Literary Scholars Ponder Their Discipline and Its Direction

March 21, 2010

What kind of future does literary study have in the university, and what should that future look like? Those were the pressing questions on the agenda at "The State and Stakes of Literary Study," a conference held Friday and Saturday at the National Humanities Center here.

More than 100 humanists descended on the center, a light-filled, glass-walled structure nestled into the pine woods of the Research Triangle, close to the corporate campuses of GlaxoSmithKline and other science- and tech-related companies. It was an appropriate setting for a gathering of literary scholars eager to reaffirm the essential value of what they do even as they battle a keen sense of anxiety that the usefulness of that work is less and less apparent to university administrators and the general public.

An independent institution, the center awards annual fellowships to scholars, who spend a year there working on projects and swapping ideas. It runs summer institutes in literary studies, which are the literary critic's equivalent of master classes, led by eminent scholars and usually focused on a specific literary work. The literary-studies conference was organized by the center's director, Geoffrey Harpham, and featured many past and present fellows and summer-institute leaders, many of them scholars from Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and other nearby institutions. Mr. Harpham said he hoped the conference would be part of a multigenerational conversation, although there were only 13 graduate students registered and none were panelists.

The Existential Questions

Given the slim job prospects for the field's graduate students and junior faculty members, one might have expected the conference to focus more on the job market than it did. Nor did the digital humanities have much of a place at the table. Attendees spent more time tackling the existential or philosophical questions that hang over what they do. Why, they wanted to know, do philosophers and sociologists seem to feel so much more comfortable in their professional skins?

Duke's president, Richard H. Brodhead, spoke at a panel of scholar-administrators who were asked to talk about the place of literary study in today's university. Mr. Brodhead, who is also a professor of English at Duke, told his audience that they have reason to be anxious—and that it's partly their own fault.

"There has been some visible attenuation or abatement of public support for study of the humanities," Mr. Brodhead said. Gone are the days when "people emerged from their secondary educations with a highly normative, even suspiciously normative body of knowledge." Our current era is not one of aliteracy but of many literacies, with students arriving at college with many different backgrounds and experiences—"and none of them know what you wish they did," he said, getting a laugh.

Mr. Brodhead made the case that it is critical to pay more attention to the world beyond the discipline's walls. He talked about the globalizing university and how much of the energy in higher education has moved into cross-disciplinary work.

"I see these as emerging new paradigms of education itself, one where disciplines are not the organizing principle but the problems themselves are the organizing principle," he said. "I see those kinds of education programs as becoming more and more dominant in the next 10 to 15 years."

Kindly but firmly, he made the point that, if the field wants to thrive, it needs to start to figure out how to be part of those trends. "Literary study is perhaps beleaguered by unreasonably hostile forces, but it is also true that literary study has not bothered to make friends for itself," Mr. Brodhead told the group.

A Place for Translation

A younger scholar, Ross G. Forman, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, brought first-hand news of the wider world. More American graduate students could find decent jobs and the research opportunities they crave if they were willing to look overseas, said Mr. Forman, who left the United States to take the Singapore job. "We have a responsibility to our students and to ourselves to prepare them for a transnational economy."

He urged his colleagues to think about the study of literature in other languages and in an international, non-English-dominated context. "We must remember that literary study is not the study of English literature or literature in English alone," he said. It's time to make translation studies more central at American universities, where that specialty has tended to be marginalized, Mr. Forman said.

Translation came up again at another session, "How Would You Like to See Literary Study Develop Over the Next Decade?" Toril Moi, a professor at Duke University, who was one of the panelists, said she wanted to see first-rate literary translators find more of a home in academe. She also said she hoped future literary studies would take place within an institution "that has jobs for all graduate students," although she admitted that was a utopian thought.

There were signs during the meeting that literary scholars feel it is time to admit that they like—sometimes even love—what they study. Sean Keilen, an associate professor at the College of William and Mary, said it was time that the profession let go of its death-grip allegiance to "the hermeneutics of suspicion"—its insistence on never taking a text at face value—and to at least occasionally exercise "the hermeneutics of charity" instead. In other words, appreciation can sometimes trump skepticism without undoing professionalism. ("Perhaps at this point I should say I voted for Ralph Nader," he added.) Mr. Keilen advised helping students "approach reading and writing as elements in the art of living well."

At another session, Jeff Dolven, an associate professor at Princeton University, told charming stories of the literary imitations and rewritings he asks his students to do. He suggested that there's more conversation in the profession now about the limits of critique and about how to incorporate "making"—what creative writers do, in other words—into the literature curriculum. "We teach interpretation; we teach argument," Mr. Dolven said. "The dominance of that assumption wants some rethinking."

The Road Traveled

For the most part, the conference steered clear of nostalgia for the days when the field didn't have to work so hard to justify itself, if that time ever really existed. At the very first panel, a trio of highly regarded scholars, all female, shared war stories about their entry into the profession and tried to measure the distance traveled.

Marjorie Garber, a professor at Harvard University, reminisced about being the first female scholar to get tenure in that institution's English department—in 1981. "Racial diversity, needless to say, was not a feature of English departments in those days" either, she observed.

Kate Flint, now a professor at Rutgers University, said that circa 1980 she was the only faculty member at the University of Bristol, in England, teaching feminism and literary theory, and joked that "controversial" material she taught then included Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, now a staple of literature courses, and Seamus Heaney's poetry. "I'm grateful for the expansion and explosion of the canon," Ms. Flint said, referring to the addition to literature curricula of many works (like Mr. Achebe's) outside the Anglo-American mainstream. But she said that change also contributed to the general view of what literary scholars do "as not just indulgent but somehow esoteric."

Patricia Meyer Spacks, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, remembered how, as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, she wound up getting a job offer she never went looking for. Today "it's very hard to get a job you don't want that easily," she joked.

Ms. Spacks was one of the few attendees to speak at some length on the subject of job prospects. Many courses are taught by contingent faculty members and graduate students now, she said, and more scholars take postdoctoral positions en route to other jobs. That means that they have more teaching experience, but it also raises the bar for everyone if institutions expect job candidates to have that extra experience. She noted that more and more institutions now want to see a second book or good progress toward a second book before they will grant tenure. That adds to the already intense pressure on job seekers.

Ms. Spacks also made a point that echoed throughout the two-day conference: Literary scholars need to make a better case for what they do. "There has been a real communications problem in our discipline, and if things don't get better, I believe we will bear a great deal of the responsibility for that," she said. "I wish I knew what to recommend to do about that."