Cynthia Richards: Walking the Line at a Liberal Arts College

      I would like to tell three stories.  Two are set in a small liberal arts college and the third in an even more parochial setting, my daughter’s high school. I draw attention to these settings in part to draw attention to the limits of what I have to say about Cultural Studies. My interaction with Cultural Studies happens primarily at the level of its transmission to undergraduates. Yet I also draw attention to these settings because I think these settings, in turn, draw attention to the limits of Cultural Studies.

      For example, this essay considers “Stopping Cultural Studies,” as William Warner and Clifford Siskin argue we should, when I could argue that at a liberal arts college of limited means where I chair the English Department, Cultural Studies never really got started. I should clarify: in my department, Cultural Studies has shaped our curriculum, our preparation, our scholarly research, our syllabi, and even our sense of mission. It has also shaped our service: we are Directors of Women’s Studies, Africana Studies, American Studies, and leaders in Film Studies. Yet in terms of student work—the types of tasks instructors can assign and then assume successful completion of—Cultural Studies has been of limited applicability. When Cultural Studies has been read as simply another way of saying the study of pop culture, our students have been quite willing to take on these tasks—although still the caveat about successful completion remains. But when Cultural Studies is defined more properly, as Warner and Siskin do, as requiring its practitioner to “Historicize!“ (97) and “Go Beyond the Literary!,” (98) successful completion cannot be assumed.  With a small library, limited access to databases, and absolutely no travel funds for student research, small “c” culture has proved a more precious commodity than its large “C” counterpart. Thus, in the setting of my liberal arts college, the hothouse politics of close reading proves a more egalitarian practice than the socially-expansive one of Cultural Studies: without equal access to the objects of study—even if those objects are themselves less rarefied —new hierarchies emerge. In other words, what and how we teach in my department is radically changed, but what we ask our students to do with that material is shockingly less so. So, I am both deeply appreciative of the questions raised by Warner and Siskin, particularly regarding the ends of Cultural Studies, and also a little nervous that just as digital archives are becoming more accessible and even our weakest undergraduates “hyper” sensitive to the catholic reading practices so integral to Cultural Studies that its usefulness and viability is being questioned.

   But that is only an example and this essay promises three stories. The first I am going to call “The Darkness Without,” partly for dramatic effect, partly because it opposes nicely the title of the course I will discuss shortly, and mostly because nothing so inspires thoughts of encroaching darkness and the comforts of one’s disciplinary home than a self-study and external review conducted during a time of economic crisis and under an administration resolved to cut costs. For all the drama of that introduction, this story is also the most predictable. For when I sat down to make my case, I found I had no home to protect. Despite our strong numbers in the major, administrators assumed that English was on its way out, soon to be made obsolete by digital delivery systems, the short attention spans of the students in our entering classes, and our own interdisciplinary proselytizing. Cultural Studies had allowed my department to expand its coverage and re-configure in creative ways its institutional responsibilities, but from an administrator’s point of view, it had also made us seem more permeable and open for realignment in ways that threatened our core values of teaching students to read, write, and think critically while introducing them to both high and low “L” literature.[1] It also meant that quick fixes to the college’s economic woes could be easily grafted onto our diminishing base. More specifically, a position in Medieval Literature and Shakespeare could become one in Journalism and Film Studies, two areas of interest that consistently showed up on prospective students’ checklists as desirable majors. Moreover, the expansiveness of our interests made it more difficult for us to argue for any one area of expertise as essential.  They were all important, and hence none were.  Happily, after our reviewers’ visit, we have assurances that administrators will be reminded of our core contributions toward reading, writing, and critical thinking and that interdisciplinarity, in the current state of academia and the world, is a strength rather than a weakness.  Of course, what we don’t know yet is how all of this will end.

     More interesting was my department’s local response not only to these administrative pressures, but also to a perceived neediness on the part of our students. With so much to be covered in English, our students felt knowledge was eluding them, and they wanted something concrete they could point to, like a list, for example. So we created a list, actually we called it “The List”, and asked each member of the department to offer five entries. We avoided the word “canon”, openly acknowledged the list’s idiosyncratic nature, and adopted a mechanism for social change. Anyone who completes all 70 books gets to add one to the list and future students will have to read that book to complete the list. The response was enthusiastic, to put it mildly.  It has inspired an annual colloquium series, quite a few aspirants, and a geology major nearly to complete it. We suspect his entry to the list will be truly interdisciplinary.

    The second story relates to a general education honors course I teach entitled “The Darkness Within.” The course begins with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and ends with Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. These Irish bookends notwithstanding, the course is comprehensive in its range, but singular in its purpose: it is my evangelical course where I sell our best and brightest on the value of readings that theorize, historicize, look beyond the literary, and even lead to personal and societal change.[2] Of course, what I encounter in that classroom is a lot more prosaic: a room full of biology, chemistry, physics, and geology majors who have invested their capital in the temples of science—mixed metaphor intended—and see little value in literature. For a while I took a defensive posture, but more lately, I have taken another tack. I have found that by letting go even more, by letting one of my assignments be fully interdisciplinary, I have regained some of that space. In an assignment that functions as the centerpiece of the course, I allow my students to apply the methods of their chosen majors to diagnose the so-called “darkness” within a literary text. Hence, they have applied chemical equations to the incendiary plot of Wieland, and run computer programs in order to finally pin down the true monster in Frankenstein. And remarkably, rather than the value of the literary being diluted through this process, it has been multiplied. In seeing the text transform as read through different cultural and disciplinary frameworks, they have been persuaded by the core value of the text in question. In other words, what they can do with the text makes it contents all the more impressive. In some ways, this tactic reminds me of what Warner and Siskin identify as the “Literature and … “approach(103),  necessarily requiring the policing of literary borders to work.  In this case, however, I have found that by not policing the borders of literature, I have become more secure in my classroom. 

