The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: January, 2017

The Most Frequently Taught Fictional Texts in (US) Universities

The Open Syllable Project collects the booklists of over 1m syllabi (mostly US) and one can browse a list the books used on all of these syllabi (ordered by frequency). There are over 933,000 books listed altogether, starting with the most commonly assigned book of all: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, on almost 3,400 course lists. There are all sorts of investigations that can be done on this list, but for the moment I am just going to look at the works of fiction (mostly novels, but some that would be classed as novellas or short stories) that appear in the top 100 of the list. They are:

5. Frankenstein (Shelley)

15. Heart of Darkness (Conrad)

24. Things Fall Apart (Achebe)

36. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)

43. Beloved (Morrison)

47. Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

50. The Yellow Wallpaper (Perkins)

55. The Awakening (Chopin)

57. Candide (Voltaire)

67. Invisible Man (Ellison)

70. Pride and Prejudice (Austen)

71. Their Eyes Were Watching God (Hurston)

76. Brave New World (Huxley)

87. Mrs Dalloway (Woolf)

91. The Metamorphosis (Kafka)

97. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

98. The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne)

There are 17 works of fiction listed above, but Huckleberry Finn actually appears twice (with slight variations on the title), at 47 and at 97, so there’s really 16. Though the Open Syllabus Project appears to be well researched and well presented, this is a somewhat glaring oversight. Adding the scores together for both entries, it is clear that Huckleberry Finn should appear much higher on the list (in 10th position, by my calculations).

Some facts:

  • Among the 16 texts, 7 are by women, 9 by men.
  • 8 are by Americans, 4 English, 1 Pole (Conrad, although he was living in England throughout his writing career), 1 Nigerian, 1 French, 1 German.
  • 8 from the 20th century, 7 from the 19th century, 1 from the 17th century (Voltaire).

The theme of race is what really jumps out in this selection: Huckleberry Finn, Invisible Man, Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart. The last-named two are also about colonialism, and they are also 2 of the  3 most-frequently assigned fictional texts, which illustrates the centrality of the subject in US academia.

There is certainly some sense of the much-discussed “opening up the canon” here, but there is obviously a marked Eurocentrism to the choices. The exception is Achebe’s novel, though I would point out that the irony here is that Things Fall Apart is an obvious rebuttal of the super-canonical Heart of Darkness (of which Achebe was famously critical), so it is the most European of all African novels. There’s nothing from South America or Asia.

The old Leavisite canon is still there: Austen and Conrad make it; George Eliot and Henry James don’t. Dickens, liminal and semi-canonical in Leavis’ opinion, bubbles just under the top 100 here too (Great Expectations at 112). The continuing relevance of Conrad is clear: his emphasis on race and colonial relations in Heart of Darkness keep interest in his work alive, rather than for the purely literary qualities that Leavis sought (indeed, he thought Heart of Darkness one of Conrad’s lesser efforts, as he discusses in The Great Tradition). As for Austen, the case is less clear-cut. Certainly, she explored female subjectivity and the social relations of upper-class women in depth, but unlike Conrad she knew nothing of class or racial struggle. I think Raymond Williams’ account of Austen’s viewpoint as a social novelist, from which some things, some activities, some people, simply could not be seen, still stands up:

The land is seen primarily as an index of revenue and position; its visible order and control are a valued product, while the process of working it is hardly seen at all.

[…]

She is concerned with the conduct of people who, in the complications of improvement, are repeatedly trying to make themselves into a class. But where only one class is seen, no classes are seen. Her people are selected though typical individuals, living well or badly within a close social dimension. Cobbett never, of course, saw them as closely or as finely; but what he saw was what they had in common: the underlying economic process. (The Country and the City)

The fact that such a partial view has such resonance among the educationally privileged of 21st-century America is revealing in itself, and worthy of further reflection. And there is much more to provoke reflection in the results of the Open Syllabus Project, well worth a look for anyone interested in the nature of contemporary third level education.

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Academic Civic Engagement: Epistemology of the Group v. Epistemology of the Individual

I have been prompted to reflect on the Idea of the University by several articulations thereof I have come across recently, including the Strategic Plan (2012-2017) of my own institution, Dublin City University:

We are the antithesis of the ‘Ivory Tower’ university and, through our actions, reflect a clear commitment to the pursuit of symbiotic relationships with our city, our region and our nation across all of our core activities.

