Monthly Archives: December 2012

“fair, accurate, and comprehensive”

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about synthesis, I wanted to mention this passage in Robert Scholes’s Rise and Fall of English, where he reminds the theory-struck (this was written in 1998, but it feels much older) about the importance of “truth” in academics:

My notion of academic truth  . . . is not profound but neither is it nebulous . . . It resides in words at a lower level of abstraction: words like fair, accurate, and comprehensive. In a discipline called English the minimal requirements for academic truth include scrupulous accuracy in citation, regard for what is already known about our subject, and rigor in situating and interrogating whatever material we are considering (57).

This is a superb distillation of the scholarly discipline we expect and should expect from ourselves and our students.  I would have loved to have had this little passage at my fingertips on many prior occasions.

As I think about this passage’s reception, however, I suspect that defining and applying these seemingly simple terms would fill many students with anxiety and confusion, especially in the context of the syntheses I discussed earlier: what does it mean to be “fair” to a 200-year old piece of writing that I am summarizing?  Which details need to be present, and which should be absent, in order for my close reading or annotated bibliography to be considered “accurate,” or at least representative?  Just how much research and background reading must I do, and how much of what I have done, should be reflected in my argument or footnotes?

These are the kinds of questions our curriculum is intended to answer, or stave off, but to the extent that the answers remain tacit, there will be surprises and disagreements for students and scholars alike.


PS: Even the most senior scholars in literary studies must confront these issues again when thinking about the issues raised by the new forms of dissemination and evaluation found in digital humanities.  So these questions are by no means closed for even the most experienced scholars attempting to read and assimilate this kind of work.


some keywords from last semester’s discussions of doctoral studies: synthesis

Spending a semester with students entering PhD programs in Literature, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric/Composition was both interesting and difficult for me because I struggled to find language for our activities that could serve for all three groups, each of which had distinct orientations towards writing, research, and teaching.

Throughout the term, even designating the class as a whole, or addressing the different groups that comprised it, was a challenge: was English studies in any sense a discipline, with discrete sub-disciplinary groups?  were we three distinct disciplines?  two research-oriented disciplines joined with an arts program? And so forth.  These answers varied, too, depending on whether we were comparing groups internally or externally.

One of my “solutions” (which of course only deferred these problems) was to begin the semester with Bruce McComiskey’s English Studies, which offered a narrative of a loosely disciplinary English studies that comprehended the various groups, but to pair it Tony Becher’s Academic Tribes and Territories, which described university life as a kind of organized chaos of competing disciplinary cultures and sub-cultures.  The advantage of Becher’s more “anthropological” approach, I learned, was that it showed that the hierarchical and boundary relations, as the source of both conflicts and institutional power, were the focus of everyone’s attention, and constituted the battleground in the usual Hobbesean war of all against all in the contemporary university.

One of the terms that came up repeatedly was synthesis, the combination of different elements to create new wholes.  Though it seems that each group maintained its own professional version of synthesis, it seemed to me that the literary studies group had the most institutional investment in a deliberate, closely monitored process of synthesis of one’s research and reading.

This heavy emphasis on synthesis to me seemed to be the most plausible rationale for practices like the comprehensive exams and the dissertation, which remain the transformational moments in grad education for lit students (different kinds of exams and expectations surround the other groups at these stages).

It also seemed to me that both periodization and close reading offer very distinctive forms of synthesis for lit studies. To use Shulman’s term, these are “signature pedagogies” whose rationale remains often unclear to students until they reach more advanced stages of reading and research. And, of course, it is precisely this kind of synthesis that we forget we have learned when we teach novices or address others from other academic subcultures, even if those are found in “our” departments.


so who’s going to mla?

Let us know what you’ll be presenting on, and when.  I’ll be talking about Ignatius Sancho on the 5th.



Michael Hattem of the new early Americanist blog The Junto has posted an interesting meta-essay about the controversy surrounding Henry Wiencek’s treatment of Thomas Jefferson in Master of the Mountain.

