Goodbye to English Departments   5 comments

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This article, published yesterday in Minding the Campus,  is published here with permission. 

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Professor Grabar’s essay comes to this pointed conclusion: “If all poetry, writing, “spoken word,” and gesture is equally valuable, we don’t need literature professors.” 

This is the perversion of the concept of equality and the meat of current “education reform”.  Ed reformers’ quest for social justice has taken over good judgment and even honesty.

But no matter what they say, the truth remains; and there are such things as beauty and truth.  There is value in the study of classic literature.  Equality of human opportunity never should have been confused with sameness of result, of effect, or mandated sameness.

The prime movers of education reform are unwilling to distinguish between the value of a book, of an academic disciplines, a tradition or even a fact– which facts are true, and matter a lot– enough to fight for?  Which ones matter a little?  Which “facts” and “studies” do not matter much at all, or are inappropriate –or are lies?  Which academic departments are dismissable, replaceable, overvalued by past generations?  And who gets to call the shots on what matters, anyway?

They ignore the wisdom of the ages and suddenly treat every every  ink stain, every thought and utterance from any source, from grunts to glory, as belonging equally in our universities and schools and in the minds and hearts of our children.

This point of Professor Grabar’s meets up with with what I desperately hope is not a new ed reform trend, (which is happening in Boston now) –one I was shocked to learn about:   they are doing away with history departments   and no longer hiring real history teachers.  History will be “incorporated” under the concept of  informational text in language arts classes.    It makes sense, when you look at the actual, long winded 18-word title of the language arts standards of Common Core:  “The Common Core State Standards for Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects.” 

Goodbye to classic literature departments, and to high quality history and science as well?

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Goodbye to English Departments

By Mary Grabar

English departments have pretty much given up on their mission of preserving a literary canon or teaching poetic form and rhetorical strategies.  Decades ago, politics of race, class, and gender overtook any concern for preserving and perpetuating poetic art.  In fact, to claim that there is such a thing as Literature was to align oneself with the right-wing Imperialists.

Today, “digital” is seen as dismantling the last vestige of literary hierarchy. James Pulizzi, in the New Republic, predicts, with no sorrow, that digitization will make literature departments “largely extinct.” His dismissal of traditional English departments is very casual: “As long as literature departments remain beholden to print culture, to the study and transmission of printed texts, they will continue to fade in relevance and prestige.”

English professors themselves have been ushering in this brave, new digital world.  Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Richard Utz last year lectured “hidebound faculty members who continue to assign and study only pre-computer-based media,” telling the English professoriate that they should “embrace, accompany critically, and shape the new discourses its students sorely need to communicate and compete: blogs, video essays, Web comics, digital archives, data visualization, and the like.”  The digital change is more profound than the transference of material from paper to screen.

The English Department home page of Georgia State University, where I earned my master’s in 1994, declares now, “We read the world.”  The profiles of faculty hired since my days as a student there reveal the changes and are representative of departments across the country.  Dr. Gina Caison’s work focuses on “southern and Native American studies.”  Her work is “interdisciplinary” and “incorporates her interests in performance studies and American visual culture.”   Dr. Caison seems to be doing very little analysis of the written word: her “book-length project” “explores the recurrent use of Native American history in literary and cultural texts of the U.S. South,” and she is co-producer of a documentary film about the history of “studying and collecting indigenous human remains.”  Whatever she is doing–drama, anthropology, history–it is a far cry from literary study. But even American literature anthologies have scalp dances and rain dances crowding out William Bradford and Anne Bradstreet.

Caison’s colleagues are doing similar work.  Dr. Lindsey Eckert “specializes in British Romanticism and Digital Humanities.” Dr. Mary Hocks does “digital rhetoric, visual rhetorics, and computers and composition studies.”  Dr. Audrey Goodman writes about “the literary and visual cultures of the American Southwest,” and Dr. Scott Heath “specializes in 20th and 21st century African American literature, black popular culture, and speculative race theory.”  He has a book contract on “hip-hop discourse.”

