In the summer of 2010, I was asked to participate in a panel at our annual eighteenth-century studies conference called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.” The panel responded to the 2008 essay in Profession entitled “Stopping Cultural Studies” by William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin. Little did I know that the panel would come at the very moment the issue of the relationship between literary history and cultural studies would surface in our Department.
As new chair in 2009, the third in five years, I had walked into a cluster of problems known to most chairs in these years of economic crisis. We’d lost faculty, lost budget, lost space. Thus I guess I can be excused for leaving curricular reform largely in the hands of the curriculum committee over the opening year of my chairship. But in December 2010, a coalition of senior faculty made curriculum my business by taking their concerns to the dean. Not present, I could only reconstruct this conversation from after-the-fact reports, but it seems that these colleagues were concerned about our department’s failure to teach literary history. What the dean took away was that our Department no longer taught literature or literary history, but had been “taken over” by cultural studies. My dean was understandably concerned. He responded by calling me in for an emergency meeting to discuss splitting the Department into three smaller departments: one for literary history “as it is traditionally taught,” one for cultural studies, one for writing. I explained to him that this would result in the death of traditional literary studies as only three or four of our remaining faculty would define themselves as doing “literary history in a traditional way.” (Ironically, of the three faculty who had met with him, not all were in that category.) I predicted that the rest of the ordinary faculty were very likely to migrate to what he was calling “cultural studies” whether or not they really had that training, meanwhile leaving “writing” almost entirely to adjunct faculty. “Stopping cultural studies” as Bill Warner and Cliff Siskin call it, at least in my department, would not have led to a revival of literary studies under new terms but rather to a kind of fragmentation that (given the way small departments are being eliminated these days) could quite possibly spell the death of literary history (“as it is traditionally taught”) at Georgetown.
In response, I brought this issue to the Department at our next meeting. Other faculty were concerned: unused to such administrative scrutiny, they worried about our larger presence on the campus and about academic freedom. They pointed out that most of our course titles were indicative of literary history rather than cultural studies orientations and wondered what the dean’s intervention might mean. The issue of our lack of collegiality was raised: what had made our colleagues feel so unheard, so marginalized in the Department, that they now felt going to the administration their only option? Resulting discussions in the department addressed all of these issues. We opened up the curricular reform process through holding numerous focus group meetings, inviting each member of the faculty in for discussion. We invited the dean to a larger department meeting and then held more department meetings to discuss our findings and move forward with curricular reform. Meanwhile, in our hiring in seventeenth-century British literature and culture and twentieth-century American literature and culture we were especially alert to issues involving the teaching of literary history.
Our curricular work and hiring were eventually shaped by our discussions, by awareness of the issues raised in the provocative Profession essay, but also by an important essay by Jennifer Summit, “Literary History and the Curriculum,” published in the ADE Bulletin in 2010. There Summit discusses the problem of the literary history/cultural studies divide given that, as she says, “our students were asking for something that we no longer believed in: the arc of literary history no longer holds sway as a dominant mode” (49). After cultural studies, Summit argues, there is no coherence to literary study, no accepted set of great works, no accepted periodization. The admonishment to “go beyond the literary!” that Warner and Siskin discuss and reject in their Profession essay has served its purpose: it has, in fact, destabilized the canon and accepted notions of literary history; agreement on what texts should be taught cannot be reached except in the very broadest terms while agreement on how texts should be taught is even less likely.
Our faculty did agree on one thing: we needed to bring coherence to a curriculum that had long been a hodgepodge of courses, courses generated by our faculty research interests rather than by any effort to develop an overview of our field. Like Summit’s curriculum at Stanford, our curriculum offered no clear direction to our students. We had no literary survey courses, no introductions to the major, and no sets of courses meant to offer a sequential experience to our students. The conclusion was that our curriculum must cohere around something or at least must appear to cohere to students and parents and deans. The question became how to do this with a diversely trained and much diminished faculty in a departmental culture that has long valued as a sign of intellectual integrity the teaching of research interests rather than a set curriculum.
Although I supported the development of critical methods courses and literary history survey courses that held the promise of “coherence,” on another level talk of coherence worried me. The risk, as Warner and Siskin suggest, following Latour, is that explanations of complex systems that reduce them to one or two representative moves like “coherence” empty out complex chaotic reality. Historical coherence could result in a comforting lockstep progress through the literary periods as taught in the 1960s; theoretical coherence could result in an intro to methods course of the “teach three methods” variety. In seeking coherence, we could replace the rich but chaotic complexity of the English Department’s approach to culture with (as Latour has it) “some stuff” like historical coherence, presenting in the end something that looks nothing like the not always coherent world of intellectual possibilities that we wish to pursue in our scholarship or to teach our students.
