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Though in theory any professor may pursue any intellectual interest--a musicologist retooling as an urban studies expert, say--most U.S. faculty find, plow, fence, and defend one small intellectual plot throughout a career.

Anne Matthews, Bright College Years

There is no site better than a convention to trigger the operations of the professional unconscious. A moment during a morning of the past Northeast Modern Language Association confronted me as if with the force of something hitherto repressed. Suddenly not so much the pattern of my convention attendance but the very nature of my career seemed to reveal itself.

On the way to a session entitled "The Transmission of Culture: Postcolonial and Ethnic Literature," I chanced to notice in the program another session in the same time slot, "Modernism, Consumerism, and Visual Culture." The session to which I was headed included both a paper on two writers about whom I knew nothing as well as a paper on a novel of Salman Rushdie's I had not read. I never teach these writers. The session which I had failed to notice featured two papers on Faulkner as well as another on Nathaniel West. I teach these writers regularly.

I stopped in the hall. What was going on here? Why was I attending the conference--or any conference--in the first place? To hear papers that were irrelevant to my teaching or ones that were useful? To inquire into areas I did not know, or into those I did? Or had the whole logic of disciplinary specialization simply broken down in my career, and even become unintelligible? Nominally still "in" twentieth century American fiction, I had in fact allowed my interests to become subject to so many extensions and disruptions that modernism had somehow become equivalent to postcolonialism.

But when did this happen? How had my career come to such a state of affairs, whereby I inclined toward more subjects or writers than I could accommodate, much less read? More significantly, how typical anymore is such a career? I had gone during the preceding time slot to a session on childhood. One of the panelists had just finished a book on the subject, another had a manuscript in progress, while the third had launched her research into a new scientific direction, where each one in attendance seemed either already headed or already there. I envied them all their focus. Everything seemed in order because everybody appeared to be a specialist.

We continue to enter the discipline by means of some specialization. If there is no specialization, there is no mark of what Magali Sarfatti Larson refers to as "overtraining," by which is meant the social meaning of training and expertise in any profession (which must be stratified in order to be a profession in the first place). Overtraining "aims at creating complete skills and at eliciting the layman's trust. Because of such overtraining, specialization is not seen by the public as a narrowing down of competence, but as a deepening of knowledge, an added skill" (230). This "added" skill has in recent decades arguably become more crucial just to determine entry-level qualifications for professional employment rather than to maintain either the profession's internal stratification or the public trust.

As a consequence, the narrative grammar available for anything to do with specialization remains very limited, especially when we consider that many who succeed in entering do not necessarily abide within the profession in terms of specializations. In accordance to the changing teaching needs of our departments, if not our own personal development, our duties may change, and our interests develop in new directions. It is possible to find oneself at mid-career in an entirely different area than that in which one had begun. What to say about the medievalist who can initially only get a temporary position, then manages to land a tenure track one, only to be assigned to teach the eighteenth century and literary theory? What about the African-Americanist who discovers that there is so little interest in her specialty that her department cannot continue to schedule any courses in it?

The logic of disciplinary specialization remains, however, the only logic there is. On the basis of this logic, research is conducted and published according to the dictates of expertise perfected in specific areas. Furthermore, according to this logic, one takes possession of an academic career in the first place, from which teaching proceeds as the activity of a specialist. [1] Does this specialist presume to teach the specialization to others? Only at research universities or elite liberal arts colleges. The great majority of professors must be content to practice their specialties as aspects of a more general competence or some more complete skill. In English, this means teaching introductions to literature, surveys, and broad-based special interest courses, as well as plenty of composition. Through all this, though, no other professionally authorized narrative obtains for having a career--as opposed to an accumulation of experience--than for a college professor to have a special intellectual plot to def end.

This narrative is already changing. Young Ph.D.s are beginning to produce accounts of their work wildly at odds with the venerable plot. Recent issues of the MLA's Profession have included accounts of a graduate students who couldn't find jobs and became high school teachers or else who could only find jobs as adjuncts (Smith, Kolb). The ADE Bulletin prints a piece by a Columbia University Ph.D. explaining why he quit his tenure-track position at Rocky Mountain College in Montana (Jones). A new volume, On the Market, contains narratives of people who wound up designing software, traveling for USAID, or opening a business, as well as teaching high school. How are we to understand all this experience? Alongside it, the story of a woman who teaches full time at a country jail (rather than take a couple of part-time adjunct positions at two area colleges) looks almost conventional. Will the story of this woman, in turn, have any power to affect that of the man who teaches at Penn State and has devoted his life t o editing the letters of Bronson Alcott?

