Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tossed salads and scrambled responses to the CCOA question

I've been following the comments to this post, and reposting the ones Blogger seems to eat, but had not had time to respond, on account of being in London, where men have historically been especially Great and White, then back in Paris, under the blog-inhibiting influence of running around with my mother, having an especially bad cold, and now, back in the dorm, the school's decision to pick now as the moment to demolish the empty rooms that oh just happen to be next to mine. Plans to sleep off the rest of this rhume are off, and I'm now wondering where is a good place to sleep at a French library. I think less in terms of long-term damage to my hearing and whatever may come of having inhaled whatever is in the pinkish dust, and more in terms of think-of-how-great-it-is-to-be-in-Paris, think-of-how-great-it-is-to-be-in-Paris...

So, my addled attempt at responses, below:

-I asked: "How is one college student face-to-face with Mill an education?"

Withywindle answered: "Umm ... didn’t you go to U Chicago? I think they have an answer to that question."

Umm, indeed. I did go to UChicago, where I read and enjoyed Mill, and where I encountered the one college student face-to-face with Great Book method. It has its plusses and minuses, which is why, it bears mentioning, UChicago does not exclusively use that method, even in undergraduate education. (For that, there's St. John's.) The student-and-book approach is wonderful in many ways, for college freshman especially. It's a way of letting students know that big, famous books that might have seemed dry or intimidating are actually texts that anyone capable of reading English can grapple with and learn from. And then there's the fun fact of being someone who read Mill in college, with the class and cultural-capital implications that entails. For someone who is not going to specialize in Classics or Political Theory, the rest of college is going to cover territory significantly less Great, but all for the best. Which, Withywindle, gets at the distinction you made between undergraduate education and research. Undergraduate education is, ideally, a progression, from Here Are Great Books, Go Think Critically to specialization of some kind, which is to say, no more sitting in a room with a decontextualized copy of Mill. Specialization for a college junior or senior in a liberal-arts setting is not worlds away from academic research, or else how would it occur to anyone to go to grad school in the first place? It's not that a college student has, by junior year, run out of Great Works to contemplate. It's that a (humanities/social sciences) student will generally get more out of college if the skills learned in the first couple of years are applied to something the student is particularly interested in. That topic may end up being Great Books but more specialized, or it might mean the analysis of minor/mediocre literature.

-The discussion here has, in the time I've been blog-neglectful, meandered into one about what constitutes a Great Book, whether one must wait 50, 100, or 0 years to make such an assessment. The value of a work's staying power is a fine debate to have, but I'm not sure how relevant it is to the CCOA question. The question being, after all, not whether it is possible to assess literary merit (I promise that even profs miles to the left of Withywindle think it is), not whether a core curriculum that provides a common knowledge base to those with a liberal arts education is valuable (again, find me the lefty prof who believes Glamour is an acceptable substitute for Adam Smith), but a) whether Great Books must form the whole of the college experience, at least the humanities/social sciences courses, and b) whether, once we've granted the utmost importance of providing college students only with the Greatest of the Great, we should set terms on the definition of Greatness that make it unlikely any PC slips in. (Is there anything more CCOA than criticizing Toni Morrison? No, there is not.)

-Re: Britta's point about white men as universal, Flavia's about the CCOA double-standard for obscure white-Christian-male writers... A couple things. One is that, in partial defense of the CCOAs, there has been a movement on behalf of left-leaning sorts to bring women and certain minorities into the canon, one that has sometimes, presumably, presented itself as affirmative action of sorts on behalf of authors. CCOAs suspect, correctly, that authors who fit the various criteria may have been given a boost, from which they jump, unfairly, to an assumption that artistic production by anyone other than a white Christian man is fluff being promoted only in support of a political agenda. They also miss the extent to which affirmative action of another kind had, until quite recently, given a massive boost to authors who were not black, not female, etc. In other words, the same issues brought up by affirmative action in general come up here. So that's Thing One.

