Literary scholars fight to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world

By Scott Kaufman
Wednesday, April 9, 2014 8:17 EDT
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A conflict between older, mostly Ivy League-trained literature professors and younger, largely state-school-trained faculty promises to transform the way that college students are taught to write at universities.

In Monday’s edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Director of College Writing at Emory University, Marc Bousquet, attacked supporters of “traditional” literary studies who, he claimed, are “engaged in a backlash discourse” against resurgent and new disciplines, foremost among them composition, rhetoric, and the digital humanities. Such programs emphasize the need to teach students how to navigate the increasingly digital world in which they live over the teaching of “the classics.”

The decision to forgo teaching literature in writing classes has angered many older, traditionally trained professors who believe that the only kind of literacy that matters involves a careful examination, for example, of Shakespeare’s poetry. The younger generation of scholars insist that digital literacy — a fluency with the tools and mediums in which they will spend their lives writing — is equally important, and they have tried to integrate the teaching of it into writing classrooms.

Their efforts have not been appreciated.

Bousquet called the response of these older, traditional scholars a “moral panic,” by which he meant a “discourse [that] involves real or perceived threats to a group identified with some aspect of the dominant social order — such as literature faculty members facing the declining cultural capital of their work.” Those in the throes of a “moral panic” react “with a disproportionate degree of hostility and resentment, [generating] scapegoats and fake solutions intended to maintain its power and influence in the status quo.”

In writing programs, this “moral panic” manifests itself in the form of long-tenured professors who specialize in traditional areas of study — Milton experts, Shakespeare scholars, etc. — who disdain the research of younger scholars working in “fields specializing in the conditions of textual production at a moment when textual production is undergoing the greatest shift since Gutenberg,” such as composition, rhetoric and the digital humanities.

As Bousquet wrote, “I’ve had innumerable conversations with otherwise rational but anxious people who consider those involved in the renaissance of comp-rhet or digital publication as dullards not good enough to read poetry, as lowbrow opportunists, or — worse — as saintly philanthropists who ‘should be appreciated for their love of teaching first-year writing.’”

These young scholars of digital rhetoric and composition are seen, as one department administration Bousquet talked to, as “people who hate literature, who want to come here and tear everything down.”

According to Bousquet, this “moral panic” only exists in “programs that have had enough institutional power to keep themselves insulated from epochal change, the handful of graduate programs that have retained enough prestige and maintained their old-boy network sufficiently to keep placing most of their students.”

Such “lit-only” programs exist, at this point, almost exclusively in Ivy League institutions like Harvard and Yale. However, because of the “Ivy bias” that pervades academic hiring practices — job candidates hailing from Ivy League schools are preferred over applicants from equally, if not more, prestigious state schools — the faculty in many departments at so-called “lesser” institutions are equally panicked by what they perceive the diminished amount of respect accorded their scholarly work.

Moreover, they are in a position to punish young scholars interested in careers in rhetoric, composition, comparative media studies, and digital publication by not hiring them in the first place, or — if forced to hire them — by denying them promotions, grants, sabbaticals, or tenure.

Bousquet spoke to Raw Story about one aspect of his argument that he didn’t address in the Chronicle piece: the effect that these so-called “traditionalist” positions have on teaching undergraduates how to write.

“One thing I wanted to discuss in the piece is the impact on undergraduates,” Bousquet told Raw Story.

“When major universities don’t have [rhetoric and composition] research scholars, they don’t have vertical writing programs with sophisticated courses in composing digital presentations, creating digital media, or contemporary technologies of publication and communication. They focus on the first year, and they do that badly, using teaching techniques and writing genres developed in the nineteenth century.”

More poorly treated still are the increasing number of students for whom English is their second language (ESL). “Forcing those [ESL] students into classes taught by first-time teachers featuring literature and literary theory is criminally bad practice,” he added, before noting that “as literary study fights a rear-guard action for relevance, it has become complicit with its own set of bad actors, especially cultural conservatives, activist arts foundations, and the like.”

Note: For a number of years, the author of this article edited its subject for an online literary journal called The Valve.

Scott Kaufman
Scott Kaufman
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
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