Monday, November 19, 2012

The Critical Romance


While searching for a terrible narrative theory book at the university library, I couldn't help but let my eyes run over the varied surfaces of the lit crit books in those densely packed stacks.  Clothbounds, shiny paperbacks, leather volumes, all shapes, sizes, and textures of criticism. Some of it -- most of it -- is certainly either useless to my particular interests, or just plain bad.  But everyone once in a while a title catches my eye. This time it was The Critical Romance.

I knew it would be in line with my interests, but I thought it would be bad. I even took a picture with it (along with some horrible thing entitled The Fate of Meaning) looking very serious, and sent it to a friend, just because the books seemed so ridiculous.  (I had seen one called Reading with Feeling that needed its portrait done too, but when I went back to find it someone had actually checked it out! Ugh.)

After our photo session I left the books on the re-shelf shelf.  And before I got out of the building I went running back.  I must have The Critical Romance!

Finding this book was excellent timing.  My last post on my "Critical Mission" briefly outlined my goals, and some bits and pieces of a mission statement, for the nascent journal I'll soon be working on.  This book is full of the right kind of stuff to get us going, and keep us inspired.

What is The Critical Romance? It's getting passionate about literature again.  And passionate about writing on it.  That is, passionate about criticism itself.

"Aren't we critics alienated from criticism by the lack of a language, a technique or attitude of intimacy?" asks the author, Jean-Pierre Mileur.  This intimacy is precisely what we are trying to bring back and revel in with our journal!  The language of intimacy is the language of a persona and a voice behind the writing. The attitude of intimacy is the critic's particular fervor for a subject. The attitude is writing, as Mileur puts it, "determined by needs and satisfactions distinctive to him as a person."  Fucking beautiful!  A critic should only write on what he is intimate with (intimate, not necessarily most knowledgeable), and he should write on it in a way that satisfies him.

The one part of that great interrogative quoted above that I can't parse is the technique of intimacy.  Mileur discusses in the next paragraph how philosophical and discipline-approved approaches (definitely techniques) rarely yield a satisfying critique of the most interesting bits of literature.  It's as if the technique needs to be transcended in favor of a feeling out of the literature and the writing.  The critic must work on his "night moves," and not get them out of a book like a high school senior in one of the five million '80s movies about losing your virginity.

My sexual metaphors are my own, and they come up often when I talk writing.  It's partly the reproductive nature of the act of writing, but much of it has to do with this intimacy that Mileur talks about, and sometimes with men's and women's gendered expressions of themselves onto the page.

 I bring up metaphor by way of transitioning to the other thing that struck me about this book.  Mileur uses (and purposefully deviates from) a metaphor fashioned by Hemingway: writing is architecture.  Hemingway is the shit, but I don't dig his metaphor.  He is not the first to use metaphors of buildings to describe writing, and Virginia Woolf stands out as one who compares men's writing in particular to architecture (empty houses).  In her day, I think that metaphor was apt.  But since her time, writing is anything but formulaic as laying a foundation, putting up a frame, filling in the materials, and embellishing the edifice.  Hemingway certainly doesn't work that way!  Nor does Virginia (yes, we're on a first name basis).  Nor does the Romantic Critic, or any passionate writer.

In my essay on Virginia Woolf from a few years back, I had run with her metaphor of architecture to describe men's writing, and went wild with an extended conceit about men building cathedrals with their words, while women grow trees.*  This is where the surprising deja vu happened with The Critical Romance.  Mileur acknowledges that the architecture model works for modern, sterile criticism, and calls these stark articles and books sky-scrapers, "clean-edged and soaring," rising to  a "privileged perspective, monumentalizing high-mindedness, and intellectual force." Hyyeahhh!  Just look at it!

*(And let me be clear that I was only using the metaphors of architecture v. nature as gender specific in the Woolf essay, not so much here. It is true that there is a masculine sort of association with the disciplined, formulaic high-minded writing that Mileur is talking about -- it's not that men write it (women are just as awful at criticism these days) necessarily, but that it displays traditionally masculine values and attitudes, while the rhetoric of working with nature usually connotes the feminine.)

But this soaring skyscraper model does not work for what we should be doing in our critical romancing.  He calls that landscaping!  So close to my metaphor of cathedrals and trees, but updated.  The landscape metaphor allows for so many directions (not that architecture doesn't take humbler forms than house-of-God and steel-and-glass, but it always requires a foundation, a unity, a stillness and a deadness that landscaping can and must forgo).  Our landscapes can be "orderly" French gardens, English "parodied landscape, with a ruined abbey thrown in for scale and pathos," or even (and this is so great) "simply a person out for a walk."

The architecture model, and the conventions that actually lead to criticism being built that way, does not allow for meandering, dead ends, stopping to smell the roses, or anything of the sort.  It is planned and meticulous, and self-contained.  Working in the romantic vein creates anything but that kind of critique.  Romantic criticism is more like an immersion in the nature of the word than a rising up to survey it.  And speculations and contemplations are welcome, as the critic traipses its stone paths and wooded glades.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Criticism, Alive!

I'm about to post a paper here, just to have something to show you that I haven't been watching TV or playing WoW or anything like that for the past two months -- that I've really been quite busy.

Criticism, Alive! refers to something I've been calling my Critical Mission.  It all starts with wanting to get published as a graduate student.  No wait, that's not true.  It starts even before that.  It starts with wanting to write papers for grad courses in my own voice. I was recently subjected to a ten minute tirade on why I shouldn't write (argue with celebrity critics, be irreverent, etc.) the way I do, how my antics will squelch my career while I'm still a "junior scholar," and how I may never be allowed into the right circles if my offending paper makes its way to a conference reading within earshot of the intended offendee.  Plus, it won't get published.  I say fuck all that.  And some of my colleagues are on board.

What's happening now, because of all this angst, and what we think is talent that needs to have a venue, to take criticism back to what it used to be, that is, something readable in its own right, something interesting for God's sake, is we are developing a journal for graduate work.  Writerly, intelligent, interesting, fuck the system graduate work.  Whatcha got?

I will post more here soon as the emails and notes of idea developments are burgeoning.  We're still stuck for a name, but the mission is taking a beautiful shape.

This paper (below) is a silly book review I wrote for an assignment last month.  It's not something that would make it right into our journal, with the too-specific topic and the needing of revision, but this is the kind of thing I write for a short paper where I can be conversational (with the prof, with myself, with the subject of the paper...) and just let loose.  It's like a blog entry you'd read here.  And why the hell not?  You're reading this aren't you?  Do you really want to read PMLA?

