Friday, November 03, 2006

A Question of Philosophy: Grad School Theater

It's Friday night. Even as we speak, I could and should be at a party with my graduate student peers. We should be discussing literature, and philosophy, and art, and science, and the quasi-local opera's craven choice to provide bowdlerized supertitles to their productions this season, and the cheap things you can buy to turn frozen left-over pizza into a delicious meal that doesn't feel like the seventh time you've had left-over pizza this week, and whatever the hell the mathematicians are talking about while the rest of us smile and nod, as one does with mathematicians and lunatics.

But I'm not there. After the week I've had, I could use a drink and a lovely conversation. But, here's the thing: these people are the cause of my uncharacteristic thirst. Well, I'm the cause of my uncharacteristic thirst. However,
interacting with them has really helped the process along. Frankly, I'm hating the hell out of the majority of my graduate student peers right now. No doubt that'll change back to normal in the week ahead, but for today I'm content to hate them.

For some reason, the number of people willing to perform the role of 'intellectual superior' among our cohort has spiked dramatically this week. You know these people, I'm sure. The ones who seek out peers who are feeling stupid, and try to convince them they're right. For instance, I was having trouble with a paper. My thesis was falling apart, actually, and I needed to go back and revise my entire reading of the problem at hand. Well, I made the mistake of saying that in a conversation about these papers, and I was told, 'Hey, not everyone can be a scholar. It's good that you found that out now.' Nice, right? I won't tell you what was said to a friend of mine, who's having some trouble grasping literary theory. I actually can't tell you that story without wanting to shoot my keyboard, it makes me so mad. (We'll get back to the broader 'theory question' later.)

It scares me that such unsupportive people are teaching post-adolescents away from home for the first time in their lives. But, I digress.

I recognize this behavior as the coping mechanism that it is. Being a student is extremely humbling. Having people evaluate your thoughts all the time is extremely stressful, and makes for some pretty powerful neuroses. I get all that. As I've said before, I'm working on a full complement of all codified neuroses myself. Besides that, I've seen this behavior before in the special needs children I used to teach. They get so tired of being the ones to make errors that they revel in the errors of others, being sure to be as loudly derisive as possible when the mistake is not theirs. It's actually very tough as a teacher to learn to recognize that behavior as normal and indicative of personal insecurities, and then react accordingly, while still supporting the child who has made the mistake currently being ridiculed. It's even more difficult to recognize the same unattractive tendency in yourself. I'm less patient with adults than with children, though, and I include myself among the adults. Even though I know the psychological triggers and behaviors are the same, it's just harder to take from someone old enough to vote, ya know? It took all the energy I had not to say something like, "You're right. She and I have some issues with this one class that stands within your major area of interest. Now, tell me, what are your thoughts about this stuff that stands within our major areas of interest?" It would have been a fair but ugly response, and I'm trying to avoid that whole ugliness thing. Whether momentary ugliness would have been better than this prolonged and repressed anger is probably something else I should consider.

Now, this class is theory-heavy. Which means that the theory drives the literature, rather than the other way around. Which means that there are many many 'theory people' in the class, and they often introduce theories into discussion that others of us have no access to, because we don't study them. It gets a little tiring to be perpetually saying, 'Well, that sounds like a great phrase. What does it mean?'

Anyway, I'm not exactly sure I agree with the theory-driven formulation, but it seems to be the way things often go in my department. This argument gets sticky quickly, I know. Sometimes, I want to just read the damned book and come up with my own ideas about which theory will be most effective in understanding it. But there's never really a time when we read completely free of a philosophical frame, and shouldn't we at least be aware of what that frame is? I know that as an undergrad I did some feminist readings of novels, without knowing that I was employing feminist philosophy. The professor had to tell me. "OK, Heo, that's a good feminist reading. Now, how would you read this same novel from this other viewpoint?" To which I often responded, "Huh?" So, I get the whole 'be aware of your ideological frame as you read' thing. I just don't always want to adopt someone else's frame. My best example of this is the professor who's frame leads him to believe that all literature is oedipal. That gets really creepy, really quickly. I mean, what does this guy's mom look like, anyway?

