Friday, June 19, 2015

The Accidental Theorist: How a Teaching Professor Turned into a Theorist

Nothing could have prepared me to start thinking like a French theorist.

Perhaps that’s not quite true: I could imagine a kind of utopian graduate education in English where students not only read French theorists (I have in mind not only figures like Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, and Barthes, but also others like Gerard Genette or Thierry Groensteen) but also learned to read across and think through the large swaths of primary materials that shaped these theorists’ thinking. Such a program would take time, of course, and the reading could hardly be prescribed: there can be no recipe or substitute for reading everything. One’s teachers in such a program, I imagine, would in fact be engaged in just the same project: reading widely, not with a particular goal in mind, but rather reading to build up a store of confusions, contradictions, and uncertainties that, if one is lucky, one can finally find a way to cut through. But there would be no focus on any particular genre, or historical period, or theoretical approach, since focus is what allows one to ask and answer narrow questions, rather than wide ones.

But as I hope is clear, that imaginary graduate education was not the one I got. Certainly, I was encouraged to familiarize myself with theory, as it existed in the early 1990s. My graduate education always asked for a fair degree of focus, not least in the dissertation. But the “best practice” of doing theoretical work, as I understood it at the time, involved using the theory to help illuminate something about the (literary) text, and using the text to illuminate something about the theory. This is a kind of work I have engaged in occasionally, for example when I read Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comics with and against Foucault’s “What is an Author?” in order to clarify how authorship works as a formal feature in texts. 

But even that project was possible for me because all of my teaching experience as an academic came in jobs where I was expected to (or had the opportunity to) teach a broad spectrum of classes. Between the University of Northern Colorado and West Virginia University, I regularly offered classes in composition, in the English language, in British Literature surveys, and in both contemporary comics and science fiction and fantasy. Only occasionally, in comparison, did I teach courses in Medieval Literature, which was my nominal specialty as a scholar.

But all that teaching—and the reading and thinking it involved—in areas outside of my primary area of specialization, I am starting to think, is actually what helped me to start thinking more usefully about questions that span all of English letters. For me the study of Old English meter and the study of modern graphic narratives grew to be connected somehow. At one level, I ascribed both interests to my recognition that I was a formalist by inclination. At another level, though, it was the kind of question—just what does link Old English verse to comics?—that could only be answered by looking at the truly big picture. In a sense, I needed to become a theorist to understand the question itself, much less begin to answer it. I couldn't rely on other theorists' thinking, or build upon it: the questions I was trying to answer were my own.

As much as the breadth of my teaching helped me both to discover some of these questions and to begin to answer them, it is certainly true, too, that my work in selling books has affected the range of things I attend to in my scholarly work: I know much more about the bibliographic details and publication history of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from having bought and sold and collected them than I do from having taught them, no matter how often. And both topics make an appearance in my 2014 academic book, The Visible Text.

Perhaps my experience cannot be generalized; I’d be among the first to acknowledge that the way I’ve gone about things in my career may not be for everyone. But it seems odd to me to realize that if I’d had a conventional faculty job at a true research-oriented university, there might have been a far greater match between my scholarly focus and the classes I taught. But the consequence of that greater degree of matching is that I might never have had the tools and experience of books and texts to write a book that considers literature and material textuality from the eighth century to the present. Certainly, as a research faculty member at a research university, I’d have been encouraged (actively or passively) to have a narrower, more defined focus, and the teaching part of my work would have involved fewer courses and fewer sections of them. Part of me thinks that it may well be the case that my work as a teaching faculty member and bookseller might have prepared me to address new theoretical questions better than any other aspect of my training and career.

I’ve always been one to believe that teaching and research are related enterprises. But I wonder now whether one of the unspoken, unrecognized consequences of the growing divergence between research faculty and teaching faculty arises from the enforced narrowness of research faculty focus, a narrowness which often seems and feels like a blessing to the individuals who have access to it, but which results in a narrowness of vision. Busy adjuncts and teaching faculty often get no material benefit from any scholarship they can manage to complete, and their work thus often structurally discourages them from being scholars as a result. Research faculty members, to the degree that the courses they offer match their research interests more and more closely, may well risk losing the breadth that could help make their scholarship of interest beyond a small circle of like-minded readers.

I am amused to imagine the uproar if a Chair or Dean at an R1 university were to come to the English department and tell them that all faculty—from full professors to adjuncts—would henceforth have identical teaching loads, through the simple mathematics of dividing the number of courses offered by total number of faculty, and that everyone's teaching load would be as broad as possible. It will never happen, I suppose: those who would benefit most have too little power, and those who would be teaching more in such a scheme (not necessarily working harder overall, I should point out) probably have enough power to prevent it from happening. But still I wonder: might it not be the case that the quality of thinking and making connections, and thus the quality of scholarship, and maybe even the overall quality of teaching would improve, if those who are most dedicated to research were to find themselves teaching more broadly?

At the least, I hope that this kind of thought experiment may help us think more clearly about how the academy values teaching, and scholarship, and the linkage between them.

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