Most of my husband’s family members are doctors with specializations in subjects like pediatric neurology or anesthesiology. To my surprise, one of his cousins veered away from the traditional path of medicine and favored accounting. What makes her even more unconventional in her career choice is her desire to work in academia. She is currently a tenured professor of accounting at Monmouth University. Being the only two academics in our family (and I use the term lightly in reference to myself as a graduate student still endeavoring to navigate the world of academia), we tend to swap stories and share experiences during family gatherings. The last time we spoke, we talked about the controversy surrounding the diminishing English major. She later posted an article in the New Yorker on my Facebook page, “Why Teach and Study English,” and told me it made her think of me.
Like much of the literature we have been reading in class, the article, written by Adam Gopnik, questioned the tenants of humanities and English discipline by criticizing content-based learning. In response to my in-law, I told her that professors of English teach students how to write just as much as they teach them how to read. Her response to me was, “Our English department at Monmouth is on record saying that their job isn’t to teach writing but critical thinking. That makes no sense to me.”
The ongoing conversation about this crisis (an article in Inside Higher Education was published just today in reference to diminishing numbers of English majors at University of Maryland), is affecting not only academics in the Humanities but also in other departments. I sympathized with my in-law when she was riddled by the notion that teaching critical thinking was at odds with teaching writing. The two should be taught in tandem rather than seen as conflicting practices. Of course, ascribing to one practice over another was reflective of the politics inundating the English major/Humanities controversy. When a department asserts that it teaches critical thinking rather than writing, it does so because it announces its autonomy. This assertion also endeavors to preserve the integrity of tenure for senior faculty. In “Teaching to the Six,” Michael Berube writes about his past experience at the University of Illinois and states
It is true that senior literature faculty at Illinois, and at many other schools, do not teach composition. I have had to admit as much on many occasions, usually in response to conversational turns like “Yes, well, you may teach undergraduate literature courses, but surely you don’t teach the composition course that justifies your entire departmental budget.” (In the last few years, as more of my work has dealt explicitly with the mechanics of English departments, it has become increasingly likely that my conversations with colleagues at other universities will take this turn…
The incorporation of composition pedagogy in literature courses is not only seen as an inferior practice but also an invasion. The majority of English courses that are offered at the university level are composition and writing courses and if literature departments adopt their methodologies, they might risk being swallowed up into oblivion. I do not mean to exaggerate this fear but I think it is relevant, especially given the increase in unemployment of Phds, lower enrollments of undergraduates in humanities programs, and the view held by not only lay people but also by academics in other disciplines (such as my in-law in accounting and economics) that English professors are not preparing students for the job market.
One way of resolving the conflict between rhet/com and literature is to resolve the conflict between teaching and writing. In Elaine Showalter’s chapter on “The Anxiety of Teaching,” she suggests that teaching does not have to conflict with research. Instead of viewing our scholarship as “work” and our teaching as “jobs,” we need to give equal weight and importance to each aspect of our profession. This means more than becoming an engaging lecturer. It means we have to begin treating our teaching as scholarship, as “pedagogy to make it as intellectually challenging as our research” (11). If we don’t take our teaching as seriously as our research, then we might have a classroom similar to the one Berube describes in “Teaching to the Six.” In “Teaching ‘the Six’ – and Beyond,” Kim Owens is disappointed by the fact that he offers little insight into how he can teach beyond the ideal six star students he comes across in his undergraduate literature courses. Unlike Berube, Owens’s background is in composition. Thus, she offers her reader pedagogical guidance while Berube, as Showalter would argue and as Owens argues, is a literature professor who needs to work on treating his teaching with the same measure of academic rigorousness and attention as his research.
Personally, I would like to synthesize variations of subject-teacher-student centered pedagogies. In the literature classroom, I would endeavor maintain a balance on the research/content I’ve used to construct the syllabus and the procedures I’ve adopted to foster critical reading and writing.