Rebecca Sparacio: Since I have the honor of writing a column with Professor Daniel Schwarz, I’ve chosen to have a conversation about how the English major has changed over time. To start, Daniel, what are some of the big picture changes that have occurred within the English department over the years?
Daniel Schwarz: Our department, Rebecca, changed its name to the Department of Literatures in English and stipulated a curriculum where each student is required to take courses from among a group of burgeoning fields that reach into once neglected areas. We need to remember that what English departments have traditionally done well is to teach students how to read closely, carefully and critically and to see the nuances and ambiguities, as well as the passion and power in words, sentences and paragraphs. That is, the English major prepared students for a lifetime of careful reading no matter what field they chose.
The model for a liberal education in elite universities in the U.K. and the U.S. had originally been a study of classical literature and the focus was on historical criticism and philology. Literature after the 1900s or so was not something serious people studied. The two-year Honors degree in Edinburgh where I did my 1961-1962 junior year left a week or two for the modern authors who followed Hardy. In the post-World War II world, American Literature was still fighting for a place for full curricula representation.
RLS: Going through Cornell’s Courses of Study Archive to see how the course offerings have changed, I was able to access course rosters from 1980 onwards. The courses in 1980-1981 address historical periods; for example: classes like “The Romantic Poets,” “The Victorian Period,” and “The Early Twentieth Century.” This contrasts starkly with the Fall 2023 course offerings which are thematically inflected: “Revolution or Reform,” “Free Speech, Censorship, and the Age of Global Media” and “Communicating Climate Change.” Is historicism no longer prioritized as highly over connecting works to contemporary themes, issues and even politics?
DRS: Yes, Rebecca, our evolving departmental curriculum reflects changes in what we are doing. You correctly note that the focus on periods has changed and that our classes are more thematically defined. We have diminished the centrality of the Western Literary tradition. For much of my years here each student was required to take a two-semester chronological survey of English Literature beginning with Chaucer, if not before. Such a course was based on the concept of a canon of major works that all majors had to know, including Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s major plays. We have opened the door to other literatures in English, some from the Global South — Nigeria and all of Anglophone Africa; India; the Anglophone Caribbean — which is a developmental, not a geographic concept and excludes developed countries like Australia and New Zealand which are in the Southern Hemisphere. We no longer require our majors to have read a common group of works.
RLS: I think at the heart of this issue are two major points. The first is the idea that culture is never stagnant. If we are going to have an education that makes us culturally aware and opens the doors and windows of the mind, I think it is important that students learn about a wide variety of experiences. The second issue is the question of what happens when close reading in a historical context takes a back seat to thematically inflected readings that connect works to contemporary politics and issues. The loss of a historical grounding can be dangerous if teachers fail to stress that works of literature represent the historical times in which they are produced. In today’s climate of cancel culture, we need to explore how some past works of literature reflected views we now find abhorrent — homophobia, racism, class elitism — while past literature was in the vanguard of criticizing such views.
In today’s classrooms, students are concerned with the political implications of a text to the point of asking the following question: If my professor is stressing a certain political line, would I be negatively affected — in terms of grade or the esteem in which I am held by the professor — if I were to dissent? It would be wrong to contend that students do not self-censor to some extent both in the classroom and with one another.
DRS: Our job as literature teachers is not political re-education but rather teaching students to articulate their perspectives based on evidence and to listen carefully to the perspectives of others. Too often academic scholarship has led to a disconnection between thematic and politically foregrounded literary criticism and the process of reading; thus, writing about literature has become a rather arcane enterprise. But this need not, and should not, be the case in functional classrooms where both close reading with attention to the inextricable relation between form and content and the belief that literature opens the door to a better understanding of the world go hand-in-hand.
RLS: The term “Native American” or Native American literature is nowhere to be found in 1980. In a course called “American History and the Literary Imagination” — defined as a class with a focus on narratives surrounding “certain controversial American events such as the Salem Witchcraft trial, the Nat Turner slave revolt, the Oppenheimer Security Hearing. The dispossession of Native American Indians from their land is not detailed as one of these “controversies.” That today’s English offerings include both an “Introduction to Native American Literature” and “Contemporary Native American Fiction” is a move in the right direction.
