An Educated Guess

Musings on life in general

Why Study Literature?

I’m a graduate student in English Literature, and for the past several years that I’ve been involved in graduate-level literature scholarship I’ve become hyper-aware of what people say about studying literature. The sad fact is that I see lots of people saying disparaging things about lit studies, and about scholarship in general. The sad part isn’t that they say things like that; they’re allowed to hate it or be critical of it. The sad part is that they don’t understand the issue well enough to truly judge. So I’m going to attempt to explain why those things are important, and why they’re not stupid.

You study literature, right?

Yes, we do, but we also do a whole lot more than that. In fact, as the state of the larger field of critical analysis has grown and developed, we’ve come to realize that (in the words of critical theorist Jacques Derrida) everything is a text. The mouse under your hand right now was created by a person (or people) who wanted to imbue it with both a function and a form, and that conscious effort to create an object also creates a text that can be both read and evaluated. For example, is your mouse ergonomic, or is it just rounded? Is it a bright or subdued color? What do those things say about the mouse itself, and where does the mouse fit into both the chronology and development of mice? Further, what does that mouse say about us as a society, and what does it mean that we developed computer interfaces in the form of the mouse and keyboard?

There’s nearly a never-ending well of questions that can be asked, and as we try to answer them, we learn more about the human condition, and about what it means to be human.

Wait, hold on. What about my high school teacher who made all these sweeping generalizations about what the author of Moby Dick was thinking about when he wrote it?

Yeah, I know, most people hated that. I’ve heard all sorts of complaints about how their high school teacher would make ridiculous lessons about how the repetition of the color blue in a story meant that the author was depressed rather than just, say, a person who liked the color blue.

That’s not really indicative of what we do when we study literature. First of all, the idea of reading a text as an insight into the author’s subconscious has largely fallen out of fashion, and quite a long time ago, at that. We still do it, but that’s only one type of analysis out of many. Second, while we all love high school teachers for making the ultimate sacrifice and teaching teenage kids, the vast majority of them never went to graduate school. Some of them didn’t even go to college for the subject they’re teaching, but instead got a degree in education with a minor in some other subject. So those teachers who told you about the color blue in high school? Yeah, they may never have read any real literature scholarship or theory in their lives. And there’s the other problem that even if they did at one point, there’s no requirement that they stay on top of it once they begin teaching. So they may have been teaching what they learned twenty years ago, which has become significantly out of date.

Way to render my entire high school career meaningless.

Sorry. High school does give you a good basic knowledge of things, but there’s just no way for them to really give you a fair understanding of everything, given how underpaid and underappreciated they are. If we paid teachers like we pay athletes, I guarantee you that you’d come out of high school up-to-date on the latest scholarship.

But why do we care about learning about humanity and all of that stuff?

Well, it’s important for a variety of reasons. Human beings are on a constant quest to understand ourselves. That’s why those stupid quizzes make the rounds on the internet, because we have some silly belief that a “What Harry Potter Character Are You?” quiz will actually tell you more about yourself. It may have something to do with our brains being hard-wired to see patterns, which, while it makes us great at identifying faces, sometimes also makes us see things that aren’t there. Or it may have nothing to do with that at all.

However, the more we know about ourselves, the better we can become. It’s like science, but for culture. Science can make you a pair of cybernetic legs, but it can’t teach you how to be happy, or how to come to terms with the death of a loved one.

How does something like a feminist reading of Shakespeare teach people how to be happy?

Well, it doesn’t, directly. But think about how many different scientists, working on unrelated things, it will take to first develop and then build a pair of cybernetic legs. That’s sort of what we’re doing by working on all of these things: we’re hoping that each little step that we make in seemingly-unrelated or unimportant fields will in some way lead to a better understanding of human nature, which will in turn make people happier and better-understood.

Literature scholarship is really an attempt to find some deeper truth about life, and isn’t that what we all do? Don’t we spend most of our lives trying to figure out why we’re here, and what it’s all for? While I doubt that anyone will ever definitively answer that question, each time we do something like a feminist reading of Moby Dick, or a Marxist critique of Faulkner, we try to better understand not just those works, but everything that I’ve mentioned in this article. Truth, happiness, life, etc. All of those things that science can’t answer.

You’re just using me for a Socratic Dialogue, aren’t you?

Damn, am I that transparent? Well, Socrates was a philosopher, and he greatly contributed to our understanding of the world at large, much like we try to do in Lit Studies. In fact, we combine a whole lot of different disciplines in what we do because they help us see the bigger picture. For example, we use some philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and many more.

How in the world do you justify calling that “literature”?

Yeah, you got me. Literature actually isn’t a very good name for what we do, and the literature department of colleges around the country (if not the world) are right now trying to deal with this very crisis of identity. See, it all started out fine and dandy by exclusively studying literature. At first, so-called “literature” programs only studied Greek and Roman texts, and it was required that students learn Greek, Latin, or both. In fact, it was only during this century that the works of William Shakespeare started being taught in literature classes, despite the fact that they were written four centuries ago.

In other words, the study of literature has gotten progressively larger, and has dealt with progressively newer texts. Eventually, as I quoted earlier, Derrida declared that everything was a text, and while we do primarily concern ourselves with actual literature, it’s becoming more and more common to see scholarship on graphic novels, television shows, and films, if not computer mice and desk chairs. However, the tools that we use to evaluate those books and movies are the same tools that we can use to evaluate the aforementioned mice and chairs.

Come on, isn’t this really just a way for you “educated” folks to feel superior to everyone else?

No, that’s just an extra perk.

Seriously, though, there are people in every field who use their skill/knowledge/breeding/whatever to lord over other people. So yes, I’m sure that there are some people in Literature Studies who use their powers for evil rather than good, but that’s not what the whole field is about.

I promise that we’re just trying to help people understand themselves and each other!

I hate you anyway.

I’m sorry. =(

  • 17 April 2012