------------------------------------

Robyn Byrd
ENGL 602/Gorman
26 September 2012

Story: A Book Encounter
Currie, Mark. Postmodern Narrative Theory.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1998. Print.

Postmodern Narrative Theory. That’s all that’s left on the shelf. Postmodern. Ugh. Gorman will hate that. Maybe if I hadn’t misremembered the call number and spent half an hour browsing PR 200, studies of English-Norse Literary exchanges (what a felicitous accidental medieval find!) , I would’ve beat the other students to this stack.  I take a look at the postmodern book anyway. Maybe it’s a handbook? Or maybe it’s some painfully applied theories.  “Death and Afterlife of Narratology.” Hmm., “Voice, distance, judgment.” Okay, great. “Time-Space Compression.” Good. “Terminologisation.” Huh?  Jeez!  Well, it has all the bits and pieces of an introduction to narrative theory, I guess.  It almost doesn’t fit the bill, because it looks back on the first generation of narratologists rather than including them in the meat of the book, the part about what narratology became, or what it is, in the “postclassical” phase. Or in 1998, anyway.  It’ll do.
I find a good tree, some good grass, and sit.  Curiosity makes me flip to the library due date stamps (is that a paratext?) before I even look at the text.  This baby gets checked out about once a year.  No takers in 2004.  Seems like a pretty busy life for a book of this kind though.  What does it do all day when it’s not in some grad student’s pile? It waits.  Here I am, Postmodern Narrative Theory.  I’ve come for you.  We might not like each other once the exchanges begin (for what student doesn’t mentally or marginally complain at books?) but I’ve brought you out for a holiday.  You should thank me.  Here we go.
I begin at the beginning, which begins in the past (as most stories do).  Currie’s introduction (Currie is the author, for books have authors as much as we might like to think of them as their own autonomous entities) covers the “death” of narratology in the 1980s, and its rebirth in the 1990s. To mix his metaphors up all nice and muddy-like, Currie suggests maybe narratology left behind its youth of excess and grew into, after a midlife crisis, its current mature self.  I don’t think I buy that – death and rebirth works better.  I don’t think there is anything less excessive about today’s narratology (not that that’s an all bad thing, but narratives of toothpaste tubes and the like are pretty damn excessive).  What we agree on so far, Currie and I, is that narrative theory now encompasses something much broader than in the days when it simply looked at narrative structures and contraptions (Gorman’s word!) in the great works of Anglo, French, and Russian literature.
Currie makes a better argument for the validity and value of the ubiquitous narrative than most postmodernists would or could.  And he should, if he plans to spend this whole book on just that.  He cites those common examples of paintings, commercials, mainstream movies, and other more cringe-worthy narratives as evidence of plurality. (And “This,” says the conservative professor of literature, “is a slippery slope! Next it will be the narrative of the tot crashing his Hot Wheels cars together!  Then fictive discourses of peanut butter jars! Bah!” And the slipping here is not so much a logical fallacy but what really seems to be happening on the narratological slope.) But Currie goes beyond this to more literature-friendly territory, citing philosophy (for don’t we read The Symposium as a story?), political tracts, psychoanalyses, etc., and he points out that storytelling is what we do. Narrative, then, is not everywhere just because postmodernists want to believe it must be there, but because we can’t help ourselves, we homo-fabulans – we put it there.  Okay I’m listening, book. I mean Currie.
Currie then launches into a critique of practically everyone’s thinking on how we (literary folk) historicize criticisms and theories as they move into the past (Gorman will like this!).  He tears the “fashion” model asunder, with its superficial take on what theories and schools of thought have to offer the discipline.  He moves to the “paradigm shift” model, which is borrowed from the sciences.  This gives past schools and theories more respect and “gravitas,” as Currie puts it, but still views them as obsolete. Like Newtonian physics.  (But hey, apples still fall, right?) 
So about this time, about page 12 that is, something dawns on me. He’s doing a narrative of narratology! So cool! (Wait, maybe I can  write this paper  into a story? I’m stealing it, Currie. We may get along after all.) So Currie, in good form, suggests a view different from those models that do not accurately describe narrative theory’s staying power, its contributions to and lasting impact on, and continuing impact on, the study of literature.  The new narratology recognizes the pluralism of stories in the world, and does not seek to codify the stories or prescribe how they should be made.  But Currie notes also the paradox that comes along with narratology and any theoretical approach claiming to be all-inclusive and ever-adaptive – the narratologists (ugh, still sounds like science!) need some standards, some “shared descriptive vocabulary” (14),  and this will always work against the new narratology’s postmodern pluralistic self-image – narratology’s methodology “threatens to homogenize the heterogeneity it advances.” Deep, Currie. That’s a good one.
            There ends the beginning, or the introduction, since as story-like as this part of the book is, the rest is actually a handbook. I’m spending too much time here on the introduction because it is so interesting, and should maybe take up half my space here because it covers the first chronological half of narrative theory.  For the other half, I’m going to have to deal in summary and cursory reactions.  Because I don’t like what I see coming.
            The book is laid out in three parts, each part dealing with some major category of the objects of narrative theory.  Part II and III look standard enough.  The former: “Narrative Time and Space,” with all its expected subcategories – the aforementioned time-space compression, big and little narratives, accelerated recontextualization (which looks insane but made sense once I read it).  These things I know as narrative things, having discussed them in class when we read Jane Austen. They make perfect sense, and Currie gives a good account of them. The latter: “Narrative Subjects,” again covers things I expect like self-conciousness, writing and seeing, inner distance, etc.  While the categories of narrative theory here have a postmodern stench to them, their olfactory fruits also contain a bit of the barely-recognizable roses of first generation narrative theory (and now I’m guilty of thinking of that stuff nostalgically, as if I was there and as if it’s any “better” than what narrative theory is today). So what I’m getting at, then, is Currie’s categories have fancy names, and he doesn’t always look to great literature for examples, but he’s still doing a pretty darn good survey of what narrative theory entails and encompasses. To use simpler terms, how are time, inner dialog, distance, and focus constructed in narratives?  These are questions narratologists asked in the 80s and still ask today.
            A skim of Part II did give me one big question about what Currie is doing here.  While ostensibly putting together a handbook, he nevertheless goes off on a tangent about narrative theory and politics.  He discusses the arguments in the universities between two extreme views: professors who believe we should all be protesting in the streets and those who completely divorce literature from social context.  This is some nice information, Currie, and what synchronicity considering Professor Gorman’s comments on politics at the university!  But he takes a weird turn I don’t get. He says narrative theory should be, nay, must always be political.  If I had to choose one kind of theory that I think could remain as apolitical as applesauce, I think it would be narrative theory.  It’s story structures for God’s sake!  What the hell is political about structures?  The mechanisms?  How stories are put together?  You could make it political, no doubt.  But by no means does it have to be that way.  Currie, I’m starting to doubt you again, man!  (I could write another paper on this idea, and I’ve put forth no great argument here, but back to the review thingy.)
            My hopes not quite dashed but a little confused by Currie’s asides in Part II, I head back to Part I to begin the chapter I didn’t want to begin.  The Part is titled “Lost Objects.” Oh dear. The first section is titled “The Manufacture of Identities.” Double dear.  The sub-sections of this part don’t look so bad – I can see that it’s about the bits of narrative that didn’t come up in II and III.  Voice, point of view, ideology (discussed similarly to Schmid’s discussion of the linguistic plane of narrative).  These are all good things that I understand.  So I start to read.  “Is our identity inside us, like the kernel of a nut?” Currie asks cutely.  I’m betting he’s about to say no!  Sure enough. “[P]ersonal identity is not inside us” (17).  And so begins the discussion of the constructed identity, constructed by everything but a human being.  You’ve lost me Currie! And you almost had me!  This part of the book contains some of the most seemingly recognizable features of narrative theorizing, and you have to take care about how much stock you put in those titles upon titles that belie all that.  Curries discussion of points of view for instance, uses an old (Booth, 1961) analysis of Emma to make its claims.  This I can understand, but the manufactured selves I’m not sure I’m ready for.
            A subsection of Part I worth praising is the (also) unfortunately titled “Terminologisation.”  Currie discusses how terms are coined, and has a laugh at how jargony literary study has become.  Literary scholars, he observes, “have the ugliest private language in the world” (33).  I think business-speak is far fouler, but point taken Currie! He also talks about what kind of weight and authority we should give to terms, and covers discussions of language creating reality, affecting our reason, etc.  Upon my cursory and resistant skim-reading of Postmodern Narrative Theory, I’ve decided this is the best section of the book.  For narratology, and for any method of making discoveries in literature, we do need that “shared descriptive vocabulary” Currie mentions in the introduction-story. And also, like Currie demonstrates, we need to have a good sense of humor. (I’ll give him that.) 
            This thing is going back to the library tomorrow.



