It’s not just that tenure-track jobs in the humanities will be hard to find once I graduate, nor is it merely that I could be making a lot more money right now if I wasn’t in academia at all (money seems more important than it used to because I’m about to be a father). Rather, my primary concern has been the massive intellectual gap between me and the prevailing intellectual currents in English departments. There are two species of interrelated disagreement.
First, I just don’t buy into most of the so-called theory prevelant in English departments. Most of the theory, it seems, has its origins in ideas that have been discredited in other fields. For example, pscyhoanalytic theory is an accepted school of thought in Literary Criticism. Yet, most psychonalytic theory was long ago debunked by psychologists. I recently had this conversation with a good friend working on his PhD in Psychology, and he assures me that neither Freud nor Lacan are relevant anymore except for understanding the history of the field. Why, then, did I spend most of last semester studying Lacanian theory (mediated by Zizek) in my intro to theory class? Similarly Derrida, and other post-structuralists, assert claims that they then performatively disprove. If there is no certainty in language, how come we are able to communicate? Why do we waste our time uttering words if they are ultimately meaningless? I dislike continental philosophy in general (I should think clarity to be important for making arguments), and the kind of post-structural mumbo-jumbo present in English studies is continental philosophy lite. Then, of course, there are the idological criticisms–things like feminism, marxism, critical race theory, and queer theory. These, at least, I am able to understand. Indeed, I have some sympathy for these ideological approaches because, in a lot of ways, I think it is important that discourse be understood for the ways it has contributed to the oppression of minority groups. In the past, when I have done my theorizing, I have tended to focus on political criticism. But, even the ideological criticisms as normative approaches for theorizing about texts annoys me because they can become a set of competing moralistic gnosticisms.
David Lyle Jeffrey, in People of the Book argues that the “intellectual climate” of the contemporary academy is one of “a rivalry of competing gnosticisms” to the effect that “certain kinds of realistic narrative come to seem ‘awkward’ and accordingly fall into comparative neglect” (Jeffrey 356). That is, various political postmodern ideologies—feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, and others—force critics to evaluate texts for the way they do or do not fit into a particular ideology. In popular culture, this tendency is usually understood as being “politically correct” and is rooted in the urge to not offend. Such ideologies, when applied, are collectively known as the hermeneutics of suspicion. Similarly, Alan Jacobs argues in A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love that “the academy is full of ‘inexorable moral policemen’ whose big ideas about justice prevent them from receiving the kind of loving attention that would enable them to be truly just in their reading” (Jacobs 138). Indeed, whereas Christianity has been interested in the morality of the reader and classical philosophy was interested in cultivating virtue, postmodern theory is largely concerned with policing those texts that have violated established moral rules. This becomes oppressive because it tries to force texts—and by extension ideas and authors—into prefabricated ideas about morality, which Jacobs considers to be a violent way to read texts.
Part of the issue, of course, is that I believe in God and the soul and transcendence. I suspect that we are more than the sum of our parts. I’m no Heideggerian Existentialist: I believe there is more to the world than we can directly sense, more to our lives than four walls. Why I believe this is for another blog post, but I will state briefly that I am a philosophical theist because of the Aristotelian argument for the unmoved mover. I am religious (specifically Christian), however, for more complicated reasons related to my mistrust of progress for the sake of progress and my belief that most humans across thousands of years were not idiots. I think, by natural reason, that we can deduce a number of principals that give direction to human life, the first principal of reason (of course) being St. Thomas Aquinas’s: The good is to be done and pursued; the bad is to be avoided. We must be able to discern what is good and what is bad. At its root, much literary theory is a collection of unproved assertions that rely on the intuition of the reader. However effective intuition can be at discerning the truth, I have great trouble trusting intuition unproved by reason. And, in any case, much current literary theory is not only not unified, but actively in contradiction: it is a collection of contradictory materialisms, positivisms, historicisms, and relativisms.
Second, I don’t think the research PhD is a good model for academic advancement in the humanities. And, indeed, I suspect that the research PhD is part of what has contributed to the rise of the nonsense. Let me explain. Until the late 1800s or so, universities in Europe and North America were based on the humanistic model as created during the Renaissance, which itself was a reform of the earlier Medieval university. Scholars were men who were learned in their fields, who mastered the known material. They safeguarded and passed this information on to future generations. With the ascendancy of science (and its emphasis on experimental research), it became important that specialists (who were housed in universities) pass on their abilities to future generations. Scientific learning had a clear telos: the creation of knowledge that would aid society. Science was learning that got out and did something. The German model for graduate education privileged the discovery of new knowledge, and it came to be the case that the PhD was awarded for the discovery of something new. As universities in the US applied the German model, they were also rapidly expanding in order to become the places where citizens went to be trained for the new specialized jobs necessary in the new economy. The humanities, in order to stay alive, adapted to the times and became more “scientific” (one outgrowth of this in English studies was New Criticism). Until the 1950s, most English professors held M.A.s. But, once the production of new knowledge became the sign of scholastic achievement (rather than mastery of established material or of teaching), the PhD became the new terminal degree. Suddenly, those who studied the humanities not only “specialized,” but they conducted “research” and produced new knowledge. With this was born the massive drift into theory that has so shaped English studies from the 1960s up to the present. If every single person who wanted to have a terminal degree in English studies had to say something new about literature, then the world was in for some weird stuff. Thus the modern university, centered on the myth of progress, has kidnapped the humanities and carried them off into exile where they must labor for a cruel taskmaster.
I am working on my PhD because I want to teach college students how to read and write effectively. I could, of course, teach with just my M.A., but I know that I would never have the job security or the professional respect I want with just my M.A. But I don’t give a damn about discovering “new knowledge,” even if I knew what that meant for my field. I, of course, have concentrated on Rhetoric. My studies thus free me somewhat from the chains of current literary theory. Furthermore, Composition Studies has recently become an acceptable sub-field in my discipline. I am free to spend my time looking for ways to improve pedagogy, which is the kind of thing I want to do. Nevertheless, I will be compelled to write a dissertation in which I must contribute something new and substantive to the field. While I will undoubtedly do work on Composition Studies, and thus prove helpful to the legions of freshmen Comp teachers, I don’t understand why I must conduct research in order to be respected as a college professor. I’m not really that sure what original (publishable) research has to do with being an effective teacher in the humanities.
I’ve said this often enough before, but if I was getting advanced academic degrees just because I liked learning stuff, I would not be in the English department. I would be studying theology or linguistics or international studies or history or something, not reading novels. I am here because I want to teach writing, and the English department teaches writing. Now, I happen to be excellent at school (I’ve had a 4.0 every semester since I was a junior in college and seem not to find grad school as hard as it has always been made out to be), and my professors have always been pleased with my work, but I’m not really in this for me. I’m in this for the college freshman who walks into my class on Monday morning, the first member of her family to ever go to college. I can help her communicate more effectively, think more clearly, and contribute herself to society in ways she has not yet done so. This is not something I could do as a technical writer for a big oil company or as an erudite theologian. This degree, even in a program as wonderful as the one I am (and it is wonderful with its focus on training us to teach and giving us plenty of freedom with the classes we choose to take), is a necessary stepping stone to the place I want to be by the time I am 30.
And that is why I am not going to quit.