Monthly Archives: August 2011

Multiculturalism is not the boogeyman

I have better things to be doing, and Joseph Epstein’s review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel, published Saturday in the Wall Street Journal, doesn’t really deserve a second look, but there’s so much wrong with this piece that I couldn’t let it pass. Epstein, who Wikipedia tells me was a lecturer at Northwestern from 1974 to 2002 and a former editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s magazine The American Scholar, takes issue with the recently published Cambridge volume for marking American literature’s descent into irrelevance, brought on by multiculturalism, represented somewhat puzzlingly in Epstein’s view by John Updike, Phillip Roth, and Norman Mailer.

The problem with The Cambridge History of the American Novel, Epstein says (aside from the academic jargon, at which Epstein takes a few none-too-original swipes), is that, “‘The Cambridge History of the American Novel’ could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.” Ah, yes, that time-honored, longstanding distinction between high and low culture that has informed the study of English literature for all of, say, 130 years. In fact, the categories of high- low- and middlebrow-culture emerged at approximately the same time as the English department as we know it today–the end of the nineteenth century, when anxious white dudes were worried, as is Epstein, about “barbarians” flooding the gates. The “centurions of high culture” whose disappearance Epstein laments were guarding the gates against literature written by and appealing to people unlike themselves. They did so by assigning value to certain kinds of writing (conveniently, the writing produced by other middle-class white dudes), while denigrating other modes (sentimentalism, for instance–conveniently, the kind of writing produced by “scribbling women”).

But that, I’d imagine, is more of that “literary history” that Epstein disdains because it leaves out “why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others.” The study of literature, Epstein says, should be about what is good and why, not about that multiculturalism crap that lets people teach whichever novels they want, even if Epstein hasn’t heard of them. “Multiculturalism,” he says, “which assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures, irrespective of the quality of those works, finished off the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction whose linchpin was seriousness.”

Seriousness–now that’s an easily-agreed upon way to value literature. I mean, who can disagree that Melville was serious? But what about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? That seems like pretty serious business to me. Epstein’s examples of unserious literature are the aforementioned Roth, Mailer, and Updike, whom he calls “sex-obsessed.” No argument from me there, and Roth might not be my favorite twentieth-century author, but I wouldn’t call The Human Stain or American Pastoral lacking in seriousness.

Despite his jabs at “multiculturalism” (is anyone still using that word, anyway?), Epstein manages to make it through the entire review of a book that includes chapter after chapter on literature by non-white writers without mentioning a single non-white author. “Multiculturalism” may be the problem, but Epstein doesn’t single out any “multicultural” authors who fail to live up to his high culture standards of seriousness. He may not think Roth, Mailer, and Updike will have staying power, but he has no comment on Morrison, Ellison or Wright. Epstein’s nomination for best writers of the twentieth century? Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser.

As I said, the review doesn’t really deserve the attention I’m giving it. But there are scores of comments cheering Epstein on, lamenting the fact that English departments teach things like Asian American literature and nineteenth century experimental writing, rather than “the classics” like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton (ETA: As if English departments aren’t also teaching Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton. It’s not like students are unable to take classes on Shakespeare because it’s all Aniza Yezierska and Jessie Fauset, all the time). All of this is predicated on the idea that the study of English is some sort of stable, longstanding institution that has undergone disastrous change in the last twenty or thirty years. The fact is, though, that the English department is the product of the late nineteenth century, and the study of American literature the product of the early- to mid-twentieth century. What, who, and why we study literature has been in flux for that entire time.

Epstein’s right about one thing: in today’s academic and political climate, English departments need to make a stronger case for the relevance of literary study and the English major. But the way to make that case is not through some conservative nostalgic fantasy about the good old days when we studied serious literature (by white people). Instead, we need to talk more about the value of exposing students to the diversity of American writing and a variety of critical approaches. Doing so challenges them to rethink and evaluate their own ideas and to consider ways other people in other times have appreciated literature (because, Epstein’s insistence on the universality of literary value notwithstanding, there are as many ways to appreciate and value literature as there are ways to write it).

Course management

I’m in the process of getting things in order for my fall class. The syllabus is pretty much done, and I’m putting off writing the assignments for as long as possible, so that leaves scanning readings and setting up the website to help me procrastinate the hard work of assignment writing.

In past years, I’ve relied exclusively on Blackboard to manage my course. As tools go, it’s pretty dreadful. Visually, it’s stuck in 1999. Customization options are limited and difficult to figure out. It’s slow and glitchy and bloated. But it’s the official university course management system, my students generally know how to use it, and it’s a secure, FERPA-compliant option for managing and distributing grades. Furthermore, the classes I’ve taught have been required introductory courses with high reading or writing loads, and I haven’t wanted to impose a technological component with a potential learning curve on top of that work. Though we like to imagine that our students are digital natives who are well-versed in blogs and wikis and all forms of social media, it’s been my experience that students often have difficulty with new applications. Troubleshooting their problems takes time and effort that I’d prefer to spend on issues more closely related to course content.

But this semester I’ll be teaching an introductory course for English majors, and I feel a bit more comfortable asking my students to try potentially new or unfamiliar tools. I want to encourage students to engage with each others’ ideas as they read and work on assignments outside of class. I’m also planning an annotated bibliography assignment that will create a common pool of sources for students’ research papers, and I need a tool for sharing those bibliographies.

Blackboard has recently added both blogs and wikis to the available tools, and I was initially optimistic that I might continue to hobble along with a flawed but easily-accessible tool. After actually investigating the wiki and blog features, though, I realized they wouldn’t cut it. The wiki doesn’t let me create folders or customize much of anything. Same goes for the blog. In fact, I think they have less functionality than the discussion board feature, if that’s possible.

My preference would be to create my own course website on university-hosted web space, but because I don’t staff in UT’s digital writing lab (I work at the Undergraduate Writing Center instead), I don’t have access to a convenient place to host a course site. I considered setting up a free blog with wordpress.com and closing it to public readers, but something about that felt insufficiently official. I like the way the format of a blog encourages ephemeral, changing content and allows me to post connections to readings and class discussions that might not be significant enough to mention in class. But that dynamic quality, in which entries are constantly receding from the front of the page, might make it difficult to locate resources students wanted to return to again and again, like bibliographies and reading responses. I want students to be able to add and comment on content, but I also want them to be able to easily navigate the different resources they are creating.

Having decided I want to emphasize collaboration, navigability, and content building over the potential for more informal discussion that a blog can bring, the best option seems to be a wiki. Unlike Blackboard, which is awash in confusing features and houses course pages for every class a student is taking, a wiki is clearly devoted to specific needs of a specific course, in this case collaborating on reading responses and research. My hope is that having a specific tool devoted to these activities will communicate their importance.

I’ve set up a wiki with PBworks, which somehow seems a bit more legitimate than a wordpress blog, even though they’re both external, non-academic sites. I’ll still need to use Blackboard to store readings and assignments, as well as to distribute grades, but I’m hoping to shift much of the day-to-day focus to the wiki. We’ll see how it works.