Monday, April 2, 2007

The Humiliation Game:

On Reading, Not Reading, and Halfassery.

Chaser is mulling over Lennard Davis’s article, "Huckleberry Who?" published in the Chronicle. And Undine is trying to make it a meme: what are five big books you haven’t read? Admit it! (I don’t think I’ve read any of the Continental great novels Davis mentions, not any Proust, nor Hesse, not War and Peace nor The Man Without Qualities. Though I did do well on his list of stuff in English.)

Davis, combining How to Talk About Books That You Haven't Read, by Pierre Bayard, and the game Humiliation from David Lodge’s Changing Places (wherein a professor is eventually fired for admitting he had never read Hamlet), has some very vague statements about the myriad ways one can read books besides scrutinizing every word, straight through to the end, and urges us to be "more open and honest about what we haven’t read" as well as less "sanctimonious" and judgmental towards our colleagues who haven’t read everything, which will result in …? Here’s where he gets a bit vague: how exactly will we benefit from being more honest about what we haven’t read? Well, he says, we might be more likely to read more or read important books that everyone else was talking about and we didn’t get around to in the moment (for me, this was Rushdie during the whole fatwa controversy). Hmm --- so not pressuring people to read will make them read more? And we might also discover new ways of reading. Hmm. I’m not entirely impressed by these conclusions.

For one thing, I agree with Chaser that the people I know are far more likely to be geekily excited and enthusiastic about reading, or about describing a book you’ve missed out on, than snootily condemning you for your ignorance. Second, my profs are much more likely to dismiss the books themselves out of hand than admit they should be read: What? By who? (cutting-off gesture of finality here) I don’t read that; I’m a ______ scholar. For at the R1s, fields are highly specialized things and the mark of pride and one-upmanship comes in ruthlessly excluding anything that falls outside of one’s sphere of expertise.

Besides, the problem isn’t fear, it’s time. (Hey, if I can admit to blogging, and to watching What Not to Wear when I have access to a TV, I would have no problem admitting attempting Midnight’s Children or Vanity Fair for belated pleasure reading.)

And if Davis had ventured more explicitly into “required field lists” rather than “what every educated person should know,” he would have exposed his arguments as silliness: a Shakespearean never having read Hamlet? A postcolonialist specializing in the Subcontinent who had never read any Rushdie? If either of these examples were confessed they would be met with bafflement, laughter, and derision: I know because of what grad students tell me.

And I would here like to put on my curmudgeon hat (the one with the tassels and all the sparkles) to declare that I am against this practice of grad students openly admitting what they did not read on their exam lists. The eighteenth-centuryist who cavalierly cops to only having read a quarter of the 18th C list stuff because s/he specializes in a single author? The person studying the Romantic/Victorian list who only read one side of the slash mark? The Americanist who skipped all the male authors? The person who intentionally misread all of the “and”s as “or”s whenever multiple plays or poems were listed for an author? This all shall stop right now! I am putting my fingers in my ears and singing lah lah lah whenever you-all admit this from now on.

Of course time runs out as one prepares for the exams! Of course there is "reading" vs. "reading" a text ---- or what a friend of mine referred to as "gutting" a text, where one skimmed through, taking some notes as fast as possible and then read a critical article or two on it. Of course, when scanning the puritan sermons or Dickinson poems some individual texts might get a bit short shrift while plowing through the whole ---- but this pragmatic decision-making, while the centerpiece of being a grad student, is nothing to proudly pronounce about. It should be saved for tipsy giggling confessions of commiseration with fellow grads at someone’s party, or consoling words to the student hyperventilating, two weeks before exam time: keep calm; keep working; most people don’t completely finish their lists. Know what I ran out of time for and didn't read …? It should not be admitted in the TA mailroom, the department hallways, or god help me, blithely to any professor’s faces. What are you thinking??

In short, while I always talk about halfassery as the central method of surviving grad school, you should not take it as a half-assed effort but more in the spirit of "gutting": make smart decisions about what is really important for you to know in the profession and what is a hoop put up for you by the program. Halfassery (gutting) is not laziness but the recognition of limitations on our time. Halfassery (gutting) is not cockily thinking that whatever you write about author X will be so brilliant you don’t have to know your century inside and out, but knowing your field well enough you can prioritize who on your list is indispensable and who is marginal --- and that this prioritization will vary depending on the professor who examines you and what his/her pet hobbyhorses might be. Halfassery (gutting) is not skipping half the poems of author B because they are boring, but trading reading time for some of those poems for a read-through of a book that will allow you to place those poems in the appropriate stylistic or literary-historical context. I should really stop even using the word halfassery in case it is misleading impressionable grad students at my institution, but it is such a funny-sounding neologism I can't resist.

I am saying, then, that "Humiliation" is not the point of exams or the game of grad school --- or rather, it is, but to play it is to lose it. To win at halfassery one must keep one's mouth shut while still acknowledging, in a general way, one's human limits. I am completely in favor of the humiliation of any grad student stupid enough to admit or get caught out in not reading something. Halfassery, to be done properly, must be successfully gotten away with. Sigh ----- Could I be any more of a cranky little old man? Ah well.

And those high-handed grad who took the lists as suggestions rather than rules have all come, if not to a bad end, then to bad middles. If they didn’t have to retake the exam they were studying for, they got found out by the time the next set of quals rolled around. The profs here might have specialized views, but they don’t allow that behavior from their students. Cruel hypocrisy or necessary hierarchy? You decide.


gwoertendyke said...

this is a brilliant post, sisyphus, required reading (or at least gutting) for all pre-exam grad students. two things struck me here--i am reminded of all of those students who came to seminars having not read the text under discussion, sometimes having not read it AND they were presenting on it, and sometimes having not read it and, gulp, admitted to the professor. i could not agree with you more: keep your fucking mouth shut@!

second, i'm thinking that the skill you point out, of knowing what and how to read for particular audiences for particular projects doesn't become a honed skill and certainly you're far less aware of it until writing your dissertation. then, when faced with the overwhelming sea of primary and secondary text, to say nothing of different theoretic approaches or period/national straddling, you learn how and what to read in ways you could never do prior. i realized this for the first time when i recognized that my note-taking on a piece of criticism had become not "rehash details" but global, synthetic, and theoretic interpretations in the notes themselves. again, happens in later stages of grad school i think.

sorry for long post--this is brilliant, i mean it, make friends there read it:)

Sisyphus said...

Thanks! I totally know what you mean about the note-taking: the notes I took on books "just to get a feel for the time period" right after going ABD have such brilliant statements as "The Victorian Period occurred during the nineteenth century" (ok not quite that bad) and have a lot of timelines and straight quotations; my more recent notes have been about engaging the argument rather than assimilating the details and context. Both are necessary for a scholar though (I think): you have to know what happened when and get a familiarity for all the big names of the period before you can tell what positions and interventions scholars are making.

gwoertendyke said...

yep i agree completely. i would say that only when you become saturated in your period can you read theory/criticsm deeply enough to intervene. but i still think you should (and could at this point in your study) a 5 books you haven't read:)