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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 9 Sep 2009 16:54:30 -0700
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Gregg Camfield <[log in to unmask]>
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To: wes britton <[log in to unmask]>
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 “The town was short of money and it was proposed to discontinue the common schools.  At a meeting where the scheme was being discussed, and old farmer got up and said, "Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog.”  (quoted by Paul Fatout, _Mark Twain Speaking_)

Responding to the thread here, rather than to the _American Scholar_ article, Wes's joke about it being "too bad" that someone wishes to major in English is part of the problem. We see fads in education just as we see fads in clothing.  Nearly everyone nowadays SAYS that there are no jobs for English majors, so that Psychology (the second most popular B.A. right now behind business) is better, but a major survey in 2005 (if memory serves) of income for B.A.s in various majors had English majors in the middle third of the pack, psych near the bottom.  English is still very popular at elite colleges and universities, substantially because, as has long been the case, it's a great track into law (there's no better preparation for the LSAT than learning to understand poetry!).  

But what starts a fad?  When we look at community colleges and other public colleges and universities that serve populations of students whose parents did not attend college (as is the case with the univeristy that employs me), the exposure these students have to both writing and literature has been in high school, and the understaffed, underfunded, underappreciated public high schools do not do a good job of inspiring students to care about literature.  Instead, they have to teach to tests that put a premium on functional, or mechanical reading, the kind of reading that can be assessed in a commercially prepared, standardized multiple choice test.  (Some testing companies even use computers to read student essays!).  

I went through public primary and secondary schools in the sixties and seventies, when they had a captive labor pool of bright women and had decent budgets.  Even then, the politically attenuated, overly tested reading curriculum was stultifying. (Anyone else suffer through IBM's "SRA" reading program?) I discovered reading outside of school because I come from a bookish family (every summer, my electrician grandfather taught me how to wire a house and recite Shakespeare--I can still wire a house.  When he moved his family from Chicago to Denver to help relieve my grandmother's asthma, he dubbed the first house they rented "offal court.").  Without that advantage, I doubt I would ever have cared about literature.  And if I had to attend the schools my children attend, I'd actively hate reading anything.  

Of course Wes is correct that adjunct faculty are treated poorly.  That's the rising tide of underfunding, over-testing, and exploitation that primary and secondary schools have already experienced.  I think many of my tenure-rank colleagues are so desparately afraid of losing status that they are shutting their eyes to the plight of their adjunct faculty colleagues.  Then, too, those of us who care find that we have little time to help considering that the cuts in tenure-line faculty mean that there IS too much committee work to do. 

If America is becoming illiterate, it's getting what it pays for.  


----- Original Message -----
From: wes britton <[log in to unmask]>
Date: Wednesday, September 9, 2009 3:42 pm
Subject: Re: "Decline of the English Department" article
To: [log in to unmask]

