Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Caroline from the Carolinas Works In An English Department. And She Tells Phillie from the Plains To Eat Shit.

A number of English proffies wrote to us about Phillie's recent skewering post. We weren't surprised by this. English proffies love to write. Hey, wait a minute, some of our best friends teach English. Wait, that reminds us. Do you know how to get an English Ph.D. out of your house? Pay him for the pizza. No, that's really bad. We apologize. Pretend Phillie told you that joke.


I am so tired of defending myself and my profession from the assumption, so thoroughly demonstrated by Phillie, that the majority of English Departments and professors are "literary wonks who occasionally do a bad amateur-night impression of teaching" or "soft-headed weirdos who'd rather 'commune' with their students than teach them anything." Sure, Phillie, lamely defends himself against generalizing (it's not "universal"), and then goes on to generalize and stereotype all the same: "at every school I've been to, this kind of activity appears to be as good a formula for advancing in the discipline as, you know, actual pedagogy." If "every school" you've been to uses this as criteria, Phillie, I shudder to think of the quality of the English departments or academic standards of the schools by which you've been trained.

As a graduate student and soon-to-be-professor of English literature, I have to defend myself constantly against the assumption that my field requires no knowledge base or pedagogical training. I constantly have to work against student beliefs that all "feelings" are valid as arguments and interpretations, that everything said is okay because the student feels strongly about it, that writing cannot be judged because it is "personal," and that there is no right answer because everything in English is "subjective." Students challenge the interpretation of texts, believing it to be an exercise in "like/don't like" (or the more reprehensible "this totally reminds me of the time I felt/experienced..." response), and I have to provide them with the necessary analytical tools required to participate in the processes of interpretation. Furthermore, I must use my pedagogical skills to reveal, in appropriate doses, the massive body of historical and critical information which undergirds our interpretations of texts. Thus, it is my job to literally teach students to read, to think, and to argue. This is not easy, and it requires a great amount of skill and patience. Studying English is not about finger-painting, singing songs, and sharing feelings (and a good hug/cry) over a cup of tea, though learning how to interpret and analyze can be an illuminating process that allows students to develop new insights into the self as a human being and a learner.

I strongly question Phillie's assertion about experiences with professors who "know less than nothing about philosophy [but] try to explain it to their students nonetheless, using - God help us - Derrida and Foucault." With the massive range of philosophers, theorists, and scholars who contribute (or have contributed) to the field of English today, it would indeed be a poor English professor who relied on only two theorists to explain a different field than that in which she/he teaches. However, the majority of the English professors I know and work with are widely read in critical theory of a variety of fields. Not only is critical theory a necessary part of English research, but professors often effectively bring it into the classroom as part of the method of teaching students how to interpret and analyze texts. You may not agree with every professor's choice nor every theorist, but exposure to theorists is important to every student's experience. Perhaps Phillie hasn't been in an English department since the 1980s?

Unfairly, as an English instructor I also have to work against the outside assumption that I want to be treated as a best friend, day counselor, psychologist, or substitute mother. My classes are strictly focused on the literature at hand, though we may discuss larger human issues that are addressed in the text. My class sizes may lend themselves to slightly more intimacy than a 500 person math lecture. And it is worth noting that the discussion of human issues makes my students think of themselves, each other, and even the professor as human! Thus, my office hours may occasionally be the scene of personal confidences or an attempt by the student to extend our professional student-teacher relationship into a more personal one. I care about my students (I really do!), and I enjoy getting to know them as people. But I, like the majority of my colleagues, maintain healthy sense of boundaries with them. I direct those who need counseling to Wellness Services, I do not invite students to socialize with me outside of appropriate boundaries, and I do not share private information about my own life. However, and this is an anecdotal rebuttal at best, I have yet to hear that any of my graduate student friends in math or science departments have to take such careful steps against student overtures, and none have ever received the confidences offered in office hours that my English colleagues have experienced.

Furthermore, I have encountered numerous non-humanities professors who are as equally ill-equipped in the classroom as any English professor who "communes" with students. Professors in many fields are hired purely because of their research skills. Many of them are never trained how to teach their subject effectively. Many of them, in fact, do not value teaching as part of their careers, and some openly avoid teaching or acknowledge it as a secondary aspect to their university positions. The personality type of the professor who bonds with students inappropriately may appear in any department anywhere, though anecdotal evidence might point disproportionately to humanities and English departments because it is the nature of humanities departments to discuss human issues. However, I'd suggest Phillie and others look at individuals rather than stereotyping and not confuse the subject with an inability to teach it or teach well.