I just had a rather strange short conversation with a fellow about The Iron Heel by Jack London. That conversation went something like this:
Guy: Is that Jack London?
Me: Yup. The Iron Heel.
Guy: I’ve never heard of that one. I wonder if I have it on my reader. (checks) Yup! I’m currently reading The Sea-Wolf. It’s a post-apocalyptic book.
Me: I’ve never heard of that one. Cool!
Guy: Why are you reading The Iron Heel. A fan?
Me: I’m teaching it.
Guy: Are you an English major?
Guy: And you’re teaching a book you’ve not finished?
Guy: Good luck. (turns away as if annoyed)
I don’t know anything about this individual. Perhaps he’s an England major or just an avid reader or a philosophy major or whatever. But it was clear from his tone that he found it rather distasteful that one might teach a book they haven’t read yet (if I didn’t plan to read the book at all, then I’d deserve the tone — keep in mind he had no idea when I planned to teach said book).
Of course, he might think this because many people don’t know much about literature courses —
particularly, surveys, in which you have less freedom for selection (thus, we end up teaching a few things we haven’t read simply because much of the study in any major literary field — American, British, etc. — has moved beyond standard canonical studies). But we don’t select books in a vacuum (I don’t, that is). When I select books, my criteria focuses first on my own personal readings, and second (and most importantly) on the critical literature. In the case of The Iron Heel, I selected it because it fit into the themes of the course (Dystopia and American Anxiety) and because it appears in great detail in much of the critical literature on dystopian writing. In other words, I know what this book is about, I know about its themes and issues, and I know much of the major interpretations of the work as they relate to the theme in question. This isn’t a book I’m reading blindly. It’s a book that I’ve practically already read, minus the fact that the actual pages have never flitted before my eyes.*
And, surprisingly, this is not unusual in academia at large (I know many people who teach introductory courses in their fields who effectively teach from knowledge obtained elsewhere than the books they assign — the same happens in a lot of introductory college argument classes, since the general information rarely changes, though the structures and pedagogical practices do). Part of the problem is the assumption that all humanities courses are entirely and utterly subjective, and that we come to literature simply from some ingrained interest or feeling about a work. This is false. Literary studies are far more than just “reading books and responding to them.” It is a tradition and a body of research that transcends the limits of the page. That literature has remained a major field of study for centuries is a testament to its validity as a scholarly field (the same is true of much of the humanities, including philosophy, religion, and so on).
I can’t say for certain, but I suspect this false perspective derives from the teaching practices in the K through 12 system (everything prior to Uni for non-U.S. folks). Much of my evidence is anecdotal, though I think the shocking percentage of students I’ve taught who don’t even know what “literary analysis” means is credible enough (at least a third of all students in the few literature classes I’ve taught, if not slightly more**). In other words, if we teach literature not as a discipline of study on par with the sciences (in terms of its academic output, not necessarily in terms of its applicability to the everyday world), we might curb some of the misunderstandings that contribute to the nationwide attempt to devalue and defund literary study (and other humanities fields).
If this narrative sounds familiar, it’s because a very similar narrative was used by literary scholars to disregard genre fiction — one of my major fields of study. Just as those scholars didn’t understand the value of science fiction, so too do many universities and a portion of the public often fail to understand the value literary studies. Some of that is undoubtedly because the people within my field have failed to convey the message about literature to the general public in a way that attracts interest and understandng (in particular, an answer to the question “Why should we take you seriously?”). There is already a small movement in genre studies to convince scholars to attempt to bring their work to the masses, and no insignificant amount of push back by scholars from the old guard.*** I’m not sure if it will succeed, though McFarland Books is largely considered by many faculty to fulfill that role, more or less.****
Maybe what literary studies needs is a Neil deGrasse Tyson to play Literary Populist for everyone who doesn’t become an English major. What do you think?
*As a general rule, I do not fill my syllabi with works I have no read. The only works I will include that fall in the “I know everything about it, but I haven’t read it” category are those works that I feel are crucial to the theme I am trying to explore.
**This statistic is not meant as an insult to students or to education at large. There are a lot of reasons why students don’t know X, Y, and Z, just as there are a lot of reasons why schools often can’t teach those subjects.
***I still recall attending a PCA/ACA conference wherein the keynote declared in his speech that genre studies must reframe itself for everyday folks if it expects to survive. Some people were quite unhappy with that speech.
****Despite the image as a pop academic press, McFarland has released a great deal of scholarship that otherwise would get ignored in presses associated with universities. It’s sad, but true. Most of the major work on Battlestar Galactica and other major television and film franchises from the last 20 years can be found in McFarland’s catalogue.