English Studies in the 21st Century: A Critical Look at Combining Cultural Studies and Classics by Kelly Hunt

Kelly Hunt, kellymariehunt@yahoo.com

English Studies in the 21st Century: A Critical Look at Combining Cultural Studies and Classics



The fate of English studies appears most threatened by increasing technology, employability and institutional pressures.   In the face of such troublesome issues, scholars find themselves defending the field and calling for a new direction, most often involving an interdisciplinary approach.   While I do not deny the inevitable path towards interdisciplinary work or Cultural studies, I resist the recent trend to dismiss the importance of the aesthetic value and rich experience reading and studying literature offers.  Still, according to Richard Ohmann, the number of English majors has shrunk at least 50 percent in the past twenty years (92), figures that suggest the need for change. Throwing out the classics to make room for the study of a blog or comic strip would be a terrible loss, but to examine only the traditional canon will leave students unequipped.  The answer lies somewhere in the middle with themed courses in Cultural studies that include a variety of text.   

 The problem with the canon remains rather obvious and two-fold.  First, its neglect of minorities and difference—as Lillian S. Robinson points out; “It is quite accurate to think of the canon as an entirely gentlemanly artifact, considering how few works by nonmembers of that class and sex make it into the informal agglomeration of course syllabi, anthologies and widely commented-upon ‘standard authors’ that constitutes the canon as it is generally understood” (154).  Secondly, if the fate of English studies depends on a Cultural studies approach, the four-year degree can only hope to cover a mere fraction of the “great works” as other text will necessitate class time.   However, I do not want to see all canonized text disappear as Robinson suggests could happen; “Permission may have been given to the contemporary critic to approach a wide range of texts, transcending and even ignoring the traditional canon” (162).  There are certain works, written by dead white males as they may be, which are referenced within the college experience and throughout life.  Not only could one miss out on “the joke” or the richness a subtle reference adds to whatever context in which it might be found, but there are certain works a student must be familiar with as they are used often as examples in the classroom and criticism.  

I propose closer reading and critical examination of a variety of texts, a sort of juxtaposing of the classic and modern within the same course similar to those taught by J. Hillis Miller who explains, “My strategy has been to teach and write about old literary works in the context of one ‘timely’ problematic of another, ‘Victorian and Modernist English Novels: Moments of Decision’ for the last two years, ‘Victorian Multiplotted Novels as Models of Community’” (4).  In these types of courses, students should be taught a methodology, a learned set of skills for analysis of any type of text—canonized or found on the back of a cereal box. 

As previously mentioned, time permits the wide coverage of all literature that may have made it onto Bloom’s seemingly arrogant list of, “what I have read and think worthy of rereading, which may be the only pragmatic test of the canonical” (226).  Instead, I recommend tightening the focus by teaching courses in themes that comprise multiple types of texts, including film and media.  I agree with Robert Scholes when he writes, “The process of reading should take precedence over the coverage of texts in the English curriculum.  By process I mean learning how to read closely and carefully, how to situate a text in relation to other texts (intertextuality) how to situate a text in relation to culture, society, the world (extratextuality)” (117).   In this way Cultural studies again comes into play, reaching to various humanities departments.

The interdisciplinary nature of studying literature in regards to varying cultures of varying times, produces its own problems amongst humanities departments.  Because of this I agree with critics who suggest literature will be rolled together among a new department of Cultural studies.   However, students should still have a “concentration” within the major of Cultural studies, much like Art majors could a have concentration in Drawing or a Music major with a concentration in Musical Composition.   One of the concentrations among Cultural studies majors will of course be Literature, ensuring that the study of literature will never fade away.  These literature courses could introduce students to prominent schools of theory by centering themselves on various relevant themes. 

The idea of pushing English studies into Cultural studies might also alleviate the burden of employment for students after college.  Since the subject area is broader and more relevant to current trends in society, multiple opportunities for application of knowledge will surface.  Still, with the Cultural studies major and “concentration” model I have suggested, students who desire to focus on literature may do so while gaining the benefits of a wider area of study.  More people are college graduates than ever before—making the job market highly competitive—and studying literature, where jobs are few, might seem like a risky decision.  However, it is precisely because of this that many (if not most) graduates end up in a field far from what they studied in school.  However, as Ohmann points out, the skills learned upon receipt of an education in English are considerable, “English teachers have helped train the kind of work force capitalist need in a productive system that relies less and less on purely manual labor.  More, we have helped to inculcate the discipline—punctuality, good verbal manners, submission to authority, attention to problem solving assignments set by somebody else, long hours spent in one place—that is necessary to perform the alienated labor that will be the lot of most”  (92). 

