behind the Veil: The Media, the Middle Ages, and Orientalism Now” (from The Postcolonial Middle Ages) is a perfect example of the stakes of literary studies. Her perceptive reading of public discourse about the Taliban’s restrictions on women in Afghanistan, and the western “reading” of that restriction as “medieval” (thereby allowing Diane Sawyer to travel “about an hour and a half back in to the mountains, and from what we’ve been reading, that’s several hundred years back in time”) matters to the continuation of that discourse. Moreover, it is a sensitive reading of the ways in which the media tells the story of a western world that must “save” the backwards, repressive Other by bringing the “East” forward in time to modernity. Using literary tools and techniques, Davis makes an argument that matters in modern society. Recognizing that these stories are not simply “what happened” (a list of facts and successive events that do not need interpretation) but rather a representation that can do very real things in the world. Stories have consequences, and those consequences are often wrought on people.

Finally, I teach because I do think literature can change lives, open horizons – all those things that seem so unrepentantly idealistic. Do I know this for fact? Not really. Stanley Fish says he never wanted to help his fellow man because of a poem. Further, he avers that one teaches the subject matter and any delayed effect of what happens in a classroom is contingent and cannot be aimed at . It’s a long road, and overly complicated, but literature did change my way of looking at the world – precisely because it taught me that I had to look at it. This wasn’t because “The Wanderer” is a poetic injunction to go out and change the world – rather, a professor who insisted on its complexity and nuance, the ways in which ideological forces are at war within it, taught me how to look closely at the text to parse the way it works in the society from which it came. And the ways in which it doesn’t, or doesn’t have to. Eileen, in her comment cited above, states that aesthetic study -- and moreover, I think, teaching literature -- is also about dreaming and being foolish, which is critically important, I think, for opening up avenues toward a creative and open-minded life which might be said to do some good in the world. It's a point of view with which I whole-heartedly agree -- I may have taken the ideas presented by my professor and done something with them, but I needed the tools she gave me to do so. That seems to me to be one very important function of teaching literature, one too often overlooked: teaching students not what to think, but how to think. Giving them the tools to pay attention.

I teach critical, close readings as a “refined way of paying attention.” In short – I ask that my students really look at our subject matter, whether it’s science or philosophy or politics. It’s surprising what you can notice if you’re paying attention – and if nothing else I do in the classroom sticks with my students, I hope they learn how to notice, how to engage, the discourses that the media and the world tries to feed them – and I hope it helps them to become more informed, and more aware, of the world we inhabit. I teach because I believe in connections. I teach because if we’re going to speak across languages and cultures, we need to do so carefully, generously – we need to pay attention to others, and we need to pay attention to ourselves – most importantly, I teach because I think literature and literary analysis (and yes, even freshman composition) gives students the tools they need not just in their lives, but the tools they need in our collective life on the singular multiplicity of habitations we call Earth.

cross posted to OEinNY.


Karl Steel said...

Thanks for this lovely post, Mary Kate. No time to respond to it as it deserves (I used up my blog time selfishly on my own (silly) post) except to recommend some reading! Sorry!

I know he's often been kicked around here, but I want to suggest (one of?) Lee Edelman's loving discussion of Barbara Johnson,"The Student of Metaphor" Differences 17 (2006): 195-204, where he considers Johnson's difficult relations with her own enjoyment of literature, how her initial love of metaphor shattered upon her discovery of Paul de Man's wartime journalism. With that, she had to be political or it was all for nothing.

But, as Edelman observes--and here is as gentle a version of his opposition to reproductive futurity as we might ever find--that the Nazis were also opposed to art for art's sake. He writes, "Isn’t her own repudiation of jouissance in favor of a practice of reading inflected by politics, and history, and referential responsibility, what Johnson, looking back as a teacher on her earlier experiences as a student, evokes in one of the most moving and resonant sentences she has written to date: 'All the responsible coverage or political correctness in the world cannot recover for me the intensity of that enjoyment.'" He then wonders whether she can actually renounce her pleasure in metaphor, or whether she can only cover that pleasure in guilt.

There's more to the argument than I can justice to here, now, but I cite him only because Edelman, regardless of how crazily negative ITM has often found him, does pleasure much better than Fish.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I've not read Edelman, Karl, but I'll try to pick it up when I get in to campus later today. It seems he does do pleasure than Fish -- though I should say that I didn't mean to come down as harshly on Fish as it might seem. He has some fantastic points in his posts, I just stole a few threads to begin weaving my own thoughts. I only just realize that I don't think I managed to express any sense of the aspect of aesthetic pleasure gained from reading literature (and teaching it). I don't quite know what to do with that -- but it's an interesting omission on my part.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

*"it seems he does do pleasure better than Fish"

I clearly can't type today.