> To add my own two cents, I earned my doctorate in American Lit back in 
> 1990. 
>  I have taught precious little Am Lit ever since. None at all for 10 
> years. 
>  Reason Number One is that I came out just as the reliance on 
> part-time 
>  adjuncts began and that situation has snowballed to the point I'd 
> advise no 
>  future student to pursue this profession, unless they plan on 
> marrying well. 
>  In the article that inspired this discussion, the figure of 1 in 6 
> positions 
>  is taught by part-timers. Well, if he means teaching literature, 
> that's 
>  possible-full-timers tend to take all the lit courses, leaving 
> adjuncts all 
>  the bread-and-butter courses. In the community college district where 
> I 
>  teach, we have whole campuses of nothing but adjuncts.
>  Over the past 10 years, I've observed a few matters no doubt getting 
> out to 
>  prospective English majors. First, there's a huge division between 
> the haves 
>  and have-nots in Central Pennsylvania-that is, full-timers fight like 
> tigers 
>  to prevent adjuncts from having any say in or benefits from their 
> college 
>  service. The major reason is that we're so numerous we might vote 
> down 
>  something full-timers might like, whatever that might be. Never did 
> figure 
>  that one out. So large segments of the English faculty are completely 
>  disconnected from what's going on. We come, we leave, we are not part 
> of the 
>  community. The point is that the English faculty won't take care of 
> its own, 
>  much less the administration.
>  Still, I've been around long enough to know that full-timers here 
> spend next 
>  to no time dealing with discussing or debating any literary theory 
> that 
>  doesn't have multi-cultural resonances. In the past 10 years, I can 
> think of 
>  precious few conversations in hallways, offices, or division meetings 
> that 
>  didn't deal with how to avoid statistical assessments of what we do, 
> debate 
>  the "shared governance" doctrine here, or how to use new 
> technological 
>  tools. In short, if there's any vitality to present literature, you 
> wouldn't 
>  pick it up from the English faculty. In fact, I've asked about 
> certain 
>  authors and have heard-"Read a novel! I have too much committee work 
> to read 
>  a novel cover to cover!" More than once.
>  Which leads to my final point. To establish "relevance," you'd think 
> we'd 
>  need to demonstrate literature is still a vital part of American 
> culture, 
>  not a collection of artifacts that ended with Toni Morrison. Book 
> sales, 
>  especially those in fiction, are abysmal, especially among males who 
> like 
>  certain genres, you can guess what they might be. Book publishers 
> seek 
>  tricks to pull in readers like publishing print text connected with 
> online 
>  chapters or Google maps to make reading more "interactive."  I do 
> know when 
>  my full-time colleagues look for literature to use in comp classes-we 
> have 
>  but a handful of out-and-out lit classes-the major factor is the page 
> count.
>  This semester, while students introduced themselves on the first day, 
> I 
>  heard the first student in many a year identify herself as an English 
> major. 
>  "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that," I joked. "I know," she said, "that's 
> what 
>  everyone says."  I admit, I am sorry for her, no joke.  Right now, 
> there's 
>  beauty and majesty in the river she sees before her. It won't be long 
> before 
>  she learns the real debates are whether or not the MLA citation style 
> has 
>  improved or declined, whether online courses should be a separate 
> division 
>  or controlled by the departments they represent, or how to appease 
> the 
>  accreditation folks and limit the paperwork for the faculty at the 
> same time 
>  . . .
>  Twain? Someone teaches him in the "Banned Books" class. I know my 
>  officemates have never read "The War Prayer." So I'll let lofty folks 
> with 
>  lofty places debate the value of the humanities. My life is getting 
> students 
>  to craft interesting thesis sentences, come up with smooth 
> transitions, that 
>  sort of thing.
>  ----- Original Message ----- 
>  From: "Kevin. Mac Donnell" <[log in to unmask]>
>  To: <[log in to unmask]>
>  Sent: Wednesday, September 09, 2009 1:31 PM
>  Subject: Re: "Decline of the English Department" article
>  >> Finally, in order to make this appropriate to the Mark Twain Forum,
>  >> Twain's work engages with the areas of cultural studies that Chace
>  >> criticizes.  Is it an accident that Mark Twain studies have flourished
>  >> as concerns with race, class, gender, nationalism, economics, and
>  >> politics have been embraced literary critics?
>  >> --Larry Howe
>  >>
>  >
>  > Twain has flourished because Twain is relevant, to use an over-used 
> word.
>  > Are English Depts relevant? How do students measure relevance? It doesn't
>  > matter how we measure relevance; the students are the ones who make 
> the
>  > decision whether or not to major in the humanities. Not us. I 
> notice that 
>  > no
>  > students were questioned (nor dolphins harmed) in the writing of that
>  > article. For shame.
>  >
>  > Students (I must imagine, because nobody has asked them) may measure
>  > relevance by whether the content of the studies relates to their personal
>  > lives, their community, their heritage, their world, their future.  
> More
>  > particularly (again, I'm left no choice but to be imagining 
> things), they
>  > measure relevance by whether the time they invest in study will pay 
> off in
>  > the job market when they graduate.
>  >
>  > Twain certainly scores on the first count, but do English Depts? 
> And 
>  > unless
>  > English Depts can connect the dots for students and explain --or 
> better 
>  > yet
>  > demonstrate with solid data points-- how writing skills and a solid
>  > foundation in literature will enrich their future (and their 
> ability to 
>  > get
>  > a job) then they will not be seen as relevant.
>  >
>  > My own experience might be instructive (after all, I was once a 
> student 
>  > who
>  > was never asked about the relevance of the courses that I took, or 
> why I
>  > took them). I earned my English degree in the early 70s, and quickly
>  > realized my only job prospects were low-paying teaching positions. 
> I have
>  > nothing against teaching (my mother, wife, and daughter were/are teachers)
>  > but I have a distaste for low pay. I'd also taken classical piano 
> in 
>  > college
>  > (my childhood teacher was a late student of Lechetizsky, the 
> teacher of
>  > Clara Clemens, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Arthur Schnabel, et al) but I 
> knew the
>  > competition was fierce and that prodigies were a dime a dozen. So I 
> earned 
>  > a
>  > masters in library science (chasing the Big Bucks I was). While 
> working in 
>  > a
>  > rare book library, I figured out that antiquarian booksellers who 
> sold us
>  > books were having all the fun, traveling, handling a steady stream 
> of
>  > different and interesting books, and making money all the while. 
> This was
>  > nothing like my library job, so I went to the dark side and have never
>  > looked back. And although I never cared much for math, math 
> problems are a
>  > lot more interesting when dollar signs lurk nearby. I still play 
> piano and
>  > write.
>  >
>  > It took me a few years to figure all this out back in the 70s, but 
> I think
>  > other students have figured it out faster than I did, like that 
> student of
>  > Larry's who put his math skills to work on derivatives. Of course, 
> if that
>  > student (and others like him) had spent more time in English Depts 
> with
>  > Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens, Flannery O'Connor, etc., perhaps he 
> would 
>  > have
>  > developed better reading and writing skills, study disciplines, and 
>  > critical
>  > thinking, and he and his ilk might not have led our economy into a 
>  > meltdown.
>  > Shakespeare has a quote about where the fault lies that seems relevant
>  > (there's that damn word again!) and Twain probably had something to 
> say
>  > about it too.
>  >
>  > Kevin
>  > @
>  > Mac Donnell Rare Books
>  > 9307 Glenlake Drive
>  > Austin TX 78730
>  > 512-345-4139
>  > [log in to unmask]
>  > Member: ABAA, ILAB
>  > **************************
>  > You may browse our books at
>  >