Writing and rites of manhood at Hampden Sydney College

It’s pedagogically incorrect to say so, but I have to say the grammar and test intensive writing curriculum at Hampden Sydney College really works. I taught there for a year right out of grad school at Duke, was skeptical of the whole idea of a sophomore year grammar and writing test when I came, and have never tried to implement it anywhere else I’ve been. But I will say it worked. For Hampden Sydney College, it worked. Hampden Sydney College produces competent writers across the board, its share of truly skilled writers, and a campus culture that is deeply committed to writing, all through the musty and most unlikely aegis of that thing called grammar.

Success there is bred, I think, partly through the usual ways: small intense classes and several of them. Learning to write is labor intensive, so mostly as a nation we get the kinds of writers we pay for. But I also think the grammar and writing exam plays a crucial cultural role at the all male school. It is a rite of passage that every student anticipates from the moment of matriculation, that every first year prepares for throughout the year, and that every sophomore endures more or less at the same time. At the end of the sophomore year it marks the passageway to upperclass status. Who would have thought that grammar and rhetoric could become an initiation into manhood.

An excerpt from the recent Inside Higher Ed story on hsc and Old Dominiom. (Side note: I got to hear an address from Hampden Sydney’s President, Chris Howard, at the Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest. Impressive.)

But at Hampden-Sydney, qualifying to take the test is the culmination of a yearlong (or more) process. The 1,100 men there must first pass two rhetoric classes (or three if they test poorly as incoming freshmen) before sitting for the test. The classes, which are capped at 14 students, stress grammar and essay composition. If a student fails the test, generally taken late in his sophomore year, he has two opportunities to pass it again as a junior and to seek help from writing instructors.

If a student still hasn’t passed by the start of his senior year – something faculty say rarely happens – he places into a writing-intensive course in which he is tutored and then asked to write three essays but isn’t held to a time limit. Lowell Frye and Elizabeth Deis, both professors in the rhetoric department since 1983, said they can’t remember a student not graduating solely because of the writing assessment.

But, they said, the test provides accountability and encourages a collegewide emphasis on writing. “It creates a climate in which writing is important for faculty and for students,” Deis said. “The students, and especially the alumni, are absolutely committed to the idea of this test.”

(via Instapaper)

Grading the Crowd

Can the wisdom of crowds apply to grading student papers, or to evaluation of culture more generally?  What about the quality of a theological argument, or a decision about foreign policy?  We’re taken a lot with the idea of crowds and collaboration lately, and not without good reason.  I think there’s a great deal to be said about getting beyond the notion of the isolated individual at work in his study;  especially in the humanities I think we need to learn something from our colleagues in the sciences and think through what collaborative engagement as a team of scholars might look like as a norm rather than an exception.  At the same time, is there a limit to collective learning and understanding?  Can we detect the difference between the wisdom of the crowd and the rather mindless preferences of a clique, or a mob.  I found myself thinking about these things again this evening as I read Cathy Davidson’s latest piece in The Chronicle Review, “Please Give Me Your Divided Attention: Transforming Learning for the Digital Age.”

Cathy Davidson, "Now You See It"

I wrote about Davidson a couple of days ago–she’s around a lot lately, as authors tend to be when a new book comes out that a publisher has decided to push—and I feel almost bad at taking up  only my crabbiest reactions to her recent work.  First, let me say that I briefly crossed paths with Davidson at Duke where she was hired the year I was finished my doctorate in English.  She seemed like a breath of fresh and genuine air in a department that could sometime choke on its collective self-importance, and the enthusiasm and generosity and love of teaching that Davidson evinces in this essay was evident then as well, though I never had her for class.  And, as this comment suggests, I think there’s a lot in this essay that’s really important to grapple with.  First, her suggestions of the ways that she and some of her colleagues at Duke trusted students with an experiment in iPod pedagogy paid off in so many unexpected ways, and we now know a good bit of that was far ahead of its time.  Moreover, she paints a wonderful picture of students as collaborative teachers in the learning process in her course on the way neuroscience is changing everything.  Still, as with a lot of these things that focus on student-centeredness, I find that promising insights are blinded by what amounts to a kind of ideology that may not be as deeply informed about human action as it really ought to be.  I felt this way in Davidson’s discussion of grading.