Or the story of another man who teaches at Clarion University and has never found his Bronson Alcott? It is time to reconsider the whole traditional notion of a career, even on the part of people who have been fortunate enough (by the criterion of today's job market) to have had one, but in ways far more various, fugitive, and otherwise less readable than those proscribed by the scholarly model of disciplinary specialization. In what follows, I would like to consider my own professional experience of over twenty-five years. Based on the specialized model, I have scarcely had a career at all. And yet--such are the paradoxes of the present moment--my experience and that of many others like me may now provide the most accurate guide to the future careers of the next generation of professors.

I am thinking not so much of those who are lucky to secure positions on the tenure track as those who can only get temporary jobs, teaching what their circumstances present them with--mostly composition, probably--while striving to transform these circumstances somehow so they can one day teach the subjects most dear to them. However, depending upon the institution, the occasions of the tenurable people can become indistinguishable from those of the untenurable ones. Both, that is, may have had to demonstrate a specialization in order to be so much as considered for the job. Subsequently, neither turns up with a job that actually permits the specialization to be taught, researched, pursued--in a word, professed. This last word, indeed, has come to appear rather precious, refined, antique--in another word, specialized.


Most of my courses in graduate school were in English literature, particularly the Renaissance. But perhaps the most memorable course I ever had was during a summer toward the end of my studies. It was on the Transcendentalists, taught by a visiting professor. I loved the man's total command of his subject. Everything from his rich fund of anecdotes about Emerson and Bronson Alcott to his penetrating analytic gaze appeared to be all of a piece. Here, I realized, was the embodiment of the professor I wanted to be. I even swooned over the way the man smoked, waving his cigarette in casual little circles like a wand.

His specialty was Thoreau's notebooks. I vividly recall the day he entertained us with a sort of lofty sarcasm about the consequences of such specialization: there were less and less people to whom you could talk. As his own investigations into Thoreau's notebooks became more narrowed and refined, he said, a future loomed in which there would be virtually no one to whom he could speak. Clearly, it seemed to me, the arrival of this time was devoutly to be wished.

Why did such a prospect thrill the man so much? I never found out. Why did it thrill me? I never found this out either, one year later, when I should have begun to investigate, because it was time to write my dissertation. I chose W.B. Yeats for the worst reason: just beginning to read his poetry, I thought it would be wonderful to have the opportunity to learn more. What this meant in practice during the next year was that researching would relieve me of the imperative of writing. I read everything. At the end of the year I had written four pages, single-spaced.

By this time I had a job. It came about because of a fluke: the chair of the department was visiting an old friend of his, who chanced to be the professor to whom I was closest. He recommended me to the chair, a Miltonist. Perhaps we got along so well when we met--it didn't even seem to me to be a job interview--because I loved Milton, the subject of the other of my most memorable grad courses. When we wound up discussing the position in his department, the matter of a field never came up (and the question of when I would complete my dissertation was of merely perfunctory interest).

A few months later I found myself teaching two sections of freshman composition and two sections of World Masterpieces. The composition was easy. The literature was hard. I'm not really sure why I was assigned the course, which functioned at the time as an sort of introduction to literature on the basis of the Great Books. It seemed never to have occurred to anybody to question either the pedagogical value of such a course or what David Damrosch has lately termed its "suppressive unity" (120). [2] It certainly never occurred to me at the time. Perhaps my assignment was meant to serve as some sort of apprenticeship. I was much younger than anybody else in the department. Come to think of it, perhaps the course was meant to serve as a sort of punishment. The Norton. Anthology of World Masterpieces was given unto me in the same spirit that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

The Norton anthology began with Homer, whom I had not read since my freshman year in college. I had never read Virgil. In the second half of the course, there were Pascal, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Lorca--I'd never read any of them. The provocation virtually the whole of Western culture (there was no other then) presented to me was wonderful. Teaching Greek drama prompted me to come to terms with Nietzsche for the first time. I remember the night I stayed up till 5 am. because it was so absorbing to read St. Augustine. Pascal elicited some fine discussions in class about the meaning of faith; students always liked to talk about religion. But World Masterpieces had virtually nothing to do with my graduate education, not to mention my dissertation on Yeats, which I just dropped.

The man with whom I shared an office had written his dissertation on Shaw. He hardly ever talked about Shaw, though. Instead, he only liked to talk about two things: music, and the correct pronunciation of Middle English. The course in which he specialized was Chaucer. Had he wound up teaching Chaucer because nobody else could? It was never exactly clear to me. Our best friend was the department's true medievalist--a real scholarly type whom one could find in the library reading back issues of Speculum during semester break. But he, in turn, only liked to talk about sex. There being no course in medieval literature other than Chaucer for him to teach, he wound up devoting many weeks in Survey of English Literature to considerations of the Pearl poet and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Most of the other people in the department were identifiable in terms of some specialty, usually major figures. One man was still writing his dissertation on Hardy. My officemate hated Hardy. He used to make everybody angry by joking that "Hardy didn't have an idea a pigeon could carry." Another man was about to finish his dissertation on Melville. My officemate approved of Melville. Perhaps in part this was because our colleague was just as interested in adventure as in Melville, and liked to joke even more about such things as the time a student had referred to his great book, Moby's Dick. Although I do not think we were aware of it at the time, we all shared a common background of literary culture, and it spoke through us, even in our jokes and our separate ways.