Of course there are more sentimental reasons for studying literature as well.  Humanist Helen Vendler writes, “Nothing is more lonely than to go through life uncompanioned by a sense that others have also gone through it, and left a record of experience” (39). And despite what Harold Bloom claims about today’s students lack of passion for reading, “only a few handfuls of students now enter Yale with an authentic passion for reading” (226), recalling friends, classmates and a bustling Barnes and Noble in every town, I conclude passion for literature is alive and well.    

One area of debate I must mention lies in the placement of the composition course.  Most universities require these types of courses, forcing students to crank out what Richard Marius dubs “model airplane” essays.  “These are papers whose writing resembles what kids do when they buy a model airplane in a hobby shop…[t]he student writers exhibit no creativity, no sustained rational discourse that explains or builds a careful argument” (Marius 474).   This type of class does very little good for the English department, and perhaps little good for the students as well.  Instead, I suggest students take a course designed within their major that fulfills the writing requirement.  As Marius points out, many history classes have students write multiple papers in a term, as would a cultural studies class.  Students would write about something they are actually interested in (assuming that the major they picked interests them).  This could provide a solution to the problem of outside departments that “insist on naming and authorizing” (McQuade 484) the activities of the composition courses as well as increase respect through out academia for the composition professor (who would also teach a variety of skills such as close reading, critical analysis, etc.) within each department.

Harold Bloom predicts the fall of “Departments of English” as we know them by pointing to the lack of passion in today’s students.  He writes, “You cannot teach someone to love great poetry if they come to you without such love.”   I disagree based on personal experience, and so would Gerard Graff who relays his earlier struggles with literature in his essay, Disliking Books at an Early Age.  Graff admits his aversion to reading until he was introduced to critical debate and close reading under the direction of a knowledgeable professor, “It was through exposure to such critical reading and discussion over a period of time that I came to catch the literary bug” (44).  If a student finds a particular piece of writing as engaging as Graff’s professor made it for him, they will expand their personal reading beyond classroom assignments.  The problem (if you call it one) regarding the lack of coverage in a Cultural studies type program could solve itself.

Despite Graff’s experience, critical exposure means little if it remains aimed at the very few who already understand it.  Several critics acknowledge the difficult nature of literary study and criticism including Graff who writes, “Many literate people learned certain ways of talking about books so long ago that they have forgotten they ever had to learn them.  These people therefore fail to understand the reading problems of the struggling students who have still not acquired a critical vocabulary” (45).  Wayne Booth forms a similar complaint in his request to the editors of Critical Inquiry when he suggests, “ask each author who uses fancy but necessary new terminology to provide a brief glossary at the end of the article rather than assuming an audience of five or ten who are up on the new terminology” (1).  Alan Purves also acknowledges the jargon heavy arguments, calling them confusing and denigrating to teachers and parents (211).  If indeed the threat against literary study does exist, and I believe it does to some extent, scholars need to open the club up to new and interested parties instead of closing it off to a select, highly educated few. 

While acknowledging the challenges in determining the fate of English Studies in an increasingly technological world, I still believe the aesthetic role of literature will never be eradicated.   There is merit in reading literature, just as there is merit in the mass culture and commercial entertainment suggested to be an overwhelming force against it.  For scholars such as Alan Purves, “enjoyment” is not a worthy enough cause to study literature.  Commenting on school literature he writes, “It is not supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to be a mental discipline.  Students are learning a disciplined way of reading, watching or listening and a disciplined way of talking, writing, or composing, which teachers believe—or someone believes—will help them later in life” (214).  His is a sad statement.  While reading literature does help one later in life, can it not be for enjoyment as well?  Besides, if a university level student does not enjoy learning, I fail to see how they will succeed in the scholastic career, let alone the area of expertise they choose.    The sage advice, “do what you love,” exists for a reason—if you do not enjoy something, not only will you be unhappy, but you probably won’t be very good at it.   With the vast areas of interest involved in Cultural studies, students will (in theory) have more options for courses and may pick and choose based on where interests lie.  Themed courses will bring to light a variety of texts and their relationship to culture, establishing connections leading to deeper understanding and greater knowledge.  


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. “Elegiac Conclusion.” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2000. 225-234. 

Booth, Wayne. “To the Future Editors of Critical Inquiry.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2003). Chicago. 3 Dec. 2007 <http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/features/symposium03.shtml&gt;. 

Graff, Gerald. “Disliking Books At an Early Age.” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2000. 40-48. 

Hillis Miller, J. Critical Inquiry 30 (2003):  14. Chicago. 18 Nov. 2003 <http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/features/symposium03.shtml&gt;. 

Marius, Richard. “Composition Studies.” Redrawing the Boundaries. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1992. 466-481. 

McQuade, Donald. “Composition and Literary Studies.” Redrawing the Boundaries. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1992. 482-519. 

Ohmann, Richard. “The Function of English At the Present Time.” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2000. 89-95. 

Purves, Alan. “Telling Our Story About Teaching Literature.” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2000. 211-217. 

Robinson, Lillian S. “Treason Our Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon.”