**Before the conservative reader decides to make the following his proof that liberalism reigns supreme in the humanities, he should know that there are conservative theorists who are just as determined as their liberal counter-parts that theory is all-important. They all think I'm an idiot, too. **

Back to the point I intended to make a while ago, there seems to be a deep philosophical divide between me and those who self-identify as 'theory people.' We can't talk to one another. And I mean that literally. Attempts at communication leave everyone slightly confused and irritated. (The following are two actual conversations, fused into one for blogular presentation purposes.)
Me: "What do you study?"
Them: "Theory."
Me: "OK, which theory?"
Them: "No, theory."
Me: "OK. So, what type/time frame of literature are you applying theory to, most often?"
Them: "Not literature, literary theory."
Me: "But the term 'literary theory' suggests that there will be some 'literary' mixed in with all that theory."
Them: "Hm. Not really."
Me: "So then, what do you do with the theory?"
Them: "We study it."
Me: "So that eventually you can apply it to a broader range of literature?"
Them: "Look, idiot, we're theorists."
Me: "Is it like comparative theory, or the history of theory, or what?"
Them: "Yes, all of that."
Me: "But....what role does the literature play?"
Them: "Theory is the literature."
Me: "I'm not much interested in meta-theoretical stuff, I'm afraid. I'm studying medieval literature."
Them: "How can you possibly teach literature without theory? I mean, how do you contextualize the literature?"
Me: "By contextualizing the literature. Time, place, form, intended audience, current audience, that sort of thing."
Them: "But, what theory do you apply to the literature?"
Me: "Whichever theory seems best supported by the literature."
Them: "So, you let the literature decide what theory you'll introduce?"
Me: "Yup."
Them: "But, that's insane. What is your point in teaching literature? What do you want to accomplish?"
Me: "I want my students to be able to read this literature in an informed way."
Them: "But how are they being informed? You haven't given them a way of reading that informs them."
Me: "Sure I have. They can think of the time and culture in which the literature was produced, the traditions that the literature works from and with, language choices, imagery, medium, etc."
Them: "Why aren't you in the history department where you belong?"
Me:"Why aren't you in the philosophy department, where YOU belong?"

end scene

And the point of all that above is this: There are more of them than there are of me, and I think I might really be a dinosaur. Perhaps literary scholarship no longer seeks people who have what I have to offer it.


tempestsarekind said...

I have no idea what collection of links I followed to find your blog, but I really appreciated reading this.

I have that conversation (in my head, anyway) with people/articles all the time! I must be a dinosaur too--maybe even more of one, because I have a similar problem even with articles that purport to be about a piece of literature but are really about theory--and only use literature to prove the *theory* correct. I just don't get it. I mean, study theory if that's what you want to study (although I agree with you in not understanding how one does that without literature), but don't pretend to be talking about Twelfth Night when you really want to talk about Freud, and then force me to read it.

I'm currently in my third year of grad school, and feeling somewhat hounded about my lack of dissertation project/theoretical approach, so I definitely sympathize with the dinosaur feeling--though I certainly hope you're not right about there being no place for dinosaurs in scholarship!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Are these theory conversations with other medievalists (or would such people even ever label themselves medievalists)? Because I think most medieval lit people I've run into would have NO problem with your approach (also, for what it's worth, I've occasionally felt like a historicist lit person masquerading as a historian...). Now, granted, I know that most people hiring medievalists are not medievalists, and I remember a time when there was an argument in the English department at my last job in which one contingent demanded abolishing all historical markers altogether (no 19th c. lit! no 20th c. lit! It's all just lit!). But whatever you have to cope with in your department, you will find many like-minded folk in your chosen field!

medieval woman said...

I can't TELL you how much I identify with this post!! Thanks for writing it...
1) That shmuck who said "we can't all be scholars" should be given the evil eye and pelted with spitballs. I hate that crap and it's amazing how often it gets used! (My ex is one of them)

2) I think I agree with NK when she talks about medievalists definitely being a bit more literature driven. But I also think that it's beginning to become the norm in medieval studies too - you have to identify (and announce) that you use X, Y, and Z theoretical framework in your dissertation, teaching, etc. And if you work on manuscripts, it gets a bit harder to "theorize" the textual scholarship you do because you really look like a dinosaur to so many people!

Bardiac said...

The theory people I really respect are the ones that care to help me understand. They rock, and help me love learning theory.

Historicism can, and needs to be, theoretically grounded, too. You probably do that; maybe thinking about how you ground historicism will help you communicate with theory-heads?

Alexandra P said...

I like dinosaurs, as opposed to... oh, I don't know... new-fangled devices that allegedly help things happen faster but instead just create more work that 'needs' to be done?

Although I'm not at the grad-school level, I too totally identify with your head-butting that seems to get nowhere. It truly does seem bizarre for people to think that theory has no 'application' outside of itself. I can admire people who are doing something just because it's fun, but to think that that is actually an end in itself - and don't see a problem with that, but do see one in the people who make some application - sees hopelessly self-referential! And egotistical, of course.

Holly said...

Hey, not everyone can be a scholar. It's good that you found that out now.

Omigod! I never heard a grad student say this to another grad student. We had plenty of ways of being nasty to each other, but we never descended THAT low.

Re: the correlation between using theory and being "liberal" or "conservative"--personally, I believe that theory is essentially conservative, because it's so theological: you accept some unprovable and arcane premise, and base the rest of your thinking on it. Doesn't seem all that progressive to me.

