I lost my temper this morning on Twitter, and a couple people seemed to like what I was saying OK. I decided to post those remarks here, with, like, paragraphs and things, so that they would be readable. I’m accommodating like that.
This piece, which my buddies at @scMFA Tweeted early this morning, supports a long-held intuition of mine: that undergrad creative-writing courses are popular in part because they do what English 101 used to.
My university was behind on pedagogical trends. When I took Eng 101, we read nonacademic essayists such as Annie Dillard and Frederick Buechner. (I still have a smudged Xerox of “On Faith and Fiction,” even though I bought the book it came from years ago: the sentimental value runs that deep.) And mostly we wrote in that vein, too. There was also a research paper, in which we chose a discipline and learned about both its methodologies and discourse conventions.
In grad school I learned that this approach, which helped me grow as a writer, was considered outmoded, if not outright anti-intellectual. What English 101 should do, I learned, is introduce first-years to “how theory gets used in the academy” (love that passive voice), which in practice meant using Ways of Reading to march the poor kids through the eight or ten continental theorists and scholar-activists who basically are the canon now. (You know the drill: Foucault, Said, Lacan, bell hooks.) If you assigned fiction, poetry, or plays, it was to teach the students to pick through them for signs of “the discourse” of this era, or of the era in which the pieces were written. I.e., you were doing a less sophisticated version of what lit scholars mostly do now: a weird activity somewhere between sociology, psychology, Marxist studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and intellectual history, but that doesn’t really bother with those disciplines’ methodologies. Or, worse, you were doing philosophy, but without the rigor of actual philosophers. (If you want to laugh your ass off sometime, read Not Saussure, in which Raymond Tallis subjects some of the classic English-class nostrums to basic logical spot-checks. Of course a closed system can refer outside itself, you dolts, is one of the points he makes again and again. What do you think vision is?) Philosophy departments are often mean, competitive, macho, and lily-white in composition, but one mistake they mostly don’t make is to treat Foucault as the last word in serious thought.
The problem is that English 101, in these approaches, ceases to be ABOUT anything. It’s not women’s studies, it’s not literature, it’s not a social science. It’s not rigorous enough to be philosophy. It doesn’t provide enough background to be ethnic studies.
And it isn’t really a rhetoric course, either, insofar as it teaches you a couple of variations on what is basically one genre of writing: the academic (generally, you can be even more specific and say “the humanities”) conference paper.
Rhetoric, of course, is about learning the kind of sensitivity that enables you to write and read many genres. And guess where you can still get that training, if you want it? You can get it in undergrad creative writing. At least, you can until we finish professionalizing ourselves.
I’m not a reactionary. I don’t want English 101 to be the class where you learn that white dudes are the only people who can write, and that, more than anything, was the problem with the way a lot of those old-fashioned mode-based or Harvard-daily-theme-based courses were taught. But if it’s a choice between giving students Homer, or giving them a French psychoanalyst who was such a fraud that even the psychoanalysts kicked him out their union? Or the wordy, boring, authoritarian French Marxist who stabbed his wife? Or a bald nihilist who teaches that everything is a prison? Or an often-admirable black activist who doesn’t happen to be a very compelling prose stylist? (bell hooks once complained that she couldn’t get her non-scholarly writing published because the white publishing industry just wasn’t ready for a style as bold and nonlinear as hers. She’s right about the publishing industry, but, having read some of the work she was talking about, I’d have to say that the publishing industry was right about her, too. Gah.)
Really, I think a little Homer would be more intellectually freeing. (Especially if you happen to mention, as classical pedagogy didn’t, that Homer was brown, and preliterate, and oral-formulaic like Jay-Z.)
My point, I guess, is that English 101 is supposed to be a rhetoric course. And the works that we dignify with the name “literature” tend to be nothing other than very successfully exercised rhetorical knowhow. Period. When you go on speaking to an audience, even creating an audience, long after your death, it’s just because you were a great rhetor.
And I’d rather teach rhetoric by working through those sorts of works than by mooning over TV commercials or pop-song mashups or presidential press conferences or the way some fucking corporation rebranded itself.
My field of work, I worry, has the same problem evangelical churches were beginning to develop back when I was growing up in that world (now, of course, it’s so obvious that it’s become a cultural commonplace): to stay “contemporary” or, God help us, “relatable,” they dumb down. Instead of teaching students to memorize poems, so they can taste for themselves just how artfully arranged those syllables are (that artful arranging, remember, is rhetoric), we make sure they all know how to use Twitter and PowerPoint. That’s just like those preachers who abandon theology b/c “Joe Sixpack doesn’t care about theology.” Do your fucking job or go home, people. And if your job involves helping people to be more intellectually alive, it’s both a betrayal of civilization, and an insult to the God-given capacities of the people you claim to serve, if you abdicate that.