Is addressing somebody directly with an angry tone an ad hominem attack? Or does one need to, you know, call a person names?
I guess I hardly care right now. I do not like to be impolite, but man, Mark Bauerlein, you are WRONG ON THE INTERNET–with a bad argument that will, XKCD-style, ensure I stay up writing long after I should in order to respond.
Something bad happened to English, you say; the numbers are in and they have dropped down something more precipitous than a slippery slope. Your evidence includes stats for a national decline in graduates with BAs in English as well as this stat: “At Emory University, where I teach English, when I arrived in 1989 and soon became director of undergraduate studies, the number of majors reached 350. Today, our majors linger at around 150.” Now, I could be committing the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy in deducing the following, but it seems to me the numbers declined after you showed up. You also say your “colleagues across the country fail to acknowledge …their own culpability in the field’s deterioration.” Maybe you should acknowledge your own culpability. It sounds to me like you might have some culpability. I’m just throwing this out there, but maybe it’s you.
Sure, it’s unfair of me to say so. What do I know about English at Emory, after all? I teach at a private university in a different state entirely. I do know some things about your school and your department (and your divergent opinions with respect to most of your colleagues)—they came up in the Chronicle of Higher Ed a fair bit back in the Fall. I discussed the budget cuts at Emory with my freshmen, actually, in my two sections of first-year composition, as part of a larger unit on higher education and what happens to their tuition dollars. And, since I know you measure the importance of scholarship by the exceedingly accurate citation count afforded by google scholar, I should admit that I sometimes confirm the work of your colleagues in my own published work–most recently in that newfangled multi-culturalist subaltern-loving rag, Modern Philology. But who’s on the faculty there or what’s happening at Emory aren’t things I need to write about here, since neither plays any role in your recent column; indeed, you seem much more interested in what’s happening at the University of Minnesota.
More precisely, you examine the syllabi for curricula in a dual-enrollment program that Minnesota runs so that high school students can earn college credit. You are dismayed by the fact that the list of 86 works students might study contains “No Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Byron, Yeats, Frost, Hughes, or Bishop,” and cluck your told-you-so disapproval at the fact that teachers encourage students to approach to the works on the lists through various theoretical lenses.
Your focus on Minnesota seems odd to me—if you want to lament the decline in majors in your own department, why seek answers in somebody else’s? Moreover, your argument about the deplorable abuse of high school students in this introductory English course would be more powerful if you actually could point to numbers or even interviews that suggest Minnesota is typical in its practices or, alternatively, single-handedly ruining the discipline. How do you measure the ruining, for one thing? Are they sending students en masse to Facebook, where they can be found fervently telling all their friends to run in the other direction or stay away from English? (Clearly this hypothetical outreach to would-be English majors hasn’t convinced their elders nearing college graduation from wanting to go to graduate school in English—if these young Minnesotans are really that persuasive, we wouldn’t have to suffer through the next round of “Don’t Go!” pieces, would we?) Has Minnesota lost majors rapidly since introducing this program? Do you even know how many English majors there are at the university of Minnesota?
I don’t either, actually, but I take it as a general rule that one should work on one’s own house before one disparages the houses built by others. And you do, I’m afraid, spend quite a bit of time disparaging other departments. Here’s one instance:
I have seen the same thing in departments all across the country, freshman courses that teach Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” departments that don’t require a sophomore Chaucer-to-Joyce survey for the major, professors unpersuaded that Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge are more important than Angels in America.
I have not “seen” the same thing in departments all across the country, perhaps because I haven’t looked. I can speak to the curriculum at only four universities from first-hand experience: my college, my MA granting institution, my PhD granting institution, and the institution that currently employees me. I will concede that it’s entirely possible that you have done some research into first-year and other courses at “departments all across the country.” But I will not believe that there are multiple first-year courses that require Derrida at universities in the Unites States until you produce a list of them. I’m calling bullshit on that. You say it’s not? Fine. Prove me wrong.
