English Patients: Literature in the digital age


Editor's note: This is the forth and final installment of Nick Gillespie's coverage of the Modern Language Association's annual meeting. Read part 1, Who's Afraid of the MLA? here, part 2, The Kids Are Alright, Dammit here, and part 3 When Darwin Meets Dickens here.

The final session I attended at the 2005 Modern Language Association convention—"Taking It Digital: Teaching Literature in the 21st Century"—wasn't just interesting in and of itself (though it was certainly that). It also opens up a broader discussion about the future of academic literary studies—and suggests some ways that literature departments might turn around a long, slow decline in the number of students majoring in English and related fields.

Data from the Association of Departments of English are pretty grim. In 1950, English majors accounted for about four bachelor's degrees out of every 100 granted. That number rose steadily for about 20 years, peaking in 1971, when English degrees accounted for 7.66 degrees per 100 earned. Since then, it's been basically downhill (with the exception of a slight uptick in the late 1980s and early '90s). In 2003, English departments were back where they were in 1950, accounting for about four degrees per 100. The trends in foreign language degrees are similar, and you'll search in vain for a professor of foreign language who is not in an absolute panic over declines in student enrollment. These trends generally track with other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences and hold up when you control for gender, too (English has always been a more popular major for women than men but enrollments follow the same pattern for each).

Which is not to say that all is darkness, at least in terms of English departments. According to government data, in 2003 English was the 10th most popular major (the most popular by far was business; go here and check table 289 for a detailed breakdown). Still, the relative loss of undergraduate majors leads directly to a loss of institutional clout, which in turn leads to a loss of faculty resources ranging from tenure-track lines, research leaves, and more. A decline in majors hits humanities programs especially hard, since they have less opportunity than, say, most of the research sciences or professional schools to attract major grants from private industry or governments.

There's no simple accounting for the decline in English and foreign language enrollments. (Indeed, there's no simple accounting for their increase in the period from the end of World War II through the 1960s). Some of it is surely is due to the changing makeup of student populations. Despite the myths that surround the G.I. Bill, attending college only really became a mass phenomenon in the United States in the 1970s. (There has been a corresponding boom in the sheer number and variety of institutions of higher education, too. There are roughly 4,200 two- and four- year colleges and universities in the United States; in 1980, there were only 3,200.) It seems logical to expect that first-generation college students are more likely to focus on majors and courses of study that are more directly tied to job possibilities. I rush to say that I'm not fully convinced of this: I was among the first generation in my family to attend college and majored in English; my sister majored in French. Still, it might be that as college became more democratic, the perceived luxury of a lit degree seemed less appealing, especially as college costs have climbed. Part of it is surely economic in another sense. In terms of starting salaries, English majors actually do pretty well, but their immediate prospects are dwarfed by those taking degrees in fields such as electrical engineering, accounting, and economics.

Part of it is likely due to the changing nature of literary criticism. There's little doubt that over the past 30 years or so, academic literary criticism, as in every other field, has become more insular, segmented, and jargon-ridden. Some of this is inevitable–it represents an ever keener division of labor among scholars—and much of it has resulted in work that is, ironically, fascinating to a broad reading public. For all the screeds—which come from the left as well as the right—decrying the rise of French theory and especially deconstruction—it surely means something that the term deconstruction has entered the American vernacular. Sure, the common usage may have precious little to do with the precise way that Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man specified, but they more than most would recognize that concepts morph and change over time and circumstance. It's tempting to think that if all academic literary critics wrote like, say, the great Leslie Fiedler, that lit-crit would be packing in undergraduates like the carnival freak sideshows he wrote about so memorably.

Perhaps more important—and this is something that Fiedler recognized in his excellent 1982 meditation on the changing nature of cultural consumption, production, and elite gate-keeping, What Was Literature?—much of the work traditionally done by academics has seeped into the culture at large. In an age of cultural proliferation, where more of us can make and take whatever we want, whenever we want, Literature with a capital "l"—doesn't command the same position it did even 30, much less 50, years ago (think of the difference in contemporaneous cultural standing, say, between Ernest Hemingway and Don DeLillo). The world we live in is not simply awash in an increasing amount of print, video, music, art, and other forms of creative expression; it's awash in an increasing number of critics of the same. Such a world is increasingly dispersed and decentralized and it is extremely hard for any single locus of power to exercise much control over what we consume or how we interpret what we consume. That used to be a role that academic literary studies could, if not quite dominate, lead. But no more. Ironically, a world filled with more culture may inevitably be one where the ostensible guardians of culture are less important than before.

