The Long 18th MLA cultural studies pedagogy panel wrap-up

Thanks to everyone who showed up at 7 pm last Friday night to hear the panel that Laura Rosenthal and I put together–these were the brave people who tromped through the Chicago snow to hear Tom DiPiero, Carl Fisher, Laura Engel, Dwight Codr and I present our roundtable about cultural studies and pedagogy, while Laura R. moderated. 

 I won’t try to summarize individual presentations, but here are a few points from the conversation that I think others might find helpful while trying to introduce cultural studies methodologies into the undergraduate classroom.

  • Panelists generally agreed that they moved pretty regularly between literary and cultural studies in their own research, but that students needed far more direction and practice to make those connections themselves, especially when dealing with the open-endedness of cultural studies-style writing assignments. 
  • Unsurprisingly for a group of 18th-century scholars, historicization and contextualization played a crucial, recurring role in their teaching process, so that students could begin to understand the stark differences between their own understandings and those of earlier readers and writers.  Yet panelists also stressed the need for students to develop an awareness of parallels between 18th century experiences and their own, to engage students better in what might otherwise seem an “antiquarian” activity. 
  • Historicizing the writing of the past, however, was by no means a straightforward task, because students could be surprisingly selective, literal-minded, resistant, or myopic in their responses to classroom contextualizations, whether in the form of lectures or supplementary readings.  Here a cluster of related problems appeared:  
    • For one thing, various mediating contexts offered by professors  (e.g., the critique of luxury), because they are neither self-sufficient nor discrete, might themselves require as much explanation as the primary text they supposedly “help to explain” (e.g., the Rape of the Lock).  Teaching students the necessarily open-ended nature of contextualization seems one of the key differences between cultural studies and literary studies, but it does complicate the foreground/background distinction in instruction. 
    • Assuming that we do wish to teach students to resist premature closure in interpretations, what then constitutes an adequate contextualization?  Essentially, this means teaching them principles of appropriate closure, rather than taking such conclusions for granted.  Especially frustrating in this respect is the student who gets prematurely fixated on a single context, and feels obliged to defend that one instead of learning and mastering new contexts to refine her readings further. 
    • Moreover, even students who appear to have mastered previous contexts might find themselves unable to use the same information in subsequent research and writing.  As frustrating as this is for instructors, it’s worth thinking about this as a reflection of a (necessarily) truncated learning-process.  Students, for example, may not yet be able to recognize or understand the connectedness of the various contexts they have learned separately and successively, and so find themselves unable to integrate them during more synthetic writing assignments.  So the challenge of acquiring historical awareness involves learning about the specific articulations between and among multiple contexts.  Learning how to assess and balance multiple contexts also aids in the process of learning to write about these contexts in a reasonably integrated fashion in the service of an overarching argument.  Because historicization demands that students surrender their own frameworks for understanding,  teaching it accordingly demands a non-linear process, rather like writing instruction, characterized by students’ successive approximations, followed feedback, and corrections from the instructor.
  • Nonetheless, panelists agreed that certain “shortcuts” (Fisher’s term) could aid students in their quest for greater historical understanding: Fisher, for example, talked about the use of visual culture, especially film, as a way to force students to engage with the period and its narratives in new ways; others mentioned more scholarly forms of alienation and/or assimilation devices, such as translation exercises or annotated bibliographies and book reviews.  These functioned as historical and pedagogical metaphors, which allowed students to assimilate unfamiliar practices to their own understanding, or accommodate this or that new piece of information with a revised understanding of the past.  The crucial point here, as Hugh C. Petrie has argued about educational uses of metaphor, is that such occasional historical analogies (e.g., “Jonathan Swift is an 18th century Stephen Colbert”) constitute one of the most effective ways for students to remember what they learn, help them move from familiar to unfamiliar conceptual schemes, and help to ground and direct their activities as they solve concrete problems (cf. Petrie, “Metaphor and learning,” 460-1, in Metaphor and Thought, ed. Ortony (Cambridge, 1979)).
  • Finally, the final research assignment, because it relied so heavily on students’ ability to pursue independently a project to completion, seemed to produce mostly anxiety among students and disappointment for instructors.  Final papers were often incoherent or at the very least innocent of the theoretical lessons of the previous 14 weeks.  But cultural studies methodologies, particularly de Certeau’s notion of “use,” should caution us against expecting a perfect “reproduction” of classroom lectures or readings from students, whatever their background. 

And here are a few of my own responses to a very useful discussion:

  • We had a very interesting question from the audience about reconciling the divergent views of the 18th century as, for example, the “Age of Stability,” the “Age of Enlightenment,” the “precursor to the French Revolution,” “the birth of Conservatism,” “the origin of Human Rights,” or “the heyday of slavery.”  etc. etc.  No one on the panel was eager to synthesize such disparate interpretations of our period, but I do think that it is the impact of cultural studies, and its radically indeterminate notions of culture and period organization, that make it possible to frame such questions nowadays.  We do demand such intellectual and moral complexity in representations of the period nowadays.
  • I like the way that cultural studies has reinvigorated the literary category of “context,” but I also suspect that the current lack of interest in the boundaries between the literary and the cultural may also allow us to forget about the wealth of non-literary (i.e., non-verbal, meaning visual, documentary, or institutional) contexts that could inform what we do.  These could easily be neglected in an overly “textualized” cultural studies.
  • Laura asked a very good question about the political implications or effects of cultural studies in the academy nowadays, and this to me was the biggest unanswered question that emerged during the forum.  Codr’s work on ECCO addressed some of this implicitly, but the emphasis on historicization in some ways leads us away from the questions of present political significance.

Any thoughts about this, either from participants or those who didn’t make it to MLA?  Let us know.

Best wishes,


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