Rather than work my way through all the complicated exchanges between Wiencek and historians like Annette Gordon-Reed, which Hattem and J.L. Bell have usefully compiled, I’d just like to focus on two issues raised by this controversy: how should historians represent the undeniably immoral practices of the past? and, just as importantly, how should historians understand the proximity of those immoral practices to the rest of those figures’ lives and accomplishments?

For my part, I am not as comfortable as Hattem is to claim that Wiencek’s intensely personal, partisan reaction disqualifies him from scholarly credibility altogether.  Hattem writes:

In an interview, Wiencek describes how he came to think of Jefferson after coming across the calculation by saying, “This S.O.B. is utterly cold. That changed my whole perspective.” I imagine many other historians will bristle, as I did, at this blunt rejection of even the veneer of objectivity. This kind of prosecutorial stance and moralistic tone severely undermines one’s scholarly credibility (but not one’s book sales).

I understand that in some sense Wiencek is giving away the game by admitting how much he hated his subject by the time he was done.  Yet this kind of frustration is in fact a common response among biographers, after they have spent years documenting the weaknesses, myopia, or petty self-seeking of their subjects.

I do think, though, that Hattem should reflect upon the popular appeal of this genre of “Founding Father” biographies, and recognize how their appeal is caught up within a mutually reinforcing pattern of intensely moralized identification and disidentification (e.g., Meacham and Wiencek’s morally complementary but polarized readings).

So once we get past the overly charitable readings of Jefferson as a benevolent “master” (which AGR has battled for years), we still have the question of whether we try to read Jefferson’s relations with the enslaved portions of his family as a personal failing, or as a situation that men of his class commonly created/experienced.  And in this respect, I think AGR’s decision to open out the picture to include the social and legal history of Jefferson’s and the Hemingses’ region was absolutely right, and it usefully contrasts with the more psychologistic approach of Wiencek.  The history of slavery is not just a matter of individuals, but also institutions, and the scarcity and fragmentation of the documentary record makes it all the more important, I think, to understand how it did its work as an institution upon all sorts of individuals, whether Thomas Jefferson or John Wayles.

What seems more serious to me, however, is the way that Wiencek appears to be misreading his primary and especially secondary sources, as when he says that his book “systematically demolishes [Gordon-Reed’s] portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves.”  Like Hattem and Bell, I don’t think this reading of AGR’s work is sustainable, and it ultimately relates to Wiencek’s reductionist [Hattem’s term] reading of Jefferson as a monster, an unaccountable exemplar of evil.

I think it is fair and arguable for 21st century readers like Corey Robin to place Jefferson’s writings about race and slavery at the center of his legacy (though I would not ever apply a label like “fascist” to an eighteenth-century figure, no matter how retrograde).

What I do wonder about is how to present Jefferson and his actions in a way so that he is not simply a “man of his times,” or “flawed,” but an individual working in an incredibly exploitative social, legal, and political environment.  Jefferson, in my view, successfully segmented (we’d say “compartmentalized”) his own thoughts and activities so that the “slave-owner” was apparent in some contexts but not in others.   There is no reason for us to accept or continue that separation of the different aspects of his life.  But that still leaves the problem of how we relate the author of the Declaration of Independence to the writer of the Notes on the State of Virginia.


When you’re done grading, go to the theater



Ever on the lookout for productions of drama from the extra long eighteenth century, I am passing along the announcement of this production of Le Cid (1636) by Pierre Corneille (translated by Richard Wilbur) at the Storm Theatre in New York.  This is the same theater and the same director responsible for an outstanding production of The London Merchant,  discussed here and here on this blog. The Red Bull Theatre’s production of Volpone might also be of interest.  I have not yet seen this, but admired this company’s deliciously bloody Revenger’s Tragedy a few years ago and hope to see Volpone as well.  Finally, today’s New York Times reviewed a production of Amy Freed’s play, Restoration Comedy, based in part on Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. The review did not make the production sound particularly tempting, but I would be happy to hear from anyone with a different perspective.