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Those Who Can Do

Rewriting the history of literary studies, from inside the classroom

The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study by Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan. University of Chicago Press, 320 pages.

It is a truism that graduate school does not really prepare you to teach. Ask almost anyone with a PhD about their first teaching experience, and most will tell a story that involves being thrown directly into the classroom in the very first weeks of the semester. Almost everyone seems to adapt eventually, but it is nearly impossible to prepare for just how much work teaching entails. It is not just a matter of choosing material, or preparing lessons, or the days and weekends lost to grading. Rather, it’s that teaching is a kind of performance requiring near-total presence and concentration. Teaching a class is like playing a concert or a sports game in this way. You prepare as much as you possibly can, you control as many elements as you can control, then you go out there, and what happens, happens. Over this past year, the pandemic has only intensified this effect, adding another set of requirements and challenges for instructors, who have had to face the dangers of possible infection or learn to navigate new technological platforms and command the attention of a virtual room of students who, like many teachers themselves, have been experiencing the most disruptive eighteen months of their lives.

Given that teaching occupies so much of a professor’s existence, and that it is the work most people associate with academia, it is surprising that it seems to occupy so little of the story that academic disciplines tell about themselves. Throughout the profession, and even at the most prestigious universities where sabbaticals, course relief, and funding grants are most generous, academics devote an enormous amount of time to their teaching practice: teaching takes a great deal of time to do well, and not that much less time to do badly. Yet the devaluation of teaching is in evidence across the academy, and many academics think of research as their true calling, while teaching pays the bills. The widespread (if rarely explicitly stated) prejudice against teaching is reflected in hierarchy of prestige and compensation, as tenured and tenure-track faculty now make up only 25 percent of university teachers but account for a disproportionate amount of the published research. But if 25 percent of the profession is engaged in the research that makes knowledge, what are the rest of us doing? According to one model, this tiny elite constitutes the intellectual core, while the bulk of teachers merely disseminate the luminaries’ best ideas and theories. Yet such a view underestimates how much of the work of teaching drives intellectual innovation, and how it has repeatedly revolutionized research as well.

The devaluation of teaching is in evidence across the academy, and many academics think of research as their true calling, while teaching pays the bills.

Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s new book, The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study, aims to correct the longstanding underestimation of teaching as a major part of the intellectual life of the professor. At the same time, it upends binaries between formalism and historicism, teaching and research, and scholars and critics that have long dominated our accounts of how the discipline of literary studies has evolved. Buurma and Heffernan succeed admirably in disproving the schematic that pits scholars against critics and formalists against historicists while reducing most classroom teachers to mere handmaids of some greater intellect’s brilliant theory. The authors pull episodes from some elite departments like Berkeley, Chicago, and Yale, but mainly they cast a much wider net, examining early British higher education for women, interwar extension schools for working class men, HBCUs in the Jim Crow south, and a California community college in the early days of Indigenous Studies. Through this series of case studies, they argue that scholars of literature and historians of literary studies alike have largely ignored teaching as a site of practice and innovation, and, crucially, that a more accurate assessment of how professors have taught literature across the full scope of institutions of higher education may help point the way forward for a discipline in crisis.

The book’s publication comes as polemical accounts of the sorry state of college literary study are everywhere. Flagging enrollments mean deep department cuts, shrinking budgets, and vanishing majors as students flock to the presumably more remunerative STEM fields. Some within the profession have argued that the profession itself is to blame: according to this view, sometime in the ’70s, English departments stopped teaching the great books that comprise the literary canon and started devoting themselves to increasingly orthogonal pursuits. First came critical theory. Literary studies no longer practiced the exegesis of masterworks; instead, the critic displaced the author as primary creator, and the critical text became the primary text for whose creation the literary object served as a mere pretext (or is that pre/text?). Literature itself receded into the background when everything from Hamlet to the list of ingredients on the side of a soup can was equally available to critical theorization.

Then in the ’80s and ’90s, this story goes, the critical tendency met the political tendency, as feminist scholars, queer scholars, scholars of color, and scholars from across the Global South demanded inclusion in a canon newly revealed as historically exclusionary. These scholars imagined the literary-critical profession as not merely good for inculcating the powers of taste, judgment, and analysis in undergraduates, but also as a site of political struggle. By expanding the canon, they struck a blow for equality and political radicalism; by insisting on reading practices that decentered the whiteness, maleness, straightness, and eurocentrism of the canon, they arrived at a more accurate account of world literary culture. Such innovations were successful: they attracted money, prestige, and for a time, students. They irrevocably altered not just the landscape of American letters, but the American university writ large. Yet, for some critics invested in a belletristic model of literary study, the boom was little more than a dead cat bounce: the long-term negative effects of abandoning the core methods and texts of the discipline were permanent and devastating.

