Monday, April 20, 2009

MMAP Update April 21: Why is English Literature a Book Field, Anyway?

You know, a while back ---- ok, like approaching years ago now ---- I made my students do book reviews in one of the courses I taught. I had stayed away from them, because "book report" just screams high school to me: not only can they encourage simplistic thinking and summary rather than an actual disciplined engagement, but my friends and I used to compete for who could get an A with having read as little of the book as possible. Jason won the entire campaign by inventing a book on WWI out of whole cloth. He included maps of the Somme. I gave up at that point, knowing I was outclassed.

But on the other hand, some of my grad profs have made me do book reivews of recent stuff to get a sense of "coverage" of the field being taught in that class. (Someone carped that this was how Prof So-and-So was staying current in the field, but I did learn a lot from the process.) And since I had just read a bunch of books directly in my field if not quite on my topic, I made up a list of about 20 or so and sent my students off into the stacks. I tried to make a very specific, difficult assignment asking them to find the overarching argument of the book and critique it.

It had mixed results. The students didn't know how to deal with an argument when a chapter covered an author we had not read or an author we had read but not that specific work in that chapter. (Yes, a lot of these were dissertations-into-books.) They also found the academic "voice" difficult, contentious, and completely boring. (I like to think that I put a bunch of smart but lazy students off of applying to grad school, as many who had been asking me questions about that whole process came back all huffy that the books were "boring." Well, yeah! My job is to instill an appreciation of literature into you undergraduates. That is nothing like what you would do as a grad student.)

And the whole exercise also made me think about why we ---- literature scholars ---- actually publish books. Especially because none of the students had ever done this or been asked to do this before ---- they could not fulfill the assignment without walking into the stacks. I know lots of people have assigned research projects here, but undergrads generally go to journal articles and can do just fine, or find single pages of books through google books and not do well at all. This helps explain why I pull so many books from a couple years ago off the shelves only to discover that I will be the first person checking it out.

So why is literature a "book field," considering that our undergrads are, I'm pretty sure, only coming in contact with the article portion of our field?

Furthermore, compare literature classes to history classes. Historians assign scholarly books in their courses ---- sometimes more textbooks in the lower divisions, perhaps more "accessible" or trade books in their upper division classes than the latest scholarly monograph, but I have taken history courses and women's studies courses at the graduate level, and it was all about reading the latest stuff to be published or win some prestigious prize, with the occasional "foundational" text or "great classic everybody's gotta read" thrown in.

(and then --- to make things even weirder --- these seminars would sit around and make all these general statements about the book! It was so confusing to me. We could go for 30 minutes with no one pointing us to a specific page, and that confused the hell out of me. Don't even get me started on the class I took that was half sociologists and half lit students, where people constantly were applying what Fanon said to contemporary events in some far-removed place, and I had to stop myself from killing someone! Look, I don't believe you or any of your claims ---- by definition. You have to source everything you say in the text. How can I believe what you say about oppression in East Timor, Mr. Leftier-Than-Thou, when Fanon says nothing about it and you are not bringing any other texts, news reports, or first-hand experience to the table? Gah! Ok, I'll stop ranting.)

But in contrast to my history and ws classes, in my lit classes we read articles, or occasionally book introductions. Or some big classic theory treatise (well, usually we'd have entire classes on _____ theory, of whatever type.) More often it would be a couple theory articles and a couple critical articles each week. And of course, lots of primary texts. I don't think anybody assigned scholarly books or really talked about them. It could be just the place I was at...? And this was the same at the undergrad level. Most all the profs I know would rather squeeze another novel or poetry collection onto the syllabus if they saw they had any room, not put the latest prizewinning book from the 18th Century Nose-Picking Society on there. In fact, I had plenty of profs who put nothing but acres of primary texts on their grad syllabi and expected us to research out all the theory that was being referenced, as well as do some solid critical research for our papers. My department could be an anomaly, I guess.

So why is the "gold standard" in literary studies a book for tenure if we are not assigning them in our classes?

