Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Can we still use imagination to study literature?

I have come to the conclusion that nothing does more to discourage the use of the imagination than being an English academic.  It really is all rather depressing.  My life seems to be dedicated to finding new ways of either quantifying or negating the disciplinary distinctiveness of the study of literature in the face of fixed prejudices about its value.   Interestingly enough, some of the most hysterical voices calling for the elimination of the arts and humanities in Universities are those who have themselves made themselves a nicely lucrative living from them: Philosopher Alain de Botton arguing on the BBC’s Daily Politics show that the humanities (including Philosophy) should not be taught in Universities because they are not “utilitarian” enough, or the deliciously loony poet V.S. Naipaul arguing that Universities should only interest themselves in "measurable truth".

In writing about the general uselessness of the Humanities for the Wall Street Journal, de Botton comments that “university professors in the humanities tend to get unproductively upset when asked to explain the importance of what they do”.  He puts this down to such academics not really being able to answer the question – but in truth it is probably because they are simply fed up of being asked it all the time.  It is rather like the few months after you have your first child, and you seem to spend every waking moment being asked ‘how’s parenthood treating you’?  Eventually you crack and yell ‘I’m getting no sleep and I don’t really know if I’m doing it right!!’

Hmm.  Maybe being a parent has no utilitarian value?

De Botton seems to think that technical and scientific academics have no problems justifying themselves – although one has to wonder whether those scientists exploring the reasons why the sun shines might not experience at least some existential doubt when asked about the immediate practical applications of their findings in the workplace.  Quantum physicists seem to be spending time enthusing about dark matter and telling us that everything we know is wrong, which is fascinating but not anything more than postmodern theory has already said, and frankly neither has helped me contribute more effectively to society.

In fact, it is hard to imagine many people who could easily and confidently respond to incessant questioning about how their jobs are making the world a better place .  As an English lecturer, I see the point of my job as helping people learn about themselves and the world around them, and to make them more employable.  Whether the former is a benefit to either my students or to society is largely subjective, and in terms of the latter I have yet to see any convincing statistics to prove that an English degree is significantly worse than any other degree (although there is plenty to suggest that ‘a degree’ increases employability).  Indeed, a British Academy report suggests that a Humanities degree not only does a pretty good job at getting people employed, but makes "key (and as yet underappreciated) contributions to the economy".  An HEA report does suggests that English graduates tend after a few years to be less satisfied with their jobs, but this is because their degree qualifies them for such a wide range of employment sectors they are simply more likely to be in a job which they did not envisage.  An English graduate who doesn’t manage to make a career as a writer can still become a pretty good teacher.  A graduate of biomechanical engineering might struggle to find such a range of avenues for employment should their first choice prove unsuccessful.

All of this though, is – if you’ll excuse the pun – a little academic.  Whatever I might think the purpose of my job is ultimately I am being employed by people who see my job as providing a service for which they can be paid.  We live in a world now where ‘utilitarianism’ is defined in terms of the profit motives of classic capitalism – and few academic institutions can afford to be so idealistic as to think they exist to make the world a better place.  If the government moves funding away from the Arts and into the Sciences, then that’s where the Universities will follow – and when (as is inevitable) a new government arrives it will signal it’s distinctiveness from the last by moving funding into new areas again, and again the Universities will follow.

The truth is then, that most of us in education are probably a little like new parents – tired, frustrated and carrying on more in hope than expectation that we are doing the right thing.  After all, there probably isn’t a single degree anywhere in the world that carries half the same benefit as having parents rich enough to send you to Eton or (like de Botton) Harrow, and whether you are able to forge a successful or socially beneficial career from a working class background is probably as much down to chance than anything else, whether your degree is in English or in Biomechanics.

But here I am anyway, carrying on more in the hope that my students will ultimately be glad to have studied the courses I teach. The hope is a reasonable one because I wouldn’t teach anything I thought would have no value for them, and I don’t feel that my hope should be any less than someone teaching a science subject.  The prejudices and incessant questioning of the validity of the humanities though, is draining a good chunk of life from it all though.  I seem to spend so many hours trying to find ways of focusing on the transferable skills of English studies, or on introducing ideas of empiricism to textual analysis.  This can often feel like I am trying to engineer out the ‘Englishness’ of the subject.  I am designing modules which focus on ‘interdisciplinariness’ not just because (as I believe) it is a more engaging and fruitful approach to the subject, but also to disguise the Englishness of the subject and to make it sound less 'arty'.

There is an implicit feeling that the methodologies of textual or historical analysis are always be subservient to those of the social sciences (try finding a textbook on research methods which doesn't assume your research is either qualitative or quantitative).  Yes, it is true that there are strong correlations between the qualitative methods of discourse analysis and those of textual analysis.  However what has traditionally made them different is the instinctive and the archival components: The need to feel your way into the tone of the text, to pick up the nuances and tiny sub-texts implied by using this word rather than that word, and to scrupulously research archival texts for cross-references.  The identification of thematic patterns within a text is not simply the ability to highlight synonyms in MAXQDA or SPSS, but a reliance on an ability to respond intuitively and empathetically to a text, a belief, a character or to a situation.  Isn’t that a useful life skill?

At the moment, nobody else seems to think so, which leaves me wary of talking in such idealistic terms about the texts I teach.  I talk more about analysis than about tone.  I don’t invite students to ‘imagine’ themselves in a text, and if they do I feel obliged to frown in mild disapproval and their reversion to subjectivity (‘this is an academic subject’ I say, ‘we are interested more in the construction of logical argument on the basis of the evidence than on unsubstantiated instinct’).  I cannot even allow myself the luxury of imagination in my own thinking.  The other week I caught myself building towards an argument that the characters of Tennessee Williams represent the fragility of idealism and the suffocation of Romanticism.

Why did it feel like I was just about to say something inappropriate?  Why did I feel the need to shift into an argument about the characters of Tennessee Williams as a reflection of the potential neuroses which develop where there exists a conflict between social change and first / second-stage socialization?  How far removed have we become from Shelly's Romantic ideal that "reason is to the imagination as the instrument is to the agent"?

Or maybe I'm just having a bad week, and like a grumpy old fart assuming things were simply better in 'my day'.

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