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.

Poe in the Digital Space

For my senior seminar class, I’m required to present a “digital project,” which essentially means that I have to find some sort of online resource and present it to my class. I chose poestories.com because my capstone paper has to do with Edgar Allan Poe and Gabriel García Márquez.

Poe Stories is a website dedicated to archiving Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories in their entirety. Not only that, but the texts of the stories feature built-in definitions of antiquated words, making it accessible for any audience to read these stories. In addition to the stories, the site is home to a collection of Poe’s poetry, a compilation of other links to Poe-related sites, and a short biography of Poe, among other things.

I feel this website would be useful to anyone with an interest in Poe, whether that interest be scholarly or leisurely. The collection they’ve compiled is quite impressive, and it’s much easier to access the stories online—all in one place—than to carry around a huge anthology. The forums provide discussion, which can serve as a jumping-off point for the critical thinking needed in something like a research paper (sounds familiar…) and the biography gives context to the stories. I actually used this website in order to access “The Black Cat,” which is one of the primary texts I analyze in my paper. I loved reading the story there because of the definitions they provided.

So if you’re a Poe enthusiast, make sure you check out poestories.com! It’s a neat site with a lot of useful information.

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.

Commenting on Craft: Part Five

There are many parts to this series. Basically, I’m compiling quotes on how to do better research and scholarly writing.

Don’t try to find every last jot of data relevant to your questions; that’s impossible. But you do need data that are sufficient and representative.

I’m so, so guilty of this. In fact, I found myself doing this last night while combing over some secondary resources, though I feel to do something similar but slight different: I will take a tiny, relevant piece of a large article and use it for my purposes, even if the article itself has little to do with my subject. I’m not sure if that’s bad or not, but it seems a shame to read something and not be able to use it at all.

You’ll believe in your claim so strongly that you will see all your evidence in its favor.

Oops. This is true and speaks to what I described above. Perhaps I should have read this before doing my secondary research notes… though I think it’s important to use sources in a way that support–not contradict–your thesis. So this is a double-edged sword in a lot of ways. I’ve not yet found a source that directly argues against my thesis, but I’m going to look for one, just to make sure I’m not blinded by my own confirmation bias.

“If you come across secondhand data (data that your source reports from another source), do everything you can to locate the original source. Not only can you then be sure your report is accurate (you may be surprised to see how often secondhand sources are not), but you may find other data equally useful.”
I found myself wanting to do this when I was compiling sources. I made notes to myself to locate the original sources rather than to take them at face value when a writer is quoting them. The writer is citing these works with their own agenda in mind and therefore can be skewed a certain way. Locating the original source is more likely to give you a genuine idea of what the quote means in context. And context is everything.

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.