History is a "book field," but at least the book sales are helped a bit by the fact that profs are assigning them as models in their grad classes. You come out with a book on, I don't know, colonial American concepts of transgenderism and people like Tenured Radical and Historiann will have their students buy a couple dozen. You come out with a book with four chapters on Alexander Pope and --- can you even come out with a book like that? I know lots of the reasons given about why projects need to be thought through on this level of scope and depth across a lot of pages (I can disagree with them too) but I was wondering how people justify the system from a publishing and purchasing standpoint.

Just something else to chew on during the Magical Month of Academic Publishing.

(and update: one hour today, yet another paragraph, but I found a bunch more quotes that actually are about the pattern I see over here at the beginning of the novel so maybe I have to add another paragraph. Hmm. So then did I make progress or not today?)


Anonymous said...

Heh. Historians don't point to specific pages because 1) we can't remember where in the book we read that bit, and 2) you really are better off not analyzing our deathless prose too closely. Really.

(The latter is actually a serious point about the discipline, I think; history tends to value clarity over style - though there are some stylin' historians! - and therefore the point isn't to analyze the language in which a historian writes, but the overall argument. This is probably the same in literature when you're not reading a primary text, but probably rather different if you're reading theory itself - which I think of as a primary text, actually.)

Some history classes actually are grounded in primary texts, though, and I have often said to my students, "Where in the TEXT does it say that?" :-) Funnily enough, far fewer of my grad classes were like this.

Anonymous said...

I'm chortling at "the 18th Century Nose-Picking Society"!

And congrats on your progress-- and heck yeah, that includes realizations of future work, as in the last parenthetical. Any attention to a draft is progress, right?

I always think of this Wilde quote during the draft process: "I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out"!

clio's disciple said...

Agreeing with New Kid. As a historian, I find that I use maybe 1 or 2 scholarly books in an intro-level class, and then a ton of primary sources; but I do require students to read both books and articles in more advanced courses. I've tried book review assignments (or this semester a book presentation assignment) in history classes, with somewhat mixed results.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hmm. I guess I kind of wonder what you mean by "assigning." In my grad classes, both in my MA program and in my PhD program, most classes involved a syllabus filled with literature and then each week we'd have extensive "recommended" reading lists on reserve, which did include complete books, or multiple chapters of books, as well as articles. The expectation was that you would do as much of the recommended reading as you could do for each week. I suspect this was the practice out of a desire to keep book prices for courses down more than anything - if we'd been expected to buy all of those books, my books in a given semester would have probably run like 3 grand. Scholarly books are expensive, yo.

Now, it's true that we weren't expected to *purchase* these books, but we were expected to *engage* with them, and a lot of the scholarly books I own came into my library as a result of this kind of exposure.

As for undergrads, I force my students to head into the stacks and to use a mix of books and journal articles in their papers. They can't pass a paper for me without dealing with both kinds of sources. Now, perhaps non-majors, or first semester freshmen in some classes, can afford to engage only with the journal article part of the field, but in my world (not only in my classes but also in the classes of many of my colleagues) you can't graduate with an English degree with that level of engagement. (Nor do I think a student should be able to do so, actually.)

Do I think that the gold standard for tenure should be a book in our field? No. But do I think that journal articles do the same things that books do, or that students can do just as well reading only articles? Also no.

Anonymous said...

You have hit the nail on the head, in my opinion. There is something structurally incompatable about the ways we teach literary criticism (usually in article/excerpted chapter form), the way students access lit crit (through databases of downloadable pds because, you know, why should they go to the library?), and what we require lit scholars to produce for tenure (the god-awful monograph). I've gone around and around in my head about this problem many times, particularly as I was working on my own god-awful monograph.

You did not point out the obvious -- perhaps because it's too obvious and been covered countless times -- that the book requirement is a fossil from previous eras that has yet to be discarded -- mostly because more senior scholars hold to the "well, I wrote a book, so you should too" philosophy. But, it seems like it has to change eventually. Eventually, academic presses will go defunct, universities will have to recognize that young scholars can't produce books, and we can all get with the 21st century and write articles already!


Lucky Jane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lucky Jane said...

Interesting question. As someone with a book proposal out, I hope what Bittersweet Girl augurs doesn't happen, but with the recent news about Michigan and Cambridge UP, well. . .

