Reading this post by Feisal G. Mohamed on Dissent‘s blog makes me want to sit down and formulate some of the questions I frequently ask myself as a teacher / grad student. Mohamed’s analysis of the English Department’s double bind seems correct at first, but I think that’s deceptive. Here’s the claim he spends the first part of the post elaborating:
To put it another way, the English department currently labors under a deep paradox: it devotes much of its intellectual energy to declaring the limits of Anglo-American culture while being structurally wedded to that culture in a way that necessarily privileges it.
Mohamed spends the last part describing a way where English Departments should look at the relationship between Western or Anglo-American culture as part of broader “world humanisms,” expanding the scope of English Departments rather than constricting it to the criticism of Anglo-American culture.
The first thing to say is that there are plenty of “world humanism”-type programs in existence in English Departments. Doing a favor for a department chair, I taught one for part of last Summer. It was interesting and challenging, not least because at the school where I was teaching, every student had to take the class in order to graduate. I know at the school where I did my B.A. there were classes like that as well, and that institution was no bastion of progressive education.
I think the confusion that inheres in Mohamed’s criticism, suggestion, and the “paradox” that he locates is in what he means by “English Department.” Does he mean the English Department that is the home for teachers of English language and literature, the place where students take classes? Or does he mean the English Department that is the home for scholars who produce new research, new knowledge, and new discourse? Because those are clearly two different places. Stanley Fish and others have written about this pretty extensively, but it’s not clear that the interpenetration between those two English Departments is absolute. Both of them are the same department, but they serve two different functions and are staffed by two different but overlapping faculties.
Most teaching English Departments are populated by a handful of full-time, tenured or tenure-track professors and a slew of grad students and adjuncts. In their teaching functions, these faculty members are charged with teaching everything from comp to advanced undergraduate seminars. They’re their to instill knowledge in the university’s students, knowledge ranging from the structure of the college essay to the techniques of close-reading to the history of twentieth-century literary criticism. In serving this function, these teachers don’t produce new knowledge or new research; if they do, it’s incidental to the task of teaching. For the most part, classes taught in English Departments, at least in my experience, have ostensibly little to do with critiques of “Anglo-American culture,” and more to do with things like learning what “analysis” consists of or (less frequently) how to scan a poem. Though what gets taught varies from class to class, the point is to communicate content and technique to students.
Then there’s the other English Department, the scholarly one, which produces new knowledge and new research. The faculty for this department is comparatively small. Their relationship to their university is symbiotic – they want tenure or tenure-track jobs because they offer financial support and security. The university wants to hire them in order to increase its prestige, knowing the department and therefore the university will look better when it’s attached to the work of a brilliant and cutting-edge scholar. This is the English Department that is producing criticism and scholarship that is often critical of Anglo-American culture.
I think the validity of Mohamed’s paradox depends on viewing these two English Departments as more unified than they really are, and on what realm the declaration of “the limits of Anglo-American culture” occurs in. It doesn’t seem paradoxical to me for critical discourse to turn itself back on the traditions that gave birth to it. This has been the function of any number of critical discourses, though not necessarily criticism within the academy. But I think there’s some sense in Mohamed’s criticism, as in most criticisms of “English,” that something said in the critical/scholarly realm reverberates just as loudly in the realm of teaching, that what one says in the critical realm also “occurs” in the teaching realm. Regardless of what should or should not be studied or taught in English Departments, the discourse surrounding the perpetual crisis of English Department ought to sort out which English Department it’s talking about.