Monday, April 30, 2012


My reading of the March 2012 PMLA has not yet ended--I have been sticking around home more than usual these past few days, and, as I noted, I tend to do my journal reading on the train.  But I went to the dojo today (and did not do so well there as I like to), so I was on the train, and thus I read.

Among today's readings was the short piece by Joan DeJean, "A Long Eighteenth Century?  What Eighteenth Century?" which bemoans the increasing presentism of foreign language departments in the United States.*  DeJean does not claim any scientific rigor or statistical validity, simply noting that "Enough of a trend emerged" from those surveyed for the author "to feel that it was time to sound an alarm" (317).  The alarm derives from the increasing dearth of new hires--and of faculty positions generally--in period specializations in pre-modern non-English languages, although Italian manages to hold onto its "holy trinity--Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio" (317), and Spanish, because of other factors, has enough enrollment to keep its variety to some extent (318).  Even so, DeJean paints a depressing picture, one which forebodes ill for the study of language in the United States.

Aside from evoking my sympathy for the departments affected (I stand in solidarity with my fellow students of older languages and literatures) and my fear for my own discipline (although DeJean posits that medievalists in English could take up some of the slack created by the elimination of medievalist positions in other languages' departments, I am not certain that administrators would see that as a viable work--and even DeJean is not pleased with the proposition [320]), the article gives me some things to consider.  One of them is DeJean's comment that "We are all intellectually poorer because of this drift to presentism [outlined in the article]" (320).  It seems to imply that there is something wrong with considering the language and literature of the present and near past, and I cannot agree with that implication; there is a lot going on now, and some of it is even worth attending to.  But my arguments against such rhetoric are on record; I need not rehash them here, and there is more to address in DeJean's comment than the implication.

Namely, DeJean is correct.

There is the adage about what happens to those who do not know their history, and those who know that history are aware that the "good old days" are anything but good.  Aside from proverbial wisdom, however, there is the issue--which DeJean points out in some measure (320)--that what happens now is a result of what happened then, so that to understand now we must understand then.  Similarly, failing to comprehend the then shuts out a large chunk of the comprehension of now that we can have, and that is a detriment to us all.  Too, we have a number of tools now that were not available then, and the application of those tools can illuminate then, enhancing further our understanding of the underpinning of now.  And, if nothing else, there are some amazingly subtle, witty bits that happened then, and we miss out by not looking at them now.

I would say that, though, being a medievalist.

My discipline has little to do, however, with my interest in another thing DeJean writes, this in the end-note to the piece: "I name no names so that none of them can be held responsible for my remarks" (320n).  There is something wrong with the world when a professor who is by title well-respected, one at a major institution, has to worry about repercussions upon colleagues for a piece printed in a major research journal.  Academic research is supposed to be one of the few places, if not the only place, where people can speak freely and openly, where they can state opinions sincerely held and supported from evidence, even if those opinions are not necessarily popular or easy to hear.  For such a figure as DeJean, who by all rights ought to be among the people who get to speak freely, to feel compelled to conceal her sources so as to protect them, to note that her sources may well need protecting, bespeaks something that I cannot call anything but evil.

Is this the world in which we live, that those who work to help others find truth must have it hidden that they have done so?  And if it is, can we complain of its sad, sad state?

*I am aware because of my readings (specific citations from which I do not recall at the moment, since I am working away from the set of materials from which I would pull them) and from the simple fact of living in New York after having lived in central Texas and southwestern Louisiana of the problems inherent in the term "foreign language departments."  The languages taught by such departments have a large number of native speakers among the native-born United States citizenship, so that their status as "foreign" is fraught, and the United States does not actually have an official language (the de facto English is not de jure).  The University of Texas at San Antonio calls its version the "Department of Modern Languages and Literatures," which I think a better solution--but it has not caught on as much as I should like.

Work Cited
DeJean, Joan. "A Long Eighteenth Century? What Eighteenth Century?" PMLA 127.2 (March 2012): 317-20. Print.

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