During that first year there was an old man among us whose presence was mysterious. He could be seen gliding down the hall as if out of the pages of a book--a musty volume, pages torn, with the title on the cover almost rubbed off. Either about to retire or already retired from somewhere else, he was, my officemate assured me, "a real scholar." One day, during my second semester, when I happened to be teaching Antony and Cleopatra in the second part of the composition sequence, we suddenly cooked up a question to test the man's scholarship: what is the name of the river on which Cleopatra is sailing when Antony first sees her? He'd never know. Nobody knew, we were sure. But the old man had no hesitation when he asked him one day in the hall: the Cydnus River! He left at the end of that semester.

I remained. Soon the department devised a small graduate program, and had it approved by the administration. Alas, too late for our medievalist to teach a course in his subject at last; he was killed in an auto accident. The chair had no interest in teaching Milton; in due time, he retired. The Hardy man, though, taught Hardy--and kept on doing so, periodically, for the next twenty-five years; he wanted to teach Hardy for a final time, his last semester before retirement, when he suddenly died. The Melville man taught Melville--until he himself became chair, got interested in Shakespeare, and became our resident Shakespearean; before he retired, a man who was hired to teach Shakespeare had left in disgust, unable to teach one course. Nobody taught Chaucer for the next twenty years after my officemate decided one year to give it up. Until his own retirement, he went on regularly to teach Faulkner in the grad program.


Four years after I began as a full-time professor, I finally managed to teach an upper-divison course. It was in the summer, when I could have offered just about anything, without challenging anybody else's field. But just out of grad school I could never have predicted the subject: Victorian fiction. I never had a course in Victorian literature, but especially loved reading Middlemarch for the Ph.D. writtens. This summer course had six students enrolled, including the woman who was then my wife. We had both wanted to re-read Middlemarch together that summer. So what the hell.

Four years later I taught my first graduate course: seventeenth century prose and poetry. The anthology I had used in grad school was still in print, co-edited by the man who had taught me. On the first meeting, I made the following statement to the students: 'You're not qualified to take this course and I'm not qualified to teach it" About them, I meant that they were not enrolled in a doctoral program, which seemed to me like the only sufficient reason to take such a specialized, demanding course. About myself, I meant that I was unworthy to perpetuate the authority of my professor, who was the other consummate image of a scholar given to me by my graduate school experience.

I never taught either of these courses again. By the time of the graduate course, if not the upper-division one, the idea of a specialization had become pretty much lost to my experience. My two literature courses now had expanded to include the second half of the survey of English literature and a section of "special topics," which varied from semester to semester. They included fantasy and detective fiction. I left off teaching fantasy when the students would not give up their enthusiasm for Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy to the exclusion of Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Detective fiction eventually became too mechanical to continue when even the most metaphysical kinds seemed too formula-ridden. By then I was a good example of what James Sosnoski has characterized as the "defielded" teacher, only of course, not having written a dissertation, I never had a field in the first place. [3]

I continued to teach World Masterpieces, but after a few more semesters junked the Norton anthology. One semester we read the entire The Divine Comedy instead--slowly and lovingly, in the John Ciardi translation. Afterwards one of the best students told me that reading Dante changed her life because it deepened her belief in God; I tried not to be appalled. In a couple more semesters, we were reading the great European classic novels. I gave true & false, fill-in-the-blanks quizzes on The Red and the Black and The Brothers Karamazov. Could it really be true, as I remember, that the students experienced these tests, and even some of the novels, as fun? How could this be? Once I almost put Proust on the syllabus, before deciding he was just too hard. Another semester I included Kafka, who flopped. If the students did not love classic European fiction, they had to read it carefully. And then one day--it seemed to happen overnight--a new truth was discovered: the students could no longer read, and had to be inst ructed from anthologies of short stories and poems about themes and point-of-view.

Thus World Masterpieces devolved into various incarnations of introduction to literature. It probably should have happened sooner, but I disliked each incarnation, squirmed at the prospect of having to teach "My Last Duchess," and never ceased to chuckle when my old officemate--but we had separate offices now--insisted on how much I secretly loved to teach "Young Goodman Brown." In fact, I missed the heft, challenge, and drama of the old World Masterpieces. One semester I walked into intro to lit on the first day and announced "a special treat" to the thirty-five assembled students: we were going to read only one novel--War and Peace, the longest novel ever written. The next time we met, nineteen students had dropped the course. This wasn't the point of choosing Tolstoy. It never was. But this time it helped.