Then I’d also like you to show me an English department that does not require a British literature survey or courses on the major canonical writers you list as classics, but that also requires literary theory for undergraduates. Or just find one or the other, for that matter.
The four places I’ve been enrolled and/or employed include a small private college, two large state universities only a tiny bit smaller than Minnesota, and a mid-size private university near a metropolitan area. But I’ve also been on the job market 5 different times, and job searches occasionally require researching course offerings. I’ve applied to probably 60 jobs and I’ve never once seen the kind of course balance you’re describing. As for the four departments in which I have more substantive knowledge, there’s no evidence that any would put Derrida in the hands of first-year students; my small college and my current department only have a single course on literary theory—all of the theory––that undergraduates can take. The other two, the large state universities, have required courses for first-year students called “Masterworks of American Literature,” “Masterworks of British Literature” (at one) ““Selected Works of British Literature: Medieval to 1800” or “Selected Works of British Literature: 1800 to Present” and “Colonial and U.S. Literature to 1865” or “U.S. Literature: 1865 to Present” (at the other). All four of these universities offer a course on Shakespeare. At the university at which I now teach, we regularly offer three. Not three sections—three distinct classes (and we typically run at least two of two of those courses per semester too).
My department, in fact, does not require our majors to take literary theory––or African American Literature, for that matter. Until very recently, students had to take the survey in early British Literature (which covered 5th century to 1789), one in pre-1865 American literature and two courses in literature written prior-1800. We also had a major author requirement that (again, until recently) consisted of Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton. Come to my department, Dr. Bauerlein, and soak in all the jouissance our canonical approach affords.
Our curriculum seems to be precisely what you would want. And I will note that, with more than 200 majors, we might even be healthier than you (though I’ll also note that if you really want to see something impressive, check out Flavia Fescue’s numbers—I remember she once noted that her regional state U has 700 or something majors in English). But here’s the thing: while we managed to keep more than 200 majors for the last two decades, our enrollments have been steadily declining since 2008.
Yes, it must be shocking to learn that a department that does not at all fit your description of “the decadence of the enterprise” is also losing students. But it’s true.
And guess what else? It’s also poised to lose faculty. Because of those declining numbers, last August, my university’s provost and president decided it would be best to terminate the two junior faculty up for tenure in English. These cuts that you call “self-inflicted wounds” have only been stopped by union intervention, and only for another year, to see if our department’s numbers rebound. Newsflash: they won’t.
It sure does bolster your argument that one of those faculty members taught courses called “Queer Blackness” and “Toni Morrison,” titles that you no doubt would say reflect “tendentious social dispositions.” This same professor also taught the African American literature survey (a course whose enrollments were often hurt by the fact that the course was not required), the post-1865 American Literature survey, as well as freshman composition. In fact, this professor only taught the two “identity”/”multi-cultural” courses I mentioned first a single time in seven years, because the department can only offer courses that the chair knows will fill—and with no requirement behind them, these courses aren’t guaranteed to fill. Offering an elective once in seven years is not decadence; not being able to offer one in that many years is, however, pathetic.
And so what about the other professor who received termination notices from the two highest administrators? Vive le différance! She teaches Shakespeare, the British Literature survey (which includes Chaucer and Milton), and freshman composition. In fact, she’s published a few articles on a 17th-century woman writer–including one on approaches to teaching that writer–but she’s not once, despite her scholarship in the area, had an opportunity in seven years to teach an entire course devoted to women writers in Britain.
Surely a university would deny tenure to somebody who teaches a very valuable major canonical awesome powerful figure like Shakespeare ONLY if she were a very poor teacher or poor scholar (or both). Or, perhaps she is one of those teachers who believes that “Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and other forms of bigotry are inherent in our culture.” Well yes, she is. I mean, oui, I am, because c’est moi. I don’t lead with lines like that, but I live with that knowledge, so I can’t say it doesn’t play some role in how I think about everything, including my job, which sometimes involves Shakespearean plays that shed light on “forms of bigotry.” I spend more time teaching rhetorical figures than any “issues” because, frankly, students are more likely to point out the latter than the former without my assistance.
