Monday, February 07, 2011

Honor and the disciplines

It has been exactly twenty years since I was in graduate school getting a degree in English Literature. The state of the discipline was depressing then. Twenty years ago isn't "good old days" when it comes to English Literature.

I took one course entirely on Shakespeare's Richard III. That's a little narrow, but I got very familiar with Richard III, and the course was somewhat irritating but not crazy. I do not remember the professor's name, which is perhaps just as well, so I will call her Dr. N. She was ostensibly an academic conservative, and the word on the graduate student street was that her hiring had been considered something of a victory for the last of the old guard in the department, presumably because all of the other candidates were significantly crazier. She, personally, did not write articles with titles like "Queering Shakespeare," nor did she force us to read and write on such papers, and it was from this restraint that she presumably got her reputation for academic conservatism.

Each student had to make a short presentation on the paper he was writing for the course. One female fellow student was trying hard to learn the ways of the English lit. world, and she had grasped the fact that professors encouraged one to talk about gender roles in season and out. So her paper's thesis was going to be that Richard III displays a number of "stereotypically feminine qualities" such as the use of psychological manipulation.

I will never forget the moment when this ostensibly academically conservative professor gave the student a bit of hearty advice: "You need to be bolder. What you should do is write the paper instead claiming that Richard is a woman. Now that would probably get you a publication." Let me add that she was completely serious. This was practical advice. She was not being ironic.

Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut. In fact, as I recall, we were all a bit stunned. The students in the program seemed to me by and large more academically conservative than the professors, and no one quite knew what to say to this suggestion. Somehow, the class moved on.

For some reason this scene has come back to me recently, and I have allowed myself to write, mentally, what it would have been nice to be able to say to the professor. One could even hope that a little generous, youthful indignation might have shocked her into remembering the days of her own youth when, perhaps, she actually loved literature.

Here's one:
Dr. N., why do you advise L. to write that Richard is a woman? Is it because it's true? What would it even mean for such a statement to be true? If it isn't true, why do you suggest that she write it?
Here's another one:
Dr. N., let me get this straight. What you're saying here is that the plays of Shakespeare have no value apart from us. They are just opportunities for us to advance our careers by writing whatever tom-fool thoughts pop into our heads. Is that right?
Why am I doing this? Just out of grouchiness, just to complain, or just to be cruel to a former professor? I certainly hope not, though I'm as capable as anyone of mere grouchiness, complaint, or cruelty.

There is a point to be made here, though: If we academics are even to come close to justifying the prestige we have in society (and I don't think we can actually fully justify it, because academics have, in my opinion, too much prestige in Western society), we have to do worthwhile things, to love those things, and to have a deep desire to communicate those worthwhile things to other people. Nothing else will really do. If Philosophy and Literature (to take two examples) are just meaningless games we play to get career opportunities, they are nothing. It would be better for all the departments in the world to be closed than for the meaning of the disciplines to be reduced to the cynical pointlessness reflected in that professor's remark to that student.

Part of what it meant for there to be a "good old days," whenever those existed, in the academic world was that professors earned the respect accorded them. And they did so by knowing the value of what they did, a value apart from themselves and their careers and apart from their students' careers, and by passing on that value. Honor to all of you professors out there who still know and do that. You are the small candle to which students come--a vision of a world of learning and wisdom that is the only justification for a university.

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