In fact, I was tired of teaching to the same, remorseless audience of thirty-five mostly freshmen and sophomores, although at least the sections of these courses had been reduced from the fifty or so I had been regularly confronted with during my first years. And by the time I offered my first graduate course, I was ready to discern the outlines of some idea of order, if not specialization, in my intellectual life. It had nothing to do with seventeenth century English literature; offering this course was, I think, paying a valedictory tribute to my graduate education. Order had everything to do with three other factors, which, in turn, originally had nothing at all to do with my teaching. Maybe this was the point.

The first factor was being chosen as a member of a Summer Seminar in the National Endowment for the Humanities program on Contemporary American Literary Forms. Not only was the seminar enormously stimulating. It coalesced a lot of stray reading, and focused a number of interests. That fall I taught my first course on contemporary American literature, which the chairman let me have in recognition of the NEH award. It was exciting to have some formal study behind a course. I even tried to publish the paper on Gravity's Rainbow that I had written for the seminar. At last I felt, well, like a specialist, although I never used the word then. To this day, I teach the course.

The second factor was being chosen two years later as a member of the first group of students for another NEH-sponsored summer affair: the School of Criticism and Theory. Its two classes, rounds of lectures, and informal discussions were all so stimulating that some nights I could hardly get to sleep. My previous reading did not so much come together as expand and explode. Once again, I tried to publish something on narrative that I had written for one of the two classes I took. Within a couple of years, I taught a graduate course on literary criticism--soon to be changed to theory, in deference to the new disciplinary idiom. Once more, it seemed presumptuous to call myself a specialist. To this day, I teach the course.

The third factor was being chosen (one year later) for a sabbatical by my local college-wide committee. The reason I had given on the application was, to write my dissertation. Of course I had no intention of doing so. By then I was tenured; the chair tried to make something of the fact that I had not written my dissertation, but the department liked me anyway. What I wanted instead to do on my sabbatical was simply travel. But I had gotten interested in something new, partly as a result of another NEH Summer Seminar. It proved fascinating to continue my research when I got to Oxford, and writing about parody--of all things--became irresistible. I made my way to and from the Bodleian each day as if the great library were a church. Of course I could have been working on Bronson Alcott for all anybody cared. Nobody but me did. This was, I think, the point.


During my second sabbatical, twelve years after the first (and eleven years after receiving a Ph.D.), I sat down and wrote an essay entitled, "On Teaching at a Second-Rate University." My wife remembers the night I finished it. I came into the living room where she was sitting, sat down, and declared: If I get this essay published my career will never be the same." I did. It hasn't been. Perhaps the writing of this essay coincided with some sort of unspoken admission I had finally made to myself that my experience could be represented as a career, of sorts.

The furor--locally and to a degree nationally--prompted the Chronicle of Higher Education to do a profile of me. The part I liked best is where the writer noted that I have done most of my publishing after being promoted to full professor. He remarked that I have had "a career in reverse." I still don't quite know what this means. But I'm proud of the phrase, despite the fact that my career has been based on emotions much at variance with pride. The truth is maddening, embarrassing, humbling: I've never had a specialization.

In the introduction to his recent critique, Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, for example, Cary Nelson includes me (along with people such as Evan Watkins and Gerald Graff) as one who has "begun to rethink the discipline's history and practices" (20). It's always nice to be thought of. But inwardly I exclaim: who, me? I just wrote a book of essays about certain features of academic life, because I couldn't write about anything else. It's hard for me not to think without regret about my career because it's been spread too thin, conducted according to the dictates of lower-division teaching, and sponsored by a misplaced ideal of scholarly identity.

"What better instrument of containment could possibly be invented," asks Sosnoski on behalf of his "token" professoriate who all teach at second-rate universities, "than a standard of productivity that cannot be met but is nonetheless accepted by the worker as reasonable" (4)? Indeed. But the reasonableness of this standard does not cease to have force for me just because during the past decade or so I have come to admit its ideological and institutional character. I look back on my career now and still see only its lack. It no more matches what Sosnoski terms "the standard career template" than that of any part-time teacher today. Of course my career has enjoyed more range. Nevertheless, I am not sure how much this difference matters, especially since so much of the actual content of my own teaching lies today either discarded, evacuated, or conventionalized, while the template of specialized scholarship looms for many at the beginning of their careers with more irony than it does to me at the end.

