Those Who Can Do: Rewriting the History of Literary Studies from Inside the Classroom

Historians in the News
tags: teaching, literature, education history

Dennis M. Hogan is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Brown University. His writing has appeared in Full Stop, the Chronicle of Higher Education, FabrikzeitungLos Angeles Review of Books and The Forge

The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study by Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan. University of Chicago Press, 320 pages.


IT IS A TRUISM that graduate school does not really prepare you to teach. Ask almost anyone with a PhD about their first teaching experience, and most will tell a story that involves being thrown directly into the classroom in the very first weeks of the semester. Almost everyone seems to adapt eventually, but it is nearly impossible to prepare for just how much work teaching entails. It is not just a matter of choosing material, or preparing lessons, or the days and weekends lost to grading. Rather, it’s that teaching is a kind of performance requiring near-total presence and concentration. Teaching a class is like playing a concert or a sports game in this way. You prepare as much as you possibly can, you control as many elements as you can control, then you go out there, and what happens, happens. Over this past year, the pandemic has only intensified this effect, adding another set of requirements and challenges for instructors, who have had to face the dangers of possible infection or learn to navigate new technological platforms and command the attention of a virtual room of students who, like many teachers themselves, have been experiencing the most disruptive eighteen months of their lives.

Given that teaching occupies so much of a professor’s existence, and that it is the work most people associate with academia, it is surprising that it seems to occupy so little of the story that academic disciplines tell about themselves. Throughout the profession, and even at the most prestigious universities where sabbaticals, course relief, and funding grants are most generous, academics devote an enormous amount of time to their teaching practice: teaching takes a great deal of time to do well, and not that much less time to do badly. Yet the devaluation of teaching is in evidence across the academy, and many academics think of research as their true calling, while teaching pays the bills. The widespread (if rarely explicitly stated) prejudice against teaching is reflected in hierarchy of prestige and compensation, as tenured and tenure-track faculty now make up only 25 percent of university teachers but account for a disproportionate amount of the published research. But if 25 percent of the profession is engaged in the research that makes knowledge, what are the rest of us doing? According to one model, this tiny elite constitutes the intellectual core, while the bulk of teachers merely disseminate the luminaries’ best ideas and theories. Yet such a view underestimates how much of the work of teaching drives intellectual innovation, and how it has repeatedly revolutionized research as well.

Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s new book, The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study, aims to correct the longstanding underestimation of teaching as a major part of the intellectual life of the professor. At the same time, it upends binaries between formalism and historicism, teaching and research, and scholars and critics that have long dominated our accounts of how the discipline of literary studies has evolved. Buurma and Heffernan succeed admirably in disproving the schematic that pits scholars against critics and formalists against historicists while reducing most classroom teachers to mere handmaids of some greater intellect’s brilliant theory. The authors pull episodes from some elite departments like Berkeley, Chicago, and Yale, but mainly they cast a much wider net, examining early British higher education for women, interwar extension schools for working class men, HBCUs in the Jim Crow south, and a California community college in the early days of Indigenous Studies. Through this series of case studies, they argue that scholars of literature and historians of literary studies alike have largely ignored teaching as a site of practice and innovation, and, crucially, that a more accurate assessment of how professors have taught literature across the full scope of institutions of higher education may help point the way forward for a discipline in crisis.

The book’s publication comes as polemical accounts of the sorry state of college literary study are everywhere. Flagging enrollments mean deep department cuts, shrinking budgets, and vanishing majors as students flock to the presumably more remunerative STEM fields. Some within the profession have argued that the profession itself is to blame: according to this view, sometime in the ’70s, English departments stopped teaching the great books that comprise the literary canon and started devoting themselves to increasingly orthogonal pursuits. First came critical theory. Literary studies no longer practiced the exegesis of masterworks; instead, the critic displaced the author as primary creator, and the critical text became the primary text for whose creation the literary object served as a mere pretext (or is that pre/text?). Literature itself receded into the background when everything from Hamlet to the list of ingredients on the side of a soup can was equally available to critical theorization.

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