In Defense of Arcane Scholarship

Domenico Fetti, "Portrait of a Scholar"

Domenico Fetti, “Portrait of a Scholar”

If you are a pundit who wants your column to receive a lot of responses, write about how professors don’t blog enough. When Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times complained about this recently, hundreds of professors wrote blog reactions.

Kristof didn’t have literary blogs in mind but I thought I’d use the occasion to reflect on the different kinds of writing that English professors engage in.

First to Kristof’s complaint. He quotes Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation, to sum up his concern:

All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public.

Although Kristof acknowledges that there are exceptions, he worries that there are “fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.” The problem, as he sees it, is publish-or-perish culture:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the  ch tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

I teach at a small liberal arts college, not at a research university, and so I can’t speak to what it’s like to work at such high pressure environments. But my own trajectory is not unlike ones I’ve witnessed elsewhere. Early in my career, I was trying to master my discipline and wrote complex and narrowly focused articles that engaged with other scholars. I was smart but not yet wise. That, however, didn’t keep me from contributing interesting insights from time to time.

Then, as I got older, I became more interested in reaching a wide audience than in advancing in the profession. I wanted to write pieces that reached more than a few hundred people (at best). I longed to have the impact that Kristof mentions.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not grateful to those articles and books written for select audiences. When I thumb through scholarship on a work I’m teaching, I arrive at new understandings. For instance, I’m currently teaching The Tempest for the first time in decades and am enthralled with the historical research into Renaissance views of magic. Is Prospero a magus practicing white magic, a witch practicing black magic, or something else? There are extensive debates on the subject.

In other words, hard scholarly work provides me with texts that are more or less definitive, illuminates obscure historical references, works through tangles in theories that I use, pioneers new approaches that yield new insights (Animal Studies, for instance). To an outsider, academic debates may appear arcane quibbles over trivia, but I am reassured that disciplined minds insist on rigor. It means that, when I write blog posts designed for a very different audience, I’m not speaking off the top of my head.

It’s a bit like dog breeds, which my son explained to me once when I casually dismissed people who are obsessed with dog shows. Without purists, he said, we wouldn’t have breeds at all but just a general mush. Yes, the family mutt is wonderful, but it is defined against a world in which distinctions mean something.

Or it’s like the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), a somewhat reluctant assistant at a high-end fashion magazine, rolls her eyes at a spirited debate about which of two similar belts should be chosen for an outfit. High priestess of fashion Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) calls her out:

Miranda Priestly: Something funny?
Andy Sachs: No. No, no. Nothing’s… You know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. You know, I’m still learning about all this stuff and, uh…
Miranda Priestly: ‘This… stuff’? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.

Something similar goes on in our reading of literature. For instance, when I choose a work to teach, when I engage in a close reading of that work, when I draw upon theories to make an assertion, I am aware of the shoulders that I stand upon. Although I myself now write only for my students and the general public, I have been assisted by my specialized training, which included some graduate professors who were ruthless when I got sloppy. The lumpy blue sweater that is my blog can be traced back to these fashion monitors.

I now see one of my jobs as communicating exciting literary ideas to people outside the profession. I spent two years changing my writing from something more academic to something more journalistic—it wasn’t easy—and now feel so at home in the new style that I’m not going back. But I wouldn’t want every literature professor to be like me. How many literary blogs do we need anyway?

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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