Thursday, October 23, 2008

Convivial literary studies

by J J Cohen

The office of department chair yields much fodder for complaint: the hours can be long (yesterday I arrived on campus at 7:15 AM, and wasn't home until 9:00 PM), the paperwork an endurance test, personnel issues can mount, deadlines come like piranha schools and nibble your soul to its skeleton, the tiny aggravations can accumulate in the course of days and months.

Whatever. Readers of this blog have likely gleaned already that I'm not much given to complaint, that in fact I have very little tolerance for kvetch modes. I'd much rather be involved in affirmative projects with clear goals and tangible outcomes. I've enjoyed being chair of the English Department at GW. My three year term comes to a close this spring, and I am nostalgic in advance as its end looms. I hope that what I have called my Reign of Terror will in fact be remembered for attempts to build a lasting, convivial community that includes faculty, students, alumni, and the world outside this particular university. I leave it to my colleagues to decide if I have been at all successful.

Last night I ran an event that gave me some hope that this community really has come into being. I put together a panel called Literature in a Global Age, and invited GW's faculty and undergraduates. We made a special effort to reach out to alumni as well, hoping to lure them back to see how energized and vibrant our English department remains. The event was not a celebration of globalism in literature, but an exploration of how scholars and creative writers analyze, meditate upon, and produce art that explores, reflects, deflects, critiques the culturally complicated time into which it is born. We had a wide ranging discussion of universals, humanism, particularities, posctcolonialism, neocolonialism, politcs, power ... and art. So many people registered for this event that we reached our capacity of sixty-five: who knew there was such an audience for professorial pontification? The only drawback is that we had so much to say on the panel, yet had not allocated sufficient time for discussion: convivial indeed, but all too brief.

I share this at ITM because I believe -- contra the Charlotte Allens and Nancy Partners of the world -- that medievalists do not in fact suffer from a congenital inability to communicate with their colleagues in later periods, and that attempts at conversation are not symptoms of desperation or loneliness. Quite to the contrary: this globalism panel was in many ways an extension into the present of work undertaken by medievalists. Sure, many of the panelists did not know this in advance ... but the Middle Ages were referenced repeatedly as having been reapproached as a time period not of local solitudes but of nomadism, world movement, cultural flow. Globalism as catalyst to change, creativity, discontent is one of the more obvious topics through which medievalists can enter into lively conversation with their colleagues in other time periods and disciplines. Gerry Heng has already proven this well. Globalism in its complexity is also an excellent way to break down the divide between what is scholarly and what is artistic, part of what I have called (stealing a line from Wallace Stevens) a lingua franca et jocundissima that allows us to "to roam that space where philosophy and narrative embrace or even become art."

At least, that's what I beheld my colleagues doing last night ... and extending the conversation to form a community that extends well beyond the faculty of an English Department. I don't think I've ever seen such a lively group attend one of our events. So, all hail convivial literary, artistic, and cultural studies. All hail.

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