Consider the latest edition of the Heath Anthology of American Literature, which I consult in order to check the spelling of "Bronson Alcott." To my shock, he's not there. The Transcendentalists are barely mentioned. They don't even merit a section of their own! What's this? And I've got an article in which I endorse the progressive claims of the Heath editors, and detail my attempts to negotiate them (with Volume II) in the classroom (Caesar, "Pieties and Theories")! I have to retire to my old paperback of Perry Miller's edition of The Transcendentialists to find the information, though not without pausing to gape, incredulous, that once I had scribbled margin notes in pencil on virtually every single page of this anthology. How can knowledge be so utterly lost?

Yeats? I hardly read a poem in years. Is he still taught anymore to undergraduates? I was shocked the other day in a friend's e-mail when he mentioned preparing for a lecture on Yeats's theories of symbolism. Then I remembered that of course he teaches in Singapore. Singapore is a foreign country and--presumably--they do things differently there. This is what L.P. Hartley says about the past. In the past, they do such different things as read Antony and Cleopatra in freshman composition. Is it possible that so long ago such a thing was actually done? Today it would not only be undreamed of. It would be bad pedagogy. For all I know, according to the latest pedagogy it might even be bad for composition students to read anything, except perhaps each other.

World Masterpieces? Another scandal in today's terms. Eurocentric masterpieces, the course would have to be renamed, and already was in the process of being so by Norton itself--I seem to recall--when an "Asian" supplementary volume was produced, around the time I ceased to use the anthology at all. Now, according to David Damrosch, the Norton "is now appearing in a new multicultural edition" (113). Meanwhile, World Masterpieces is now appearing within the discipline of English as the basis for a specialization. A few years ago my department hired a specialist to teach a course now renamed "World Literature," although still in two sophomore-level phases. Like so much of contemporary education, the new designation stands for nothing at all except the virtue of appearing to be inclusive. One day I chanced to walk down the hall past the open door of the specialist, who was holding forth on the Greeks, much as I used to do.

The contemporary American literary forms whose novelty had once so stimulated me became canonical years ago. The theory whose ambition had once so excited me is now so orthodox as to appear today regularly cast in retrospective terms, as if in displaced mourning for its lost power and secret provocations. Even at my university, as the graduate program dwindles for lack of both student applications and administrative support, nobody offers courses in single figures anymore. Of course there remains Shakespeare. But with the retirement of our Melvillean Shakespearean, Shakespeare is now up for grabs. Two or three people have taught Shakespeare already. The last one wrote his dissertation on twentieth century British fiction. Nobody cares.

There is a good claim to be made today that the days of a specialist are numbered, at least at universities such as mine. Soon even the universities where the days of specialization are not numbered (or else who would be left to teach them to graduate students?) will have to respond more crudely to those presently under the discursive phase of what my administration has taken to name as the institution's "mission." The department still hires on the basis of the traditional model of a field. But the notion of what constitutes a "field" is fast approaching the absented one of my own teaching experience, where I could be expected to teach just about anything, because the existence of the course mattered more than my qualifications, if any. We don't lack fields in my department. What we lack is the logic for them, not to say for the notion of a department itself. [4]

Our last hire was in the newly decreed field of "Medieval-Renaissance." The person will teach, if enough students enroll, one upper-division course per year in this commodious realm. Was this prospect made clear to her? I was on sabbatical when the candidates were interviewed and then evaluated by the department. I heard afterwards that the job should just have been given to the one who teaches composition best; during interviews with the candidates and then later during department-wide discussion about them, little else but composition was mentioned. Yet how could it be otherwise? The committee has had a standing rule during its last few searches that people without composition experience will not even be considered--not even if they have books or Harvard Ph.D.'s. If not the department head, then where is the administrator bold enough to declare that our university's "mission" is only impeded by the whole antiquated "field-coverage" model? [5]

My present dean could still be that man, having begun with rare promise. A few years ago after he was hired, we were graced by his presence at an early fall departmental meeting. At one point during some ritualized fretting over the nature of the "Renaissance" position (as it was then termed), the new dean spoke up. Our problem was that the administration had made it very clear this position would only be funded if there was a strong possibility of a minority candidate. But how likely would an African-American Spenserian be? We fretted. The dean's suggestion was breathlessly simple: we ought to redefine the position as Cultural Studies, where a minority candidate was far more likely.

Who could disagree? Not us, this day. A colleague did wonder after class why we couldn't just hire an African-American and train him--or better, her--in Chaucer. But of course professional organization has not worked this way. At least in English, first comes the specialization, then the job; graduate education differs in important ways from job training. Either an individual comes to grad school with an interest or a passion, or else he or she discovers these things there. There might conceivably be a third possibility: an individual never succeeds in settling on a just focus, even after securing a job. In any case, though, a career can only be publicly accountable and professionally coherent in terms of the center it has, the occasions it commands, the aspirations it strives to make good. This is what we profess to believe ourselves, and what we profess to tell students. The students, in their turn, come to college to hear such things--whether they know they do or not--because it is crucial for them to rea lize that there is a difference between having a career and having a job.