Anonymous said...

We're in completely different fields, but I have this experience all of the time - reading this post was great, thanks! Apparently psychology students aren't the only unsupportive bunch out there!

Dr. Virago said...

Good lord, of course contextualizing and historicizing texts entails a theory! Has the dweeb never heard of new historicism? Or for that matter of *Marxist* theory?! Now, not all historicist approaches are Marxist (or Jamesonian or Williams-ist,-ian, whatever), but the simple question of whether or not one must or needs to place a text in a context is a theoretical question. And the question of what that context consists of is a theoretical question. And is that context mere "background" that produces the privileged literary text? Or are texts in general equally part of a discourse that both produces and is produced by culture? And what is culture? Or history? These are *all* theoretical question. That's what you say to this supposed TheoryHead who gives TheoryHeads a bad name next time you encounter the doofus.

What a tool.

As for "we can't all be scholars" -- holy mary, jesus, and joseph, what an ass! Yeah, and clearly we can't all be collegial, either.

Interrobang said...

I got out of straight English literature after my bachelor's degree, but there was a component to it in my master's, and I have to say I still haven't met a literary theorist who didn't inspire me to shout "Bullshit!" at least once. By "literary theorists" I mean the people who write the indecipherable philosophico-religious tracts, not the graduate students.

If I have an -ism of literature, it's historicism, like you. I do kind of identify with the theory-head's question of why we all aren't in the history department -- I'm now a sort of pro-am historian, and I found the transition from literary study to historical research very easy. Being fluent in the literature of many time periods (my particular specialties in literature [and history] are medieval and modern -- maybe there's something about medievalists?) seems to help me understand the history better, and vice versa.

Perhaps instead of being dinosaurs, we're a new breed of interdisciplinary scholars (and perhaps I have a swelled head).

Letty said...

People who only see the theory and not the text always remind me of the Sokal hoax:

Some people are just impressed by obscure jargon...

ZaPaper said...

I add my voice to the chorus. It's really hard to negotiate the whole theory thing if one does something to which theory just isn't a good fit. None of the fancy theorists of the last few decades were working from an informed perspective on ancient Chinese historical narratives, for example, and the stuff I see really brings up the question of whether theory is as universally applicable as it pretends it is. (Not to mention being so darned opaque and annoying of course to try to get into.) I've seen various attempts to make it work on my stuff and it's shallow at best, and at worst dead wrong. It just plain doesn't work too well.

As for "not all scholars", it reminds me of something a professor I'm very fond of once said to me: "You're fellow students are your friends, but they're also you're competitors." I guess some people's way of competing is more backstabbing than others, although that's backstabbing bordering on insanity. When I encounter this stuff, I think to myself that the key is to remember never to do that to anyone else, no matter how mean and mad you feel. As for whether it's okay to do it back to them, ...argh, moral dilemma!

HeoCwaeth said...

Thanks for commenting, everyone.

I think I'm done ruminating (SAT word for pouting) about these incidents now.

Yeah, the student who decided that a bad thesis means a bad scholar is a bit of a shit. But, we do have a clique of 'serious intellectuals'-- as opposed to, you know, unserious intellectuals like medievalists -- in the department, and this guy wants in. And good luck to him. I personally hate those people.

New Kid, we have the "no fields" professors here, too. The difference between them and their grad student counterparts, however, is that they have actually studied a little bit of all literature. They can quote Horace or Chaucer, Derrida or Maimonides with equal confidence. Many of our 'seriously intellectual' grad students are among those who think that Old English means Shakespeare and Chaucer. ( They also have a tendency to try to impress professors by quoting obscure theories that have approximately dick to do with what we're talking about at the moment.)

In my pouting, I probably gave the impression that I'm anti-theory. Well, I was feeling rather anti-theory at the time, so how could I give any other impression? I'm really not, though. The difference between me and the theory heads is actually theoretical at its base. I like the literature, and consider the various theories tools to help me better understand it. They seem to like the theories, and consider the literature a way to help them contextualize the broader narrative.

We're both approaching this business of the study of literature from a philosophical standpoint. It's just that communicating across this divide has proven even more challenging than the great AmLit/BritLit wars of my undergrad experience. I didn't think that was possible. I was really convinced that once I left undergrad, I would never again meet with people within my field who were so like martians to me.

Ah, well.

Ancarett said...

As a historian, it's interesting to come to this. Our fields and experiences aren't all that different, I see. There are the theory-driven folks who seem to bend all their evidence (what little they use!) towards those goals while the anti-theory crowds make me want to pull my head out as they talk around the theory they vehemently deny they're employing.

But the nasty comments? That's academe at any level, sad to say. I've been hit with variations of that from day one in grad school and some of them still take my breath away, years later, with the unwarranted arrogance of the commenter, as, I suspect, this one will for you.

