On the Predominance of Special Topics in the Humanities

I'd like to propose a new course titled "abstract basket weaving for the motorcycle enthusiast 101"

Already, as I begin to mull through my thoughts so I can attempt to put something coherent down on paper, I realize that I’m not necessarily writing about special topics courses. Rather, I’m writing about how institutions are moving away from general courses, and towards specialized topics. I think there are pros and cons associated with this shift.

When I was in grad school, I took two courses that I thoroughly enjoyed. First, I took a course on science fiction. The second was a course covering various graphic novels. I enjoyed the science fiction course because it covered many authors I was already familiar with and allowed me to explore these authors in an academic capacity. I read Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly in coordination with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. This experience marked my shift from novice inter-textual analyst to, not quite a veteran, but I was able to scrutinize texts for deeper meaning and use the insights provided by philosophers and critics to add more substance to my reading experience.

But I was almost done with my M.A. coursework, and when I started my short-lived stint studying for the GRE so I could transfer to another institution, I realized that in almost a decade of education in English, I had little to no knowledge about literature from the 14th century to roughly the 17th century, except the staple: Shakespeare. I had always mistakenly assumed that this was simply because he was the only high watermark from this time period. I felt like I was almost done with my education, and grossly underprepared for the GRE. Adding insult to injury, I realized that most of the science fiction texts I had read were not included on the GRE. The course I had signed on for, in a broader academic capacity, wasn’t going to do me much good. It was personally enriching, yes. It taught me that I could apply various critical lenses to virtually any writing, whether pop culture, cult, or pulp. This was exciting to me at the time because journals appeared to be looking for critical analysis of pop, pulp and cult writing, particularly anime and graphic novels. I thought this would be my calling, to continue the discourse of literary criticism by viewing new works through old lenses. Consequently, I’d be justifying the view that these works have literary merit.

The problem, for me, is that as we move towards incorporating more of these specialized courses into our humanities curriculum, we’re introducing students to material without a solid foundation. We’re sacrificing the old for the new. If we have a limited number of course offerings, the problem becomes more significant.

I still think there’s a place for criticism that validates new artistic endeavors as literary or of academic merit. I’m currently teaching a graphic novels as literature course at my institution, and I have already had students in the class approach me to talk about how other professors (professor, actually) scoff, and find the notion of a “comic book course” laughable. So at the institutional level I play the role of the critic justifying comic books as forms of literature, and damn it, they are. Anyone who believes Pulitzer or Hugo awards hold weight in the world of writing have to acknowledge that comic books have the potential to be literature, because authors have been the recipients of the Hugo and a Pulitzer special prize for their work. But I’m getting off topic.

While I think there is room for critics continuing literary discourse by bringing new work in, I also wonder if this trend has stripped us of a few potential Foucaults or Benjamins. Of course then I remember that they weren’t necessarily literary critics. My abstract reasoning and exposure to semiotics sometimes gets me into trouble. They were reading society as text and interpreting it critically, so why weren’t they considered literary critics? I ask myself. Sometimes I think I’m a sociologist caged by a M.A. in English and Communication with a strong focus in literature.

Is this art? Well, its aesthetic value is debatable, but if it is symbolic of what we as critics have done to art, then yes, it sends a message. Oh, it's just some crap you found on the street?

So instead, let’s say that this trend, this validating new works as literary, may cause us to lose a Stephen Greenblatt, a man who breathes new life into the old, and, it could be argued, created a new critical lens through which we can view old literary works and new alike. I’ve witnessed the product of new historicism first-hand. Pardon me if I sound crass, but it’s good shit. But today, what I bought into initially and what I’m seeing, is a lot of folks using the old to breathe life into new works, to justify them as literary. This has the potential to be dangerous. One look at Ofili’s Virgin Mary encrusted with elephant shit and you see how liberal people have become with what they deem art. I’m not saying the piece isn’t art, but I will make a case against the display I saw at SVA years ago which featured a skyline of penises and giant spreads covered with small drawings of the male genitalia which were rendered without the artist taking his pencil off the paper. I’m sorry, I don’t think that is art. And if one of my students told me they were taking a course on feces as art, I’d probably scoff like the professors who think a comic book course isn’t viable. And maybe, like them, I’d be wrong. Then again, maybe in 200 years we’ll be taking course on stick figure drawings as literature.

Back to the point I was careful to make before a long journey through random thoughts associated with academia: we can tell ourselves that standardization doesn’t exist in higher education in the same way it exists in high schools. GRE tests are telling a different story, and I believe that if we continue to strip our curriculums of core courses for the sake of specialized courses then we’re going to be moving away from the standards established by GREs. Additionally, like I said above, we’re immersing students in special topics courses without proper orientation to the fundamentals. I want my students to recognize Byron as the godfather of emo, and understand the shift from poet as prophet to poet as madman, and how our authors today fit within that paradigm. I want them to be able to use the old to breathe life into the new, and use the new to breathe life into the old. I want them to see patterns in literature. When they read popular fiction, I want them to know whether it has gothic or romantic undertones. I want them to be able to put new works into a framework of understanding.

Of course this is coming from someone who strongly supports and teaches specialized courses like comic books as literature. I’m hopelessly postmodern.

2 thoughts on “On the Predominance of Special Topics in the Humanities

  1. I feel like I’m in the same sort of boat here. I’ve got a semester and a bit to go before I finish up my undergraduate degree in Creative Writing/Literary and Cultural Studies. While my creative writing side of the degree covers a lot of the basics in the first couple of years, LCS is almost entirely specialised topics. So when we’re talking about Foucault or Barthes or Jameson, we haven’t exactly studied any of their work in great detail. And I’ve never really studied classic literature.

    But still, I find myself going into my final projects for the semester approaching stuff like bizarro and manga from an academic perspective. I don’t think of it as art the same way they teach English Lit as art. I guess three years doing LCS has got me thinking more along the lines of reading them in terms of culture, their being a product of, and significance towards culture.

    Over the past couple of years I’ve done courses on reading the city as a text, fantasy, new media narratives/video games, popular music and such. Sure, they’re interesting, but it probably would have been easier for me now if I’d done units on semiotics or postmodernism instead of doing units that link back to them but being more about something else and having vague course titles like “Moving Words” or “Culture to Cultures.” But it’s the arts, and at my uni it always seems to be changing. All I can really do is read up on the key theorists as much as I can on top of all the other study from some other dude about something really specific.

  2. It’s an interesting scenario. And the whole setup results in a broader discourse in literary studies, which is great. I wonder if it will become so broad that literary discourse will become more about each critic bringing new material into the discourse, with very few people working to sustain a discourse established with a particular text. The positive element of such a thing occurring would be an increase in theory as the sustaining element of literary discourse instead of the texts themselves.

    Your program sounds like it has some great courses. Reading the city as a text would be great! We did a small unit on that in semiotics with Poe’s “Man of the Crowd.” It always left me wanting more.

    I got a lot of core theory relating to semiotics while I was acquiring my M.A. because my semiotics professor was great. Classic lit was where I got jilted in terms of GRE requirements. In semiotics we looked at concepts such as “everything’s a text to be read,” but we also learned about the theorists, the foundation from which these concepts stemmed. Sometimes I think that gets lost in these specialized topics as well. I also see, and I’ve been guilty of this too, specialized topics dropping pre-requisites so the classes are more likely to fill. At my institution approaches to literature is the foundation course for literature, but some students try to avoid it because it has a negative stigma, which I hope we can change. If we add that as a pre-requisite for a special topics lit course, our enrollment drops because, while students might want to take a course like comic books as literature, some of them don’t want to take it so bad that they’ll sit through an approaches class.

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