- Affiliation and Mourning in a Career of Specialization
Though in theory any professor may pursue any intellectual interest—a musicologist retooling as an urban studies expert, say—most U.S. faculty find, plow, fence, and defend one small intellectual plot throughout a career.—Anne Matthews, Bright College Years
There is no site better than a convention to trigger the operations of the professional unconscious. A moment during a morning of the past Northeast Modern Language Association confronted me as if with the force of something hitherto repressed. Suddenly not so much the pattern of my convention attendance but the very nature of my career seemed to reveal itself.
On the way to a session entitled “The Transmission of Culture: Postcolonial and Ethnic Literature,” I chanced to notice in the program another session in the same time slot, “Modernism, Consumerism, and Visual Culture.” The session to which I was headed included both a paper on two writers about whom I knew nothing as well as a paper on a novel of Salman Rushdie’s I had not read. I never teach these writers. The session which I had failed to notice featured two papers on Faulkner as well as another on Nathaniel West. I teach these writers regularly.
I stopped in the hall. What was going on here? Why was I attending the conference—or any conference—in the first place? To hear papers that were irrelevant to my teaching or ones that were useful? To inquire into areas I did not know, or into those I did? Or had the whole logic of disciplinary specialization simply broken down in my career, and even become unintelligible? Nominally still “in” [End Page 30] twentieth century American fiction, I had in fact allowed my interests to become subject to so many extensions and disruptions that modernism had somehow become equivalent to postcolonialism.
But when did this happen? How had my career come to such a state of affairs, whereby I inclined toward more subjects or writers than I could accommodate, much less read? More significantly, how typical anymore is such a career? I had gone during the preceding time slot to a session on childhood. One of the panelists had just finished a book on the subject, another had a manuscript in progress, while the third had launched her research into a new scientific direction, where each one in attendance seemed either already headed or already there. I envied them all their focus. Everything seemed in order because everybody appeared to be a specialist.
We continue to enter the discipline by means of some specialization. If there is no specialization, there is no mark of what Magali Sarfatti Larson refers to as “overtraining,” by which is meant the social meaning of training and expertise in any profession (which must be stratified in order to be a profession in the first place). Overtraining “aims at creating complete skills and at eliciting the layman’s trust. Because of such overtraining, specialization is not seen by the public as a narrowing down of competence, but as a deepening of knowledge, an added skill” (230). This “added” skill has in recent decades arguably become more crucial just to determine entry-level qualifications for professional employment rather than to maintain either the profession’s internal stratification or the public trust.
As a consequence, the narrative grammar available for anything to do with specialization remains very limited, especially when we consider that many who succeed in entering do not necessarily abide within the profession in terms of specializations. In accordance to the changing teaching needs of our departments, if not our own personal development, our duties may change, and our interests develop in new directions. It is possible to find oneself at mid-career in an entirely different area than that in which one had begun. What to say about the medievalist who can initially only get a temporary position, then manages to land a tenure track one, only to be assigned to teach the eighteenth century and literary theory? What about the African-Americanist who discovers that there is so little interest in her specialty that her department cannot continue to schedule any courses in...