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It seems we are not sufficiently introspective in English departments.  I know, something of a shock to me too.  Especially given the air many of my colleagues and students have of really wanting at any given moment to curl up on a sunny window-seat with a book.  Maybe that’s what’s been causing The Decline of the Humanities we’re hearing so much about: not enough window-seats and drowsy summer afternoons.  We should bid for a grant.  Anyway, I recently came across this passage in a volume by Maurice Wiles which, though I think it might be slightly out of date, made me think about how well (or badly) we explain to our students the point of the various activities we undertake together:

Academic practitioners are often regarded as almost neurotically introspective and self-critical.  Yet they do not in practice reflect overmuch on the purpose and objectives of their particular activities.  The literary critic, for example, lectures and writes about the great figures of the past.  But what is his purpose in so doing?  Is he seeking to persuade other people that his way of understanding those writers is the true one, and so get them to adopt it also?  Or is it perhaps part of a personal struggle on his own part to understand those writers, a struggle in which he is inviting others to share as much in the hope of receiving enlightenment as of providing it?  Or is he really more concerned to heighten the general sensibilities of those to whom he lectures in their response to the world around them, and to use the figures from the past more as an aid to that objective than from any intrinsic concern with the precise historical interpretation of the writers themselves?  No doubt all are legitimate aims, and in most cases all will be present in some degree or another; but misunderstanding would sometimes be avoided if both lecturer and audience were clearer which aim was uppermost at any particular moment.

                   Maurice Wiles, The Remaking of Christian Doctrine (SCM, 1972, p.16)

There are some grand themes in play here (and I’m sure I’ll return to this passage in the future), but Wiles’ stress on being certain about the purpose of activities reminded me of a lot of essays I’ve marked over the last weeks.  I’ve deliberately delayed this post until all the marks have gone back and the feedback has been discussed, in case any of my students read this blog and panicked that I was talking about their work and they had just failed!  (If that’s you, rest assured I’m not.)  There was an awful lot of really good work which I couldn’t give as high marks as I would like because it seemed to have a different idea about the purpose of writing essays.

It wasn’t that these essays ignored the question, or were logically incoherent, rather that they made assumptions about the point of it all which I didn’t share.  Or at least assumptions I didn’t share at the time: part of the reason I felt uneasy about marking such essays down is that they frequently followed lines of argument I would nod enthusiastically to if made in a different context.  I thought it might be helpful to give a few examples, to see if other academics in English departments had similar experiences, and perhaps to warn students off some common problems.

The First Time in History That…

A trope I come across from time to time is the epochal declaration: that a certain novel was the first time anyone had expressed a particular idea, or that an author had invented a particular metre, or that a novelist had invented the first character in literary history to carry out a particular action.  Unfortunately – and rather by the by – these are often wrong, if only because we can rarely point to particular moments in literary history when an idea or a form has been “invented”.  Development in literature tends to be much more gradual, if only because a work must adhere to some of the pre-existing conventions in order to make sense.

Thus even if it is correct, logging “first times” in literary essays suggests a rather skewed sense of our approach to the subject.  Where we once thought of English as a timeline peopled by heroic Great Men of Letters, we’re now more interested in shared literary cultures, networks of ideas and generic features.  It’s not that “first times” don’t happen, or that they can’t be significant: Hroswitha von Gandersheim and Sophocles are both remarkable milestones in our literary history, for example.  But the trope implies a rather different idea of the point of literary scholarship.


These essays set out to uncover what a particular symbol, character or entire novel was really about.  One character might be revealed as another’s subconscious self, or a plot device might turn out to be punishment for an earlier event, or a location might be identified as “actually” representing an abstract virtue.  As with the other tropes I’m discussing, this isn’t necessarily wrong.  There are rich symbolic languages which pervade many – if not all – the texts we study in English departments.  One of the basic notions which allow us to go to work on prose fiction, for example, is that individual characters are representative of their social type, and that we can identify common attributes and features they share with people in the world beyond the text.  And the poetic elements of various kinds of literature encourage us to notice the way images cluster around particular ideas or atmospheres.

However, “decoding” a feature in the text as an abstract idea rather flattens it.  It loses the depth which justified our investigation in the first place, and offers a diagram instead.  It’s not that symbolic interpretations are wrong, but they’re often carried out too hastily, and presented as the end of analysis, rather than as a stimulus to return to the work and read it with more attention via the symbolic language.  A useful test might be whether such an interpretation forecloses further reading, or opens up space for it.

The Timeless Quality of…

This is a tricky one: evaluation or appreciation of the work in question.  A lot of essays I’ve marked over the years try to explain why Chaucer is the greatest medieval poet, or extol Shakespeare’s timeless power.  Particularly tricky because I may agree, and so feel dishonest in putting a squiggly line underneath the phrase in question.  However, literary essays are not usually about how terrific a writer someone was.  We maintain a politic fiction of neutrality, and investigate the complexity, the subtlety and the intricacy of texts without giving opinions as to their value.  Though of course all the terms I used in that last sentence are usually read as positive.  And our enterprise in studying literature is based on a powerful sense of its value.  Very few of us got to the position of being in a university literature seminar without an awful lot of reading undertaken for our own enjoyment, and an intense personal relationship with books.  And then, at the other end of the scholarly timescale, many professors write wide-ranging surveys in which they give personal opinions and extol certain writers (such as Dante or Shakespeare) as the best in Western literature.

Even within the syllabus, many academic will be proposing courses on certain books because they believe those works deserve more attention, particularly if they work in feminist or postcolonial studies.  So there’s something rather artificial about the bubble which we erect around literature essays and exams, declaring that within these pages no enthusing or evaluation should take place.  Perhaps this one shows best the extent to which these tendencies I’ve outlined aren’t “mistakes”, but simply operating on a different set of assumptions about the purpose of a specific literary task.  Do other academics in the field – or indeed students – find this chimes with their experience?