Monday, November 01, 2010

GS: then and now

There are a lot of things about grad school that are different now than they were in 1985, the last time I did this.  For one thing, it is now a somewhat touchy issue to call a professor by their first name.  Back in the 80s, we were still rebelling against the "old way" of doing things, and professors, almost every single one I had from freshman year up through 2nd year of grad school, wanted to be called by their first name.  Some would even be slightly offended if you called them "Professor Allen" or "Dr. Smith" or whatever.  No more.  As grad students, we are given some leeway, and probably me especially since I'm older than most of my profs, but in general, we are much more formal these days.

And then there's the whole research thing.  "Back in my day" (she says, looking smug and disdainful as she tilts her chair back on two legs and sticks her thumbs in her pockets), we were old school.  We went to the library and pulled books off the shelves, including the "Reader's Guide."  Said guide would allow you to look up scholarly articles that had been published on your subject.  You could look through summary volumes for older stuff that collected several years at once, and for more recent stuff, you pulled each monthly volume individually off the shelf and looked up your topic.  And then you would go and either pull the bound archived journals off the shelf, or (I shiver with horror to remember it) you would go to the microfiche reader and succumb to an instant headache as you watched the pages whizzing past until you found your article.  It sucked.  This is one thing that is clearly, unambiguously better now.  Now, you sit at home and point your browser to the university library website, or the MLA site, or one of several other sites, enter your search terms, and instantly have your list of articles sitting in front of you.  And more often than not, you can click on the article, and the full text of it will pop up right there on the screen in front of you.  No lie.  It is totally, awesomely amazing. 

Which makes me laugh at myself retroactively for last year.  You have to remember that for almost twenty years now I have lived in a small town, which has a great library manned by dedicated, valiant librarians but it is still a small town library.  I.e., the chances of it a) having the book you want and b) having it checked in and on the shelf, are pretty slim.  So the first time I walked into the U library last fall, used one of the computer terminals to check the catalog for the topic of the first paper I needed to research (which was on Dante), descended into the bowels of the library, and stood in front of about eight shelves full of books on the Inferno, I got teary-eyed.  Not kidding.  I also was shocked and a bit smug to see that all the books were still there, even though all 26 of us in the class were writing on the same topic.  I assumed I was the only one who cared enough to investigate critical sources for a paper that -- strictly speaking-- didn't require it.  Finally, a year later, I figured out that no, it wasn't that I cared more, it was just that all the other students were sitting at home in the comfort of their jammies, glass of wine in hand, doing more and better research on their laptop.  Silly me.

But perhaps the biggest difference of all is the entire range and tone of what we're studying.  Back in the 80s, we were reading "literature":  poetry, stories, novels and plays.  There was some ambiguity about what constituted "literature"-- I remember talking about "found" poetry, which is when you find an unexpectedly lovely or resonant use of words in a newspaper article or a subway billboard or wherever-- but for the most part, we were reading works that had "stood the test of time."  One professor defined capital-A Art as anything that is created with the intent of producing art (he was speaking of visual art, but it would apply equally well to literary art). Which would leave out things like advertising copy, newspaper articles, journals and diaries.  Those were things that historians studied, not lit majors. 

But like pretty damn near everything, now we see Art as not its own thing, but as a cultural construct.  Meaning that the way certain objects or texts have come to be considered Art says more about the prejudices of the time than any innate value of the object.  Back in the middle of the twentieth century, The Scarlet Letter was considered to be Art while Uncle Tom's Cabin was considered to be a popular novel of lesser value, in large part because a well-educated white man wrote Scarlet Letter--making it important and weighty-- and a sentimental female wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin --making it negligible and not worth reading (went this type of thinking, I'm not necessarily endorsing it here, just describing).  I know I've used this comparison before, but it's such a good one-- two novels published two years apart, one considered to be one of the most important novels of American literary history, the other--far more influential at the time--deserving maybe a line or two in the history books, but not valued as a work of, ahem, Art.  And full disclosure:  I've read Scarlet Letter--of course, all US English majors have-- but I've never read Uncle Tom's Cabin

The issues are clear, and the point is valid.  Women of the time weren't allowed to have the kind of education that Hawthorne had.  Harriet Beecher Stowe was far from uneducated, but Bowdoin College, Hawthorne's alma mater, didn't accept women until 1971.   Yes, 1971, over a hundred years too late for Harriet to have received the same education.  So, the argument goes, how could she possibly have produced a work that met the same standards for intellectual rigor as Hawthorne's?  And she didn't.  But is it fair to judge her work by the same standards we judge Scarlet Letter?  Of course not, to the historian.  As historical artifacts, signs of their times, they are of equal worth.  It's only when you get into the tricky area of defining what is Art that you get into questions of worth.

There was a version of this argument going on when I was in grad school before in a somewhat different way.  As US students of English literature, the history of specifically American Lit was obviously of some importance to us.  But the early stuff-- James Fenimore Cooper, for example-- just isn't very good.  As works of art, British lit of the same time period far outshines American lit.  But if you're a student of American lit, that's where you have to start.  You read Cooper because of his importance in the sequence of American literary history, not because of the intrinsic value of The Deerslayer.  

I am so totally boring myself here.  I can't even remember where I was going.  I think it had something to do with how literary studies are getting to the point where they will disappear and become cultural studies, because it is no longer OK to make judgments about what is worth reading and what isn't.  So you end up studying anything and everything that is a part of culture rather than making distinctions about what "deserves" to be studied and what doesn't.  And then I was going to gripe about that, because I like being a literary snob.  I don't want to read Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Or the Deerslayer. (I've made it through all my years without ever having read either one, so that is possibly unfair).  But I've bored myself to death and lost interest.  ADD strikes again.


  1. Formality addressing the faculty may have more to do with location than the times. I just visited Michigan State University looking into the Ph.D. program in Writing and Rhetoric and my sense was that most faculty expected to be treated as colleagues (first name).

    What you say about not wanting to read Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Deerslayer is interesting. (I read 4 of Cooper's books back when I was reading my way through the card game "authors.") I aspire to writing a book like Beecher-Stowe's which actually changes lives rather than changing the face of literature.

    That is, ultimately, why my return to grad school won't be in English or Literature. Because it seems to me that the primary requirement of modern literature is that it assert through plot and characters that life has no meaning. Literature, of course, asserts this in beautiful language rich with image.

  2. You could be right about the names/region thing. After I published this, I started remembering profs at the midwest school we both attended that preferred titles, while on the west coast, they insisted on first names. Although then there you were at MSU. Who knows.

    I guess I want it all. We've talked about this before-- both of us being disgusted with the nihilist, defeatist attitude that is prevalent in nearly all fiction that is considered "literary" in the past twenty years or so. But I want both. I want it to be beautifully written and vibrant. Which is maybe why I keep reading old stuff instead of current literary fiction, which often bores me to tears. But I think it might be changing some-- there is more and more ethnic and international fiction on the literary fiction shelves, which is often both. riffing here. Haven't really thought this through.

    But I do understand why you'd want to do your PhD in something besides lit. I may be getting there myself (if I do a PhD at all).

  3. and p.s. I have to laugh at myself that I said the library was "manned" by valiant librarians when they're all women. *blush* oops.