 There are many ways of crowdsourcing, and mine was simply to extend the concept of peer leadership to grading. The blogosphere was convinced that either I or my students would be pulling a fast one if the grading were crowdsourced and students had a role in it. That says to me that we don’t believe people can learn unless they are forced to, unless they know it will “count on the test.” As an educator, I find that very depressing. As a student of the Internet, I also find it implausible. If you give people the means to self-publish—whether it’s a photo from their iPhone or a blog—they do so. They seem to love learning and sharing what they know with others. But much of our emphasis on grading is based on the assumption that learning is like cod-liver oil: It is good for you, even though it tastes horrible going down. And much of our educational emphasis is on getting one answer right on one test—as if that says something about the quality of what you have learned or the likelihood that you will remember it after the test is over.

Grading, in a curious way, exemplifies our deepest convictions about excellence and authority, and specifically about the right of those with authority to define what constitutes excellence. If we crowdsource grading, we are suggesting that young people without credentials are fit to judge quality and value. Welcome to the Internet, where everyone’s a critic and anyone can express a view about the new iPhone, restaurant, or quarterback. That democratizing of who can pass judgment is digital thinking. As I found out, it is quite unsettling to people stuck in top-down models of formal education and authority.

Davidson’s last minute veering into ad hominem covers over the fact that she doesn’t provide any actual evidence for the superiority of her method, offers a cultural fact for a substantive good—if this is how things are done in the age of digital thinking, it must be good, you old fogies—seems to crassly assume that any theory of judgment that does not rely on the intuitions of 20 year olds is necessarily anti-democratic and authoritarian, and glibly overlooks the social grounding within which her own experiment was even possible.  All of this does sound like a lot of stuff that comes out of graduate departments in English, Duke not least of all, but I wonder if the judgment is really warranted.

An alternate example would be a class I occasionally teach, when I have any time to teach at all any more, on book reviewing.  In the spirit of democratizing the classroom, I usually set this course up as a kind of book contest in which students choose books to review and on the basis of those reviews, books proceed through a process of winnowing, until at last, with two books left, we write reviews of the finalists and then vote for our book of the year.  The wisdom of the crowd does triumph in some sense because through a process of persuasion students have to convince their classmates what books are worth reading next.  The class is partly about the craft of book reviewing, partly about the business of book publishing, and partly about theories of value and evaluation.  We spend time not only thinking about how to write effective book reviews for different markets, we discuss how theorists from Kant to Pierre Bourdieu to Barbara Herrnstein Smith discuss the nature of value, all in an effort to think through what we are saying when we finally sit down and say one thing is better than another thing.

The first two times I taught this class, I gave the students different lists of books.  One list included books that were short listed for book awards, one list included first time authors, and one list included other books from notable publishers that I had collected during the previous year.  I told them that to begin the class they had to choose three books to read and review from the lists that I had provided, and that at least one book had to be from a writer of color (my field of expertise being Ethnic literature of the U.S., I reserved the right).  They could also choose one book simply through their own research to substitute for a book on one of my lists.  Debates are always spirited, and the reading is always interesting.  Students sometimes tell me that this was one of their favorite classes.

The most recent time I taught the class, I decided to take the steps in democratizing one step further by allowing the students to choose three books entirely on their own accord.  Before class began I told them how to go about finding books through the use of major industry organs like Publishers Weekly, as well as how to use search engines on Amazon and elsewhere—which, their digital knowledge notwithstanding, students are often surprised at what you can do on a search engine.  The only other guidance was students would ultimately have to justify their choices by defending in their reviews why they liked the books and thought they could be described as good works of literature, leaving open what we meant by terms like “good” and “literature” since that was part of the purpose of the course.

The results were probably predictable but left me disheartened nonetheless.  Only one book out of fifty some books in the first round was by a writer of color.  A predictable problem, but one I had kept my fingers crossed would not occur.  More than half the books chosen by my students were from romance, mystery, fantasy lit, and science fiction genres.  Strictly speaking I didn’t have a problem with that since I think great works of fiction can be written in all kinds of genres, and most works of what we call literary fiction bear the fingerprints of their less reputable cousins (especially mystery writing, in my view, but that’s another post).  I thought there might be a chance that there would be some undiscovered gem in the midst.  I do not have the time to read all fifty books, of course, but rely on students to winnow for me and then try to read every book that gets to the round of eight.  It’s fair to say that in my personal authoritarian aesthetic, none of the books that fell in to that generic category could have been called a great work of fiction, though several of them were decent enough reads.  Still, I was happy to go with this and see where things would take us, relatively sure that as things went on and we had to grapple with what it meant to evaluate prose, we would probably still come out with some pretty good choices.