So those are some—and only some, for sure—of the possible reasons literature departments have been losing students. And as Zachary Karabell argued in What's College For?: The Struggle to Define American Higher Education (1999), the loss of students eventually means the loss of institutional power at colleges and universities.

The presenters at the "Taking It Digital" panel suggest some interesting ways to rejuvenate the lit classroom. Olin Bjork, a graduate student at the University of Texas, described "The Tempest Multimedia Project," in which he and a fellow instructor had students build an extensive online compendium of all sorts of primary and secondary resources, including audio recordings of music used in various stagings of the Shakespeare play, period maps, and more. The students worked collaboratively and gained Web and organizational skills while they sharpened their critical faculties and gained deeper knowledge about a play whose theme and various interpretations remain vital to understanding conceptions of the New World. (Bjork said the project was still available online but I was unable to dig it up via Google.)

Mary Michele Bendel-Simso and Julianne Jasken, two professors at a small Maryland College, presented a summary of "The McDaniel College Short Story Project," in which students created extremely rich sites built around individual short stories by authors ranging from Sarah Orne Jewett to Kate Chopin to Mark Twain. The students worked with area high-school teachers to help create study guides and resources, as well, creating meaningful community ties between the college and nearby secondary schools.

The most interesting presentation was by Alain-Philippe Durand, who is an associate professor of French at the University of Rhode Island. He detailed his experiences with two "online seminars" he taught in 2001 and 2005. As a member of French department, Durand was especially cognizant of falling enrollments and he noted with pride that between 1999 and 2005, URI had upped its French majors from 35 students to 125, largely by trying to make its offerings more interesting and relevant–and focused on content and analysis rather than language instruction.

Following Foucault (mais oui), he noted that we live in an "epoch of juxtaposition…of the side by side" in which "networks rule." For his online seminars, he combined traditional classroom instruction with interactive Web forums in which students directly engaged some of the authors and filmmakers they were discussing as part of the course's requirements. He contacted the writers through their publishing houses and reported that most were not only willing to participate gratis but were energized by the direct connection with readers, especially those in a foreign country. The 2005 seminar forum is online here; one set of students also created an elaborate site built around the writer Marie Darrieussecq. Such exercises not only allowed students to hone their French skills but to explore more fully the way that tools of literary criticism and analysis function in a broad variety of settings. As Durand emphasized throughout his remarks, parents routinely insist on the "practicality" of their children's courses of study.

This isn't to suggest that the only way literary studies can or should survive is by teaching some mixture of Web skills and critical reading tools that might be applied outside of literary studies. Still, it's clear that in an information- and media-drenched world such as ours, critical reading and writing skills are at more of a premium than ever before. On this point, Durand cited Roland Barthes who once said, with characteristic overstatement, that if the university could teach only one subject it should be literature—because literature includes all other disciplines. What is blogging if not literary criticism gone wild?

What each of these presentations had in common was an understanding of what University of Tulsa communication professor Joli Jensen has talked about as an "expressive view" of culture. That is, culture broadly defined "is a way that all of us, even those of us who are not in a special guardian class, understand and symbolically engage the world." This understanding puts art, music, literature, and other forms of creative expression, including political expression, at the very center of our individual and collective experience. Which means that lucid interpretation of the same is vital.

And it need not rely on cutting-edge multimedia technologies; in the end, the panel was less about "taking it digital" and more about engaging students in the creation of meaning. To the extent that literature professors can make it clear that what they do is central to what we all do—engage and interpret the world within ever-changing and ever-evolving traditions and communities—literary studies may well be poised for a great 21st century.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in TCS Daily and can be viewed in that format here.