Thursday, January 10, 2013

MLA 2013, Between Pain and Pleasure: Michael Bérubé’s Presidential Address

I’ve just read though it: How We Got Here. The title, as one would expect, cuts two ways. Where “here” is simply the profession of literary studies, the answer is pleasure. We like to read, to teach others how to do so, and to think and write about literature.

Where “here” is the dismal fact that most of the profession’s teaching is done by poorly paid contingent faculty, Bérubé doesn’t actually say how that came about, though he implies that professional neglect played a role: “I know it has taken us, as a profession, far too long to come to terms with the fact of our deprofessionalization.” I will note, however, that that particular handwriting was on the wall in the early 1970s, when Federal money for higher education started shrinking.

In between the pleasure and the pain Bérubé makes it clear that pleasure IS NOT an adequate justification for humanistic study:
In my capacity as Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State, I have made this very clear: I will not talk about my institute as a pleasure center. We will have no cheery booster-brochure rhetoric about celebrating the humanities or appreciating the arts. I am going to insist, to the campus community, to alumni, to anyone who may be listening, that serious study in the humanities—the practices of advanced literacy, the fine arts of interpretation—is a game of high and difficult technique, as C. L. R. James once said of cricket. That doesn’t mean we can’t love it, as James surely loved cricket; but it means we are going to insist that it requires serious training and practice, practice, practice. We are dealing with the art and the science of figuring out, as Peter Brooks once put it, not merely what texts mean but how texts mean. It is a pleasure, no question, but it is a pleasure that also demands intellectual creativity and intellectual rigor. Perhaps to our students we can stress the pleasurable aspects of our discipline; but if our discipline is only a matter of pleasure, then you have not provided what most people would see as a reason to do advanced research in it. Justifying the humanities is one thing; justifying careers of study in the humanities is quite another.
If I may add my own two cents, it is time to strengthen our study of HOW texts mean and release that inquiry from its subordination to figuring out what they mean.* And, who knows, perhaps when we’ve gained a deeper understanding of the HOW we’ll also be able to mount more persuasive arguments about why the arts, literature among them, are central to a well-functioning society.

Though, come to think of it, perhaps the case doesn’t have to be made. The people who fought the cultural wars against feminism, area studies, deconstruction, and so forth know very well the importance of the arts and the humanities. They just didn’t and don’t like many of the texts being taught, though they had and have a somewhat exaggerated sense of that.

Back to the pain, here’s the ending of Bérubé’s address:
The deprofessionalization of the professoriat cannot be reversed overnight; it has been a forty-year process that has accelerated in the last fifteen years. But to return to where I started, I hope that this will have been the year when that process became a truth universally acknowledged—and universally resisted. And if you have tenure, and your colleagues among the contingent faculty want to undertake more dramatic measures, including inter- or intra-institutional unionization, I hope you will support them, precisely because you enjoy the job security they lack and need. The working conditions of college faculty are ultimately the learning conditions for college students. If you got here because you love what you do—or even if you are just mildly happy to have a decent job—you owe it to your colleagues, to your profession, to your students, and even to yourself to try to see to it that each and every one of us can conduct our professional work with a measure of professional dignity.

* * * * *

*Yeah, I know that may sound odd, because it implies that we can study the HOW without having to answer the WHAT. But, really, we can, we must. But that’s another subject, one about which I’ve said a great deal elsewhere on this blog. Briefly, though, figuring out the WHAT is always always a secondary construction. We can think about the HOW of the text itself without entering into those particular kinds of secondary construction.

No comments:

Post a Comment