Thursday, May 6, 2010


That I have been a bit slothful in my reading should be evident from the fact that I only today cracked open my copy of the Modern Language Association's Profession 2009. I am not through with it yet, but I have already found an article in it that piqued my interest: Mark Edmundson's "Against Readings."

I take issue with some comments Edmundson makes in the article, namely in the following paragraph:
But primary socialization doesn't work for everyone. There are always people--how many it's tough to know, but surely a minority--who don't see their own natures fully reflected in the values that they're supposed to inherit or assume. They feel out of joint with their times. The gay kid grows up in a family that thinks homosexuality is a sin. The young guy with a potent individualistic streak can't bear the drippy collectivism foisted on him by his ex-hippie parents and his purportedly progressive school. The girl who is supposed to be a chip off the old legal block and sit some day on the court only wants to draw and paint. The guy destined (in his mom's heart) for Princeton is born to be a carpenter and has no real worldly ambitions, no matter how often he's upbraided. (57)

Two things in particular attract my attention in this. The first is the assertion that only a minority fail to see themselves "fully reflected" by the prevailing sociocultural mores promulgated by mainstream media and most public education; I think this false. The "values [kids] are supposed to inherit or assume" (57) are in large part derived from romanticized notions of what it means to be "American,"* which typically means "white, Anglo-Saxon-derived, Protestant, middle-class, suburban American." Despite popular portrayal, such a population is not a majority (US Census Bureau), and even within that group (to which I belong, with all the problems that entails), there are a number of people who are aware of their non-conformity to the standards advanced--as evidenced, among other things, by the prevalence of eating disorders and the increasingly-reported separation of youth populations into distinct, often mutually hostile, sub-cultural groups. People abuse themselves and one another in attempts to "fit in," an abuse systematic and prevalent such that it is not "surely a minority" as Edmundson avers (57); those who already belong, or feel that they do, do not work to "fit in."

The second thing I noted, and with which I disagree, is the final sentence in the paragraph. My objection to this is purely anecdotal, and betrays in no small part my own familial structure and concern. And it is this: since when is a desire to work in a building trade not among the approved list of "real worldly ambitions" for people to have? The disdain for skilled manual labor implied in the comment speaks to at least part of the reason that such salt-of-the-earth people as fill my family look upon academics (such as myself) a bit askance; there is a perception that those of us who work in scholarly disciplines look down upon those who work with their hands--and it is one that is, in all too many cases, true. It is not surprising that a group perceived as dismissive of another group should be held in low esteem by that other group.

But even with my objections in place, the thrust of Edmundson's article, that "we need to befriend the texts that we choose to teach" (63), is spot on. I agree with him in his assertion that those of us who deal with the criticism and interpretation of text (at varying degrees of professionalism and proficiency, admittedly) tend to stray so far into abstract, arcane intellectual ideas of how texts work and what functions they perform that we lose sight of the immediate effects they often have, not just on the "untutored" or "casual" reader, but on the very people who study them so assiduously (us). How many of those of us who entered into literary study did not do so because we love reading? And how many of us who love reading love it for how it makes us feel, what it allows our minds to do?

Edmundson is correct in noting that those who teach literature "set the scene for secular conversion" (60). The modern university is an outgrowth of the monastery, and though it has come to be seen as a bastion of anti-religious thought and ideology, it retains at its core the study of the inner being of humanity. There is a great need to understand the physical realities of our existence, and so the sciences need to be taught and studied. But there is as great a need to understand that which makes us human, that which proceeds from our humanity and which is the exemplification of it, and it is in the attaining of such understanding that those of us whose work is in the humanities must remain grounded. At root, we are here to figure out what it is that we are, and the conversion experience that Edmundson describes is one tool among many that helps us to learn it.

Accordingly, it is incumbent upon us to aid others in discovering their own experiences of understanding, their own instances of the "golden moment" of the realization of commonality and community (Edmundson 58). And that means that we cannot reject the personal, gut-level reaction. We cannot rely entirely upon it, certainly, and there is much to be said in favor of the application of outside ideas to a text (Lord knows I do so often enough), but Edmundson is right: "it all begins by befriending the text" (64).

My own teaching experience bears this out. The experiences of most of my students have been greatly divergent from my own; I am lucky enough to have been raised in a household that assigns prime importance to education (and I know that saying so makes me sound like the child of privilege that I in many ways am), and I know that a great many of those who have sat in my classrooms have not been fortunate in that particular way. Even so, I believe--because they have told me after they were no longer enrolled in my classes--that a number of my students have come to appreciate the written word more or differently than they had before sitting in my class, and that they came to do so as a result of my own enthusiasm for the texts I discussed and the materials I taught. In short, because I befriended the text (to use Edmundson's term), I showed the students that such a thing could be done, and in my teaching I explicitly (and repeatedly) invite them to do the same.

This is at variance with the way many of them have been taught--and even the way that I was, in many cases. All too often, the classroom instructor--at whatever level--does not engage with the text at a personal level. And while, again, I believe in the value of a systematic, scholarly approach to text, students quickly become bored with and disinterested in (and even hostile towards) such teaching. Because it does not even acknowledge the possibility of simple human impact, it tacitly rejects that possibility. And in rejecting the humane, it closes off what is, at least at first, the only entree into the reading that students reliably have.

The works we teach are, as Edmundson notes, "the testaments of human beings who have lived and suffered in the world. They too deserve honor and respect" (63), and we can show them that respect by affirming their humanity--and ours, which is shown in so doing--in their impact upon us, personally. And while the approach may not work for everyone (not that any do), it certainly cannot hurt.

*I am aware that Edmundson does not specifically restrict his argument to persons growing up in the United States of America. I make the inference that he does so based on his employment by the University of Virginia, his specific reference to his own childhood "growing up outside Boston" (58), and the Americo-centrism of the MLA. Then again, I am Americo-centrist, so I'm not complaining much, but full disclosure and all that...

Works Cited
Edmundson, Mark. "Against Readings." Profession 2009 (2009): 56-65. Print.
US Census Bureau. American FactFinder. US Census Bureau, n.d. Web. May 6, 2010.

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