Sunday, January 07, 2007

Again with the State of the Field

Tiruncula (whom I'm guessing I know in real life, but have really no idea about) writes a very interesting post about the "state of the field" in Anglo-Saxon studies, prompted by my post here.

Although her post is optimistic and mine was pessimistic, I think I mostly agree with what she says. Anglo-Saxon studies is very collegial, and although a few institutions are dominant (Cambridge, Toronto, Oxford), really many of the best people are scattered all over the place, which somewhat reduces overt snobbery, etc. And, as I've said before, medievalists in general and Anglo-Saxonists in particular tend to be more gregarious, fun and just plain happy than English professors in other disciplines. It's also a really intellectually exciting time to be an Anglo-Saxonist, with new areas for study opening up. All of these factors combine to make it a good time to be an Anglo-Saxonist (albeit with all the difficulties of job market, etc. that I've discussed in many other posts).

But I am not at all sanguine about the future of the field because I think it would be very easy for Old English studies to end up even further marginalized and then to become extinct in all but a few places. Twenty years ago no decent English department would have thought it acceptable not to have at least a medievalist, and probably two, one for Anglo-Saxon and one for Middle English. Now that is not the case; it's probably intellectually acceptable in many places (n.b.: I look down on those places and don't respect them, but that doesn't seem to stop anyone) to eliminate early medieval entirely and just have a Chaucerian. At other places (even less deserving of respect) medieval positions are being combined with Renaissance. The line probably gets drawn there, as Shakespeare is, one hopes, safe from tenure-line poaching by later periods, but if trends continue, I think that a lot of departments will take what should be (say) three tenure lines (Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Renaissance) and combine them into one, peeling off the other two for still more 20th-C or contemporary literature (by the way, I think that the 18th century is likewise vulnerable to poaching, and for similar reasons: it is perceived, incorrectly on both counts, as 'too hard' for students and 'too boring').

So Tiruncula's point that the field is healthy from the inside (i.e., intellectually) and my point that the field as a whole is not in the best of shape (i.e., economically, politically etc.--) can be reconciled. Using an ecology metaphor, you might say that Anglo-Saxonists are like a species that's healthy, genetically diverse and parasite free but whose habitat is being rapidly destroyed.

Two related questions, then, would be 1) Why is the field in the shape it is in? (2) What should we (or can we) do about it?

Tom Shippey's essay in Æstel, which I referenced here suggests some answers for question 1: a). poor pedagogy caused by a tradition of compulsory OE (and in response to commenter Prof. de Breeze, not that compulsory OE is intrinsically bad, but that its existence allowed for slack teaching: if you know that you've automatically got X number of sections of OE, there's less incentive to work particularly hard to teach circles around the competition, the way that Anglo-Saxonists can almost uniformly do now); b) poor teaching instruments (the craptastic Clark-Hall dictionary, grammar books aimed at students who have had four years of Latin and Greek, etc.); c) the perception that Anglo-Saxon studies is male, white, Christian and warrior-focused and the history of pan-Germanic nationalism and its connection to philology and medieval studies.
To this group of problems, Allen Frantzen added a lack of engagement with literary theory: our colleagues could feel safe in ignoring us because we were not talking in the same way: we had self-marginalized.

I agree with Tom about all of these things, and Allen was right, also (though he was far too charitable to the modernists, who did not turn around and embrace Anglo-Saxonists when we started doing theory) but I would add two other major problems that to some extent overshadow these others (and, to continue with the theme of agreeing with Tom about an embarrassing number of things, he expressed some of these ideas in a response to a set of Kalamazoo papers a couple of years back).

Anglo-Saxon studies and philology are a highly irritating rebuke to most of the rest of the sub-disciplines in English because our intellectual practices are a direct refutation of one of the central dogmas of literary studies: that all "knowledge is situated and contingent."

I already irritated people by asserting that it is not possible (or even desireable) to teach "critical thinking" by itself; "critical thinking" is taught and learned by studying some body of knowledge and practice in detail. I stand by that assertion, though I wish I had expressed myself more clearly: I do think people learn to think critically, but only as a product of learning the details and practices of some discipline. So let me be more annoying:

All knowledge is not "contingent and situated," and although Anglo-Saxonists may pay lip service to that piece of dogma, we don't actually believe it (or at least we don't act as if we believe it).