Thing Two is my own experience of the universal-particular question in scholarship. Studying French Jews, it is always assumed that "Jews"="particular" or "parochial," "French"="universal." Remember that with the exception of Primo Levi, Anne Frank, or anyone else who had anything first-hand to say about the Holocaust, that an author was Jewish is unlikely to cause those on the right or the left, in the US at least, to attempt to include them from the canon; nor, in this day and age, is Jewishness viewed as cause for excluding an author from the category of Great (White) Men. This is thus an example of how "Otherness" is dealt with when the "Otherness" in question is not one it's especially PC to celebrate. The CCOA qualms about Toni Morrison do not extend to Philip Roth.

Now, considering that there were/are Jews in places other than France, and the entire world is certainly not French (a fact American scholars are aware of on account of our going to France and finding it, well, different), also given the long histories of both France and Judaism, it might seem as though universal and particular would both describe both the "French" bit and the "Jewish" one. It would seem that in a study of Jews, the French case would be "particular," and of France, the Jewish one would be, and that would settle the matter. However, when what's being studied is not France or Jews, but French Jews, those discussing the matter today tend to fall into the pattern of referring to that-which-is-French as "universal," that-which-is-Jewish as "particular." This is something I could go on about as it relates to the history of French Republican universalism, but it's also a test case of sorts of how, even in a situation in which affirmative action of topics or authors is not being suspected, that which has to do with Others gets classified as "parochial," that which has to do with unhyphenated Western Europeans as an unhyphenated example of Humanity. This is an impulse many of us have even if we see ourselves as liberal, open-minded, and above that sort of thing.

Point being, the assumption that certain subsets of humanity are default/universal/unhyphenated is ingrained, not just for CCOAs with their own particular concerns, but in us all. Political correctness in academia provides the useful service of reminding us that we are all particular, universal in our particularity. This is what the student-face-to-face-with-Mill approach misses. Writers, even Great ones, came from and were responding to specific situations.

-Withywindle wrote: "I think conservative critiques would have a bit more bite if they stated more clearly which strand of critique they endorse. But I also think that liberal defenses of academia that say 'Oh, you're being inconsistent on X and Y', by falsely assuming there is only one conservative critique, also lose a great deal of power."

To which I'd respond: First off, this discussion is not about "liberal defenses of academia." It's about CCOA-skeptics, a cohort that could well include those plenty critical of academia, from the left, from the center, or for reasons separate from the political spectrum. CCOA critics even include - or should - conservatives critical of academia. In other words, not about liberals, not about those who defend academia, but about those unhappy with the CCOA status quo.

Next, I'm not sure who's assumed there's one conservative critique. I, at least, was responding here to Epstein's article, which jumped all over the place, hitting as many talking points as possible. But this is a pattern one finds in conservative critiques - a preemptive dismissal of academia, with the assumption that the reader is coming at the topic with eyes in ready-to-roll position. While not every article or blog includes every complaint, there's generally a mix of several talking points (overall silliness and lack of rigor, classes with silly-sounding names that might be serious but why check, too many coastal elites congregating and promoting themselves, not enough Great White Men, too much Toni Morrison, radical profs, promiscuous coeds) that aren't exactly "inconsistent," but that add up to a critique more about giving conservatives of all stripes something to agree on (that is, that academia is dumb) rather than changing academia to make it more conservative or more hospitable to conservatives. The only inconsistency is that academia is faulted both for being impractical and for being too preprofessional, although here I would say it's unlikely the same conservatives are making both criticisms, or if they are, their issue is that elite (bright, good-familied, whatever) kids shouldn't major in marketing because they should be reading Hegel, while kids from the middle-class masses shouldn't major in marketing because they should be training as plumbers.


Sigivald said...

And then there's the fun fact of being someone who read Mill in college, with the class and cultural-capital implications that entails.

Are there such implications?

I mean, I suppose there might be, but I never think of them.

But then, I read Mill because I was a philosophy major (and also deeply interested in economics - like "read The Theory Of Money And Credit while waiting at jury duty, for FUN), so maybe that's just different?

Phoebe said...

It's not Mill in particular. It could as easily be Aristotle. Shakespeare not so much, because he gets read in high school. My point is that having read certain authors implies having had a certain kind of liberal arts college education, which has class implications for later on in life. I opted to type "Mill" because he was one of my favorites in the days when I was an undergrad being Great Booksified.

Withywindle said...

