Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dwelling in the ivory tower

I'm working on an article about horror in fiction. As part of the research for this, I recently read an analysis of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Among some of the smarter pieces of analysis, this article also made some colossally stupid ones: that Hyde represented the need to write for popularity and Jekyll the desire to create art, and that this duality was a manifestation of Stevenson's own feelings of betraying his artistic calling because he had written The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in order to make money.

The horror! The horror!

It was one of those moments where I shake my head and blush for my profession. And it would have been a moment I could have snarked about on twitter and then left alone, except then I read about how I am a apparently a dry and bloodless person, in a profession full of intolerant, narrow-minded twits, and the combination of the two things, well.

I mean, look. I get that there are hide-bound people in academia, as there are in every profession, who are resistant to change and new ideas. I took classes from some of them. And yes, some literary scholarship seems wildly out of touch with any actual love for or understanding of literature. You know what? I don't like it, either. I don't think it's good scholarship, and at a very fundamental level, I don't understand choosing to spend that much time and effort thinking about something that gives no pleasure.

Here's the thing: I love teaching literature. I get paid to read works that I love, and think seriously about them, and then talk to smart people about all the cool stuff in those books. That is a really great job. I don't see literary analysis as a way to suck the life and fun out of texts, but as a way to find the Easter eggs hidden inside. I feel pretty safe in saying that bringing in Neil Gaiman's Worlds' End and JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when I teach Chaucer this semester will make the students more, not less, excited about what they are reading, and more, not less, likely to think in braver ways about what we read.

I believe that a truly great book is like the TARDIS: it is bigger on the inside. My role, as the Doctor in the room, is to help students think about the ways in which it is. I know that I am doing my job when I get told that "Shakespeare is kind of fucking awesome, which I didn't know before this course" (still my favorite comment on a course eval) or that "I didn't know fantasy could be like The City and the City" or "I bought all of Cat Valente's books on Amazon last night."

I aim for the same results in my scholarship. Yes, I want to think rigorously about the texts I am writing on, but if I don't make clear why I love them, why I think they are worth thinking rigorously about, then I have failed.

And sure, a lot of this sounds like me trying to defend myself "But I only have the one tweed jacket, and it's black, and dammit, I am dreamy in it." But I think of my advisor, who watched as a seminar on Piers Plowman turned into a discussion of the geography of the Dreaming, of my friend Jen, who blew her class' mind when she introduced them to Ender's Game, of the man in the office to my left who works on Shaun Tan, and the woman in the office to my right who is writing a book on imaginary geography in Renaissance Lit, and I think that the ivory tower isn't such a bad place to hang out.


  1. I love what you have written here.

    I don't know that I totally agree with what the guy you linked to is saying. If you live in the world of academia, or even live in a world of literature, period, you cannot dismiss your discourse community. Even as a writer to sneer at the academic side to your field is a bit unprofessional and I lose respect for those who do so. This person cannot stand there and say that the things he knows--the vocabulary he uses and how he writes--does not come at least partly from his schooling. The influence of knowledge had to be imparted from somewhere. Even if he did not inspire to higher education, he more than likely was self-taught or taught with help from someone who was--by reading materials from those who were or becoming the protege to someone who was. People are not born into knowledge. It is something that is acquired.

    I understand his point about wanting to appeal to his readers and not just do things to hopefully impress a field, but by calling something "Speculative Fiction" I do not agree that it is taking the meaning out of the fiction itself. I truly think he is over-analyzing the situation. For it to be understood and taught to others, different styles of fiction typically need a category so students can better grasp it. It is just the natural process of consuming information. It is not like the academics adhering to the heads of their departments are on their knees for them; it is just a category.

    He goes onto say things like "cissexual" in other instances isn't a memorable term, and doesn't convey what it's about, and beforehand in the post he says that "Speculative Fiction" does convey what the fiction is about... But he just doesn't like it... The real problem here is, he is just picking a fight that isn't worth it. His rebellion is blinding him from liking anything academic, and that is a true loss on his part.

  2. Jennifer: Thank you for your kind words. The thing that really bothered me about that post was that it was so vehement, it shut off all possible responses. There was no place for discussion. I don't expect - or want - everyone to agree with me ever and always, but I want people to engage.

  3. Precisely why I always just walk away from arguments like that one. Not only do they often contradict themselves, but they're not worth the headache they are hoping to evoke.

    As an English major, I think literature is more than necessary, and the teaching of it a great need in arts. I'm just glad you're willing to do it.

    In all honesty, my main focus is in journalism at the moment, but should things change, I would hope to be able to do what you do.

  4. Kat (and Jennifer) -- it appears I had the same problem with that linked post as you both did. It was full of venom, and it did not make room for discussion. An argument wasn't presented -- just a very forceful opinion, which negated the idea of having discourse. It seemed more like bashing than anything else.

    In order to present an arugment that one might consider valid, tone matters. I found myself completely put off by the tone of that post, largely due to all the negative descriptors.

    Like you said, there are people who are set in their ways, within the academic community -- but the same is true of every profession. I read Ender's Game for an undergrad course, and it was a great experience. Not everyone is rigid in his/her teaching, and even those that are...I think they have something to offer.

    And as for the tweed jacket? Giles would be proud. *smile* Great post, Kat. :-) ~Ali