Why Read?

This is a response to these two articles, both of which discuss, like last week’s post, the benefit and/or purpose of reading.

First of all, I much prefer Parks’s article because it automatically assumes that we read for a purpose, whatever that purpose may be. However, it seems to me that Parks end up preferring older books, giving unsatisfactory reasons as to the value of reading contemporary literature. For me, as a writer, I have to believe that new books have value. Each generation deserves to have a culture of their own, and literature is a hugely important part of that culture. Of course it’s important to read classics because they give us a glimpse into a past society, and that’s exactly why new books should be read and written—future Americans should be able to look back on us and how we lived.

Siegel’s article is, to put it gently, infuriating. Siegel talks about a study that shows that reading literature sharply increases empathy. You would think this is a good thing, but Siegel seems to disagree, saying that empathy is also the mark of sociopaths. Are you serious? The basis of Siegel’s argument is that he doesn’t want literature to serve a measurable purpose—it should be an accepted leisure activity. My question: why can’t it be both? Why can’t some relaxing activity also affect a positive change in those who undertake it?

Why Reading Matters

This post is a response to Simon Hay’s “Why Read Reading Lolita? Teaching Critical Thinking in a Culture of Choice.”

I’m a reader. I come from a family full of books; my father was a bookseller and rare manuscript hunter by trade, and my mom spent much of her career as an antique dealer shelving gorgeous, leather-bound classics. I grew up in a house filled to the stuffing with books, so much so that a contractor once told us our attic was in danger of caving in on the rest of the house due to the many stocked bookshelves we had. I’ve never once asked myself why I read. At the danger of sounding trite, asking why I read is akin to asking why I breathe. I’ve never had a choice—the act gives me life.

For Hay, it seems this would not be a satisfactory answer. Asking a group of literature students why they study what they do is hard, especially when Hay frames the question in such a way that giving an “acceptable” answer is near impossible. When students answer that reading literature gives us a glimpse into past lives, he believes they are calling English studies History-lite. The same can be said for each answer a would-be student could give Hay, which to me isn’t fair. Students of literature, in my experiences, come home when they study books. Books are a safe place—a place that makes sense amidst the ample chaos found in the world. Honest students of literature study their discipline because they simply have no other choice—they are held delightfully, helplessly captive by the allure of escape, understanding, and emotional connection that reading offers.

In the end, Hay concedes that it is the choice to study, not the discipline being studied, that matters. As far as I’m concerned, if it matters to you, it’s worth pursuing. If you are called to read, then read, even if someone has the gall to ask why.

Analyzing English Curricula

In her article “Literary History and the Curriculum: How, What, and Why,” Jennifer Summit underlines some problems her graduated students have had with their undergraduate classes. More specifically, these issues have to do with literary history and a broad vs. narrow approach to literary teaching.

First of all, I have to be clear that I am not an English major in any traditional sense. I was, at one point, following the requirements for an English major, but after switching majors and concentrations so many times, I’m now in an ad-hoc program meant to take bits and pieces from both English and Spanish. So while I’ve experienced the English major curriculum, I’ve not had to follow it to the letter. That makes a huge difference in how I relate to Summit’s article.

I’m a details person. I like focusing on minutiae, the little things that make the big picture worth seeing. For that reason, I hated the only true survey course I took, but that’s just a personal taste of mine. I have very different needs from the English major than the typical student has, so my experiences, by definition, are different.

That being said, I can see the value, absolutely, of a class (or series of two classes, maybe) that concerns itself solely on a timeline for literature. ALL literature. I still don’t know where romanticism, gothic, classical, baroque, modernism, postmodernism, and all of the other movements of literature lie on a timeline, nor do I understand their historical contexts or, in some cases, their themes. I actually have a better idea of this from my Spanish literature classes–not my English ones. There is a lot of truth in what Summit is saying; we’ve come to be so specific that our details no longer fit into a bigger picture or context, but the context is what makes the details matter. As much as I would have groaned to have to take a literature history class, I feel that it would have been an invaluable foundation on which to build the rest of my literary studies.

But then again, I’m not entirely conventional.

Entrepreneurship in the Humanities

For this assignment, I was asked to read a segment of Getting from College to Career by Lindsey Pollak and a post on my English department’s blog. Both pieces of reading are meant to guide grads toward a job they enjoy.

Interestingly enough, both readings deal with the business side of things–the idea that an English major is a gateway to all things business and finance. Both authors talk about how great it is to be able to use your degree for so many things that are seemingly unrelated to your degree because an English major sets you up to be proficient in a lot of marketable skills, such as communication, critical thinking, public speaking, etc.

