Contextual Healing

16 Nov

A recent response paper I wrote for English 502. I enjoyed writing it, so I thought I would share it. And because this paper is about context, see the end of the essay for the works referenced in this response. And though I don’t directly reference Gerald Graff’s work in my text, I have added it to the works cited so that all of you can investigate the work that so infuriated me, if you so choose.

Contextual Healing

James Berlin’s book, Rhetorics, Poetics and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies, serves as a great end to the list of expansive narratives that have been read in this English Studies course. Some of the information that will follow in this response has been recycled from my blog entries on Berlin’s narrative, but these thoughts will certainly be expanded upon in this essay. In short, despite some long-winded diatribes about history we’ve already heard, and in-depth course descriptions and tactics, I found this book a pretty enjoyable read, and thought that Berlin had some very interesting points about the study and practice of English studies. Again, Berlin’s language is often difficult to read, and to be honest, while I appreciate depth and citation, portions of his text were sometimes a little tedious. However, while I appreciate the aesthetic value of a work, style isn’t everything, and I believe there is much to be taken from Berlin’s narrative.

I wrote on the blog earlier this week that the thing I loved most about Berlin’s work was his attention to and appreciation of context. While this certainly doesn’t cover everything that Berlin wrote in this expansive narrative, context is important to me, so I feel the need to focus on that in this essay. Context has always been a passion for me, as I have always been interested in anthropological and historical studies in relation to the literature I read. To be honest, I am passionate about people, and therefore I have always been fascinated by various cultures and what makes them work. I have always felt that it is impossible to know and understand the literatures and writings of our own culture if we do not understand the historical, political, economic and social contexts of the country we live in. Furthermore, as our culture continues to change, and technology has paved the way for an interdependent world economy and culture of sorts, how can we understand the literatures and writings of other cultures if we fail to understand their contexts?

I have latched on to this importance of context since the beginning of this course, as I found traces of it in other works that we have read. I was particularly moved by the way that Robert Scholes approached the topic in his narrative, The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline. He wrote, “What our students need, as I see it, is first of all some guidance in learning how to understand their world and survive in it, and secondarily some grounds for criticizing and trying to improve it” (Scholes 83). Scholes recognized that students need to be taught how to understand the world around them, when, as mentioned previously, this world seems to grow and expand as technology makes it possible to interact with someone from across the world as if they were our neighbor. Upon learning these contexts, whether they are the historical backgrounds of writers from the United States, or writers from China or Africa, students must then take this knowledge and learn how to approach and criticize works.

Berlin recognizes this need as well, and in my opinion, addresses the idea of context more thoroughly than Scholes does. Berlin references three diverse English programs in the United States that have attempted the creation and practice of new courses within their English programs. Of course, our class saw a lot of this diversity in our English Studies on the Ground assignment. However, Berlin takes the time to explore these programs, their new courses, and the positive and negative impacts that these courses had and have the potential to have in the future.

Berlin began this discussion with the description of Carnegie Mellon’s English department. Carnegie Mellon offers an interesting array of studies, with undergraduate majors in creative writings, professional writing and cultural studies. These offerings alone seem to emphasize the change that is taking place within English studies, as focus has shifted away from strictly literature studies, and a focus has been place on cultural studies interweaved with literature and writing. Berlin notes that the new course offered within the Carnegie Mellon program seeks to unify the three majors listed above, and to de-center the program in favor of encouraging inter-disciplinary studies. This course investigates various contexts of various cultures in (surprise!) various mediums, including traditional literary works, film and television. Berlin notes, however, that he is disappointed to see that this “unifying” course only appears in the first year for English majors, and is not explored in more advanced forms during the remaining years of a student’s English program.

