Robert Scholes’ Rise and Fall of English, take two

I finished Scholes’s Rise and Fall the other day, and when I was done I felt that it was a lucid attempt to grapple with the largest questions surrounding the future of English Studies, as these problems were perceived circa 1998. Some of these issues still seem apposite, like the relation between K-12 and higher ed teaching; some, like his meditations on theory in the classroom, less so.  However, I left it wishing, perhaps a little unreasonably, that it had been written a little more boldly.

One of the problems that I had with the book was that it seemed specifically addressed to an audience of tenured, historically-based literature specialists who seem a lot more marginal now than they did in 1998, without it having much to say to the once-marginalized groups (the rhetoric and composition specialists, the creative writers, the underemployed adjuncts or the ambivalent graduate students) who really do make our departments different than they were in the 80s or 90s.

Even if some of the problems and solutions struck me as dated, though, there are still lots of moments worth pausing over.  This is one of my favorites, from Chapter 5, “A Fortunate Fall,” which I offer to you for consideration:

The idea of academic research as a “contribution to knowledge,” the ideal of “original research,” requires an assumption of progress toward more adequate descriptions of reality. In the sciences, research receives its justification and its support–despite all the lip serve to “pure” knowledge–from the exploitable discoveries or patents to which it may lead.  In the humanities, research receives its justification–despite all the lip service to the advancement of learning–from its applicability to teaching.  In fact, I would say that all important research in the humanities is simply teaching by other means than the lecture or the seminar.  And conversely, published work in English studies that has no use in teaching or makes no contribution to learning is unimportant–trifling stuff.  When Chaucer said of his Oxford Clerk that he would gladly learn and gladly teach, he was implying that the two activities were connected by more than the repeated adverb (172).

I happen to think this is true, and I was happy to see a figure like Scholes saying this as directly as he does.  Having said that, it seems that all the growth areas in literary scholarship are occurring in fields developing a dimension of exploitable discovery in their research, either in the hopes of Digital Humanities scholars to digitize, assemble, and analyze unprecedented amounts of verbal materials from the past and present, or in the continued effort to assemble, collect, and analyze more and more literary and cultural productions in the present from groups previously underrepresented in our cultural record.

So here’s my question: do we need to recognize Scholes’s allusion to Chaucer to conduct such research? And how might this kind of research activity relate to curricula and teaching, if this is where the scholarship of the field is indeed moving?


9 responses to “Robert Scholes’ Rise and Fall of English, take two

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    I admired this book as well for those points you mentioned, although it’s been a while since I read it. Even at the time, though, I remember thinking that Scholes was not describing the kind of department and the kind of conditions that most people teach in. It is based on the model of an elite institution. Maybe that’s even more visible now, though, as perhaps there has been some movement (good and bad) away from thinking about the elite model as the standard.
    Re digital humanities: I wonder if we could think about this the other way around. Perhaps department don’t know quite how to value the kinds of digital projects you describe because they are not in any clear way related to teaching (even if, as Scholes rightly points out, this link between teaching and research value goes unacknowledged for the most part). Digital projects of the sort that I think you are describing more closer to the science model: collaboration; more potential for funding; the sense of a public audience. This is probably their appeal for some, and yet possibly also the difficulty we have seen in their integration.

  2. I think there is, or could be, a strong link between DH and teaching, but it would depend on a department’s sense (or more generally the profession’s sense) that the English curriculum was significantly open-ended and driven by research. I think both presentist and historicist conceptions of literature could coexist quite nicely this way, but it does undermine the “classicistic” notion of literary and cultural history as a set of core texts or narratives that group members must read and internalize to become full-fledged members. We’ve discussed this problem of defining literary studies repeatedly on the blog, but I am hoping that the advent of DH helps us define the relation between “core” (or persistent) texts and “peripheral” texts in literary history in more useful ways, for us and for our students.

  3. I’m with you guys on this one, so just to move the conversation along, I wonder if another humanistic tradition might be invoked here, the Erasmian conversation. I think becoming qualified to participate responsibly in informed, reasoned deliberation of the issues and questions of the day is a slightly different project than ‘contributing to knowledge’, although the skills and dispositions involved overlap. This idea sometimes gets repackaged as citizenship too, which isn’t wrong but isn’t a necessary subset of the concept.