Monday, August 20, 2012

Dommage to Sextus Propertius


This began as a review of Pound's "Homage to Sextus Propertius" on Goodreads.  After a lively class discussion, I found even more things I don't like about Pound's poem(s).  Now, I think Pound is a pretty cool poet ("Hugh Whats-his-face Mauberley" and all that), and he must have also been a good friend, supporting poets like Eliot financially, emotionally, and editorially.  But I had just read Propertius' love poems translated by a scholar who was only interested in Propertius' love poems, so Pound's reinterpretation didn't sit right. Especially with the theories I've heard that he translated so loosely in order to better capture the spirit of the poems.  Pound instead just captures his own spirit, giving it form with some of Propertius' words.
  
"Homage" is a hybrid translation/reinterpretation of a few of Propertius' love poems. So again, it is neither straight translation nor something completely original with a mere hint of antiquity in it.  It lives in a muddy band of the reception spectrum.  But I expected something Propertius-like out of it anyway.  Here are the big differences that made Pound's take on this a bit disappointing:

Pound nearly removes Cynthia from the poems, and what little bit of her is there is nagging, weak, inactive. (Propertius' Cynthia is big, powerful, and terrifying in her loveliness.) When Pound does mention Cynthia (because he has to in the few closely translated poems) he lessens her power by not describing her actions. For instance, he writes "and so on..." when she is screaming at him, instead of hanging on her every angry word as Propertius does.  


Propertius is the moon and Cynthia is his sun.  For Pound, Cynthia is just an example that sometimes demonstrates his love theories.  He does not reflect her light.

Pound is confident and reflective and always availing himself of hindsight (Oh those women! I know all about them...), where Propertius is by turns happy-go-lucky on a nighttime stroll, fearing for his life at the feet of his statuesque lover, overcome with pleasure at the sight of her, pondering non-sequiturs like Spartan games or fashion whenever his thoughts wander. And Propertius is always ALWAYS in the moment.

Pound tries to turn the love poems into his philosophy of everything. Propertius is keeping a raw diary about his love.

Though these differences in the poems bother me, I guess there's no requirement for Propertius' elegies and Pound's English poem (in its own right) to be the same in spirit, since Pound was making something of his own out of the translation work.  He can receive it however he likes.  But Pound's measured pontifications are not very satisfying compared to Propertius' youthful ejaculations (pun intended).  Pound's poem has ED.
 

There is, however, one major intersection between the poets' aims: they both write love poetry with the cause of defending the writing of love poetry. They are both self-referential, defensive, and proud in this way.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Receptionist


Preword

This summer has been my longest hiatus from blogging since I fired this thing up in April 2008. I didn't mean for it to be that way. I've been a productive writer even in hard times these past six years (four in the blogosphere), these great, purpose-filled years since I found my way back to school. Sometimes I wrote running on fumes, sometimes on garbage, but always already writing.  But here I am after three months of nothing.  This summer knocked me flat.  (Boom. Down. Like cement.)

Yet this past week there have occurred the following things: Two visits with friends I hadn't seen in months; an email from another friend who I hadn't heard from in months; a conversation with a friend and fellow English grad about what to do for doctoral work (when I get there); a friend and fellow mother finished chemotherapy.  This rapid succession of some little things (a conversation, a look, a best-friends trip to a thrift store for a $1 bag of clothes that will outfit my kids all winter) and some very big things (watching a strong lady kick cancer to the curb) is starting to pull me out of the mire. I hope this post, too, will help lift me out of this place I'm in.

"John Milton's Office, Byrd speaking."

In that conversation with the other grad student we expressed our sympathies and hopes for the PhD students who are doing field exams this week. So the topic of what our own eventual exams might cover came up.  It dawned on me that I had never thought about trying to decide what to study, dissertate on, think about for the next four years, simply by imagining what the exam would have to look like.  It has to be on something examinable!  Not that anyone should use that as their method for determining their area of study -- but it is something to consider, and I'd never considered it.

I have never been able to settle on a period, and that is my main trouble. I follow themes. I follow styles. I follow philosophy.  Whatever centuries those things wander through, I follow them.  I tried to explain this to a fellow NIU grad at a Milton seminar at the Newberry a year ago.  Then she asked if I was into "adaptation history." Nope, not that.  So what the hell is it I'm following?