So that is the binary we are faced with: at one extreme we have the “ivory tower”, at the other “civic engagement“, “social responsibility (USR)” and the like. It is the latter which is dominant in contemporary discourse, not only among newer and more business-oriented universities like DCU, but also even among those institutions old enough to actually have been part of the “ivory tower” set-up. Take Trinity College Dublin, by far Ireland’s oldest, established in 1592. TCD’s strategic plan has nine goals, and these include “strengthen community” and “engage wider society”. Even closer to the historic ideal of the “ivory tower” is Cambridge University, but here, too, the concept of the “ivory tower” is rejected – the “myth” “exploded”, indeed. The point is that no university today would be caught dead branding itself an “ivory tower”; rather words like civic engagement, community, social responsibility, social dimension, etc. will always crop up in any university’s mission statements.

Revealing, also, is the EU take on the subject. The EU provides much funding for third-level institutions, so this take is important. In the London Communique on the European Higher Education Area (2007), the future of third-level education was described as follows:

Building on our rich and diverse European cultural heritage, we are developing an EHEA based on institutional autonomy, academic freedom, equal opportunities and democratic principles that will facilitate mobility, increase employability and strengthen Europe’s attractiveness and competitiveness.

So the three goals for third level relate to mobility, employability and competitiveness. Here we see clearly the outward-looking orientation of the project. Employability describes particularly the results of academic study outside academy, in the labour market; competitiveness is again strongly linked to economic ideas and to performance in the market place. So, within the EU, there can be little place for an “ivory tower” university.

What, then, have we relinquished with the death of the “ivory tower” model? Central to John Henry Newman’s classic 19th-century text The Idea of the University are the notions of “seclusion” and “retirement”:

He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new. The common sense of mankind has associated the search after truth with seclusion and quiet. The greatest thinkers have been too intent on their subject to admit of interruption; they have been men of absent minds and idiosyncratic habits, and have, more or less, shunned the lecture room and the public school. Pythagoras, the light of Magna Græcia, lived for a time in a cave. Thales, the light of Ionia, lived unmarried and in private, and refused the invitations of princes. Plato withdrew from Athens to the groves of Academus. Aristotle gave twenty years to a studious discipleship under him. Friar Bacon lived in his tower upon the Isis. Newton indulged in an intense severity of meditation which almost shook his reason. {xiv} The great discoveries in chemistry and electricity were not made in Universities. Observatories are more frequently out of Universities than in them, and even when within their bounds need have no moral connexion with them. Porson had no classes; Elmsley lived good part of his life in the country. I do not say that there are not great examples the other way, perhaps Socrates, certainly Lord Bacon; still I think it must be allowed on the whole that, while teaching involves external engagements, the natural home for experiment and speculation is retirement.

Note how this association of seclusion with learning is considered to be common sense, and that Newman is laying no claim to novelty here, merely confirming what he takes to be a widespread and almost inarguable view. We have seen a very striking about-turn since then. With regard to the university, our faith in seclusion and retirement has been totally shattered, replaced instead by a faith in committees, meetings, conferences, expert groups and engagement. Knowledge is not gained by the individual, but by the group. There are simply no (or few) avenues in place for individual knowledge to be accepted into the epistemological structure of the modern university.

I, a (part-time) academic of sorts, see some dangers in this epistemological shift. The knowledge of the group, that which is taught in schools, churches, families and other social institutions and now in online communities creates its own problems of groupthink, of the hive mind, the madness of crowds, the folie a deux. Ultimately, there is really no reason for assuming that the wisdom of the group is any more epistemologically grounded than that of the individual. There is only the contingent and temporary swing of the pendulum. One could also go into the congruity between the devaluation of purely scholastic knowledge and our old friend the neoliberal agenda, the much-bemoaned corporatization of the university.

Let us recall here Thomas Carlyle’s once-influential plea for the epistemology of the individual from his early work “Signs of the Times“:

Instruction, that mysterious communing of Wisdom with Ignorance, is no longer an indefinable tentative process, requiring a study of individual aptitudes, and a perpetual variation of means and methods, to attain the same end; but a secure, universal, straightforward business, to be conducted in the gross, by proper mechanism, with such intellect as comes to hand […]. Has any man, or any society of men, a truth to speak, a piece of spiritual work to do; they can nowise proceed at once and with the mere natural organs, but must first call a public meeting, appoint committees, issues prospectuses, eat a public dinner; in a word, construct or borrow machinery, wherewith to speak it and do it. Without machinery they were hopeless, helpless […].

With individuals, in like manner, natural strength avails little. No individual now hopes to accomplish the poorest enterprise single-handed, and without mechanical aids; he must make an interest with some existing corporation, and till is field with their oxen. In these days, more emphatically than ever, “to live, signifies to unite with a party, or to make one.” Philosophy, Science, Art, Literature, all depend on machinery.