And while that may be meant as a comfort to those who get asked the question, “What are you going to do with your major?”, I don’t find it quite as useful. I don’t want to own a business like Pollak suggests. (In fact, my mom is a small business owner, and through her experiences–which were often my experiences–I’ve had enough entrepreneurship for a lifetime.) I have a lot of interests through which I had to wade in order to settle into the major I have now. I’ve chosen English because it offers me something no other major can give me, and although, ironically enough, I find that “something” difficult to put into words, I would never settle for a job that’s anything less than that elusive something. If I wanted to be in business, I’d major in business. If I wanted to go into pharmaceuticals (which I did, at one point, and picked up a handful of biology classes), I’d still be a biology major. I chose English because English–literature, language, and writing–is my passion. So while it’s nice to know that I could potentially fall into a lot of other careers if I needed to, that will never be my main focus as far as I can see.

Call me stubborn; you’d be right.

Reacting to Perry’s Anxieties

This is a response to Imani Perry’s “Of Degraded Talk, Digital Tongues, and a Commitment to Care.” I was asked to respond to this article in terms of whether or not I share Perry’s anxieties about the digital space.

I don’t.

First of all, I felt that Perry’s view toward the increasingly digital world was not overly negative. While she expressed some fears at the beginning, she seemed to embrace the space at the end, viewing it as a vehicle to spread cultural awareness and musical appreciation. (I’m not really sure where that came from. On the whole, I found the article to be more about cultural studies and art rather than anxieties about the digital space.) Those anxieties she did express were ones that are a necessary evil when dealing with language; language, in order to be effective, must adapt to fit the needs of its speakers.

How does the evolution of language relate to the digital space? I guess because it means anyone can influence language, and with much more ease than before. This is something that fills me with excitement—not anxiety. I embrace digital life because it has brought me closer to so many things: friends, family, my studies, other cultures, and the vast world around me, much of which I would know nothing about without the Internet. Anything that has the power to educate as well as bring people together can’t be totally bad. So what if “selfie” is in the dictionary now? To some, as Perry points out, that shows a decline in the sophistication, so to speak, of the language, but I think that it shows how we shape our own environments. We are the creators of this new digital world, and that’s overwhelming—in the best way possible.

Humanities in the Digital Age

This post is a short response to two different essays that address the humanities in an increasingly digital context: the first is “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions” by Cathy Davidson, and the second is “Reading (And Writing) Online, Rather Than on the Decline” by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.

On the whole, these two articles converge in the central idea that the humanities need to participate an the interactive space that is online sharing. Both authors urge humanists to publish their ideas online as a way to garner a new type of peer review–one that both would agree is useful in shaping new ways of thinking and paving the way for collaborations otherwise not possible in another venue. Both authors are excited about this possibility for open communication and see it as the next destination for the discipline.

However, while the focus of Davidson’s essay is on a still-cloistered view of the discipline as scholars, Fitzpatrick encourages scholars and students alike to participate in platforms not typically associated with scholarly work, like Twitter and blogging sites. (And, really, that’s what I’m doing here, which is cool.) I think Fitzpatrick better realizes the social context of a digital humanities whereas Davidson, while still very adamant about collaboration and exchange, does not fully explain the social aspect of this new mode. For example, Fitzpatrick talks about a certain vernacular that can be applied online in order to gain new readers–in order to increase reach beyond the humanities–which I think Davidson would not necessarily agree with.

I found myself more invested in Fitzpatrick’s writing because it seemed more immediate to me; instead of only pertaining to a discipline, it moved beyond those borders and included grounding in an increasingly social society. (Well, increasingly social online, anyway.)

A Response to a Response

This is an inception post because I’m commenting on a commentary. I feel like I’m lost in a series of Russian nesting dolls, but I’ll do my best. The article to which I’m responding is a review/commentary on a book called Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Michael S. Roth). The piece itself, written by Christopher B. Nelson, can be found here.

It’s difficult to respond to this article because of the degree of removal that exists; I’ve never read the book about which Nelson is writing, so I’m at a disadvantage here. The one thing I was able to get out of it was the idea that each liberal arts school has its own blend of liberal arts education, based on two “threads” of education: the skeptical and the reverential. The skeptical, in its purest form, “free[s] the mind to investigate the truth about things physical, intellectual and spiritual.” In contrast, the reverential puts emphasis on “learning to participate in the culture, to appreciate its monuments and to create new monuments inspired by the old.”

Nelson (and I’m assuming Roth as well) believes that each liberal arts school around the country employs its own unique mix of these two trains of thought as well as a third tenet, which concerns itself with economic viability of the information taught. I believe that both threads are important to today’s world; while it’s great to overtly teach students about the society in which they live, individual-based instruction is just as viable because, as we sometimes forget, society is a collection of individuals, each with their own views and opinions. If we can open up the mind on an individual level, then we can more easily become a more tolerant, more inquiring society.