I don't feel like I have much to argue with here. (Falling down on the job.) I do wonder what the Epsteinite position is on transitioning from Great Books to Research Skills. Me, I would say that Knowledge of Tradition also means Knowledge of Scholarly/Critical Tradition, so learning that seems a good thing. I suppose I would then say that what you are leaning is how to take part in that conversation yourself--ideally hoping that this is a skill of general use. (Ideally, writing a history paper about the UK 1906 elections helps you become chief justice of the Supreme Court, like John Roberts.)

Is it possible that the French are particularly into universals?

Phoebe said...


"Is it possible that the French are particularly into universals?"

It's more than possible. But France also = lefty communist elitist fancy schmancy heathens, as far as US conservatives are concerned, both in terms of actual French people and in terms of American Francophiles. Americans so Francophilic and elitist as to go into the academic study of France would, I'd imagine, be assumed to be so so leftist, postmodern, etc. Things are not so straightforward. The CCOA approach is to lump all of academia into the category of Fluffy Leftist Nonsense. Whereas you have situations like French Studies, where France=universal, and Great Books are being read day-in and day-out, but where you're unlikely to find any self-proclaimed conservatives.

Withywindle said...

Out of idle curiosity, when did you read what of the Classics of French Literature? How are things structured at the various levels?

Phoebe said...

Oh, just about continuously, in college and grad classes, and for grad exams (MA and qualifying). That's the when. The what... far too many to list! Google NYU's French dept handbook and that gives the MA reading list. The qualifying exam involves picking major authors (oh, Victor Hugo... I also went with Zola and Simone de Beauvoir), and the emphasis is pretty definitively on the primary sources, although we also have secondary ones on the lists. Courses are geared towards preparing us for these exams, so even if a final paper is on the history of the shiny ballet flat, the reading is more standard-issue serious. At UChicago, meanwhile, before taking classes in our specialization, but after finishing language requirements, we had to take core classes on something like three out of four (4/5?) centuries of French lit - I vaguely recall 17th, 19th, and 20th, not sure if I took one on 18th or just a class that covered that territory. I only took a handful of classes in college that were on French lit but of my own choosing, and even these were quite Great Booksish - a Proust class, one on lit of the Dreyfus Affair with Zola and Anatole France prominent. I don't remember there being a French Vogue and French pop music survey option.

Withywindle said...

Thank you! It seems a good MA list -- although am I right to think it's weighted a bit toward the twentieth century? I can't tell the length of the individual selections, but there are a lot more works listed in the twentieth century category. I take it you're not overwhelmingly gripped by pre-1600 French lit? Out of more idle curiosity: are there many American grad students who specialize in pre-1600 French lit? Are there jobs for them? And if you were told to teach a survey of French lit from Roland to Tartuffe, how much swotting up would you want to do?

Phoebe said...

OK, this gets a bit complicated. I'm in two departments - French and French Studies. The latter only deals with the 1789 Revolution on, and joint students are only required to know literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. We compensate for this by also training to be historians (or sometimes sociologists, anthropologists, etc.) of the period. We're just as trained in literary scholarship as the French-only students, except that we miss the earlier centuries. Granted we've all (presumably) studied those as undergrads. Which means that if I, for example, had to teach Roland, this would not be my first encounter with Roland and it would not be an altogether outrageous thing for me to do. However, more than your typical student of 19th C French lit, I could also teach a history class or - specific to my case - a Jewish Studies one. Personally, because of my interests, I've also tried to cover more 18th-century and more comparative history than the program demands of us, but for the most part, iths 19th and 20th, literature and history, France and - in my own research - Jews. Someone looking for a medievalist or Renaissance scholar would not be knocking on my door, which is a different question than re: a survey course.

However. There are medievalists, grad students and profs alike, in the department. That, and most students in French are not in the joint program, and so most, regardless of specialty, are examined on earlier centuries as well. You may have found a French Studies list. I don't know the French-only lists too well, but my recollection is they do not emphasize any particular century.

Withywindle said...

Interesting, thank you. So when you were applying to graduate schools, did you apply to a mix of literature, history, and studies programs? And are you going to apply for jobs in both history and literature? Do you have a sense of whether it'll be easier for you to get a job in one or the other?