I got the answer this spring, in the "Receptions of Classical Literature" class I took.  Egad!  It has been reception I've been following all along. I always called it something like "legacies." (See my profile at left, even!)  I did not know that particular term until this spring.  I had heard about the "received text" and about "reception" in a historicist sort of thinking, i.e. what did the 18th century folk think of their 18th century lit.  I had somehow never learned to use that word this way.  That is, reception is the receiving of those legacies, the reusing of them, the reinterpreting of them, the unconscious imitation of them, sometimes even just the translating of them, if the translation is trying to do something.

Milton receives Virgil, Virgil receives all of the Greeks, Milton receives the Greeks with and without Virgilian interference, Wordsworth receives Virgil with and without Miltonic interference (and never really receives the Greeks), Eliot tries to receive everything at once, Pound receives Propertius and gets him wrong.  There seems to be no limit to classical literature's generosity, and there has always been (except in the Middle Ages, except now!) someone to receive it, always graciously, sometimes beautifully.

I could draw you a reception spectrum.  But I don't have a pen here.  I'll explain it: it runs from translation on the one end, to a completely new work merely influenced by some Greek or somebody on the other end.  In the middle, you have your license-taking translations, your replies, adaptations, reinterpretations, etc. etc.  Each time we read a work in that class we'd place it on the spectrum.  Lattimore's Odyssey is a modern translation, Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is a reply, Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius is a license-taking translation with reinterpretations. Calasso's Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is something else. But it has a place somewhere on the spectrum.

"You're such a historicist!" says the friend as we talk about these things.  Well not really.  I need all the historical contexts and critical biographies and in fact get so into them I'm told to move on when I present things, but this cat has enough of a modern bent that she don't think the center holds, man. Anyway, I'm resisting history in a way by refusing to periodize what I'm interested in. (When folks hear I study Milton they say "Oh you study Renaissance lit!" Um, no. 1667 ain't "Renaissance." English f'n Civil War ain't "Renaissance.") It's the reception, man! The reception! I tell the friend. (And I throw the word around now just to feel the weight and balance of it, and see how it lands because I am so proud of what it is and that I like it.) "Does that make you a receptionist?" asks the friend.  Yes, yes it does.  We have a lit student laugh.  Literature jokes are the best.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

English and Politics (and Bikes)

I think I've only posted one socio-political bicycle rant here, and that was back in the nascent weeks of this blog.  So just so you know, don't mess with bikes.  Or the English teacher will critically analyze your prose (and probably say a few mean things about you).

A local forest preserve just two miles from my home is the proposed site of many "improvements."  (Just how man is supposed to "improve" a forest, I'm not sure.)  The county's master plan includes a map of what might happen to the forest (and an adjacent non-forest piece of public land), and a list of crazy ideas like music venues and snack stands and restrooms between every tree.  Yes, those ideas are inane.  However, the master plan also includes one completely reasonable goal:  making mountain biking legal in Fabyan Forest Preserve.

Mountain bikers proposed this part of the plan.  Real people who ride bikes, build trails, and care about trees, erosion prevention, and wildlife.  Most of the other big ideas were proposed by people who want to make money.  The mountain bikers simply want to ride, and they want it badly enough that they got themselves into the spotlight.

Somehow, a group of local homeowners and nature lovers has gotten into their tiny minds that the mountain bikers are the instigators and masterminds behind the "master plan" (or at least that's how their website reads) and that riding mountain bikes (which are, like two feet wide at the handlebars and up to three inches wide at the base, in case you have never laid eyes on a bicycle) requires clearing vast land masses and killing all of the deer and chipmunks in Kane County.  (FYI there are already trails in those woods, and the bikes fit quite nicely on them.  It's called singletrack.  In some places, singletrack can be so narrow a fat person couldn't walk on it without getting stuck between two trees.)

The nature lovers (I am a nature lover too, but I'll call them that just to separate them from the nature bikers) have launched an awful website at http://forlandssake.org that misrepresents just about everything about local mountain bikers' involvement in the plan, which some how translates into citizens' misconceptions about what a bike even is.  The home page of the site contains all the info you will get out of them, but most of it is not even info -- it is blathering.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF BLATHERING

My students had to write a critical analysis of an article this semester.  Not all of them did so hot, but I think many of them could pick out the problems with forlandssake.org's rambling argument.

They are considering allowing a Mountain Biking organization from Chicago to create trails through the forest for both pleasure and competitive mountain biking. These trails will be wide enough to accommodate fans, who will cheer them on from trail side. The county will receive monetary consideration for allowing this invasion. Currently, biking of any kind through the forest is prohibited.

This starts out true, then turns into speculation.  Where do you get the idea that thousands of fans will show up to these "competitions"? And did the county or CAMBr really mention "competetive" mountain biking?  Articles on the plan only mention "mountain bike trails"  People mountain bike for pleasure all the time, and putting in trails does not necessarily mean a band of slovenly X-games types are coming to your town. Next, your military rhetoric is kind of clumsy.  "Invasion"?  Do the mountain bikers have spears and shields?  I don't see how people on bikes in a forest is any more of an invasion than people on skis, on sleds, leading dogs, or trail running (which are all things your supporters repeatedly say are A-okay, and all things that are currently legal).  If anyone is invading, then it is all of humanity, the most invasive species on the planet, and we should just hermetically seal the woods up -- I mean really preserve that shit.  And "monetary considerations"?  That is just another "get mad at the greedy people" kind of thing.  But you haven't made it clear who is giving money to the county or why. I don't get it.  The mountain bikers are operating as a non-profit in this plan, and they can't afford to bribe anyone, if that's what you're insinuating.  But yes, one point for you, "biking of any kind" is prohibited.  But I'm not sure that means anything unless you make a cogent case for why it should stay prohibited.  (To keep it topical, that's like saying, "Currently, gay marriage is illegal" and expecting your audience to think "Oh, well there must be a good reason for that because lawmakers are so smart! So let's not change it. Ever.")

Aside: The length of my above paragraph and the breadth of its topics just made me realize how disjointed their argument already is.  Bike races! Undesirables!  Felled trees! Bribery! It's all illegal!  Onto the next one!

I almost forgot, check out the ambiguous "they" in this one (the same "they" that starts the above excerpt):

The boards of both the County of Kane and the Kane County Forest Preserve have unveiled plans for Fabyan Forest Preserve which stand to destroy the very elements they have pledged to preserve!

Okay, Onto the next one!

It is interesting to note that they recently publicized plans to place a Ravinia-style venue in the very same forest, as they went about discussing plans with the mountain biking club from Chicago. Now, we are told, the concert venue is off the table and the plans for the mountain biking organization are well along . Draw your own conclusions.

