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A Crisis – One of Many?

During last Monday’s class, I shared that I felt I was in crisis. This is something I’ve felt since a particular professor spoke to the class. I don’t think the professor engendered the crisis, but the presentation’s unwillingness to leave the realm of theory—and my difficulty following what the professor had to say—resulted in a rising concern about my place in this field. Where is the field of my undergraduate days? And maybe more importantly, where is the field I fell in love with during those high school lunchtime sessions, studying Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” still among my favorite all-time poets and poems), Keats (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”) and Shelley (“Ozymandias”) in preparation for taking the AP English examination?

I think it’s been replaced, at least in part, by a field that embraces the rhetoric of quilts and video games, that can’t quite decide whether creative writing is really a scholarly pursuit, and that considers itself to be in the midst of an existential crisis.

“Replaced,” of course, is hardly the right word. It’s evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective in the current debates) into the disjointed field of study found (or, increasingly, no longer found) on local college campuses.

I shared the following in a Facebook post to members of my class and PhD cohort this week in response to a series of questions about English as a discipline, and higher education as a “going concern,” shared by another member of the cohort.

I’m beginning to think I may not be the only one overwhelmed right now. S-E-R-I-O-U-S-L-Y overwhelmed. Not by work, although there’s plenty of it. But by a sense of loss. Something happened to English on the way to my Ph.D., and I think I missed it or skipped it or found other things to consume me. But returning to the discipline is painful right now. I’m at a loss for words to explain it, but I will admit to viewing this particular post thread through that lens of loss. I need you all to keep me strong and focused because my discipline is lost and needs to be found.

In a later post, I expanded on this topic:

We are the troublemaking collectiv[ity], and we define the terms. But everything – EVERYTHING – exists in its context. As we earn our degrees and move into whatever jobs are available to PhDs in English studies, we get to spread our troublemaking gospel. We have to work within the contexts we’re given, but I don’t think any context is insurmountable. We will be agents of change, but our agency may be more becoming than being. We’ll push the revolution in little ways and in big ways within our contexts, but we will make trouble and things will change.

Here’s my prediction, informed as much by working in higher education support and instruction for 15 years as by my study of English. It’s surely worth the ink I’ve used.

Change is our constant, both in higher education and English studies. Whatever exists now – and I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what exists now, only that it’s not what it once was and it’s not what I thought it was – won’t exist in ten years. We’ll still have departments, I imagine, and we’ll still teach students, and I’m guessing we’ll still write things – but I think we’ll be conducting scholarship and reporting on it in different formats. We’ll be teaching students in different ways. We’ll teach, learn from, and write different texts. And I’m guessing we’ll apply theory at the same time we’re teaching scholarly creation (which might be on paper) and conducting discourse analyses of multimodal texts. We’ll have to be versed in some of everything. We’ll try or prefer to specialize, but our field will resemble some broad-based humanities effort more than it will resemble the English department of my undergraduate days. We’ll be expected to apply whatever specialty we’ve carved out to all English sub-disciplines.

When I shared my sense of crisis with the professor, I received what I should have predicted I would receive – exactly the same response I would have shared with me if I were the professor responding to a crisis: “That’s good. You’re supposed to be in crisis.” The professor continued that crisis is a part of this class – it’s intended to force new doctoral students to rethink everything about the discipline and about their decision to enter the discipline. It’s Rusty Wilson tearing down those theatre students in order to build them back up. It’s pedagogically designed to generate crisis.

And I found it strangely comforting.

And I get to tell my own students who are experiencing their own research crises exactly the same thing tonight.

I wonder if they’ll be comforted, too.

(Update: They did not appear to be.)

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Cory Doctorow.]