Next, Berlin focuses on the University of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh investigates the nature of the traditional canon, and compares works therein to works that have emerged from a more postmodern canon. In looking over new canonical works, this program investigates literary works, as well as film and television pieces. Interdisciplinary studies are encouraged, and Berlin notes that the lines between composition, rhetoric, literature and creative writing have become “blurred.” Despite this claim to interdisciplinary fame, however, Berlin notes his disappointment that a course entitled “Introduction to Critical Reading” only contains traditional canonical works. Thus, inter-disciplinary studies seem restricted in certain course studies.

Lastly, Berlin investigates the English Program as the State University of New York at Albany, or as most of us know it, SUNY. Berlin seems to appreciate of this program the most, as it seems truly inter-disciplinary. Berlin quotes the program’s chair, Warren Ginsberg, writing, “As Ginberg explains, no once concern of English studies is privileged at Albany. Instead, ‘writing, rhetoric, criticism, pedagogy, language study, and literary history constantly intersect and are called into question’” (Berlin 169). Berlin goes on to explain that the purpose of the program and its offerings, it to break down the “historical hierarchical divisions in English studies” (Berlin 169). Thus, students do not simply study the subjects listed above, but the intersection of these disciplines, as mentioned previously. Issues of race, gender, ethnicity and class are explored in a variety of courses in (again!) a variety of mediums. Berlin seems to investigate this program with enthusiasm, but it must be noted that he acknowledges herein a problem with professors in the discipline. He writes, “I simply want to indicate the difficulty of offering students the integrated perspective called for here in a discipline that has forced it members into the straightjackets of specialization” (Berlin 172). Thus, while specialization is encouraged in the hiring process, inter-disciplinary knowledge is increasingly more encouraged in the classroom, and professors without contextual or inter-disciplinary studies may not have this knowledge to pass on to students.

This, of course is an issue that can only be solved (or at least somewhat remedied) in time. The authors that we have read, in my opinion, don’t offer all the answers. How can they? The classical method did not work for all schools, as we have clearly seen by way of reading these detailed histories of the methods and practices of the early American college. Thus, there is really no clear method or absolute answer to the problems that plague the discipline. In saying that though, Berlin stumbles upon something here that I think is really pivotal to the understanding and practice of English studies. He notes that on top of considering world context, and yes, I did write this in my blog, English departments must consider the ways in which they fit into the Universities of which they are a part. He writes, “Undergraduate and graduate programs in English should be the products of their unique situations, taking into account their students, faculties, larger communities, and their broader purposes” (Berlin 173).

My response to this quote, as written in my blog, is that this is probably why finding a “solution” and a prevailing structure for the English discipline is so difficult. It is difficult to say what texts are more relevant to students from various regions or backgrounds. In a world culture that is so diverse, it is arguable that no work should be privileged over another, but rather all works should be studied with equal importance in conjunction with the contexts that coincide with those texts. I will expand upon this now by saying, once again, that of course, there is no prevailing structure for how to go about this. About a month ago, not having an absolute answer to this issue would have infuriated me, but now I have, to be very cliché, seen the light, and recognize that method must vary depending on the region, culture, and contexts of the university that is studying various literatures.

Perhaps this is just another reason why solidifying what we have to come to know as English studies is so difficult, as I just don’t think that a single method can really exist is such a vast and varied world. It gives me hope, though, that Berlin’s final words in this narrative reference the subject of which I am so passionate, as he writes, “It is time all reading and writing teachers situate their activities within the contexts of the large profession as well as the contexts of economic and political concerns. We have much to gain working together, much to lose working alone” (Berlin 192). Again, this closing passage might have infuriated me a month ago, and did infuriate me when Gerald Graff ended his narrative in a similar, ambiguous manner. But as I wrote in my blog, I now find this insightful and invigorating. Berlin provides his own methods, and the methods of three very diverse English programs, that have seemed to work and inspire students in the classroom. They are not full-proof solutions, and one certainly cannot be privileged over another, but they provide students with the context that they need to not only understand the literature they are reading, but the world in which they are living.

WORKS CITED

Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press LLC, 2003.

Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. 2nd. Chicago Press: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Scholes, Robert. The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

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