Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Verlyn Klinkenborg on the English major

Verlyn Klinkenborg on the decline and fall of the English major:

Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.

They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.
I like that phrase — “ventriloquistic syntax.” Making the right noises, so to speak, is one way to make it through the English major. In Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), Stanley Fish has a quintessential description of how it might be done:
A student of mine recently demonstrated this knowledge when, with an air of giving away a trade secret, she confided that she could go into any classroom, no matter what the subject of the course, and win approval for running one of a number of well-defined interpretive routines: she could view the assigned text as an instance of the tension between nature and culture; she could look in the text for evidence of large mythological oppositions; she could argue that the true subject of the text was its own composition, or that in the guise of fashioning a narrative the speaker was fragmenting and displacing his own anxieties and fears.
The cynicism that underwrites this description — performing in codified ways, whatever the object of inquiry, so as to “win approval” — makes me despair. What’s missing is an acknowledgement that works of the imagination challenge our ability to think about them, that they are things to live with, struggle with, and have reverence for. They are not unsuspecting saps on which to run our routines, whatever approval those routines might win.

It’s no fun being a ventriloquist’s dummy. You spend a lot of time stuck in a suitcase, where it’s awfully hard to breathe. There’s the real unsuspecting sap.

Other posts with Verlyn Klinkenborg
On e-reading
On “the social value of reading”
On writing

[Imagine a musician whose thinking about performance resembled Fish’s student’s thinking about interpretation. Who would want to listen?]

comments: 2

stefan said...

In an essay called "Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts," William Perry relates Alfred North Whitehead's response to a (non-existent?) student who visits to confess that he does not deserve the grade his essay was awarded. It was mostly B-S, the students said sheepishly. Whitehead supposedly replied, "yes, sir, what you wrote is nonsense, utter nonsense. But ah! Sir! It is the right kind of nonsense!" I worry that sometimes I'm so grateful for the "right kind of nonsense" that I miss the guy with his arm up the back of that dummy's shirt. (I am already missing Kinkenborg in the paper, so thanks for these posts.)

Michael Leddy said...

I know that “English” involves particular ways of talking and writing about texts, but I sigh when those ways become a matter of critical clichés.

I didn’t realize that I’d waited until well past the end of Klinkenborg’s tenure at the Times to write this post (which I was meaning to write for many months). I hadn’t realized (though I should have) that the end of “The Rural Life” was the end of K’s work with the paper.