Craig P. said...

Great post Mary Kate. We added it to the inventory of posts over at Free Exchange.

cps @ Free Exchange

LJS said...

Lovely post, MK. I wish Fish would notice such posts. Some idealism, supported as yours is by cogent argument, might do Stanley some good. He would, one might say, be less of a cold fish about things (sorry...).

One semester I asked my students on Day One whether they thought analysis mattered. Not a one of them spoke up to say it does, or to disagree with those who felt it didn't. Perhaps they misunderstood the terms of the question, or perhaps they had simply had very cynical winter breaks. Perhaps, though, they at that stage believed - having read their Fish or those in his school (sorry...) - that what they were up to didn't, couldn't matter. (They changed their tune, I'm glad to say.)

I'd say the fact that a group of Ivy League students could, at least by silence, refuse analysis, is precisely why we need to teach literature, poetry, the humanities (and other disciplines, though I can only speak directly for mine).

I'll stand by your optimism and idealism from that early paper. We have to recognize these stories in order to analyze them, and to discern the useful methods of analysis (one of which karl's comment points out). We also sometimes gain pleasure from the recognition of stories, the recognition that certain things are stories. Were I to see Stanley Fish around, I'd want to tell him that the humanities can exist for their own sake, not for a greater good, and that's fine, but more importantly they do often exist for a greater good. "This is not a story to pass on," Toni Morrison closes BELOVED with, its meanings multiple, uncertain, and essential. Too often that phrase can be true, and thankfully the study of the humanities is there often enough to explore the story, and its passing on. (Stanley, if you're reading, I first encountered that novel in, yes, a literature classroom. Sorry.)

The Heathen said...

The humanities are what make us human. That's all the justification they've ever needed for me. Teach on, Ms. Kate. You're my kind of prof!

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Thanks, Mary Kate, for your compelling thoughts on a subject that seems simple only at a very swift glance, but is in fact a mise en abîme! And Karl, thanks for finding the affirmative in Edelman, a critic who does have positives that haven't featured enough here at ITM.

I can't answer the question of why I teach literature any more easily than I can of why beyond bare survival I eat. I'm not sure we've ever been able to adequately define literature, despite the critical enthusiasm to do so that erupted in the canon wars of the 1980s.

I've never been good at formulating an Apologia that is persuasive by being pointed and reductive. Yesterday as I sat through meetings and did the thousand tiny chores that structure my Tuesdays I scribbled down the following. It is rife with contradiction. Then again, so are both pedagogy and literature.

Literature allows us to form affective bonds with lives we could not otherwise know or touch.

Literature teaches us how little our humanity has changed.

Literature teaches us how vastly our humanity has changed.

A teacher of literature can model a passionate mode of reading in the hope of being surpassed by her auditors, her community.

Literature heals.

Literature wounds.

Literature is superfluous.

Literature is lifeblood.

Humans live and die by narrative. Narrative is our structure of knowing; narrative structures the world.

Literature makes the present and past familiar and strange. It opens up the future and leaves it unpredetermined.

Literature is navel-gazing in its most aesthetic form.

Literature is community building in the most utopian way.

Literature liberates.

Literature ruins lives.

Literature opens us to worlds unthought.

Teaching literature allows one to lose oneself in texts that are inexhaustible to meditation, and to invite others to follow.

letty said...

An interesting post.
It ties in with some of the things you've been saying, but I think another important aspect of teaching medieval languages and literatures is the preservation of heritage. A bit like a museum, but a museum which is concerned with education. The questions I get most often from 'outsiders' when I tell them I teach Old English have to do with the history of the language: what the etymology of certain words is, how English became what it is, how language changes, etc. I think it's important knowledge that should be preserved, deepened, and disseminated.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Craig> Thanks!

LJS> Good points yourself. Particularly on the recognition of stories. I think that idea of narrative is often unrecognized, even when it can be most useful...

JJC> I think it's telling that you phrase your engagement with the meme as a kind of poetic response (or at least, one which adheres to a more poetic style of presentation, using line breaks and blank space on the virtual page to structure the "argument," if you will). It allows for the contradictions in a way I quite admire -- by simply allowing them space to exist. Interesting too that those contradictions as they exist in literature are sometimes precisely what is flattened by later interpretation of those same works. The same way some of those works might flatten a far more complex world. And so on. Ad infinitum, perhaps.

Letty> Very good point about preservation.