[Access article in PDF]
Literature: An Embattled Profession
Literature: An Embattled Profession, by Carl Woodring; xii & 220 pp. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, $31.00.
One can experience an apocalyptic pang upon noticing the spate of recent books that discuss the death throes of literary studies and English departments. Examples are numerous: Literature Lost, John Ellis; The Rise and Fall of English, Robert Scholes; The Death of Literature, Alvin Kernan, etc. Literature: An Embattled Profession, by Carl Woodring is part of this lugubrious chorus. He writes that literary study "has become a besieged baronial mansion" (p. 1), an image which presides over the whole book.
The baronial image prompts the reader to expect some revelation as to who or what these enemies and besiegers are. However, because of Woodring's discontinuous mode of writing, this is like plucking out watermelon seeds. Let's see, we have the infection from French theorists, which "spread like molasses" (p. 62). This new theorizing tends to suggest ultimately that literary study might be pointless. This disquieting effect derives from Derrida, J. Hillis Miller et al, maintaining the indeterminacy and self-contradiction in all language; thus there is no firm basis for literature. Another besieger in Woodring's view is the huge gap between the general public and the elitist academic world. He laments "the distance academic custodians of literature have put between themselves and a potential public" (p. 92). This translates into political flaccidity and loss of financial support. Facing senators, the professors are constantly unable to explain clearly what they do. On one occasion Senator Hubert Humphrey had to step in and make an eloquent explanation of what literature professors do. Professor Woodring reminds us forcibly of the American pragmatism that tends to push the humanities to the margin, or the hind tit, both as to economics and esteem.
The "mansion" is not only besieged, but is apparently also on the way to implosion. One of the main internal problems according to Professor Woodring is the elephantine growth of bureaucracy in higher education, and the "edifice complex" that it entails. This tendency, endemic to universities and colleges, siphons off massive funds that could otherwise go toward teachers and direct academic needs. "Higher education," he writes, "could be improved by reducing the numbers of secondary executives and their subordinates in the [End Page 482] central administrations of colleges and universities" (p. 127). Some of the data supporting this can be found in an excellent appendix. This exponential growth in central administration has led to a decrease in the number of full-time or tenured teachers and to a large increase in part-time teachers, now grown to 48%. "In need of bright young teachers, we have erected factories for producing Ph.D's and then left the product to fend for itself" (p. XV). Everything has gravitated toward the situation of fewer jobs and diminished prestige, especially for the humanities--". . . professors of literature are hired hands that need, like animals in a zoo, to be fed" (p. 69).
Moreover, the public sees no reason for increasing or fostering these animals that graze a "field grown hermetic" (p. 70) and thickly arcane. Dogged by a publish or perish demand, they produce a mass of "esoteric obfuscation" (p. 70), widening even further the estrangement from the public. The arid academic prose style results in our finding "only each other as willing depositories for what we have learned" (p. 69). The elitism that worries Woodring is manifested in a variety of ways such as our espousing only a "narrow canon of elitist literature" (p. 78). Well, most of us would agree that we'd rather deal with Chaucer or Shakespeare than endure the drudgery of teaching composition--a point that Robert Scholes emphasizes repeatedly in The Rise and Fall of English.
The ideal that seems to suffuse this book is suggested in the term "commonality." This is apparently a humanistic concern for the whole race, for all peoples, or for multiculturalism, the academic religion of the day. This impinges, of course, on the...