Culture Wars

Culture Wars

Just a quick note in response to Jonathon: I have been looking at Ph.D. programs with a great deal of fear, for most of the reasons detailed in the Chronicle article. I am a bit of a traditionalist in some ways (some New Critical habits stick), in that I prefer to read primary texts rather than dense piles of writing about writing. The departments at my school (University of Arkansas at Little Rock) are fractured in amazingly complex ways.

The British literature specialists are mostly traditional— though my mentor was a Duke Ph.D. from the early 90s with a big po-mo background. The Americanists are a more volatile bunch who practice cultural criticism more than close reading— though they inflict it more through lecture than assigning critical texts. Around ten years ago, the Rhetoric Department was split from the English department— and most of the heavy gender/technology people went there. So, the conflict between canon and theory is mostly fought in the American Lit portion— most of the people there specialize in ethnic literatures, so there is no canon to teach if they stick to the “traditional” road. A person can, however, get a degree without reading much in the way of theory at all. Having no “canon-wars” to fight, the rhetoric people are mostly docile regarding shoving theory down people’s throats— though they have a definite political, social-constructivist, agenda.

I’m not allergic to heavy theory. I am however, concerned— like the writer of the article with the loss of primary texts in favor of theory. My notes on Darwin from a few days back were a response to what I felt was a misreading by a prominent gender theorist. The current situation makes me deathly afraid of many English departments. That’s why I really want a program with a strongly rhetorical focus for my Ph.D.— I want a job. A conventional degree in literature is usually a bad way to be assured of employment.

Technical writing is the hot field right now, field, though I just can’t bear to give up literature. That’s why I’m thinking more of a focus on a texts/technologies and cultural studies track. It’s sort of a combination of art/literature with professional/technical work. The problem is finding a department that doesn’t think this conflation is a contradiction incapable of resolution. I find it easier to fit in with the more theory-oriented crowd even though my views on literature are perhaps more traditional. I cannot see myself as an juridical aesthete, however— I’m much more practically minded. What this really means is that I don’t want to do Marxist or feminist or historical dissections of literary works per se, but instead try to figure out how specific works fit in a broader context of communication strategies— rhetoric, not traditional literary study. I don’t want to have to defend any canon, though there are many canonical figures that I love. I am very afraid of the politics that lie at the end of any path I choose.

English departments are scary places. The only plan I can think of to make it through is to try to understand just what the agenda of the place I’m headed is. Regardless of the label they hang over the door (Rhetoric, English, American Studies) I want to make sure that I’m not signing up to be an exponent of anyone’s ideology. I want to do research and teaching, not preaching or theory-mongering. I think that is still possible in many departments across the US— just not all— and that is the real shame.

2 thoughts on “Culture Wars”

  1. Thanks, Jeff. Krupnick’s observations ran so true to my own experience in the art school that I was curious as to what you’d think. I wonder how many prospective PhD students are aware of the minefield they’re walking into… does completing an undergraduate degree sufficiently expose one to the complexities of academic politics?
    I’m astonished that technical writing is the “hot field.” I’d love you to write a post about that (as if you didn’t have enough to write about already).

  2. ‘ wonder how many prospective PhD students are aware of the minefield they’re walking into… does completing an undergraduate degree sufficiently expose one to the complexities of academic politics?’
    That’s a whole hornet’s nest of its own, Jonathon, though I’m sure Dorothea could say more about it than I can. I’ve been thinking lately about whether college education (especially college composition) is designed to produce intelligent, critical individuals or to reproduce scholars and modes of scholarship. And which of these is actually preferable. But I certainly don’t think that, as an undergraduate, I was introduced to the realities of graduate and post-graduate politics. Fortunately, my employment first in an anthropology dept. and later a psychoanalytic institute made all of that excruciatingly clear. And still I work toward a professorship, which must say something about me.
    Maybe there should be undergraduate seminars on Infighting and Publish or Perish and Why You Were Really Denied Tenure. Certainly we’d get a generation of open-eyed academics.

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