So what the University of Arizona is doing is only the logical conclusion in this move away from literature: they are eliminating the English department.  They don’t say this, but by moving English from the Humanities Department to the College of Social Behavior, they are relegating literature to the purely utilitarian.  They see the word as simply a means for persuading and transmitting information.  Such moves in higher education parallel the focus under the Common Core K-12 program on “informational texts,” which, as it turns out, often are slightly disguised ideological texts.

Today, we have a digital miasma of information with college graduates trained to discernment only to the point of being able to distinguish politically unacceptable ideas from those that are.  Anything that does not go along with the current political pieties is considered “far-right,” “extremist,” or “reactionary.”  These are terms used by professors and in assigned reading material.

Poetry then becomes nothing more than self-expression of momentary impulses or fleeting observations without regard to form or tradition–kind of like Tweets or Facebook posts about the delicious overstuffed sandwich on the plate.  Anyone can be a poet–as long as the message is acceptable politically.  At poetry slams in coffee houses across the country the pencil-scribbling on the step to the podium garners as much applause as the carefully constructed (rare) villanelle.  The subjects of the “poems” are usually the scribblers themselves–the outrages against them personally and the failure of the world to grasp their vision of justice.

If all poetry, writing, “spoken word,” and gesture is equally valuable, we don’t need literature professors–not even those specializing in “digital media.”  It’s a sad day for those of us who love and teach literature.

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I hope you are screaming and pulling out your hair as you read this. I hope you remain one of the squeakiest and most annoying wheels in the ears of your local and state school board, and that they receive emails and calls from you often enough that they no longer smile when they hear your name.    Their disdain doesn’t matter; the children do.

Our children deserve at least as high quality an education as we received.  This ed reform movement ain’t it.

 

Thank you, Mary Grabar.

 

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5 responses to “Goodbye to English Departments

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  1. This letter makes me sad and encouraged. While I am bearing witness to the devolution of education in this great country, I’m hopeful that those as eloquent as Professor Grabar are willing to use their talents and vast experience to expose the true devastation happening in our educational culture. It is only in reading and discussing great works of literature, poetry and prose that we come to find commonality and purpose in the human condition. As a parent of two young children (4 and 7) residing in one of the “top 20″ school districts in PA, I am concerned as ever. So much so that I am pulling them both out of our wonderful public school district and sending them to Catholic School where common core has been decried by our Bishop. It’s just too big a gamble that common core might be revoked in PA. I won’t take that chance with my children. It’s sad that this battle looks to be taking place in ALL levels of education. I suppose I’ll tackle those future years as they come!

  2. All I can say is that when the Visgoths finally sacked Rome, they tore down and destroyed everything they could not understand….. David Coleman is a Visgoth.

  3. This is more misinformation. The actual title of the Language Arts standards is NOT “the Common Core State Standards for Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects.” It is “The English Language Arts Standards.” The author of this blog is referring to a different section of the standards, the standards for–drum roll–History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Standards.

    Take it from a high school ELA teacher. English departments are alive and well. They teach literature, as directed by the standards. Read the standards. Shun the fear-mongering. Ask an English teacher!

  4. I should also mention that Mary Grabar’s article is also highly misleading. She says that the U of A is eliminating the English Department. My wife works in the English Department at U of A, and the department is doing fine! Read the link, and you’ll learn that “no changes to existing English programs would be entailed by this relocation.”

    I keep hoping that the authors of this blog have good intentions, but I’ve shown them on numerous occasions that their ‘information’ is misleading, and they just keep churning it out. I suggest that the authors ‘stand down’ until they come up with a way to sort the misinformation from the b.s.

  5. The true failures of our education system is that there are people so lacking in critical reading and thinking skills that they will buy this hogwash wholesale.

    ps – For those who can’t tell by context, hogwash = eliminating the English department.

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