Now, we are supposed to believe, an increasingly irrelevant and increasingly isolated tenured elite babble to one another in theoryspeak or announce revolutions to conference audiences of half a dozen, even as the students they serve choose to pursue other paths en masse. Below these researchers toil an army of undercompensated adjuncts, graduate students, and term instructors who continue to do the real work of the profession: teaching composition and introductory literature classes and transmitting whatever is relevant of humanities research while ensuring that students graduate college with at least the reading and writing part of the three r’s passably mastered.

Of course, like any just-so story, this one is not really true. Certainly, the theory revolution happened, and so did a major revision of which texts make it onto college syllabuses and how they get taught. But, as any good Marxist literary critic will tell you, the underlying causes of the demise of the English department are extrinsic to developments within the discipline itself, just as the discipline’s midcentury boom had little to do with teaching methods and a great deal to do with a vision of what a college education should provide, promoted equally by administrators, employers, and politicians who expanded funding for public education. The decline of labor standards and college accessibility has much more concrete origins in larger trends across the world of income and employment than within the canon or syllabus wars.

The view that literary studies is responsible for its own destruction complements another just-so story of disciplinary history, one that sees the past century of scholarship as periods of alternating dominance exchanged between historicists and formalists. The former see literature primarily as embedded within a context and believe that the scholar’s job is to reconstruct that context to the greatest extent possible; the latter take the literary object itself as their primary site of investigation, focusing on structural and stylistic elements to arrive at a fuller account of the text’s meaning. During literary study’s period of greatest institutional power at midcentury, formalism—led by the New Critics, professors like Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom who emphasized the text and nothing outside the text—attained its most complete dominance. The New Critical method was democratic: anyone could look at a poem, analyze its structure, count syllables, and track meter and rhyme. No outside knowledge or special expertise was required.

Since the 1980s, however, the discipline has been more or less dominated by the historicists, who insist that every text leads to some other text, and that any exercise in interpretation must also be an exercise in contextual excavation. Not only is this approach thought to present a barrier to the students foreign to the practices of scholarly research, it likewise replaces the putative content of a college literature course—reading and understanding great works of art—with an exercise in promoting the political views and aspirations of the professoriate. Misapprehending the classroom as a site for political intervention versus a place for the inculcation of aesthetic appreciation, argue critics of historicism, has driven the literary and literature-curious away from literary studies, and into creative writing or computer science. 

The value of literary study remains that it can help students place themselves in relationship to tradition, and critically examine written claims and counterclaims about culture and history.

At stake for Buurma and Heffernan in The Teaching Archive is a rewriting of the shorthand histories I’ve outlined above: to prove that the discipline has always been both scholarly and critical, both plodding and belletristic, both formalist and historicist. They do this by eschewing the traditional stuff of academic disciplinary histories: they largely ignore past MLA presidential addresses, scholarly manifestoes, splashy intellectual movements, and even many influential texts. Instead, Buurma and Heffernan focus on the minutiae of daily life in the classroom. By reconstructing the archive of classroom teaching practices across time and institutions, they argue, we can begin to piece together what it really meant to teach and study literature through most of the twentieth century. They paint a picture of a very different discipline than the one longed for by the nostalgists: it is more diverse, more open-minded, less committed to erecting a firewall between teaching and research, more egalitarian, and much more dynamic than the stories of predictable pendulum swings between texts and context would have suggested.

Earlier disciplinary histories have argued that the intellectual and ideological problems plaguing literary studies have been there from the beginning. As Gerald Graff writes in his Professing Literature: An Institutional History, published at the height of the 1980s conflicts over theory and politics in the classroom, the earliest iterations of English and Modern Languages departments adopted the “field coverage model,” dividing the discipline of English literature into multiple “fields”—say Renaissance Poetry, Modernism, or “Postcolonial”—to be presided over by specialists. Departments could hire enough specialists to cover the major areas, and an education in the discipline would consist of taking a series of courses designed to offer a student broad exposure to periods, genres, and authors across the tradition. This was an elegant solution from the point of view of departmental organization, but it had the effect of sidestepping the question of what exactly the goal of a literary education was to be, or whether the professors of a literature department should share a common intellectual project. By bureaucratizing the university, professionalizing the professoriate, and giving individual scholars wide discretion over how to conduct teaching and research in their periods, universities allowed conflicts of existential importance to persist without resolution.