  4. I personally like this idea of the Erasmian conversation and its value, but the interesting thing about it is that, insofar as it was spun off from the specifically rhetorical training of elites, and perhaps specifically urban and administrative elites, it is in some sense a vocational and not “liberal arts” degree. This is the burden of the debate going on right now on Brad DeLong’s blog about Tim Burke’s defense of the “useless” liberal arts. I think it is possible to build a curriculum that is indeterminate enough to allow students to adapt it over time, without losing all sense of pragmatism, but the arguments about “the purpose” of education tend to overemphasize the conscious and immediate goals and purposes over the longer-term stakes of education, which we’ve been taught to describe as “life-long learning.”

    Since Erasmus raises so many red flags about the elite nature of education, why not install Dewey instead? I suppose that’s where the education as basis of citizenship argument comes from. And it seems to me that it is precisely the absence of any thought about the social dimensions of education, and the ways in which education assists with socialization, that we see the biggest problems with the reductionist, functionalist, or vocational models of higher ed that keep getting offered to us right now (and perhaps this is why it is mistake to call the humanities useless, because that is what they help us all do, in very practical ways). I just don’t think that calling what one does, and what one learns about and discusses all the time, should ever be defended as “useless.” That seems rhetorically, and substantively, wrong-headed.

  5. It’s late, I just read the DeLong thread through, and if I keep my brain churning like this I’ll never get to sleep. But, briefly, yes to Dewey, no to kneejerk classist dismissals of good stuff elites have figured out. I’m for sharing the wealth, not burning it. I know that’s not what you said. G’night.

    • Hmm, now that I think of it, one of Scholes’s biggest bugbears in the Rise book is his impatience with the “neopragmatism” of Rorty and Fish, which in some sense could be traced back to a Deweyan notion of philosophy as conversation. I need to think about whether Scholes’s notion of scholarship as teaching (or perhaps as another form of conversation) excludes the notion of scholarship as advancing toward truth, which he feels has harmed the enterprise. I think one of the issues is that many of us feel as if we are doing both things, and certainly even the most ineffable literary or art history scholar will encounter historical and other matters that require distinguishing between right and wrong answers. So as important as sustaining the conversation is, the give and take of conversation still gets subordinated to the demands of “fair, accurate, and comprehensive” thought.

  6. OK, with a little sleep I’m back to further confound rational discourse with half-baked claptrap and mixed metaphors. I too like about the DeLong thread the deliberation about the relationship of pragmatic/vocational and … not, thinking. I enjoy very much when people who have been trained to think their way systematically through a problem to a solution point out that some of us in the humanities are not very good at that particular style of critical thinking. And I think what we count as interest, disinterest, utility and waste is subject to a whole lot of the kind of the inconclusive, polyconclusive or anticonclusive critical thinking we in the humanities are typically better at.

    So, is there even a problem here? That depends. But if there is, it might be good to at least suspend the infinite critique of technical rationality, racist/colonialist/classist/sexist though it may be.

    As to the rhetorical efficacy of the ‘useless’ move, I’ve talked about this quite a lot at dv, not that anyone ever listens to me and why won’t they change the lightbulbs in here because I’m sitting in the dark all the time and where’s that draft coming from? Oh right, anyhoo, my students just plain think history is useless, and are also skilled at producing the approved marketing accounts of its awesome essentialicitudity, which are clearly unaffecting dogma to them. So starting from the premise that it’s useless works like a kind of rhetorical aikido, and we can then talk about how its uselessness might be the most useful thing about it. Which opens the whole question of what counts as useful and why, and off we go. I’m not sure that move scales to larger debates, however.

  7. Carl, now that you’ve had your sleep, I can follow everything you’ve said here, except for this:

    “And I think what we count as interest, disinterest, utility and waste is subject to a whole lot of the kind of the inconclusive, polyconclusive or anticonclusive critical thinking we in the humanities are typically better at.”

    Can you spell that out further?

    As to the rhetorical positioning implied by the usefulness/uselessness of the humanities debates, I think that audience matters here. I like giving students the opportunity to reflect upon and debate what “useful” means in school and post-school contexts, but I’m unhappy with conceding too much rhetorically to someone who’s determined to raise my class sizes or eliminate humanities departments altogether.

    It seems to me that what I’m doing in both instances is trying to preserve as much as I can an open-ended and non-prescriptive view of learning.

    • Nothing too profound – just that many of us are trained and expert in an intellectual disposition for which perspective and code shifting are not just comfortable but normative, so that any attempt to settle a question is ruled out from the start, or instantly decentered by another perspective and/or code shift. This is the conceptual weaponry that coalesced into poststructuralism and postmodernism, and against which Rorty/Fish’s pragmatism was a prudential hedge.