However, how long now before the reverse direction is wholly in place, and the job comes before the specialization? We are all familiar with a certain sort of English major who can "do" English but does not love it, or else loves it no more than if the subject were Biology or Engineering. But can English be "done" in this manner all the way through grad school, past the dissertation and beyond? With respect to Bronson Alcott, Yeats, and as many personifications of World Literature as the market will bear? And if English cannot be "done" in this way, according to what conviction will it continue to be done for those who hope one day to profess some portion of it? The scholarly ideal that so haplessly has haunted my own career now seems indefensible in vocational terms. I hope my own experience has disclosed that these terms are neither so recent nor quite so powerful. Nonetheless, when the conversation about graduate education threatens to be conducted exclusively in vocational terms, what others do we have l eft?


"What you wrote your dissertation on," writes Jane Tompkins in her recent memoir, "determined your professional field" (171). She states that she did not know this when she wrote it. Neither did I, in not writing a dissertation for so many years. What can graduate students today be presumed to know about writing their own dissertations? In one respect, I believe, something quite different: your dissertation no longer necessarily determines your field. You still have to write a dissertation, granted, if you want to be in place to qualify for a job interview. But you don't have to have a field, and in some circumstances it would be better not to have one.

I here extrapolate the logic of Cary Nelson's refutation concerning the common wisdom about job prospects nowadays: you need a book to get a job. Maybe so, writes Nelson, but not if teaching might appear to be slighted by a book and especially not in places where nobody has published one. He speaks of the "rampant libidinizing" by departmental search committees, and emphasizes the fantasy structure in which the candidate is embedded, whereby an expectation, or even speculation, can be better to provoke than a real accomplishment (158). Nelson advises the following: "Ask yourself what dreams others can dream in the presence of your work" (159). The more they can dream, the better for you. Once more--although Nelson only suggests this--there will be far, far more jobs in departments where there is little else to do but dream (of writing a book, of teaching an upper-division course, of teaching less so there is more time to refinish a coffee table) than there will be positions in departments where everybody is fully awake, researching at the library or writing away behind closed office doors.

So considered, dissertations with the latest theoretical agendas (queering this and that, looking for postcolonialism in all the right places) or sexy inter-disciplinary subjects (medicine and modernism, slasher films and Augustan satire) make sense, precisely because of their amplitude. Indeed, they could be about still more. They could be about something else. They could be about anything. It only awaits some department's pleasure. Already there must be some, unlike my own, who are willing to admit both to themselves and to their candidates that, alas, the chances of teaching Chaucer or Irish literature are about as good as the chances of Bronson Alcott being queered. All that remains to do is to abandon the venerable "coverage" model, to the cheers of the local administration, and to reimagine the notion of scholarship, so that it can be brought more in line with teaching, where the classroom now becomes the site for "research."

Meanwhile, if we are not institutionally enabled either to be or to become scholars, most of us are all temporarily back at NEMLA, either drifting in actuality or in theory among the next sessions in the latest things. We may wish that somehow we could bear intellectual witness to every single one. I do. We may lament the grim professional fact that we can only afford to choose one or two. I do. But my own experience has not enabled me to split the difference quite so easily. What I would emphasize is that I have had to make the split anyway, not so much, I believe, as a fateful professional imperative as an inescapable fact of intellectual development. One lesson my experience teaches is this: it is impossible to be interested in everything. Dostoevsky or Pynchon--you cannot have both. Pynchon or Derrida: you can have both. But you have to work at it, which brings me to two more lessons, which I will try to present with all due scholarly circumspection.

You can be a member of a discipline without having a specialization. I have been. I still am--and, as someone who has lately co-edited a forthcoming book on Latin American Popular Culture, I am arguably at once more a member and less of a specialist in anything than I ever was. But if you claim to be a member of a discipline without a specialization, you will have to write your own narrative. Nobody else will write it for you, because you will be already written--that is, written out--by the specialist narrative. Perhaps you will be one of Sosnoski's "token" professors, who manages, at best to conform to the ideal of scholarship by giving a few papers at NEMLA. Or perhaps, like most, you will be content to be a teacher, try to publish nothing, and simply try to ignore one of the great truths of Magali Larson's study of professionalism, which can never be cited enough: "a profession is always defined by its elites" (227, her italics). [6]

There is a final lesson I would have my experience disclose: you can have a career without having a specialization. Since I have made the two terms equivalent, this lesson is harder to specify, especially to those faced with a job market where there is only the equation. Let me try to explain with reference to Judith's Butler's recent study, The Psychic Life of Power, in which she puts forth a theory of the subject as "a site of ambivalence in which the subject emerges both as the effect of a prior power and as the condition of possibility for a radically conditioned form of agency" (14-15). We must grant, Butler continues, that "agency exceeds the power by which it is enabled," for it assumes a purpose "unintended by power, one that could not have been derived logically or historically, that operates in a relation of contingency and reversal to the power it makes possible, to which it nevertheless belongs" (15).