By "interesting" you mean j'accuse!  So the music venue builders are in cahoots with the mountain bikers?  How does that leap happen?  What are you saying? ...Ohhhh! I'm supposed to draw my own conclusions.  I conclude that you are terrible at this.

Aside: By this time the writer(s) has established that the mountain bikers wear the black hats, and are plotting world domination.  They feinted with that music venue,  and went in for the kill with the trails!  (Trails that are already there, that the cyclists just want maintained and perhaps made more usable for any forest visitor)  Those things (mountain bikers, land development corporations) are completely unrelated, at least in the case of this forest.  I am just flabbergasted by this one.

The County of Kane will generate revenues by allowing the various private entities to operate within their boundaries...

(The ambiguous "their" returns!  Not important here though.  Free pass.)   I understand that if there were a music venue, snack stands, ski slopes, whatever else the master plan proposes, that if it were all approved and realized one day, the county would make money from it, to be sure.  The ski slopes and the music venue would probably be operated by private entities, yes.  But no one "operates" a mountain bike trail!  God, how stupid can you be?  The trails are there.  People use them whenever they feel like it, as long as the preserve is open (sunrise to sunset).  No one stands at the trail head taking tickets, no one asks to see your membership card.   Where do you get these ideas?  (And now I am starting to think you have never been in the forest, and certainly have never walked those trails.  And still, I don't think you've ever seen a bike.)

The rest of your blathering covers traffic jams and private entities, blah, blah, and I'm assuming (hoping) most of that is directed at the parts of the project that I agree are pretty out there, like the music venue.  But you have laid the blame on the bikes three times now, and that association has been made.  The "citizen comments" are full of misconceptions and misled ideas thanks to this.  Maybe that was your goal, but this rant remains rhetorically unethical and without focus.  If we follow any of the arguments of merit, we forget who or what we are fighting against (and it doesn't help that we don't have link to the plan itself, but just a map).  The mountain bikers have been mentioned so many times, either explicitly or lumped in with "private entities" (of which, you want us to remember,  they are the prime movers), that we cannot think of who else to blame.  I read the comments, and this effect became evident when I saw it working on the audience of the rant. (And many of the commenters don't even know that forest!)

Aside: One rhetorical feature I did not critique is the org's use of eco-pathos, which is perfectly acceptable here  They say things like "the plan would destroy our ancient trees and plants and drive away the wildlife."  I'm not sure how "ancient" any tree in Illinois prairie land could be, but point taken.  I am sad when trees are sad too.  But no mountain biker wants to hurt the damn trees!

WHAT MOUNTAIN BIKERS WANT

Beside beer and sandwiches, they just want to ride.  Money has nothing to do with it.  And most of them really love them some trees.

With legal mountain biking all that would change about the trail use in Fabyan is that there would be signage (good for anyone on a trail, regardless of means of conveyance), and there would be actual plans to maintain the trails.  People who take their dogs in there to shit under a pretty tree do not care about keeping the trails healthy, and even if they did they would not know where to begin.  Mountain bikers are some of the best stewards of the environment you could ask for in an "invader." 

The riders want legalization for two main reasons.  First, they don't want to get ticketed for it anymore. Far more destructive and disturbing individuals use that land for God knows what.*  And the hikers and dog walkers traipse around the place without the slightest idea that they need to stay on the trail or pick up their dog's crap.  Second, they want to make it legal so that they can keep the trails in good condition: trail maintenance would be made official, bikers would democratically discuss what kinds of trail features work in the forest, destroyers of trails and builders of dangerous, basackwards trail features would be held accountable, the mountain biker's code would be upheld!

*On "God knows what" and the mountain biker's code:  Weird stuff happens in forest preserves.  It's the woods, for Chrissakes.  When someone backs into the parking spot, do you know what that means?  The mountain bikers do.  Do you know that a teenager without a bike helmet is liable to kill himself against a tree?  Mountain bikers do.  And they are not afraid to say anything, to perverts or to teenagers.  Mountain bikers, moreover, tend to be imposing fellows.  The teenager will go home. So will the pervert.  Having responsible, observant adults (many mountain bikers) recreating in the woods is a good thing when it comes to keeping out the riffraff the locals are so worried about.  I picture the dog walkers running away or turning their heads if the come upon anything untoward, and just being completely oblivious to someone doing something dangerous or destructive.

Now, in order to gain the critical mountain biker mass needed to get this idea into the plan, a local mountain biking organization took up the cause.  CAMBr (Chicago Area Mountain Bikers) is a non-profit org dedicated to keeping mountain biking alive in these godawful flat suburbs.  This confused the nature lovers even more.  Forlandssake.org thinks that CAMBr is some kind of corporation out to make money from mountain biking.  Have they seen their rickity-ass website? Ain't no corporation.  Ain't no six million dollar operation.  What CAMBr does is organize biking events (on legal trails*), organize trail building, educate the public about mountain biking, and provide an online forum and info hub for local bikers.  They collect nominal dues from their members.  And they do not own the land on which the members ride!

This "forest for sale" idea is one of the zaniest the commenters came up with -- "We've sold too much forest already!"  And this wasn't even suggested in the homepage blathering!  See what bad writing does?  Your argument goes off the deep end once people start rephrasing it and amplifying it. (Another example is a comment that reads like an old lady, an old lady who thinks mountain bikes have motors: "Think of the noise!")

*On legal trails: Oswegoland Park District boasts the best mixed use trails in the far western 'burbs.  Saw Wee Kee trail system allows hiking, biking, and horseback riding on the same trails.  No trees get cut down.  No crazy "fans" show up to watch races.  No bribery takes place!  The forest is clean and safe, and I've never seen anyone backed into the spot at that trail head. But I have seen tailgating, picnicking, and good times. CAMBr maintains Saw Wee Kee.

A NOTE

The socialist in me feels the need to let you know that forlandssake.org was possibly thrown together by the McMansion dwellers in the Fox Run housing development behind Fabyan, and they are probably more concerned about their property value (pshh!) and the view from their verandah than anything.  They are the true invaders.
At Fabyan Forest Preserve in 2006, tree-hugging. (A storm, not a mountain biker, killed this tree.)




Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Sounds of Salesmen (Of Salesmen!)


If you are out there fundraising on the mean streets, or occupying the quad of a regional university, trying your damnedest to raise funds for a truly good cause, then you should try not to act like a salesman.  Salesmen have no good causes.

1:30   I had half an hour before 600 class (teaching practicum) and I was near the main library, so I decided to see how quickly I could A) locate and check out a copy of an obscure book on paradox, and then B) get a veggie sandwich at the student center just across the plaza, and then C) shove said sandwich into my face while running to said 600 class.  I usually like to take my time, but the spring weather had me up for a challenge.

