Friday, November 19, 2010


I received my copy of College English 73.2 (November 2010) a few days ago. It features a series of anecdotes by Edward M. White, grouped together as a loose essay under the title "English Professor as a Public Figure: My Days in Court."

I read the essay with interest; aside from my desire to see what is going on in my current teaching field, I am increasingly convinced of the need for those of us in the academy to take on roles as public advocates of our own fields and of the academy-as-academy (rather than simply job training with a few electives). It seemed to me that White's essay would address that concern, as it in fact does. He addresses, for instance, the faulty perception "that college English teaching was a matter of hiding from public life in some version of an ivory tower" (183). He also asserts that it is incumbent upon new faculty of whatever rank to become
citizens of higher education as well as campus professors, be ready to stand up in court, in a hearing room, and in committee rooms as well as in the classroom to defend the values we [as academics] must be prepared to speak out, because your job as an English professor comes with important public responsibilities you should not avoid. (194-95)

The individual anecdotes White relates are chilling. Even in something so laudable as fighting censorship, problems arise. According to White, the argument that "a literary critic and, even worse, and English professor, is so committed to reading that he [or she]...cannot come to a disinterested opinion on obscenity" (185) was confirmed by the United States Supreme Court (186). That of an over-zealous, ill-informed churchman, however, was accepted as representative of the community (185-86). The implications that 1) unthinking, untutored zeal is more legally acceptable than considered expertise and 2) that unthinking, untutored zeal is an accurate representation of the community are hardly comfortable.

The discomfort is increased in White's relation of a legislative committee meeting. White notes that his appearances before that committee failed because he spoke with the nuance necessary to accuracy "in an arena where slogans and simplifications were the rule" (191). He relates the comments of a state senator: "'Just like a professor!' he barked. 'You ask a simple question and all you get back is a bunch of gobbledy-gook!'" (192). That laws are made by such people, that expressed complexity is regarded as gibberish, is hardly soothing.

White's anecdotal essay articulates both the need for academics to participate in various public discourses and the truth that such participation will not always be appreciated. It is a thing to keep in mind, particularly with the increasingly anti-intellectual trends in American popular culture (and even among the universities, as the recent elimination of non-English language programs at a number of major state schools shows).

The ideological victories of a great many forces have come about not because those forces deployed "better rhetoric," but because they spoke so loudly and often that their droning became an unavoidable part of the general milieu. That din must be countered somehow.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I have a little bit of time in which I am done with the grading I needed to do, class doesn't start for a while and is already prepped, and my dissertation stuff is elsewhere so that I need not feel guilty for not working on it. Hence, I make little notes.

I gave my students last week time in class to work on the next papers they have due for me. Some complained about this, which I fully expected; there is not one damned thing that a teacher can do that SOME students will not complain about. But I did not anticipate one of the complaints at all.

I forget the exact words the student used, but they amounted to a protest that the student had nothing at all to say without being able to go and look up information.

I found the complaint particularly disturbing.

There are a number of problems with the information-saturated environment in which a great many of the students now in college (and in my classes) grew up. Among them, perhaps most notably among them, are the shifts in the notions of what intellectual property and academic honesty are. I worry, though, that there is the additional detriment to students coming to have some kind of pride and investment in their own work.

A great many of the students at the school where I teach already have issues with academia. Many of them have been told that they have or have had no place in any kind of schooling. While it must be admitted that there are quite a few who used to or still do conduct themselves in ways that indicate they do not belong in the academic environment (and there are such students), there are many more who have moved past that point or who were wrongly told it to begin with. They already are unsure of themselves and whether or not they actually have anything worth contributing to the ongoing discussion that is academic writing; that lack of surety serves as a prod to plagiarism and all kinds of other things that those of us who teach decry.

I think my worry understandable. And I am moved to pity.

Friday, November 12, 2010


As some people know, I have kept a journal for some time. Often, the journal is a simple record of my daily life--or, more recently, far-less-regular recollections that are spliced together whenever I remember to do so. Sometimes, I use it to work out ideas for papers, books (yes, there are a couple in embryo in the well-inked wombs of my journals), and stories. From time to time also, I include poetry.

I had had an image in my mind for some time, and last night, I finally got it out onto the page:

He walks
Hands in his pockets
Shoulders hunched against the wind
Head down
Eyes scanning the ground ahead
Looking for places to put his feet
Each long, slow step the swing of an axe
Biting into the distance
He has yet to travel
Footfalls thudding dully on the pavement
In rhythm
What will happen if he misses his swing?
What will happen if he
When he
Cuts all the way through?
What sort of wood will be
If it can be called yielding
When prompted by many blows of an axe?

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Yes, it is Veterans' Day, and yes, it is the old Armistice Day, as well. And I am very much grateful to those who have served and still serve this country. That service has not been perfect, and it has been badly used by those in power over it, but it is a damned sight better than a number of the alternatives.

Faint praise, I know.

The people in the armed services are just that: people. They are human. They err. Sometimes they err greatly. But they also are in a position that does much for others. And for that, I thank them.

Friday, November 5, 2010


I have been following recent debates about the status of the humanities in higher education, which makes sense since I work in the humanities in higher education. As I have, it has become evident to me that critics of the humanities think that those of us who work in them ought to be able to get our points across to our students in six or so hours of coursework, after which our students will be "informed" and "critically self-aware."

It occurs to me that no accounting student is expected to be able to serve as an accountant after only six or so hours of coursework. No medical student is awarded a doctorate and released to treat patients after a mere six hours of coursework. Chemists don't get away with it, either. Neither do physicists, nor do political scientists.

And I know that as I begin to make this point, some will comment that "Those things are hard." And they are, I admit. But how many times do you think I have seen people with degrees in those fields--and others--say that they cannot write, that writing is hard?

Look at the comments made by many of the detractors of the study of the humanities. How well do they write? How much in the way of critical reasoning skills do they display?

Suddenly, the humanities are not such easy things. And yet we are supposed to get students to master them in six or so hours of coursework.

Am I the only one who sees this as a problem?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


The big news consists of the results of the midterm elections. Those results were not unanticipated. And I hold little if any rancor over them.

Remember this day, folks. Remember over the next couple of years that you asked for it.

I hope you like what you get.