Most of the works that I would have considered literary were knocked out by the second round, though it is the case that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom made it all the way to the finals, paired against Lisa Unger’s entry from 2010, whose title I can’t even remember now.  In the end the class split almost down the middle, but chose Unger’s book as the best book they had read during the course of the semester.  Not that I thought it was a terrible book. It was a nice enough read and Unger is a decent enough mystery writer.  But being asked to remember the book is a little like being asked to remember my last trip to MacDonalds.  One doesn’t go there for memorable dining experience, and one doesn’t read Lisa Unger in order come up with books that we will care to remember several weeks after having set them down.  But what was perhaps most intriguing to me was that after an hour long discussion of the two books in which students offered spirited defenses of each writer, I asked them that if they could project themselves in to the year 2020 and had to choose only one book to include on a syllabus in a course on the best books of 2010, which book would it be.  Without exception the students voted for Franzen’s book.  When I asked the students who changed their votes why this would be, they said “We think that Franzen is more important, we just liked reading Unger more.”

This is the nub.  Can the wisdom of crowds decide what is most important?  To that, the answer can only be “sometimes”.  As often crowds choose what is conveniently at hand, satisfies a sweet tooth, or even the desire for revenge. Is there a distinction between what is important or what is true and what is merely popular?  Collaboration can lead us past blindnesses, but it is not clear that the subjectivity of a crowd is anything but blind (in my original draft I typed “bling”, a telling typographical slip and one that may be truer and more interesting than “blind.”  It is not clear that they can consistently be relied upon by their intuition to decide what ought to last. This may not be digital thinking, but at least it is thinking, something crowds cannot be always relied upon to do.

If we could really rely on crowds to make our choices, we would discover that there is really very little to choose between almost anything.  Going on Amazon, what is amazing is that four stars is the average score for all of the 100,000s of thousands of books that are catalogued.  And popularity trumps everything:  Lisa Scottoline scores higher in a lot of cases than Jane Austen.  Literally everything is above average and worth my time.  This is because in the world of the crowd, people mostly choose to be with those crowds that are most like themselves and read those things that are most likely to reinforce the sense they have that they are in the right crowd to begin with.  This is true as even elementary studies of internet usage have pointed out.  Liberals read other liberals, and delight in their wisdom and the folly of conservatives.  Conservatives read other conservatives and do likewise.  This too is digital thinking, and in this case it is quite easily seen that crowds can become authoritarian over and against the voice of the marginalized.  My students choices to not read students of color unless I tell them to is only one small reminder of that.

Which leads to one last observation.  I wonder, indeed, whether it is not the case that this experiment worked so well at Duke because students at Duke already know what it takes to get an A.  That is, in some sense Davidson is not really crowdsourcing at all but is relying on the certain educational processes that will deliver students well-attuned to certain forms of cultural excellence,  able to create effectively and “challenge” the status quot because they are already deeply embedded within those forms of culture excellence and all the assumptions they entail.  That is, as with many pedagogical theories offered by folks at research institutions, Davidson isn’t theorizing from the crowd but from a tiny elite and extremely accomplished sample.  As Gerald Graff points out, most of us most want to teach the students that don’t need us, that means most of us want to teach at places where none of the students actually need us.  Davidson’s lauding of her students in the fact that they don’t’ really need her to learn may merely be an index of their privilege, not the inherent wisdom of crowds or the superiority of her pedagogical method.   Her students have already demonstrated that they know what it takes to get A’s in almost everything because they have them—and massively high test scores besides—or they are unusually gifted in other ways or they wouldn’t be at Duke.  These are the students who not only read all their AP reading list the summer before class started, they also read all the books related to the AP reading list and  have attended tutoring sessions to learn to write about them besides.

Let me hasten to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with their being accomplished.  On some level, I was one of them in having gone to good private colleges and elite graduate programs.  But it is a mistake to assume that the well-learned practices of the elite, the cultural context that reinforces those practices, and the habits of mind that enable the kinds of things that Davidson accomplished actual form the basis for a democratizing pedagogy for everyone.  Pierre Bourdieu 101.