My unspecialized experience has taken place in this "ambivalent scene of agency." More accurately, this scene has constituted my career, and continues to do so, I suppose, with the forthcoming book co-edited by someone (me) who does not speak Spanish and whose professional experience of Latin American popular culture has been limited to teaching I, Rigoberta Menchu, once. Though I may not have a speciality, I can still quote Judith Butler, who is not yet to outsiders one of what Larson would term the profession's "oligarchic spokeman" but certainly is one to insiders. Better, I can employ Butler in order to certify to my peers my own ideological construction as a professor, as well as to contest the current understanding of this constuction, just as Butler is doing (although she need not stoop to consider directly something so vulgar as the conditions of her own employment). Best of all, I can argue through Butler that I "belong" to my profession's own highly specialized narrative grammar of power because my experience demonstrates both unintended contingencies and surprisingly incomplete experience within this power.

Or to put this all another way, I can turn out to have had a career after all. Ultimately all I need do is to acknowledge--once more--its cost. Let me recall a meeting of a selection panel for the NEH in which we considered at one point a professor from the University of Pennsylvania. I had never heard of him, which was in a sense proof itself of his impeccable scholarly credentials. What especially struck me was a letter of recommendation celebrating the man's recent work as the fruition of everything that had been expected of him since graduate school. It was as if an audience composed of the entire profession (and not just a particular specialized segment) had leaped to its collective feet at the publication of the professor's latest book in order to affirm, through both it and its author, the profession's own identity as a scholarly community. Did one of my fellow panelists wonder if his proposal to us this day was not, well, too specialized? No matter. It was accepted. To refuse the man's proposal would have been to refuse ourselves.

Just so, the narrative of specialization lives on. Although it's long been dead in my own experience, I would not have it die, if only because I've spent too many years mourning it. "Survival does not take place because an autonomous ego exercises authority in confrontation with a countervailing world," Butler writes at the end of her book, "on the contrary, no ego can emerge except through animating reference to such a world. Survival is a matter of avowing the trace of loss that inaugurates one's own emergence" (195). I emerged into the profession as someone who lacked a specialization. I have survived by mourning this lack, even while learning how to represent it, with reference either to the institutional hierarchy of American higher education or to the actual conditions of teaching at a second-rate university.

What are the prospects for the next generation? In part, they can be comprehended in terms of mourning the narrative of specialization. That it will have to be further mourned I am convinced. Most English departments throughout the United States need people to teach such as I have done, with or without the scholarly legitimization. "If the only purpose of graduate education in literary studies is to produce assistant professors of English," states Joseph Urgo, "then we should close down half those programs" (138). Fine. My own department seems to be making a start. But what do we do with the other half? Let the students wait out another generation and hope for the best? Tell them about the new century featuring task-oriented opportunities along multiple career paths? Encourage them to set Bronson Alcott within the context of cultural studies?

Whatever we do, my feeling is that we will be instructing them about mourning. If, according to Butler, there is no emergence of the subject without loss, then the loss of the scholarly ideal is what we must begin to acknowledge. "The university has come to resemble an assembly line, a mode of production that it professes to disdain," writes Jane Tompkins at the end of A Life in School. So far, so good. We know where we are. We don't like assembly lines. But she continues thus: "Each professor gets to turn one little screw--his specialty--and the student comes to him to get that little screw turned" (222). Now, I believe, we are only at Duke. At most other universities and colleges throughout the United States, though there are specialties aplenty, it is far more difficult for professors to screw them into place, or even expect either the boss or the customers to understand anymore the importance of expert training and proper equipment.

This state of affairs is--I repeat--to be mourned; no one wants an assembly line, and every one wants scholarship, animated by imagination and love. But if the career of specialization is lost to us today as a legitimate prospect for a standard academic position, it is important that we understand why it should be mourned. Not only is mourning a constitutive fact of human endeavor. Mourning comes about as the result of pain and suffering, much of it difficult to articulate. We are now in position to see how much folly (to speak of this only) the career of specialization has caused and will continue to cause. Of course people will always have particular interests and passions in their pursuit of education. But they do not have to try to write dissertations about these things, based on the expectation of further research for the rest of their lives. Moreover, no matter what they go on to teach, people do not have to have careers that can only be authorized as such because of specializations that have little or no relevance to their actual professional circumstances. We cannot go back to a time when the career of specialization existed for more than a few. That time will probably exist no more. Indeed, if my own career is any indication, such a time never really existed in the first place.