I am also a very good teacher and scholar who teaches almost exclusively required, basic, canonical courses every semester. (Don’t even start to give me some Google scholar nonsense about how unimportant my work is because nobody’s cited it yet.) No, I got those termination letters because lower enrollments means that what I do doesn’t meet the university’s long term needs.
I love Shakespeare. I just saw Comedy of Errors tonight, actually, and so I was oblivious to your column until it was late enough that I stupidly got it in my head that I should respond. But the idea that the lack of Shakespeare drives away students is laughable, and not because I know what “lack” is supposed to mean in certain famous works of theory. Your own weak theory, the no-Shakespeare-means-low-students theory, relies on two weak assumptions: first that there is a lack in college curricula—and I see absolutely no evidence of that—and second, that Shakespeare is inviting to students and ensures they will declare the English major. At my school, I can say that my full 35-cap sections at the beginning of each semester make clear that his works attract students, but I’d also have to admit that the courses are required by the Education and Drama departments, and they also fulfill the major author requirement (thankfully nixed this year) and the pre-1800 requirements as well. Courses that fulfill graduation requirements attract students; many departments and new programs other than mine can fulfill the requirements that we offer, something that didn’t used to be the case five or ten years ago, and therefore something that might offer a more useful explanation for the decline in our enrolled students than what you’ve suggested.
Such an explanation could be unique to my institution, so I won’t argue here that it could be part of your problem at Emory––one really doesn’t have to make generalizations about universities based on one school––but my larger point is this: none of those things you suggested would bring or keep students prevented our declines. Being a person who was primarily responsible for teaching those things did nothing to prevent my university’s administration from seeing me as expendable. To them, it matters very little that I teach Shakespeare. Instead, I’m a line that could be combined with that of my fellow untenured colleague (whose expertise is more rare) and reallocated to create a line in our university’s new professional schools. Declines in our student body are no more my or my colleague’s fault than they are the fault of people in Minnesota.
In any case, I find it highly offensive that you would move so breezily from noting declines in your own department to excoriating others in your field––and even worse, that you think you can speak for an entire discipline and “departments all across the country” without citing a shred of evidence other than what you’ve “seen” and your own personal beefs. It’s true that I have my own personal beefs with the specific people who don’t value the work I’ve done for the university teaching those courses you like so much, and these beefs are indeed coloring how I read your column. But there’s a difference between me providing a counterexample that gives the lie to your argument and you using the current crisis to gloat that you were right way back when we were fighting the culture wars.
If you want to claim now that, in retrospect, you won them, well, I want to know: what do you make of the fact that in the enrollment blame-game, a Shakespeare professor is the big loser? Would you like to write to my administration and explain that we did all the things that should work, in your expert opinion, and therefore I should be able to keep my job? After all, you have no problem diagnosing problems in Minnesota, so if you’d like to be the famous doctor who gives me a lifeline, go ahead and try.
Or, perhaps you could instead spend your time looking locally at your department (which is home to a Shakespeare scholar that I think is fantastic), work with your colleagues there to improve your enrollments and increase your majors–and in so doing, maybe figure out what’s actually keeping students away. Then you will see “what happened to English” is bound up in complex, multiple factors that have also affected Education departments and majors other than English in Humanities fields: Adjunctification. Administrative bloat. Amenities, luxury. Anti-intellectualism (See also: Anti-critical thinking). And that’s just the A’s.
If I kept indexing the sad book of why English lost its value in the university marketplace, I’d no doubt have a long list of sub-topics under E for “Economy,” but you would find that Deconstruction or Derrida don’t even rank enough in offense to even find inclusion amongst the D’s. Both are red herrings, and your argument flat out fails the smell test. In short, to conclude my ad hominem, it’s not just wrong; it’s gross.
Update: I just want to point out that the man whose editorial taunted “What does University of Minnesota have against classics?” implies his ideal survey is “Chaucer to Joyce.” WHAT DOES MARK BAUERLEIN HAVE AGAINST BEOWULF?