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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 434-438
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Professions: Conversations on the Future of Literary and Cultural Studies edited by Donald E. Hall. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Pp. 296. $44.95, cloth; $19.95, paper.
This is in every way an admirable book, a necessary book, starting with the good intentions that called it into being—especially because of those good intentions on the part of the editor, Donald E. Hall, who has assembled this anthology of "professions" from scholars, most of them big fish, more or less, who have addressed themselves to the future of literary and cultural studies:
. . . Professions was born as something of a challenge to myself to meet an articulated demand from students: to read and have as a point of reference a collection of essays that helps define some of the most important issues facing literary and cultural critics in their professional and scholarly lives, but that also demonstrates a genuine respect for divergent opinions and diverse practices. I imagined it as a comprehensive textbook of sorts, to which students could turn to find a range of opinions concerning major methodologies and professional controversies. . . . (2)
Admirable, as I suggested, and necessary. Hall's wish to have professional experts engage each other in conversation (by writing back and forth, by being interviewed, by co-authoring) so that students and—God forbid—thinking adults generally could understand what's involved when academics consider the work we, variously and often contentiously, do, especially the future of that work.
Hall, to his credit, is quick to admit that the collection is not comprehensive, in the sense that every form of opinion is collected here. The hostile crank fringe (left, right, middle) while they may have gotten invited, disdained to participate. (Hall suggests quite civilly that they'll get their chance when reviews come out.) What he did, again admirably, as he explains in the introduction, is
to contact individuals whose profiles in the profession and whose distinct voices excited my own interest, to ask them what they thought were the most pressing issues that needed airing for the benefit of [End Page 434] graduate students and the broader profession, and to ask them also to suggest individuals with different views with whom they wished to engage in dialogue. (11)
And that—dialogue—is what readers will find in this excellent book, which takes seriously and honorably the mission of teaching. People who know what they are talking about talk to each other about the differences that animate the work of literary and cultural studies. And they do this out of the shared conviction that understanding and consensus are not the same thing, and that disagreement under conditions of mutual respect is the fundamental work of teachers, because teachers is what we are, all of us, or else we are nothing at all worth mentioning.
Professions, then, is like a number of other books, or kinds of books, that academic readers may be familiar with. It's like, but blessedly also different from the rant-thologies, as they might be called where professional bigwigs offer post-apocalyptic musings on the death of this or that—language, the profession, intelligibility, their adversaries' mode of interpretation. It's the kind of stuff generally that makes David Lodge and Richard Russo seem like callow romanticists. Then there are the how-to manuals, about this or that form of either more or less valuable practice. And finally there are the histories of the profession, some obviously better than others, and more fair. Hall's collection is like all of these in some degree but also original (and necessary) insofar as it produces something that they do not, which is dialogue. "You have to build community and conversation into the structure of the educational enterprise, or they'll never happen," (23) as Jane Tompkins says to Gerald Graff in their exchange, "Can We Talk?" And she's right of course, and that's precisely what Hall has done—in a variety of ways—and why his enterprise is both valuable in itself and...