    My final story will be brief.  I would like to say it is called “the light bit of light at the end of all that darkness,” but that would be stretching it. I do think it is an interesting story, but that may be for personal reasons—as will soon become apparent. My daughter attends a high school where disciplinary excellence—and its borders—are heavily monitored. There is honors biology, honors algebra, honors chemistry, each course requiring an exam for entry—except of course, in English where there are no honors courses, and also no exceptions to viewing English as an egalitarian enterprise. We will not all be chemists, but we will all read and write. I get this philosophy—it follows from the radical roots of Cultural Studies—but my daughter didn’t.[3] She studied a little harder, she loved language just a little more, and in a weekly vocabulary game where no one is ever supposed to win, she won.  Now, even a proud mother knows that is not an interesting story, but what happens next could be. She won the game, and as a result, the school stopped playing it all together. Once she won, there was no longer room for the give and take of a game predicated on the assumption that excellence in English will always be elusive and determined by the social moment. Put in these terms, it is easy to see how this story can point to the limits of Cultural Studies: it is troubling that at my daughter’s high school, English emerges as a discipline reluctant to set value, or establish functional borders. My daughter needed an honors English class. But I also think this story points to the limits of stopping cultural studies. The game being played in my daughter’s high school English class—and in many undergraduate institutions like my own—is a good one. It is engaging to students, flexible in assigning merit, inclusive in scope, and attentive to its social and historical moment, and I doubt over time my daughter would have remained the only winner. The benefits of the game are many:  it should not have been stopped.

    Social change comes in lots of forms, mostly unexpected ones—geology majors being the first to complete literary lists, chemistry providing a surprisingly coherent framework for reading Wieland, the expansive move toward interdisciplinarity eroding the territory of an English department at a liberal arts college. When we consider the beginnings and ends of a field, we can’t predict what will change, only name what shouldn’t: that what matters is what our students can do with what we teach them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Warner and Siskin  make this distinction between small “l” and large “L” literature in “Stopping Cultural Studies,“ pointing to a historical shift in the definition of literature as meaning “all kinds of writing” (104) to meaning “only certain texts within certain genres” (104.).  I am also indebted to Warner and Siskin’s essay for the title of my essay, both of which play off the Johnny Cash song “I Walk the Line.”

[2] Warner and Siskin identify these moves are three of the pillars of Cultural Studies. The fourth is the “power of” culture;” in my text, this move is translated as “personal and societal change.”

[3] See Michael Bérubé’s “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies? for an excellent discussion of those radical roots as well as a poignant farewell to his more idealistic aspirations for the field.

 

Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael, ‘What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?” The Chronicle of Higher Education

       56.4 (2009): 9-11.Print.  

Brown, Charles Brocken. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Ed. Jan

     Fliegelman.NewYork: Penguin, 1991.Print.

McDonagh, Martin. The Pillowman. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.Print.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert de Maria. New York: Penguin, 2001, 2003. Print.

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession. New York:

      MLA, 2008. 94-107. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. 2nd ed. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New

       York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.

 

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2 responses to “Cynthia Richards: Walking the Line at a Liberal Arts College

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    I like that your department settled on a “list” rather than a “canon.” “Canon,” I think, is a strange and destructive term, in that it implies a kind of official litmus test performed by some kind of official body endowed with this authority (analogous of course to Church authority). But we all know, as John and Dave were pointing out in different ways, this is never how literary history actually has worked. The idea of a “canon” ends up slanting these discussions in unproductive ways.

  2. Hi Cynthia,
    As someone who works at a university that just acquired ECCO two weeks ago, I am very familiar with the feeling you describe that cultural studies can sometimes seem like a rich kids’ game, something only privileged students get access to, whatever its claims to social inclusivity. The response that I’ve developed is as follows: first, that this institutional context affects our reception of cultural studies, so that CS as practiced at Birmingham or Berkeley cannot be “reproduced” in new settings, nor should it be; second, that this new setting should focus us on fundamentals and the very real human and scholarly resources that do lie within our reach; third, that the human resources can be found in students’ capacities, specifically their ability to do independent research and work creatively and critically with primary sources; fourth, that in terms of scholarly resources, for those who lack access to paid databases, there are increasing amounts of digital primary sources of every description (and quality) out there every year, for free. (Googlebooks and Internet Archive along with Ben Pauley’s 18c Booktracker, etc. can help you find them, and you can train students to start finding them and assessing them, too) This kind of independent research can be paired up however you wish with the collective reading of shared works, as you so beautifully describe with your “list.” Have you or others in the department experimented with these kinds of approaches?