Who killed literature?

An aging professor offers his last pleas to help his expiring vocation.

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

As anyone who’s ever had a parent can attest, advice annoys. Even when we know we should take heed, there is something about the lofty heights from which pearls of wisdom drop that make them feel like hail. In a similar way, Carl Woodring’s latest book, “Literature: An Embattled Profession,” abounds with sound advice for the endangered world of higher learning in the humanities, even though it’s all too likely to fall on deaf ears.

Woodring, a professor emeritus in English at Columbia University,
has spent some 50-plus years in the fray of the culture wars. And now,
just a stone’s throw from octogenarianhood, he reports back to tell us what
he has learned along the way. The central lesson he wishes to impart is the value of
literature — its power to enrich lives and elevate the soul. Worried that
this lesson is increasingly lost on a general public that by and large feels
alienated from the ivory tower, he has written “Literature” as a plea to
practitioners of literary criticism to lower the drawbridge for the intelligent layperson.

He mounts a two-pronged case, first against current literary critics and
theorists and then against the institutions that house them. In well-wrought and engaging prose he sketches the last three centuries of American
literary study — from etymological studies firmly grounded in Greek and Latin to the New Critics of the early 20th century who opened the door
to contextual interpretation. Finally, he arrives at the current moment, when
Post-Structural criticism has, in his eyes, taken a wrong turn and
abandoned the recreational reader’s concerns. In short, he blames the
ascent of theory for encouraging professional students of literature to
look down on the ordinary readers’ desires for plot and character, beauty and meaning.

It is here that Woodring is at his best. Clear-eyed and witty, he
articulates feelings that have been welling up in a literate public for
years. He shows how jargon serves as a means for academics to sequester
themselves from the general reading public, so that readers who had once “found the literary scholars unutterably dull now can protest additionally
– and they can quote — comically unintelligible.”

The book then assails the administrative wing of higher learning.
Displaying exceptional polish as a researcher, Woodring demonstrates how
universities have become grotesquely top-heavy with management. Citing one
example of administrative excess after another, he paints a vivid picture
of universities that hire more vice-presidents, who in turn need more
deans, support staff, office space and equipment, all of which raise
tuition, swallow grant money and squeeze academic departments. Woodring
succinctly summarizes the bureaucratic logjam: “Employees numbering twenty thousand
will consider themselves collectively vital to twenty-three hundred faculty
and forty thousand students, but many of them are vital only to each
other.” Consequently, universities have created a glut of jobless Ph.D.s, and
increasingly resorted to the cost-cutting practices of hiring student assistants and adjunct
lecturers to replace professors.

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In the final two chapters of the book, Woodring doffs his
diagnostic cap for a prescriptive hard hat, and quickly the book unravels
into moralistic hodgepodge. It becomes easy to imagine the entire project
springing from one of those if-I-ran-the-world conversations in the
teachers’ lounge. He has a lot of ideas for fixing the bugaboos that have irked him not only at university but also primary and
secondary levels of education. Many of his rants pertain to the art of teaching freshman composition. Leaving no stone unturned, he
covers such dire topics as the neutered suffix (“Spokespersons yes,
waitpersons maybe; fireman is a nuisance, with firefighter available;
airman can die of neglect”) and e-mail discussion groups. Although his detailed prescriptions are meant to weave a tapestry that molds writers of “clarity and vigor,” these chapters — reminiscent of college course
descriptions — go down like a Wasa cracker.

Guidance in the observation of detail should come early. Have each student
describe, for example, the similarities and differences of two houses near
the classroom (affluent teachers have been known to pass out tokens for
transportation to distant houses), and then assign to classmates X, Y, and Z
the task of rewriting the descriptions by A, B, and C for greater accuracy
and detail. For fairness and other advantages, a further step adapted from
interactive core programs would have the descriptions and evaluations further evaluated in class discussion.”

Just reading about it makes me want to bolt to the nearest registrar’s office and hand in a drop slip. Imagine having to actually perform the
assignment.

Toward the end of the book, Woodring takes time out to sing the praises of
the core program at Columbia College, a series of mandatory courses covering seminal humanities texts spreading from Homer to Camus. This program became
the subject of controversy first during the canon debates, over the number of
female and non-white authors on their syllabuses, then later as featured in David Denby’s 1996 “Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World,” in which Denby — then a reviewer for New York magazine — returned to Columbia to read great books and muse about the culture wars.

Yet for Woodring, the core seems to be about a more enlightened form of elbow-rubbing. “A Manhattan or Albany lawyer,” he states, “who hears another in the firm allude to idols of the cave with reference simultaneously to Bacon and Plato recognizes a fellow graduate of Columbia College.” Sure: They’re at the water cooler. They exchange a couple of secret handshakes and a laugh about
“The Golden Ass.” Meanwhile the rest of us can’t get a cup of water without
being subjected to their insufferable erudition. I don’t mean to suggest to that the world wouldn’t be a better place if all college graduates had, as
Woodring puts it, “read carefully under tutelage the same epics, dramas, satires, and philosophic and political essays,” but rather to illustrate
how easily literariness morphs into pretension.

What is strangest about this book is that while cobbling such a passionate
argument for a new inclusive spirit in literary studies, Woodring has written a book with such obviously limited appeal. Even he himself says in
the introduction that the book would address issues most pertinent to those whom “might choose to attend an annual meeting of the Modern Language
Association.” Choose to go to the MLA conference? I didn’t know people did that.

And yet, I hesitate to dismiss the book out of hand. No one can doubt that he has thought an awful lot about the meaning of literature. And many of his conclusions and suggestions are apt and admirable — though in the end, I wonder what they add to the debate.

Jose Klein is a writer living in Portland, Ore.

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