Outside of the Humanities no one believes this, anyway (except in the most pathetic, freshman-philosophy sense). There are lots of forms of knowledge that are contingent and situated (Foucault actually demonstrates some of these areas in regard to, say, sexuality or mental illness), but it is a huge intellectual mistake to take the overstatements characteristic of French philosophy (and of Foucault personally) and act as if they are true.

The discipline of philology has, since Grimm (and maybe even since Rask and Bopp) built up a great deal of knowledge that is valuable exactly because it is not contingent and situated in any meaningful sense. Grimm's and Verner's laws work; Saussure's argument for Proto-Indo-European laryngial consonants works: the theory has explanatory and predictive power. I could go on, but this post is already far too long. This knowledge is of a different order than, say, the passage below from film scholar Angela Martin, who, in discussing Film Noir, writes:
‘The American woman’ had become capable and independent, having been ‘reclassified almost overnight’ as fit for heavy industrial work, after Pearl Harbor…Hollywood addressed itself to this increasingly dominant female audience in terms of pleasure, but also in terms of war effort, showing women as workers, as well as patriotic, optimistic, and supportive wives, sweethearts and mothers (Martin 203).
Martin continues this line of argument, suggesting that, after the war, women became classified as “excess labor” (203) and that the re-emergence of the noir thriller was related to women returning to a domestic role.

Now it seems clear to me that Grimm's Law is on an entirely different level of contingency and situatedness than Martin's criticism and that we make a very large intellectual mistake when we do not recognize this. To the credit of Anglo-Saxon studies, I think it is highly unlikely that any of us could (or would try) to get away with presenting historical and economic analysis in such broad terms.

So, when we use boilerplate like "contingent and situated" (whether we believe it or not) we are in effect engaging in pre-emptive rhetorical surrender: we are deprecating our own strengths and playing to our weaknesses, for it is much harder to do the kind of broad-brush cultural/political criticism that is standard practice in 20th-century literature when you also have to establish all the kinds of historical, philological and manuscript contexts the way we do in Old English. Martin can do this stuff for Film Noir because "everybody knows" the historical/economic assertions upon which her argument rests.

This leads me to my second point, related to the first: for those of our colleagues who know how we work, philology and the kinds of historical criticism that Anglo-Saxonists do is an irritating rebuke to standard dogma. But far too many of our colleagues (and even more of their students) really have very little idea of what we do because they are appallingly ignorant about language.

I recognize that this is a red flag being waved in front of a lot of bulls, but I'll stand by the assertion: far too many English professors and graduate students don't really know much about how English works. Oh, they know all about how Language works, but this is all knowledge at an incredibly high level of abstraction (binary oppositions, prisonhouses of language). Ask a colleague to explain semantic shifts over time or phonological change or the influence of Old Norse on English and you'll get a blank look. These same colleagues can go on about Otherness, etc. but they have no idea how actual language work. Lest you think I am being too crabby, let me quote John Searle, one of the leading philosophers of language by anyone's estimation. This quote is from around 2001-2002, when Searle was reviewing work by Chomsky:
I would not wish my criticisms of Chomsky to be misunderstood. At a time when various embarrassingly incompetent accounts of language are widespread in university humanities departments under such names as "literary theory," "deconstruction," and "postmodernism" it is worth emphasising that his work in linguistics is at the highest intellectual level.

That's what a philosopher of language (and frequent interlocutor of Derrida) thinks of the English department's use of philosophy of language: "embarrassingly incompetent." His point is that there are scholars who know how language works, but they are in departments of linguistics, not departments of English. I think he is right in broad terms, but he is ignoring Anglo-Saxonists, who do know how language works (and the most important thing about how language works is that it changes in certain regular, though complex, ways). But we are a distinct and embattled minority in English departments. And, I would assert, we are in such a minority position exactly because we possess knowledge and disciplinary practices that call into question the work that other members of the profession do, and so for them the easiest thing to do is to ignore and marginalize us. This can be done visibly and visciously, by accusing racism, sexism, etc. (Shippey's comments about pan-Germanic nationalism and its implication in philology), or subtly, by insisting as dogma that all knowledge is contingent and situated. In both cases the result is to replace Anglo-Saxonists with colleagues whose sub-disciplines are more amenable to the dominant paradigm (ha! I used "dominant paradigm").