Cryptomnesia: Originality, thy name is plagiarism

For the past several years I’ve used the Footprints poem in my literary theory class to discuss theories evaluation and aesthetic quality. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Footprints poem, I want to say first, “What planet have you been living on?” There is, after all, no more popular item of American religious kitsch than the Footprints poem. My very conservative guess is that is has been shellacked to about 14 million pieces of 1X4 plank board pieces at Vacation Bible Schools across the country.–For those of you unfamiliar with Vacation Bible School…well…bear with me. This may be a my culture/your culture sort of thing. In any case, just enter Footprints poem in any search engine and prepare to be inundated.)

As I was saying, I’ve used this “poem”–in some versions it’s kind of more of a paragraph–to talk about theories of aesthetic distinction. My very good English majors are often aghast that there could be a serious debate about the aesthetic qualities of such a piece of tripe. On the other hand, they are often very chary of the notion that someone could tell them that some things are better than others. Good Americans all, their instincts tell them that it is elitist in a sad and undemocratic fashion to assert that Wagner is “better” muscially than Eminem, or that some things are just inherently better than other things. Brought home to them through Sunday School poetry, however, we deal with the question of why they believe that the Footprints poem is inferior. If it is inferior, what justification to we use for saying that some things are better than other things. Is making this claim an objective claim or is it merely a subjective preference they’ve developed through their years of being elitist English majors. If Hopkins really is better than the Footprints poem, should we take it upon ourselves to teach people that love the Footprints poem that they are really rotting their aesthetic brains and ought to be reading Gerard Manley Hopkins. And if we really believe people would be better off reading Hopkins, why is it such a leap to believe that Wagner really is better than LL Cool J, or that in general everyone would be better off listening to opera than to Country and Western or Rock and Roll.

Found out today that I can now use the Footprints poem to also teach about the philosophy and history of authorship, another main topic of the course. Hank Stuever over at the Washington Post has written a great piece on the contested authorship of the Footprints poem. Turns out that lawsuits abound, and that no less than 3 people are claiming ownership over the text, though one of them also claims to have written the words to a famous Beatles tune when she was a pre-teen. There are claims and counterclaims, with drafts and manuscripts and other forensic evidence.

And we only thought Shakespeare worthy of this attention.

One academic has even traced the basic essence of the poem back to a sermon in the 1880s and has asserted that it’s possible that nobody actually wrote the poem. Says Stuever:

Last fall, in an online article for the Poetry Foundation, a Brooklyn journalist and literary sleuth named Rachel Aviv traced elements of “Footprints” to a sermon delivered in 1880, and raised the tantalizing possibility that nobody really wrote “Footprints in the Sand.” Those who have claimed to, Aviv noted, may be suffering from the collective “accidental plagiarism” that Carl Jung explored in his paper “Cryptomnesia” more than a century ago.

Everyone knows a cryptomnesiast, of one sort or another. It’s your cousin who stood up at Peepaw’s funeral and tried to pass off the “Do not cry, I did not die” poem as his own; or those crafty tykes who keep submitting bits of Shel Silverstein as original verse to The Post’s kids’ poetry contest. It’s the woman who sends you a sympathy card after your dog dies, with her handwritten version of the (also disputed) fable about dogs waiting for their masters in Heaven. It’s your church pastor or corporate motivational speaker who keeps coming up with those amazing “I-recently-met-a-man-who” anecdotes to illustrate his point.

Something can be so profound, so true, (so “duh”) that the cryptomnesiast is sure she thought it up herself. There is very little you can buy at a crafts fair or in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble that doesn’t have a whiff of the unattributed.

This happens to me ALL the time. I’m always running across published stuff out there on the internet that I KNOW I came up with first. My brain is the great unacknowledged source of most of the intellectual creativity out there in the last couple of decades.

Ok, seriously though, I do have this experience of feverishly working out an idea only to discover someone else has already done it, and much better than I could even if given world enough and time. Cryptomnesia is apparently a specific form of memory in which you recall what you don’t know that you’ve forgotten and don’t remember ever learning or reading.

A new explanation for Borgeses story about the rewritten version of the Don Quixote.

I find, in fact, as I get older that I do this all the time. I was reading in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier today, and ran across a blog about an aging professor who talks about how he downloaded an article and wrote feverish and exalted notes about it, thrilled at these new ideas and contributions to his own work until he discovered somewhat later that he had already read the article, and had written feverish and exalted notes about it thrilled at these new ideas and contributions to his own work.

Okay, I really have done this. And at 48 I don’t really consider myself aged. I’m reading Dicken’s Hard Times at the moment, and I keep having the nagging suspicion that I’ve read it before, but I can’t remember enough to know what is going to happen next. Does this count as a memory?

