the magazine of the columbia daily spectator
May 1 2013
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March 29 2013
Sex & Low Beach
It was 5:00 p.m. on a Thursday last semester—never a good time to be in class. English Professor William Sharpe, perhaps sensing this, began reminiscing about his days as an undergraduate at Columbia. It was the 1970s. Sharpe and friends (can we imagine him swapping the tweed for long hair?) were getting hyped up about a new seminar course. The idea was simple: they would spend the whole semester voraciously reading all the books referenced in the footnotes of “The Waste Land.” The goal was to understand the poem as Eliot himself did, or as closely as possible. Esoteric? Sure.
Awesome? Absolutely. Except the expression on Sharpe’s face during this otherwise nostalgic monologue was rather withdrawn, even resigned. Sharpe sighed. There was no longer any interest in such a course. Students have changed.
Sharpe’s pessimism about academia, though mildly (if not overtly, depending on the degree to which you fancy yourself an intellectual) offensive, is not unsupported. You only have to take a cursory glance at a list of books in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, and you’ll get the idea. Titles include: “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It,” “Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities.” The findings need no explanation—"rhetoric of crisis” nicely sums it up. Whether or not you agree with his conclusion, or the general hoopla over the failure of colleges to educate today’s youth, it signals an increasingly pervasive pedagogical mindset. At what point did the question of what students should be taught merge, rather inextricably, with the extent to which they “liked” the subject matter?
Not everyone blames the students for their taste. In 2009, The American Scholar published a rather controversial piece by Emory University English Professor William M. Chace entitled “The Decline of the English Department.” His opening line: “During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education.” Yet Chace, rather wildly, places the blame not on the poor, befuddled Shakespeare-hater. Instead, it is the fault of the university. It is his feeling that departments fail to provide a framework in which students will appreciate the Western canon. Professors have fallen into a trap: “[substituting] for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture).” To Chace, the books stand for themselves, everything else just gets in the way, confusing students and thus alienating them.
I ducked into the office hours of English Professor Rachel Adams to talk about the relative value of substituting “core” works for more contemporary, potentially more interesting (or at least hip), works. I assumed Adams, a petite, likable woman who occasionally brings her young son to class, saw the potential in “secondary considerations,” given her extensive work on disabilities studies. But Adams sees both sides. While supplementary materials can “repackage academics in lively and compelling ways,” they often “gloss over or oversimplify complex debates in order to make a point.” In other words, the Malcolm Gladwell problem: if you take academic information, package it up in the vernacular, and sell it to people—albeit in The New Yorker—is it still valuable? The difference is a matter of relative scholarship. Adams says that the general understanding is that “journalists lack the desire to grapple with complexity.” But then she gives a bit more: it is considered an, “insult when someone comes up for tenure and the comments are that they’ve just been writing journalism.”
The question of whether or not students “like” a work, though it spills into the debate and perhaps influences a professor or two to throw us a bone, is not so important. Adams argues for a healthy mix. English major Ismail Muhammad, a senior in CC and also in Sharpe’s seminar, spoke to me about his experiences in the department. He was quick to point out that academic materials aside, it all tends to come down to the professor’s ability to illuminate the text, whether one of scholarship or otherwise. In his mind “not every professor brings the same knowledge or talent for teaching to the classroom, especially in seminars,” this can hurt the class, no matter what subject or syllabus. “[I] can’t say that I’ve received the best education here,” he says. “I can count on one hand the number of professors that have actually taught me something or altered the way I think about literature.”
The question may not be whether or not to read Olson’s Call Me Ishmael or Moby-Dick, but rather who’s teaching it. As Professor Michael Golston pointed out to me, “one doesn’t need the Core in order to read and understand literature, but knowing the Core can’t hurt.”
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