So, what is to be done?

Well, given the tone of the above, you would expect that I would be raging against other time periods and sub-disciplines, who, threatened by our intellectual superiority, are squeezing us out.

But in fact (and this is how you can tell I'm Allen Frantzen's student), I think we should keep trying to reach out to our colleages because we have something they need. But in order to offer them what they need, we have to stop playing false and agreeing to dogma about our knowledge. We practice, as one of my students said with joy and wonder "English with right and wrong answers." We should show how this is valuable and how our colleagues do need us.

According to the New York Review of Books, in the early 1980s there were 65,000 English majors in American universities. Given the population increase among students, we should have had 130,000 English majors in 2002. But the actual number was 49,000. Those are very bad numbers, and the entire profession really should take notice. Expanding the canon was intellectually good, but it has done nothing to change the direction of the change. Diversifying the faculty may have been (may still be) the right thing to do, but it is not pulling in new majors. Trying to make the major more appealing to students by focusing more and more on 20th-C and contemporary literature has not increased the popularity of English. Maybe the trick isn't to continue doing more of the same, but to try something different.

I would submit that the "something different" we should do is to focus on language and how it works in a historical sense rather than an abstract philosophical sense. Literary studies suffers from a continuous pull in two directions: towards solipsism and towards politics--you end up with "that text means this to me" or "that text illustrates this political/social phenomenon." The best English criticism resists this pull (not overcomes, just resists) keeping English as something more than the book club discussion or the dormroom bull session. Philology, detailed historical scholarship, manuscript work--these disciplines help resist that pull; they make English much more interesting. I believe that a renewed focus on language would thus re-invigorate the discipline, bringing in more students and helping us to argue to parents, legislators and critics that what we do is valuable not just in terms of some kind of nebulous "critical thinking," but in really specific terms. This would mean a serious engagement with contemporary synchronic linguistics as well as historical linguistics, and with the cognitive psychology of reading and memory, as well as with conditions of physical and economic production, distribution and evaluation of literature (the kind of work which is done outside of medieval studies).

This has been a grumpy post, but in fact I am very optimistic that our students do want to learn about how language works. My medieval lit class this semester (which will have a sizeable Old Norse component) has over 40 students and my Chaucer class 22 at a small liberal arts college where the average course size is 15. Those enrollments aren't due to my sparkling personality, but to students actually being interested in the older material and in the approach. I think there could be very good times ahead for medieval studies if we make the right kinds of arguments, if we don't surrender pre-emptively, and if we recognize and express the great value in what we do.

[Thanks, Tiruncula, for killing my productivity for an entire morning with a provocative post. I can't decide if you owe me a beer at Kalamazoo or I owe you one]


Tiruncula said...

Any time! I promise to introduce myself at or before K'zoo and we can have a drink. I'll buy you a glass half full and you can buy me one half empty :)

(I want to get back to the linguistics issue, but will take some time to brew a coherent response.)

John Cowan said...

Y'know, Murray was quite right when Oxford (I think it was Oxford) wanted to give him a D.H.L. honoris causa, and he protested that Humane(r) Letters were not his business, and that the appropriate degree was a Doctor of Science.

Maybe you should try to move across Snow's wall.

theswain said...

A thought provoking post, Mike. I work in a highly and heavily theory oriented department and as far as I know am now the lone medievalist other than one faculty member who is at retirement age, though I don't know if he's announced his retirement yet. While my antipathy to theory and modern literary criticism has lessened and I do see some value in what my colleagues are doing, I have to say that its still a lonely business being one of the few people who deals with language(s), Language, text, manuscript etc and what the portends for my future prospects.

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Carl Anderson said...

Also, theory-bound modernists should listen to their inner hero (as plenty of less jaded students do every year) and accept that tales of whacking trolls over the head with axes are ... well, just more fun. :) I would not sell them for a wilderness of situated contingency.