TERRY CAESAR was Professor of English at Clarion University before taking a position as Senior Professor of American Literature at Japan's Mukogawa Women's University. He is the author of several books, including Conspiring with Forms: Life in Academic Texts (1992) and Writing in Disguise: Academic Life in Subordination (1998).

(1.) No wonder David Damrosch makes the following statement: "The most basic threat to general education, then, comes not from tenured radicals but from tenured specialists. Genuine radicals are actually rare on campus; but almost everyone, progressive or conservative is now a specialist" (110). Damrosch's whole chapter, "General Education," struggles to protect the core Humanities or General Studies course from the predations of specialization, whether in the form of the belief that specialized courses are the logical ways to organize knowledge or the reality that professional advancement proceeds through the highly individualized labor of scholarship.

(2.) Some of Damrosch's most trenchant pages (111-220) have to do with his examination of the Norton selections in terms of its "alliance of secular humanism with a liberal Christianity that felt no need to insist too strongly on its already pervasive presence" (113).

(3.) To be more accurate, Sosnoski means that the field rather than the person is "the token." "This is the fastest growing group of token professionals owing to the increasing number of skill courses in departmental programs and the need to staff them among candidates whose training is based on the current career profile of a researcher" (5). My own experience could be characterized has having been staged at a prior professional moment, before the need for such courses had been discovered and had to be rationalized.

(4.) A problem with Gerald Graft's standard discussion of the field-coverage model of departmental organization is that it fails to comprehend departments with respect to their institutions; as he states, "most of my evidence is drawn from research-oriented departments of English at major universities" (2). What happens to departments which are not research-oriented when their institutions effectively act to dismantle the field-coverage model because education is deemed to be in need of "modernization" along very different lines than those through which departments originated in the 1870s and 1880s? A shorthand answer can be given: they become composition departments.

It is not only "coverage" that is now an "impoverished ideal," as James Kincaid is quoted by Graff as claiming (262). The whole discipline becomes impoverished, because it is open as never before to the imperatives of the professional-managerial classes, whose language, as John Guillory explains, "bypasses the older literary syllabus altogether" (79). "The relative decline of literary study in the schools," Guillory continues, "is proof that the status of literary works as cultural capital depends to a significant degree upon their status as linguistic capital" (81). This capital, in turn, is now more the property of composition, although I would emphasize the disrelation of its syllabus to literature--especially with respect to departmental structure--whereas Guillory emphasizes its relation.

(5.) On the idea of "mission," compare Bill Readings on the discourse of "excellence": "Today, all departments of the university can be urged to strive for 'excellence,' since the general applicability of the notion is in direct relation to its emptiness" (468). A mission, I believe, is what we get when we have excellence as an ideal. They function in tandem: "The point is not that no one knows what excellence is, but that everyone has their own idea of what it is, and once it has been generally accepted as an organizing principle, there is no need to argue about differing definitions" (472-73). The purpose of having a "mission," we might say, is to legitimate striving for "excellence."

(6.)Compare Judith Butler: "What do we make of a resistance that can only undermine, but which appears to have no power to rearticulate the terms, the symbolic terms--to use Lacanian parlance--by which subjects are constituted, by which subjection is installed in the very formation of a subject? This

resistance establishes the incomplete character of any effort to produce a subject by disciplinary means, but it remains unable to rearticulate the dominant terms of productive power" (88-89). For an attempt anyway to make something of this rearticulation--in Butlerian parlance--see immediately below.


Boufis, Christina, and Victoria Olson, eds. On the Market: Surviving the Job Search. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997.

Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Caesar, Terry. "On Teaching At a Second-Rate University." South Atlantic Quarterly 90.3 (Summer 1991): 449-67.

_____. "Pieties and Theories: The Heath in the Survey, the Survey in the Discipline." Arizona Quarterly 51.4 (Winter 1995): 109-40.

Damrosch, David. We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Jones, Danell. "Crossing the Great Divide: From Manhattan to Montana." ADE Bulletin. 117 (Fall 1997): 42-44.

Kolb, Katherine. "Adjuncts in the Academy: No Place Called Home." Profession 1997: 93-103.

Larson, Magali Sarfatti. The Rise of Professionalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Matthews, Anne. Bright College Years: Inside the American Campus Today. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Nelson, Cary. Manifesto of a Tenured Radical. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Readings, Bill. "The University Without Culture?" New Literary History. 26.3 (Summer 1995): 465-92.

Smith, Alison. "Secondary Education: Still an Ignored Market." Profession 1996: 69-72.

Sosnoski, James. Token Professionals and Master Critics: A Critique of Orthodoxy in Literary Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Tompkins, Jane. A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned. Reading, PA: Addison and Wesley, 1996.

Urgo, Joseph. "An Obscure Destiny, This Business of Teaching English." Profession 1996: 134-38.
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