In many cases they have persisted down to the present day. Boom times did not necessarily extirpate the lack of consensus about the purpose of literary study among professors of literature, though they did allow the conflicts to recede into the background: there’s no sense fighting for your share of the pie when there’s plenty of pie to go around. Even so, early twentieth-century humanities professors found much to bemoan during those years of expanding enrollments, regularly complaining that “college students were impervious to humanistic education” and attended school either for the social and professional advantages that making important connections would confer, or else to specialize narrowly in a practical field that would render the student fit for immediate employment after school. In Professing Literature, Graff highlights the decline of literary culture in the early twentieth century, explaining that literature had flourished chiefly at the margins of nineteenth-century student life among a more socially restricted group of collegians whose school and family experiences had inculcated familiarity with and respect for high culture. The expanding range of university students that would come to study in waves throughout the twentieth century shared no such cohesive social, class, and cultural background.

Buurma and Heffernan offer a corrective to Graff’s classic account. For Graff, the coverage model has taken the form of a meaningless accumulation of period and movement requirements that fail to offer students a compelling entrée into literary life and literary culture, instead providing what amounts to all trees and no forest. For Buurma and Heffernan, however, the operative point is that individual instructors have largely undertaken this work within classrooms themselves, where the question of the student’s relationship to literature, history, tradition, and politics emerges as a central concern. They posit the classroom as the true engine of the profession’s innovations, and as the places where new and groundbreaking methods get worked out.

Witness T. S. Eliot, for example, abandoning his prewritten class plans to focus on minor Early Modern poets, helping his working-class extension school students to see them as working writers who wrote and sometimes struggled to earn a living. Consider J. Saunders Redding, teaching in Black colleges throughout the segregated South before moving to Cornell in the 1970s, composing integrated American literature syllabuses as part of what Buurma and Heffernan call the “literary project” of “representing America to itself for the first time.” This work reframed the United States as a country with a literary tradition shaped equally by white and Black writers, not as separate streams of literary life, but as part of a larger literary-historical whole confronting shared historical circumstances—even as these groups experienced these circumstances entirely differently. Finally, observe Simon J. Ortiz’s efforts to bring together the wave of new Native American writers who published novels, poems, and stories to acclaim through the ’60s and ’70s with an oral tradition, as well as the selective and critical use of white anthropologists’ accounts, to help craft the early Indigenous literary studies canon. Every one of these teachers and scholars began their practices with a sense of their duty to present to students a useful account of what literature meant and how they might take part in it.

They were also all occupied with the question of a “usable past.” Whatever the waning place of literary culture in our own moment, and whatever differences may exist in background and values among current and future college students, the value of literary study remains that it can help students place themselves in relationship to tradition, and critically examine written claims and counterclaims about culture and history. Nor does this practice need to be restricted to only a culturally elite minority. The extension school where T.S. Eliot worked was aimed at teaching working-class students to develop, as Buurma and Heffernan put it, “a usable account of England’s national past and future.” Similarly, J. Saunders Redding, teaching at both historically Black institutions in the segregated south, and, later, in the Ivy League, hoped to get at what Buurma and Heffernan call “the true record of America’s past as at once a basis for solidarity and a bulwark against false promises of national belonging.” Redding accomplished this by developing courses on prose writing across a range of genres, pulling in a variety of written sources beyond the strictly literary in order to help craft a “vision of a fully integrated American literature, more historical than aesthetic”—but one in which minor, forgotten, and unacknowledged playwrights, poets, and writers found their place in a literary world alongside the acknowledged giants. It was a vision, in short, that more closely resembled the ways we build our own personal canons, remaking history and tradition, than the period-coverage model of study so bemoaned by Gerald Graff. This, too, is a major part of the history of literary study, and it is one the humanities would do well to recover.