And maybe it's the monographs I read and write, but most of them develop their arguments through chapters neatly segregated by author or text. Often these chapters are revised from previously published articles. If I'm teaching *Moll Flanders*, I'm not going to assign all of *The Rise of the Novel*. Maybe I'm not teaching due diligence, but I don't think others are, either. As I discovered while stalking myself for my third-year review, a lone crank teaches my book (on an absurdly obscure subject) in its entirety, but the chapter on the least obscure text does get assigned with alarming frequency—relatively speaking, of course. Shudder.

My undergrads engage with entire monographs all the time. The lazy will, contrary to hectoring by me and the librarians, "JSTOR" or "Google-Scholar" (yes, used as verbs) everything and then wring their little hands in despair that the research paper thing isn't working out. The rest seem familiar with the intros, conclusions, and the chapter(s) relevant to their topics.

For what it's worth, I like books. I never lose books. If it's in a book, I can put my hands on it within a minute. By contrast, I almost always lose the copy I marked up of some article I printed off of Muse, and then I print another out, mark it up, and file it in another place I won't remember. It's a waste of my MMAP.

Susan said...

This is very funny. I'm planning a grad seminar with a lit colleague next fall, and our first conversation about what we'd assign was my talking about monographs and him talking about primary sources...

My hunch is that in 5-10 years lit won't be a book field: I pointed out to my lit colleagues that my books are used in teaching all the time (undergrad as well as grad) but they don't assign monographs.

Oh, and I've had the same trouble with book reviews that you have. Haven't figured out how to crack that nut. Students are good at the descriptive, but not accustomed to thinking about "What is the argument of the book".

Feminist Avatar said...

Hee, I have this discussion with historians where we complain that our students only ever read the books on the reading list- never the articles. Although this may be changing as JSTOR becomes more popular [and we update our reading lists from the 1970s].

Sisyphus said...

@ New Kid: analyze [not] the language in which a historian writes, but the overall argument But see, I look very closely at a text when I analyze its argument and how it structures its rhetoric. In my seminars we'd pull apart frames or thesis or all sorts of things in an argument, going over a paragraph with a fine-toothed comb.

I'm stealing Ink's Wilde quote there and taping it over my screen.

And Crazy, I think my seminars are very similar in that there was a huge "recommended" list for each week but for most of my profs that meant we had to read their minds or go ask them; they were not listed in the syllabus. We'd just get raked over the coals if we hadn't read the "secret, recommended" list as well.

Sadly, I can tell you that most of my profs are not making their undergrads write _any_ research papers these days, and some have cut out essays all together, because our class sizes have ballooned up so much. The suckiness of a public university! It has gone from a place I would recommend to your average English major to somewhere I would not, in the course of me being here.

Students are good at the descriptive, but not accustomed to thinking about "What is the argument of the book".Don't underestimate how difficult this is; it took me a long time _as a grad student_ to get my head around the fact that what I really wanted from each of these books was the "critical intervention" not the kernels of fact (something that the whole dissertation-allknowingness-anxiety really exacerbated in me.)

Even though I was assigned a lot of book report style things in my MA, and learned how to do the book reviews for journals then (though I never submitted mine), it was hard for me to get comfortable enough in my field to follow the arguments and not the basic background knowledge.

My "outcomes," I guess you'd say, for my students were much simpler: to read an entire scholarly book while looking for an overarching argument and finding it (which is not the same as being able to then digest said argument and return it back to us in a review) and most importantly, realize that scholarly work does not consist of happy fun "wasn't this a cool novel?"-style book reviews. And that part, I'm glad to say, totally succeeded.

Belle said...

Another historian here: Your students are obviously far more studenty than mine. I run a seminar that teaches methods - just getting them to find the damned argument is the focus. And for that? I send them to book reviews. I used to have them write a review - very different in my class to a book report - but now I have them construct a historiographical essay. They are amazed they can even do it. So they have to do lit reviews to get there, and that chases them into a variety of literature in a variety of fields - history, political science, anthropology, lit crit - all good IMHO.