1:35  I found Paradoxia Epidemica quickly enough, and even snagged another curiosity (Auden's Viking Book of Aphorisms), owing to my temporary inability to remember how the Library of Congress call number system works.  Even with my extended browsing in the wrong section, and my perusal of the other books on Renaissance rhetoric and paradox, I made it down from the third floor and out the door with the sandwich still a possibility.

1:45  Across the plaza, down a few steps from the library, in a wide concrete sea where most of the clubs and organizations do their soliciting, hawking, or fundraising, stood three older students in yellow striped shirts.  I heard, as I approached, that they were doing something for human rights.  So when the middle stripey guy, directly in my sandwich-bound path, asked if I had a minute, I said, "Yes, but only a minute."

1:55 I trudged to 600, fuming, tummy rumbling, cursing the sounds of salesmen. I did not get a sandwich.

Between 1:45 and 1:55 I endured some of the sleaziest salesman looks, lines, and gestures I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing.  (Also note that 10 minutes is far more than a minute.) I'm not just angry because I was hungry (although that etched the anger on my stomach, a choleric organ it would seem!), and it's not just the sleaze that makes me object so much to those wasted ten minutes.  It is the lost opportunity for this human rights organization that causes me so much discomfort.  Apparently, even big, successful, nationwide charitable orgs are taking the wrong tack when it comes to getting money or even support from college students.

When fundraising at a college campus, charitable folks, here is what NOT to do:

-- DON'T send fundraisers who are working per sign-up or some other kind of commission.  Those are salesmen.  They suck.

-- DON'T send fundraisers who don't know a goddamn thing about what they're raising money for.  Or even where to find more information on the website.  Or even how to talk about the issue. The guy had a binder with maps explaining the issue.  Other than that he just had a lot of schmooze. 

-- DON'T encourage your fundraisers (who are headed to the boonies) to stress the "We're from Chicagooo" angle, as if that makes the charity better than anything local.  Okay, you don't know anything about what happens in DeKalb, you don't have any local members or offices for me to get involved with (and I might want to get involved!), and you think you're cooler than me.  Get out of my way I need a sandwich.

-- DON'T train fundraisers as simply fundraisers.  Your charitable organization needs to be open to other kinds of support, especially on a college campus.  There are only thousands of people there who are young, energetic, passionate, and who talk to other people every day.  An upperclassman could start a local chapter for the org.  A teaching assistant could have her students do a project on a current human rights issue (<-- um, that was me), or a women's studies/sociology/English/any kind of humanities professor could tell the hundreds of students in his classes about your event and your wonderful human rights efforts, and send droves your way.  All of these things could happen, not by manipulation and salesmanship, but by generating genuine interest in your genuine work.

Here's what you can do:

--DO have your fundraisers bring a takeaway: a brochure, a card, something.  It is such a sleazy tactic to not have anything to take away.  Real businesspeople (since you're thinking of yourselves as a business, I can see) have cards, and people presenting real products (in this case the product is human rights!) have literature.  Snake Oil salesmen don't have cards or pamphlets (although that would be a pretty funny business card), and neither did those lame-ass fundraisers. 

This is what could happen: A student takes your card, he calls you about setting up a local chapter.  A student takes your brochure with the color pictures comparing starving babies to happy humanitarian-assisted schoolchildren,  and she looks you up online.  She donates, and she downloads material to use for a project, and she takes that project to the Showcase of Student Writing, and thousands of students now know about your cause.  A teaching assistant (a-HEM!) takes your card and your brochure, and teaches a lesson about human rights (in the context of X...) and her student research groups choose to research gay marriage, Rwanda, modern slavery, etc.

--DO have your fundraisers talk like regular people.  They were graduate students, in the case of this org.  They must be MBAs, because they no longer speak human.

--DO teach your fundraisers the polite parting.  Nothing makes a salesman more salesman-y then that complete shutdown, turn away, when he sees you're about to go.  Normal people who have just been talking for ten minutes part from one another with niceties.  

--DO teach your city kids to be sensitive to the local-ness of places.  They can't impress everyone everywhere with "Chicagooo" (hipster pronunciation, without the slightest Chicago accent).  And they probably don't even realize that many people from small places would rather do things to help their own town.  The same laws the org is trying to overturn (laws that let employers fire employees because of sexual orientation) have probably affected DeKalb County, and rural northern Illinois, even if they can't imagine that.

--DO send people who do real work for the organization.  In smaller orgs, fundraisers are also people who donate their time.  They know about the org.  They are open to other ways of donating (time, advocacy, in-kind donations, etc).  Every charitable organization should be open to these non-monetary forms of assistance, especially at a college fundraiser.  We don't have any money.  But we have loud voices.

To close, and to sum up, here's what I scrawled in my notepad on my way back to Reavis Hall, empty-stomached:  BLOG!  Gay rights/human rights salesman guy.  Ugh!  Hungryyyy.  Don't they know?  Advocacy, ideas, voices, opinions, forums, volunteers, passion, local.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Your Beer is not "Delicious," nor is it "Amazing."

Some perfectly good uses of "Delicious" from the OED

I have a serious problem with the ever-presence of "delicious" and "amazing" in commercials, emails, social updates, and even conversations.  I would rant at you, but these texts messages might explain better.


Saturday, February 18.  Robyn and Erica discuss words, croissants, etc. 

R: Haha. I think [croissants] are about equal parts butter and flour.

E: Mostly. And delicious.  Don't you hate that word? 

R: I do hate delicious as applied to food and especially drink.  It was just gross sounding at first, but now people say it constantly so it's even worse.

E: Speaking of bad words, parry gripp, lead singer of nerfherder has reinvented himself and has a song called nom nom nom nom nom nom. Disgusting.

R: That is sick.  I'm also tired of people saying everything is "amazing."  It's like the educated person's cool word.  If something is "amazing," it better be goddamn good.

E: People don't know how to describe anything anymore. "these croissants are amazingly delicious!"

E: nom nom.

R: LOLOLOLOL!!!!!!     [This is hilarious to us because we NEVER use LOL in earnest.  Like, never.]

E: Haha!  Ewwwww.  This is a deliciously disgusting conversation.

R: Now that is a good use of delicious.  I like delicious air or a delicious morning.  Or Dean Martin: "Gosh your lips are...delicious!"

E: To me that line makes me picture him chewing on her lips.

R: Certainly.  But at least he isn't nomming on a delicious beer.

E: I guess I can only associate it with food.

R: I think people should use words that more precisely describe flavor.  Savory, sweet, aromatic, pungent...they've replaced them all with one word.