As Buurma and Heffernan argue, the literature classroom is distinct from other kinds of classrooms in that the work of literary criticism is performed within the classroom itself: exercises in reading and interpretation are not merely exercises in reproducing previous observations or absorbing accepted ideas. “Perhaps singularly among the disciplines,” they write in the book’s introduction, “literary study is enacted rather than rehearsed in classrooms.” When students read and interpret texts in the literature classroom, they are engaged in substantially the same work as literary scholars when they undertake their research and writing. There is no real difference in method. And good teachers understand that students are as active and as important in generating innovative ideas and interpretations as their teachers are. The University of Chicago medievalist Edith Rickert, one of Buurma and Heffernan’s subjects, went farthest in this respect, publishing her 1927 New Methods for the Study of Literature as part of a collective project with her students, whose work appears throughout the book in the form of charts and anecdotes.

Yet the perception that research is somehow divorced from teaching persists, to the detriment of the scholars and the students most invested in both. At some institutions, administrators have gotten to thinking that they can have the one without the other. The specialist audience for scholarship in literary studies is regularly used to explain why research should be further defunded. After all, the critical conversations take place among a small group who often have difficulty translating the stakes and conclusions of their work to a lay audience. Enemies of critical scholarship in the humanities—ranging from conservative culture warriors to college administrators desperate to trim budgets—have used this fact to make the argument that such scholarship does not represent a public good, and indeed, that the university and the public should not bear the cost for its production. If English professors want to talk amongst themselves using language that they understand, so be it, but why should the rest of us have to pay for it? This line of thinking has found its natural complement in critiques of the theoretical and political concerns imagined to have taken over the discipline since the ’70s and ’80s.

Disciplinary histories of literary studies that emphasize the great (tenured!) teachers and their brilliant, singular ideas have pushed the real daily work of the profession to the margins.

Even as the question of research and whether to fund it recurs again and again, the main driver of debate about the work of college professors remains classroom teaching. The ongoing controversy about the 1619 Project and its place in the classroom, which led to the UNC Board of Regents voting to deny tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, as well as the astroturfed protest movement around “critical race theory,” testify to the idea that our opponents are taking classroom teaching seriously—seriously enough for academics to begin reevaluating its centrality to their work as well as the stories we tell about it. The idea that CRT, a specialist tendency descended from the Critical Legal Studies movement in legal scholarship, is now commonly taught in American classrooms from the elementary grades on through the highest levels of graduate study has been called into existence by a massive right-wing media machine. It is not true: what conservative opponents really object to is the idea that anyone would teach about Europe and America’s racist past, couching their argument within what ironically amounts to a liberal progress narrative. Conservative opponents of CRT oppose the very idea of critical studies, critical judgment, and race as an area of critical inquiry.

This latest wave of manufactured outrage is just one of the ever more serious challenges confronting classroom teachers. The state of public education remains concerning across the country as students are offered ever fewer resources. At the college level, much of instructional staff do not enjoy the benefits of a salary, a union, or even, in many cases, health care coverage even as, collectively, they teach the majority of undergraduates in this country. They must contend with all the pressures of downwardly-mobile professional life in an atmosphere of stifling surveillance, both from bosses who come armed with fresh digital tools, assessments, and feedback mechanisms (nearly always an opportunity to assign an instructor still more pointless homework until it becomes a pretext for dismissal), and also from students and especially parents, who demand veto power over what is taught and sometimes even what grades are assigned. Add to this the very real possibility of becoming the victim of a campus shooting or a Covid-19 outbreak, and it’s a wonder that anyone bothers to teach college these days at all.

The continued devaluation of teaching labor (which is always associated with feminized care work) and the radical politicization of classroom teaching about race and identity speak to a larger crisis of humanities instruction that Buurma and Heffernan’s book stands poised to address. Disciplinary histories of literary studies that emphasize the great (tenured!) teachers and their brilliant, singular ideas have pushed the real daily work of the profession to the margins, obscuring histories of collaboration and discovery that took place in literature classrooms and shaped generations of scholars and students alike.

At the same time, by acceding to the idea that race, gender, and class entered the field only with the advent of some theoretical turn or epistemic break, such accounts fuel a conservative nostalgia wielded not only by the ideological enemies of humanistic education, but also by those within higher education itself who want nothing more than for scholars to embrace political quietism while they create the conditions that render daily existence more of a struggle for college teachers. Buurma and Heffernan’s history shows us that race, gender, class and politics never had to enter the classroom because they were always present in it; surprisingly often, that presence was explicit. Teachers across institutions, working with a diversity of student populations, turned to literature again and again to discover a usable past—one that might still help us shape a livable future.