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Professing Literature: An Institutional History, by Gerald Graff; vii & 315 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, $24.95. Discussed by David Novitz One can kill a book with a title, and Gerald Graff almost succeeds in the act. His latest book, if judged by the bold print on its dustjacket, promises to be a monumental bore, for it suggests that a prominent and stimulating professor of literature has abandoned the literary in pursuit of historical minutiae. Nor does Graff promise us a history ofliterature. His is the history ofprofessing literature: the history of the tuition of literature in the American academe from the Yale Report of 1828 until the present. Why would anyone bother? A convincing answer is given in the first few pages ofthe book where it becomes apparent that Graff has written not just a very timely, but a very radical critique both of the place of literature in the university system, and of that system itself. This is a book that shakes the ground on which every academic stands—a book that, if its advice were ever to be adopted, would alter in its entirety the fabric of our universities and the nature of a university education. History, it is often observed, is a kind of therapy. It explains how we have come to be where we are, and enables us, perhaps for the first time, to recognize and so untangle the reins that drive and constrain us. Most teachers ofliterature inherit and accept certain well-entrenched conventions that give the department its structure and the courses within it their content. They "know" that every good literature department will teach Chaucer and the Elizabethans, and that Victorian literature and Restoration Comedy, like linguistics and literary theory, ought also 118 David Novitz119 to be covered. They "know" that each field ought to have appointed to it an expert who teaches more or less autonomously within it. The good department, then, is one that covers every important field, and whose teachers publish notable articles within their fields of expertise. Assumptions of this sort are by no means peculiar to departments of literature. They are widely, perhaps universally, held within the modern university, and it would be a very brave new appointee who wittingly set out to challenge them. Not that appointees really have much choice in the matter, for most university teachers, although superbly critical when it comes to their own field of expertise, are largely unaware of the basic structures that facilitate and constrain their professional lives. By and large, it never occurs to them to scrutinize these structures, or to try to ascertain the effect that they have on their discipline. Graff, however, has broken this mold, and encourages us to look where most academics have never looked before. Thus, for example, what Graff calls the "field coverage principle"—the principle according to which all reputable "fields" should be "covered" in a department—is one that is simply taken for granted. That there should be no discrete fields of enquiry is a possibility that simply is not entertained. The idea that there should be experts who have the autonomy within their field to teach in whatever way they choose, is taken as an ahistorical given: a fact dictated more by naturaljustice than by historical circumstance or political convenience. The truth, however, is that literature departments, like universities, have a history which explains their structure and organization : a history which, if recounted, raises doubts both about the inevitability and the desirability of the ways in which subjects are organized and taught within our universities. Graff's history does just this. It destabilizes the structures on which literature departments and the modern university rest, and it does so by exposing the origins and the fragility of these structures. We like to think of higher education as steeped in tradition, as having a long and healthy humanistic history that entrenches the freedoms, the rights, the privileges, as well as the organizational structures of the institutions we inhabit. In tracing the history of the literature department from 1828 onwards, it becomes apparent that its liberal humanistic tradition has very shallow roots; indeed, that it scarcely has a grip on the soil...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 118-128
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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