E: Ugh. True.  I'm so glad you have superb word taste.

R: I want to blog our conversation.  I was on the verge of writing about both delicious and amazing and this about covers it.

E: I was just thinking what a good conversation this is.  And I was going to describe my beer as definitively Midwestern with a cheap but not unattractive taste.  The wide mouth delivers its lackluster liquid languidly to my lips.

R: A perfect description.  I think you hit the nail on the head, that it is the power of description that people have lost.  Probably along with observation.

E: I know.



Erica knows.  Now go forth and use some good words.  Preferably ones that aren't vague.  And even more preferably, ones we haven't heard sixteen times today.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Public University Aesthetic

Gorgeous foliage outside teal-and-glass Gabel Hall.
One fine fall day I snapped some photos around campus.  The trees were turning golden and scarlet, and the teals and greens of some of the 1960s and '70s buildings complemented the look of the day, taking me back to the era of the hyper-hued Polaroid.  Who needs a "Hipstamatic" filter when the place actually looks like the 1970s? 

Most of these shots come from the English building, my home, Reavis Hall.  It is one of the oldest, least updated structures on campus.  Last year when the rains came, ceiling tiles were crashing down on the heads of our students.  When the snows melted, the leaks in the roof mixed with the efforts of the newly cranked up furnace to create a building-wide mist.  It was dreamy.  And it smelled like socks.

The interior office photos show the working conditions of new TAs at a public university.  This may be standard outfitting for underlings, or we may be enduring egregious OSHA violations.  None of us seem to mind.

I post these photos not to complain about my lot, not to be "ironic" (I didn't take them with an iPhone so they wouldn't count as hip anyway),  and certainly not to impress anyone with my digs.  I post them to show what a public university really looks like, inside and out, and to give an alternative view of a college campus aesthetic, especially for those who think that these environments fit into a false dichotomy of the ivy-cover ivory towers of the big private schools and the characterless mega-campuses of State U. 

NIU is a mega-campus in a cornfield, for sure.  The bulk of it offends its natural surroundings.  The phallus of the Holmes Student Center pierces the sky relentlessly.  Zulauf (sounds too much like Zoloft) is a brick slab that creates dangerous, blinding winds and keeps Reavis from basking in much needed sunshine.  But tucked back in the middle of the ugly sprawl are the library with its mosaic tiles, the Altgeld  "castle" with its merlons and ivy (all five major Illinois schools have one of these!), and the crop of cute, dated '60s buildings where I spend most of my days. Here's what some of that looks like.

Our Nixon-Era chairs in their grey, grey splendor.

Have a seat.  Cigarette?


Garish '60s buildings are beautiful when nature joins in the colorsplash.

I hope it still works.

We have Ivy too.  Public Ivy.

But no, we cannot afford matching linoleum.

Reavis 314, home of new TAs.  Seats 20. (Currently used by only about 15. You could join us, but the fridge will freeze your salad, and the rest of the room is only about ten degrees warmer than that.)

This painting gets moved around the building. Maybe it's the only one we have. (Don't drink that water.  It tastes like old books, which is appropriate for the English building, but totally not fit for consumption.)

They don't make plenums like they used to.

I thought I heard screaming coming from somewhere...

My first classroom.  Reavis 305.  Only missing one ceiling tile.

I think any of the retro chairs and couches could be designated areas.

L'esprit de l'escalier!

We all live on the third floor.  With the asbestos.
Funny thing is, I can't wait to go back on Monday!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thoughts on a Vocab Habit


This is for all the wordy people.  Don't let the word haters get you down.  Don't let them stage an intervention to break you of your vocab habit.  It's good for you, and they should be able to see that. 


In this month off from schooling and teaching, in the absence of my esteemed English grad student colleagues, I've been dropping some big words here and there.  They don't fall into place quite so well when you don't have a captive audience of officemates who use all the same words.  We get excited when someone says "aplomb" for God's sake.  (And one day a couple of us even took pains to look up the language of origin for that one, so we could enjoy it more fully.  With aplomb even.)

I've come to a sort of conclusion that as you use more words, longer words, and more discipline specific words, you just don't hear them anymore.  Or you expect that other people know them, because you've known them for so damn long.  This not hearing one's self can happen with any jargon.  Hank Hill probably talks to people in propane terms they can't sort out.  A doctor might use all kinds of medical terminology at home while his kids just roll their eyes.  But we in English, our thing is words! 

So, how does that make our jargon spouting okay?  Words are what our jargon is about.  And we love all kinds of them.  So the objects of our jargon, instead of being some industry specific doodads that no one else knows about or ever needs to care about, are already all around us (and you, and anyone who speaks or reads).  Perhaps a plastics manufacturer could say the same thing.  But we don't consume plastics the way we consume books and culture.

So if we use a big word on you, it is a compliment.  We think you know what we're saying.  We think you're smart.

We are not, contrary to popular belief, trying to make you feel stupid.  Nor are we always trying to show off.  These things, they just come out of us.  We don't intend to be showy, offensive, or obfuscatory.  (See, there it goes again.) How about this:  If we are being otherwise reasonable, but use a word you don't understand, you can ask what it means, or say something friendly like "I'm not sure what you mean."  We'll probably even apologize for our wordiness.  But yelling at us to "SPEAK ENGLISH!" just won't do.  We could ask the same of you, if that's your attitude.  That's right.

I recently caused some kind of offense (whatever kind is caused by non-offensive words) when I used "discourse" and "philosophy" in a non-academic conversation.  I shouldn't have to apologize for that.  Nor should I be made out to be Ms. Bombastic for uttering more than three syllables at a breath.  None of us should.  Don't kick the habit.

Now I'm not saying that we who study English forget how to code-switch.  I'm sure some intellectuals in all fields forget how to talk to their mothers or to the garbage man, but most of us don't strike up a conversation about hermeneutics with the latter or tell the former she's looking "pulchritudinous" today.

I'm also not saying there aren't actual living sesquipedalians (people who use big words just to use big words) out there.  In fact many of them probably reside in the English and Philosophy departments.  But those windbags are the minority.   That's a great word -- windbag.

By the way I totally know what hermeneutics means now, and it's lost all its mystique for me.  Not knowing a word can give it so many dimensions!  Even half knowing a word can be fun, because then you can try it out.  What the hell, right?  Someone who didn't quite understand "empower" turned it into a word for women's issues, and it used to be something only the friggin' Pope could do.

