In my last post, I talked a bit about Matt Haig’s literature-heavy antidote to depression, and mentioned that his own book had helped me immensely during some of my most despairing moments. That was true.
I also said that reading a book tipped me into the first quasi-depressive episode I ever experienced. That was true, as well.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that contradiction, lately. I think that Haig is right when he says that reading is a pathway out of ourselves, and out of minds that are turning on us. But I also think that that outward journey can have devastating effects when we crash back into ourselves too suddenly. Continue reading
In a recent article posted to both his blog and The New Republic, University of Chicago professor Jerry A. Coyne finds himself reluctantly siding with conservatives over the proposed use of “trigger warnings” in literature classes. Life is triggering he says, and literature prepares you for that.
Thank heavens we have a science professor to tell us how to teach literature, right?
Or, rather, what to teach (the canon, as well as newly canonical, formerly marginalized women, blacks, LGBT individuals, etc.). The how, though, is somewhat lacking. Coyne tells us that literature is meant to challenge us and expand our minds, which sounds excellent, right up until the moment you realize he doesn’t really mean anything by that. Continue reading
Generally speaking, I’m wary of attempts to defend literature (or the humanities generally) on utilitarian grounds. It’s not that I don’t think studying literature can be useful; I think—naively, maybe, but honestly—that it can be transformative for both the individual and for society at large. That said, I would still argue that studying it is worthwhile even if it weren’t, strictly speaking, useful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pleasure or even escapism, and frankly, the entire idea that the primary goal of education is utility strikes me as puritanical (sometimes literally—the increasing pressure to make education wholly vocational feels deeply intertwined with the Protestant work ethic). Continue reading
I completed my MA at a relatively small school. For a university, it was very small; total enrollment hovers around 5,000. In many ways, the school’s size was an advantage; graduate programs are notorious breeding grounds for competition and resentment, but my program was so small that there was very little need to jockey for professorial attention.
The downside was that graduate-only seminars were thin on the ground. If you wanted to take more than one course in your subfield, you resigned yourself to enrolling in a few upper-level undergraduate courses—and it definitely felt like resignation. One of the first bits of student-to-student advice I received had to do with these mixed-level courses. It was, roughly, this: avoid them if you could, tolerate them for the independent research if you must, but don’t expect to get much out of the discussions. Continue reading
A few nights ago I met the husband of one of my mother’s friends from work. He is, in my mother’s words, something of a “Renaissance man.” He has a doctoral degree, but has previously worked as (among other things) a cop and a public school teacher. He also apparently knows a bit about literature, because our conversation began something as follows:
Him: How’s the job search going?
Me (jocular, with undercurrents of manic desperation): Oh, not especially well.
Him: I understand. You have a master’s in English literature, right?
Me (vaguely apologetic): Yeah.
Him: What was your subfield?
Me (picking my jaw up off the floor): Victorian.
So, yes, my first reaction to being asked about my specialty was absolute shock. My second reaction was to fight back (figurative) tears: tears of relief, that someone actually knew to ask that question, and tears of sadness that that surprised me. Meanwhile, the snob in me rejoiced and thought, “A kindred spirit!” Continue reading