We academics, tenured and precariat, need to learn how to speak again without machinery, without committees, without peer review, without public dinners, but as individuals. Of course, that’s what people do on the internet, but just because the lay community does it, does not mean that academia should vacate the field of individual speech. Yes, we risk much getting down to that level, unprotected by disciplinary expertise, but without that, the relevance of the university is significantly diminished. The “ivory tower” university where the individual could learn and write in relative seclusion had, ironically, relatively little difficulty in speaking a general human language that was comprehensible to those outside the walls, but today’s engaged university will have to relearn speaking outside of the discipline if it is to really engage beyond rhetorical flourishes.

Thesis now available on DCU database: The Unspeakable Victorian

My PhD thesis, The Unspeakable Victorian: Thomas Carlyle, Ideology and Adaptation, is now available open-access on the DCU doras platform: here, one year after I submitted the final version. Here’s the abstract:

This thesis aims to provide an analysis of comparative ideologies through close reading of 19th-century fictional texts and their 20th-/21st-century film and television adaptations, isolating similarities and differences in the presentation of specific socio-political issues. The fictional texts in question have been chosen for their display of a complex and substantial dialogue with the writings of the 19th-century political and cultural commentator Thomas Carlyle, a dialogue whose existence is established through documentary evidence and close reading of the texts themselves. By extending the analysis of these texts to their later screen adaptations, Carlyle’s ideas become a background against which changing assumptions about the human condition and changing modes of narrativizing said condition come into relief. The suitability of Carlyle for such a study is demonstrated by an examination of his reception history, which establishes him both as a virtually ubiquitous influence on the Anglophone literature of his day and as a near perfect ideological Other for a 21st-century reader in Western culture, articulating stances at odds with ideological tendencies within contemporary culture and embodied in dominant generic tropes of contemporary narrative. Relevant adaptations are considered as a form of reading Carlyle, one whose elements of debate and struggle with the ideological otherness of the text is explored using Gillian Beer’s concept of ‘arguing with the past’. The importance of a re-consideration of Carlyle’s ideas within the context of 21st-century narratives and cultural assumptions is argued using Paul Feyerabend’s conception of knowledge as ‘an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives’, wherein even failed views must be retained and re-worked to add to the content of the whole.

Quite a mouthful, no? The thesis itself is a curate’s egg performance: good in parts. In one sense, I’m proud of the fact that even in the end I was having difficulty articulating my central research question. The work was decidedly in an expansive humanist tradition: less the collection and interpretation of data than the “free play of thought” over certain narrative and artistic objects. (Yes, that’s right: I’m quoting Matthew fricking Arnold. I didn’t actually quote him in my thesis, however.) The idea of play, indeed, in terms of academic study interests me greatly. I have already spoken of the importance of play to Paul Feyerabend, perhaps my favorite theorist of epistemology (whom I did quote in my thesis). The student of sociology is directed towards the classic essay “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” by C. Wright Mills, which also emphasizes the importance of a play.

In the course of the unstructured intellectual play which led to the production of my thesis, I did not learn any great new insight into the human condition, but I read widely and reflected deeply on many socio-cultural and existential matters of importance to me. In the course of this, I certainly gained many trick and tools of academic writing – even if some of the things I learned are precisely the things many contemporary academics avoid. I hope I became more of a craftsman. I say craftsman because of Mills again, and his first commandment in “On Intellectual Craftsmanship”:

( 1 ) Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist; let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of a craft. Stand for the primacy of the individual scholar; stand opposed to the ascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of man and society.

[Note: this edition is the most readily available online at the moment. Other editions of this essay have made the language more gender-neutral. E.g. “Let everyone be his or her own methodologist”.]

This I can at least say: I was my own methodologist, my own theorist. The flip-side of this is that it is hard to contribute to any field if you are your own methodologist.  But yet, it is, for me, hard to engage intellectually in a satisfying way if one is not one’s own methodologist. I still believe that it is better to remain methodologically agnostic and opportunistic for as long as possible, only committing to the epistemological straight-jacket of methodology when external pressures demand it. In the current academic climate they will, in the end (and even in the beginning), demand it, and only too much method (epistemologically and indeed in terms of personal engagement) will be enough (professionally). If The Unspeakable Victorian: Thomas Carlyle, Ideology and Adaptation is under-theorized whilst also being too theoretically ambitious, then take it, if you will, as a sign from an epistemological future, wherein the academic as pure vessel of method has given way to the academic who allows his or her mind to play freely over all worldly phenomena, without discipline. And recall, again, the Carlylean tagline that hangs over this blog: Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.

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