In my struggle to negotiate “coherence,” I’ve been thinking hard about what our work means, both our scholarly work and our pedagogical work. I’ve been returning to the past, trying to recall (and to call up) what first excited me about literature and what first excited me about eighteenth-century studies. That excitement came not from any historical or theoretical coherence, but from complexity and a seemingly open-ended approach to problems of meaning. Indeed, what had frustrated me in literary study as an undergraduate was the efforts my professors made to maintain coherence. In the 70s, there were many who oversimplified the New Criticism, adhering to the coherence of a method of close reading that pretended to know only the literary work and, of course, only the literary works that counted as canonical. Others taught what I thought of as “clump and dump” courses, knowledge downloads of canned historical “truths” that students memorized and reproduced on exams. It was with a huge sense of relief that I encountered various approaches loosely reflective of cultural studies when I went back to school in the late 80s. Though I skated on the surface of understanding and it was years before I began to see the implications for my own work, I took full advantage of the liberty “cultural studies”–very broadly construed–afforded for reading outside the narrow confines of the canon and for interpreting outside the bounds of New Criticism. For me it opened up literary study to the world and the world to literary study. That said, because my graduate career coincided with a moment when cultural studies was already beginning to feel a little used up, I never had to embrace any particular version of it, never became a deconstructionist or a Marxist critic or even a feminist critic in the sense that many were. I had all the freedom and none of the responsibility.
To pursue a career based on this incoherent and under-theorized approach to theory may seem hopelessly naïve, and yet I have spent twenty years drawing on hybrid approaches from many different methodologies. Always a lumper, never a splitter, I would hate to see us turn away from cultural studies, from something that has offered so many rich ways of thinking about what we do. I would hate just as much to see us turn away from close reading and careful analysis or from nuanced understandings of literary history. But above all, I reject the narrow ideological biases that so often seem to drive English Department discussions. The risk of issuing a universal call to “Stop Cultural Studies” lies in its binary approach to what we do and in the possibility that various power groups will attempt to force one or the other of these binary poles (cultural studies OR literary history; close reading OR survey courses) on their peers. When “presentists” bash historicist approaches without having read the historical tradition and literary historians denounce theory without reading it, I feel that wonderful wide world of new ideas, approaches, texts shrinking. So let’s not “stop” cultural studies, but rather embrace it, precisely for the reasons Siskin and Warner want to end it, precisely because it’s too broad, because it doesn’t focus on literature, because no one can really define it. Cultural studies perhaps more than any other change in the past thirty years has given us the freedom to craft careers that take us in new directions and allow us to reinvent ourselves.
What’s next, I believe, is the very period of questioning, rethinking, and remapping that we’re experiencing now. If, as Siskin and Warner say, the function of English Departments from their beginnings has been to mediate society’s relation to technologies of knowledge, then let’s explore the possibilities offered by what they call a retooling. This retooling need not mean that we toss out the old toolbox (indeed, the new toolbox wouldn’t have been possible without the old one), so much as add to it. I see exciting new directions indicated by new technologies but not confined by them: neuroscience offers us new ways of thinking about how our brains process text; affect theory allows us to re-examine what used to be called the age of reason; the overabundance of our current access to archives places ever greater importance not on what we know but on how we manage the knowledge in those archives. If this results in incoherence, if one thing seems to blur into another, then the task becomes the making of distinctions and the foregrounding, I believe, of why we make particular distinctions at particular times, not the truth value of those distinctions. In the end, if pressed to find some sort of curricular coherence, I’d ask us to focus on this foregrounding, to add to the call to “always historicize” the admonition to “always articulate,” to articulate what we are doing and why it matters, to our students and to ourselves. This, rather than some a manufactured “coherence” that shuts down possibilities, is our responsibility as teachers, as interpreters and transmitters of a literary and cultural history that is always, at every moment, being newly created.
Summit, Jennifer. “Literary History and the Curriculum: How, What and Why.” ADE Bulletin No. 149, 2010. 46-52.
Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession. 2008. 94-107.
Kathryn Temple, J.D., Ph.D.
Chair and Associate Professor
Department of English