Although it’s laughable on one level to think of the many people wanting to claim ownership of the Footprints poem, I wonder if there’s not some more serious relationship between cryptomnesia and creativity. It’s not an original thing to say that creativity is primarily a matter of rearrangement, of finding creative connections between the many things that are rather than a discovery or manufacture of the absolutely new. There are people out there with absolutely unerring memories, who remember the details of their lives from many years ago–what they had for breakfast, how long it took to eat, whether they burped or sniffled after downing the last bit of egg. I suspect, though I cannot know, that such people would find it intensely difficult to be “original.” They would experience themselves self-consciously plagiarizing or replicating experiences all the time. If I could not forget that I had read something, I would find myself less free to combine it anew with other things that I have forgotten that I learned. Recombination is made possible by dislocation, by tearing something away from it’s original context. My guess is that Crypotmnesia makes that possible.

In the same fashion, we imagine ourselves as unique and original individuals until we awake in our forties to discover that we like the same kind of socks as our fathers, that we scratch our noses in the same way between sentences, that our lower lips protrude while thinking just like his, and that we roll our thumbs around one another in precisely the same annoying way that he rolled his thumbs when we were teenagers.

Not that any of that has ever happened to me. But I’m sure if we had to live in a constant awareness of all the ways our lives are imitative, we would never be able to allow ourselves to invent new contexts and meanings for all the things we’ve plagiarized from others.

But I’m sure that someone already said this better.

Critical Thinking and Cultural Literacy: Or, Is Unmasking Shakespeare Productive Cultural Work?

Ok, a slightly lame way of doing the blog entry today, but I spent a lot of time commenting on Mark Bauerlein’s blog at the Chronicle today, so I thought I’d just copy some of that and expand just a bit on what I had to say there.

In sum, Bauerlein makes the argument that the arguments in favor of critical thinking as a raison d’etre for literary study are really only half the story for professors in the humanities, and perhaps especially in English. The other half is that we need to pass on an appreciation of a cultural tradition.

As a department chair, I’m used to giving the usual run-down on critical thinking in making arguments for English studies. They generally sell well with provosts and deans because they both seem to comport with traditional practices of the humanities while at the same time being a marketable skill to discuss with skeptical external constituencies. On the other hand, I’m not completely convinced that the humanities are the only place to get critical thinking skills. What, they aren’t doing critical thinking in the hard and social sciences? I think we sometimes assume that because different fields investigate different data sets, they are therefore not developing critical thinking. What is an economist doing but attempting to think critically about received wisdom as applied to sets of data in the economy?

Thus, I fully appreciate, while not going all the way with, Bauerlein’s argument that the humanities have to be about familiarizing students with a substantive subject matter and understanding its active or potential value in the world and for themselves. In my own terms, I think that English studies, especially, has to be more than a critical project; it has to be a constructive project as well.

My comments on Bauerlein’s blog were as follows:

I think the comments above that suggest an exclusive identification of literary or humanistic studies with critique has become strangely vacuous are right on the mark. And, in reality, it’s not clear that critique per se has changed very much over the course of the last two or three decades. This is because critique must always have an object of its attention and is therefore always dependent on some kind of received culture.

In an older form of literary study, criticism meant not simple-minded passing on, nor simple-minded tearing apart, but critical evaluation. That is, what is worth passing on, what is worth reading, and for what reasons? The literary academy and the humanities more broadly have almost entirely defaulted on this particular task because to make an affirmative act of construction is to lay oneself open to the, I guess, humiliating preference for deconstruction or other forms of political critique.

In our curriculum I teach both the courses on literary theory and a course on book reviewing, and in both attempt to get students to think in concrete and critical ways about what’s worth reading and why. I have to say that students find the classes incredibly important to them. Far from feeling like the web—with its massive democratization of product and opinion—has done away with the need for discussion of value, they really find it an important question. Why should I spend my time with this book rather than that book? With Mark Bauerlein’s blog instead of Moby Dick? These are theoretical questions, critical questions, and questions that involve themselves in the construction of traditions and cultures rather than simply critiquing them.

In my own view, I think the current explosion of textual matter on the web—whether blogs, or online fictions, or newspapers, or e-books—has created a critical situation very similar to that which existed after the invention of the printing press. In a certain sense, the invention of the press changes the function of criticism. Prior to widely accessible print and the expansion of both reading audience and authorship beyond the narrow confines of the clerisy and aristocracy, criticism more or less existed to catalogue and discuss the characteristics of good writing. This was not, properly speaking, an evaluative project. Things that were published and preserved were, by and large, already considered good. “Criticism,” such as it was, was more a taxonomic affair, describing the goodness that was already known to exist.