Karl Steel said...

Heoc: thanks for your comments about "coping mechanisms." Back when I started grad school, I belonged to that cohort that referred to our students as "kids" and thrilled to swap stories about their incompetence, their graspingness, their complaints about our authority, and the like. I'm embarrassed about it all now (I'd like to say "of course," but I don't think I've earned that), but never quite understood why I did I did. So thanks for putting that into language. I hope when I'm overseeing beginning grad students someday, I can pass your analysis onto them to get them, at least, to be aware of the almost automatic nastiness of a beginning teacher.

It truly does seem bizarre for people to think that theory has no 'application' outside of itself.

Yes but, I say. Following Dr Virago (and really Stanley Fish in the Times last week), I want to argue for the untranslatability of our endeavors. My study of medieval lit can't be translated into "utility," at least in the reductive sense of making money, building for some future career, or even, really, in the grander sense of an ethical intervention. It is what it is. It's a pleasure, and as a pleasure, it is fundamentally, and thankfully, irreducible to any explanation or justification. Same goes with theory.

Now, those obnoxious 'theory people' need to back off; they need to realize that what they do is what they do, and that medievalists whose approach historical in whatever way -- synchronic cultural studies a la Bourdieu, diachronic historicism a la Marx, whatever -- are also doing "theory." But foregrounding methodology isn't necessarily the way to go all the time!

I'd say our fellow students aren't really our competitors. Our true enemy is the system itself. It's sick and frankly unsustainable. I've just ordered Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship.

HeoCwaeth said...

Hey, Karl. Thanks for the book suggestion, and for your thoughtful comments.

In thanking me for contextualizing the nastier side of beginning teachers, you have succeeded in shaming me a bit. I do still often refer to my students as kids, though not in their presence, and not --I hope-- in a derogatory way. I'm just so very old, you see, when compared with new undergrads. I say kids even though I know that they're adults because they're still rookie adults, and I think they sort of benefit from people remembering that one doesn't get an all-inclusive life manual on one's 18th birthday.* Or, maybe I'm just still a bit of a pompous ass. I dunno.

* Speaking of birthdays, I almost had a small cardiac event when JJC announced his 42nd birthday a little while ago. Can you please get him to add a decade to his age next time, so that those of us who were slow to get involved in the academy can feel less pressured to publish 150 books next week?

Karl Steel said...

Oh! I apologize! I didn't mean to shame you. I think my critique of calling students kids has to do with shame (or deciding I should be ashamed) at the fact that I did it. Vigor of the recently converted, and all that. I have a welter of conflicting emotions about my students, and my authority, and I worry, as a result, of dehumanizing them, because that's what people in authority do when they're unsure of their authority. Am I accusing you of this? My goodness no. Do I think first-year students are full-fledged adults? Thinking back to my first year of college, no, no, no. Your discussion--hardly pompous!--captures that quandary nicely.

Eileen Joy said...

But, by way of revenge, you could also pass on to your insensitive "theorist" peers the citation for Bruce Holsinger's recent book, "The Premodern Condition," which basically proves that the first theorists were all medievalists! Cheers, Eileen [p.s. the book is a must-read, by the way]

HeoCwaeth said...

Hi Karl. There's no need for an apology. I was just accepting that however high-minded I might think I'm being, there's much room for improvement. You're right, the temptation to dehumanize those whom we fear we might be so that we can distinguish ouselves from them is always there. The shame didn't actually come from you, but from my own knowledge that I have these tendencies, too. Worse, I've exhibited these behaviors.

Hi. Thanks for the book tip. Perhaps if I can think about theory through medieval examples, I can get a better grasp of it. I know that worked with postcolonialism and Barthes. Seriously, Spivak is no help at all.

Anonymous said...

They're not in the philosophy department because no philosophy department worth its salt would have them...

critical thinking said...

A literary theory is a worldview or Weltanschaung in German.Theorists (not scientific in any sense) promote their own world view and use cherry picked literary examples to support it.In their ordinary lives, they will form opinions based on observation alone, not realizing that these opinions are deduced from their theory or "worldview". As one post suggested, theory in literature is religion-esque, meaning that all premises are supported on faith alone. These sort of theories often lead to pseudoscience,e.g.,Freud with psychoanalysis. Now imagine a psychiatrist who believes the cause of your trouble is repression (unconscious suppression)of internal desires (e.g., oedipal desires of Freud) and his job is to transfer those desires on him, the analyst.Further, he suggests that males are mother-lovers and females are penis-envious. Now how do you think this will shape his behavior towards his patients? What is "creepy" is that an individual like "Freud" can prescribe psycho-active drugs to his patients, e.g,cocaine or morphine at his time.What if literary theorists had such power that extended beyond the classroom.Can you think of any worldview leaders (fundamentalists) or "cults of personality".