So there you have my attitude on not knowing a word.  Just because we like to use the biggun's doesn't mean we have all of them in our personal arsenals.  No one does!  But if I hear one from a friend or read one in a book, I won't demand a sorry substitute.  I'll look it up.  I'll ask what it means.  I'll probably try it out on you tomorrow.  And not because I think you're stupid, or because I want you to think I'm smart.  It's just a healthy habit of mine.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Slough of Despond

   
    In his PMLA article “The Evolution of Literary Study, 1883-1983,” fittingly published in the centennial issue of the “industry” journal for the study of literature, Karl Kroeber attempts to describe changes in literary study since the university model brought about its systematization.  He distinguishes between scholarship in literature (the study of texts and their histories) and literary intellect (the “timeless” theory and criticism about texts), and discusses how these two approaches to literary study are somewhat at odds.  Criticism is the approach most valued by university hiring committees since the 1980s, despite its lack of practical value when compared with our ever-evolving, ever-improving scholarly tools.  Kroeber advocates placing a higher value on literary study such as textual studies and biographical studies, arguing that even the most robust theories may be passing fads, while excellent scholarship will always give us some ground to stand on, no matter our critical approach.

    From the start, Kroeber’s approach to his subject reveals his sense of humor, and he acknowledges that his attempt at painting the picture of the last hundred years of literary study will be mediocre at best.  As a teacher of mostly undergraduate courses who mostly writes about Wordsworth, he doesn’t consider himself a member of the higher echelons of the literary studies club, or of any trendy theory crowd.  He wonders why the MLA approached him to write such a history for their hundredth-year issue.  “I was appalled by the invitation to write this essay,” is how the essay begins (326).  He has set the tone.

     Kroeber prefaces his discussion of what goes on in literary study by calling the MLA (and the profession of studying literature) a bureaucracy, and he equates it with other types of bureaucracies, such as those found in the medical professions.  In order for the bureaucracy to function, it needs a hierarchy.  He spends a few paragraphs on unflattering descriptions and analogies (in PMLA no less!) about the functioning of this bureaucracy, and calls on members of it to recognize “how increasingly we function as a profession only bureaucratically” (327).  Specialized interests are commoditized by forums and panels, all exacting dues and hiring out for speakers in tangential topics.  Kroeber laments what the study of literature becomes under this bureaucratic system -- in the era of professionalization, “power, prestige, and professional virtuosity disguise the professional's persistent trivializing of human experience” (327).  All these things we do with literature (in 1984 anyway) are causing us to lose focus on the literature itself, and making the work we do less and less approachable by scholars or students of any other specialization.  Who wants to read PMLA?  Kroeber doesn’t. (Neither do I.)

    Next Kroeber makes his distinction (which is a pretty widely recognized distinction) between scholarship in literature and literary criticism.  The first, he says, is evolving all the time, always building upon past work, always discovering more about history, and always bringing about good revisions to the canon.  Because of literary scholarship we have Blake as one of our Romantic “big six,” and we have moved Swinburne to the margins.  As this scholarship piles up, we start to “take for granted a vast apparatus of bibliographies, compendia of criticism, checklists, catalogs of library holdings, reference works, and many scrupulously edited texts”(328)  that make continued scholarship much easier than it was a century ago.  As more and more is discovered, histories and biographies become more accurate, fueling new discoveries.  Textual scholarship (which “real” critics treat as “a slough of despond” [329]) keeps step with scholarship on literature, and studies of the book fuel debates on everything from editorial copy-text to authorial intention.  After expounding the virtues and successes of modern literary scholarship, Kroeber turns to the problem: “Young Ph.D.’s” as he calls them, are not trained to be scholars.  They are trained to be critics – specialized critics.  So despite scholarship’s steady march forward, “our discipline now decays intellectually.”  We have the mounds of scholarship, and no one wants to work with them. 

    Those young Ph.D.’s who do want to work with scholarly materials lack the skills, and instead write heaps of criticism without actually consulting much of anything literary except the primary texts themselves.  Kroeber claims that we have impoverished our critical vocabulary by reaching out to various only tangentially related disciplines – sociology, linguistics, psychology – and critics now borrow so much from the sciences, all the while claiming to be doing something “creative,” that the criticism (or, theory) they produce ultimately has little to do with “literary study.”  So, his practical concern about where literary study has ended up by 1984 is that there will soon be no jobs for the young Ph.D.’s.  They are either incompetent at actually studying literature, or if they have managed to focus on their literary scholarship, they will not get hired by the committee looking for the latest theory buzzwords (or, to update this, cultural criticism buzzwords) on the C.V.

    While Kroeber brings his argument about scholarship vs. criticism to bear on a very practical issue (and a vital one, if we all wish to continue to have jobs and a department of our own), he does so within a framework of discussing how literary study has gotten where it is today, even if part of the “study” is in a sad state.  That’s what PMLA wanted him to do – a history of literary study.  But Kroeber is limited by his own knowledge of the subject, his lack of involvement in any of the “new” types of literary study, and the time period the PMLA team wants him to cover – the hundred years that the MLA has existed!  It is telling that they did not ask him to delve further into literary history.  No literary study existed before it was sanctioned by the MLA?  This limitation is noted in the title of the article, and can’t be blamed on Kroeber.  He gives the dates he is covering: 1883-1983.  That is all that is required really.  Like any good bibliographer does, you have to put a cap on the thing somewhere, or it will not fit between the covers of a book, much less a journal.  The other limitations that stem from Kroeber’s lack of specialized knowledge about literary history are his own limitations, but for some reason the MLA chose him to write this. 

Perhaps Kroeber was chosen precisely because he is an outsider on the history of literary study.  He can give a broader picture of what it looks like from someone who does it in the way most professors do it: teaching undergraduates, and writing on a period of canonical literature. Kroeber does well to call attention to the limitations of the article, calling it an “amateurish foray” into literary study (336), and ultimately brings his argument home to advocate for teaching literature to small classes as the saving grace of the English department.  If we try not to “fret” about the bureaucracy in which we must teach and write, and if we try not to jump on every theoretical bandwagon, we will get back to teaching literature in that way that supposedly helps our students' critical thinking, and all those other brain functions that can be magically turned on by reading a book – the reason the other departments send all their majors over here for at least a class or two. 

    So while Kroeber ends up in a very specific place at the end of his essay, and fails to give a sweeping overview of, or a definite shape to, the century he is supposed to be describing, he at least gives the PMLA reader something to think about when it comes to dealing with the legacies of that century, and deciding whether to turn away from them, embrace them, or count them as irrelevant to the very practical work we do in classrooms, and as scholars of texts.


Work Cited
Kroeber, Karl. “The Evolution of Literary Study, 1883-1983.” PMLA 99.3 (1984): 326-39. Print.