After Gutenberg, criticism became the task of defining what, out of the immense amount of material on hand that could be read, really should be read. What was worth preserving? What things being produced by the new class of writer/readers deserved a status similar to that of the ancients as worthy of being preserved? To some degree, we are still at the dawning moment of that part of the internet revolution. What is really worth reading? Even, what is really worth writing? Is a blog worth doing? Is it real writing or is it conversation. Is real thinking going on, or is it ephemeral. To some degree popularity sites like Technorati or Digg that try to apply the democratic impulses of the web to blogs and the like are trying to serve an evaluative function. The wisdom of crowds applied to the function of criticism. Will this work for the long term? I have my doubts. There’s always been a tendency to try to insist that “best-sellers” are those things that are really valuable, but their value hasn’t been sustainable for more than a generation or two. I suspect that we are still working out the function of criticism at the present time. What shape will criticism take? How will we decide what is worth reading and writing. How will we decide what being written—or perhaps we should now simply say, “being produced—on the web are the kinds of things that should be passed down to our children as we attempt the inevitable human activity of forging a common culture.

After a variety of comments for Bauerlein with varying levels of vitriol in play, I followed up on a comment that made the argument that we need to be teaching things that students are comfortable with, but also things that sting them with their unfamiliarity.

My response:

Tim, I wonder in this day and age whether reading almost anything longer than a blog will be, for many students, a de-familiarizing and unsettling experience. That is, one doesn’t have to buy in to all the hype about a reading crisis to recognize that the nature of reading is changing, and the ability to read extended and complex texts has been eroding among college graduates.

Because we are so habituated by our own reading practices and training, we often make deeply flawed assumptions about what students will find de-familiarizing. And, to be honest, we often default to simple-minded notions of unfamiliar cultural content. “De-familiarization” first developed among formalists as a conception of how literary language served to shock readers from their comfortable linguistic frames of reference. On that score, I think we often find that contemporary students find reading much of anything “literary” at all to be unfamiliar, defamiliarizing, and unsettling. Especially so in poetry, but in a different register in long novels and plays they no longer even bother to try and read. Rather than experiencing the sting of defamiliarization in Shakespeare’s Tempest, students are quite as likely to go get the Sparknotes so they can pass the test and even write their essays.

In this kind of reading context, it seems to me that discussions of how to upset the cultural applecart on the basis of whether folks read Shakespeare or not are increasingly arcane and disconnected from cultural realities in which long form reading is taking place. While I agree that the task can’t be a simple passing on of received tradition, I think the cultural situation does call for engaging students with the question of why certain forms of reading may be valuable, and thinking through what texts might be worth the time required for reading them. In other words, the philosophical conception of “The Good” surely can’t be “Whatever has always been.” But it also surely can’t be, “Whatever I decide might make my students talk in class,” or “Whatever an individual wants it to be.” To go this route is, I think, to give up on the question of “The Good” entirely, something I think most students are still unwilling to do.

This is something I find repeatedly in play among literary intellectuals. It’s almost as if we are so hermetically sealed within the discourses and practices of our discipline that we can’t conceive of a world where the fact of reading a book might be uncomfortable or unfamiliar for students. When I raise this problem at conferences, I repeatedly have professors reply by saying “Everyone I know reads.” I want to say “Duh. You work in an English department.”

This fact, I think, calls in to question some of the basic premises of the canon wars that preoccupied folks at Duke while I was there as a grad student in the late eighties and early nineties. In the world that we are entering and are now in, people who read literature as an important part of their cultural lives are a distinct minority group that all have more in common with one another regardless of ethnicity, sexual identity, religion or gender, than they do with other members of their various identity groups—at least insofar as reading is concerned. That is, reading books, and reading literature especially, marks them out as different, as Other from the culture they inhabit–whether we are thinking of an ethnic, a national, a religious or a sexual culture. We need to recognize that we are quickly entering a world, and are already in it, wherein the simple fact of reading Moby Dick or Shakespeare will be a stinging act of defamiliarization that unsettles the cultural life of students.

This doesn’t mean that Bauerlein is right that we need to be passing on a received tradition—though I think students value that more than we sometimes realize. But it certainly does mean that we have to be involved in a constructive project and not simply a critical project.