I continue guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs.
In “Death by Suicide: The End of English Departments and Literacy” (Minding the Campus, January 25, 2010), Mary Grabar writes that “students are leaving English departments in droves” as the field cedes more and more territory to theories that have little to do with literature itself.
“Who are you kidding?” I wanted to get up and ask the English professor who was giving a talk at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association convention in November. He was analyzing a graphic novel, the spaces between panels, the line widths of the panels, the lettering inside the “speech bubbles.”
Indeed, the “spaces” may have much to do with the exodus. Why spend a lifetime on empty space?
It’s been a death by slow suicide. The reference to “spaces” coming from the podium was the same kind of self-abusive parsing, I had seen applied by deconstructionists in the 1990s when I was a graduate student. The depressed patient, failing to see any worth in his work, had leveled the greatest works to “texts.” Reading between the lines of “text” has evolved into reading the gaps between panels: “Lots of stuff happens in that silent space,” said the professor.
Now, of course there are empty and silent spaces in literature, but we won’t glean their meaning unless we read the words carefully first. Many lit crit fads (this or that “space,” this or that “lens”) seem to involve evasion of literature, similar in some ways to the “reading strategies” that dominate literacy instruction in our schools. Talk about everything around the text, talk about text as though it were generic, predict what might be in the text, but do not venture into that text.
Grabar sees this as a universal problem:
Much has been said about the decline in reading, but few outside the walls of academia know how much English teachers and professors are actually undermining literacy. The tenured have the luxury of lecturing on “silent spaces” between panels. The heads of professional organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English expand the definition of literacy to any kind of communication (including the emotive grunt).
I agree, with some reservations. Yes, there is a lot of nonsense in literary theory and in literacy instruction. But there are many students who want to read literature, teachers who want to teach it, and professors (even tenured ones) who have no truck with silent spaces in comic strip bubbles.
Sadly (and fortunately), many of them have learned to stay unruffled and let the trends pass. Trends do pass, by definition, and often the best way to withstand them is to let them through. On the other hand, Grabar is right. Things get trampled down during the stampede. It is time to stand up for a good book or two.