It’s hard to write 1,000 articles a year, always in a hurry, without occasionally uttering a poorly considered paragraph here and there. In a recent Overcast article titled “MUN Drops Arts from Faculty of Arts,” Chad Pelley made such a remark.
“The department of English,” he wrote, “could re-evaluate its fixation on classic literature, since many modern students feel they can no longer relate to it — we live in a different world with different struggles now, hell, we doth not even speaketh like Shakespeare anymore.”
Professor Andrew Loman immediately provided the counterpoint below. Loman’s research interests and the broad range of the courses he teaches – from graphic novels to “American Literature to 1880” – illustrate not only his own diverse tastes, but the diversity of courses the department does indeed offer.
“Though I cheerfully accept Mr. Pelley’s broad argument that academic programs of study need to stay fresh,” Loman says, “I want to challenge him on two aspects of his characterization of my department: his declaration that our commitment to ‘classic literature’ amounts to a ‘fixation;’ and his intimation that contemporary students should ‘relate’ to the literary works they study at university.
“The first aspect is both wrongheaded in its preference for the contemporary and wrong in its facts; the second makes a dubious assumption about what literary criticism should do.”
“As professionals we have an obligation to familiarize students with our discipline, and since this discipline includes the study of older literature we teach it unapologetically. But in my (admittedly biased) view my colleagues teach those courses with imagination and verve.
To offer just one example, this semester my colleague Rob Ormsby, who’s a Shakespeare scholar, is teaching a graduate course setting early modern English literature in a global context. His students have examined how, for instance, Shakespeare’s contemporary John Fletcher represented seventeenth-century Indonesia on the Elizabethan stage. In putting such work before our students, Rob’s teaching them about the histories of globalization – a valuable curriculum in our interconnected present.
“Meanwhile Mr. Pelley is wrong to intimate that we don’t teach contemporary literature. In fact, we teach a wide range of contemporary texts and new literary forms. By way again of a single illustrative example, I’ll mention my colleague Nancy Pedri, a comics specialist whose reading lists include the profound, beautiful, and complex works of Alison Bechdel, David Mazzhucchelli, and Marjane Satrapi.
“And as for Mr. Pelley’s assertion that students don’t feel they can relate to Shakespeare. In my experience he’s wrong. But in any case there are limits to how thoroughly one should craft reading lists in hopes that students can ‘relate’ to what they’re reading. Shouldn’t it be a goal of universities to widen students’ horizons? To show them that their world is larger and stranger and older than they imagined?
“One of Mr. Pelley’s gestures towards critique of the contemporary university is that it’s now a business, not an institute for higher learning. That indictment of universities is fashionable, and there’s considerable warrant for it. But what, to your ears, sounds more in keeping with the goals of business: to offer up something that students find cozily familiar – ‘relatable’ – or to challenge them with unfamiliar and difficult works?
“It’s my conviction that the graduates of our program will be better writers and thinkers for having ventured out of the relatable zone.”