DRS: My credo has become the paradoxical: “Always the text; always historicize.” I have been proselytizing for pluralistic literary studies that balances aesthetics and thematics, text and context, close reading and historicism. Depending on what text we are reading or viewing, I try to find the balance, drawing upon a multiplicity of approaches and information, including biography. My current focus on retaining formal analysis is an effort to find a balance between the historicizing from a narrow political, polemical and pontificating perspective and retaining the pleasure of close reading and discussion of the complexities of a text.
Formalists proceed from the basic premises that form and content are inextricably related, and that understanding the choices an artist makes determines meaning. A formalist never forgets the difference between our world and the ontology and cosmology of an imagined world. She or he focuses on:
1) How a literary work is constructed and how narrative coding — foreshadowing, echoing etc. — are part of our aesthetic pleasure;
2) Whether and in what ways, the work’s narrator is reliable and/or perceptive;
3) The author’s narrative choices, including the very specific language and images — the how — that shape the what is said and ultimately the reading audience.
Groundbreaking literary texts are often in part about the writing of themselves, notably The Divine Comedy, Ulysses, Middlemarch, and even more recent work such or W.G Sebold’s Austerlitz or The Years by French Noblest Annie Ernaux. Thus, authors teach us how to read. Each significant text — ones to which we return for rereading, and which becomes part of our memories and our imagination — create its own readers.
We need to understand the process by which a written or visual text moves from beginning to end and to be aware of the synchronicity of a text in terms of retrospective understanding. By synchronicity I mean the presence of the entire text when rereading.
RLS: I’ve taken a wide range of English courses now that I’m a senior. I was not subject to the new course requirements introduced in 2022 which include: two courses focused on Literatures of the Americas, and one course focused on Literatures of the Global South. Despite that, I have been exposed to many works that fall into those two categories. In a comparative literature course called “Great Books: The Great Short Works” I read works that spanned cultures and time periods such as Bolaño’s By Night In Chile and Kafka’s The Trial. Even with such a broad range of works, a common theme in the class was the connection between form, content and historical context. In a class called “Law and Literature”, I wrote an essay that compared Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. I first read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in a class titled “American Poetry Since 1850” which focused — like the courses in the rosters of the 1980s and 1990s — on a specific subject matter and a specific time period. In Law and Literature, a class that featured a theme, I was able to synthesize my knowledge of Whitman with the 2017 poem of a Native American poet. Despite the thematic focus of the class, the works we read were still thoroughly historicized. This class also aimed to open the mind to the ways that law affects people — with literature acting as a medium towards our understanding of an individual or group’s story and its implications within the law — and the way that law and literature interact. Such a class can inspire people to imagine new prescriptions for the law if they were to pursue a career in law.
DRS: Rebecca, I applaud the two courses you praise and would take them myself. What you are eloquently saying is that fields grow and evolve but we need to be aware of their history and roots.
Let us think about the English major as produce wanting to be chosen by students. In the early 2000s we had more than 100 majors annually with a high of 139 in 2004 and for seven years beginning in 2000 we averaged 110 majors; in 2023 we graduated 41. Introducing a minor some years ago helped our total course enrollments and so do the popularity of our creative writing courses. But if we consider the increase in the size of the student body, we need to acknowledge that the numbers of students in our classes are not as robust as we would like.
With more focus on career preparation, perhaps because of both the rising cost of education and the presence of more first-generation college students, the English major seems a luxury to some families. In my early days here in the late 1960s until the late 1970s many of our majors wanted to become professors, and the job market in a time of expanding state universities and of a robust demand for literature courses — including at state colleges that produced secondary teachers — was strong.
RLS: There is also a shift in student interest towards taking creative writing classes over classes that are focused on reading, analyzing and historicizing novels. There is a decline in students choosing to major in English, but there is, as you note, a rise in students who are minoring in English. I took the introductory creative writing class here and I enjoyed it. In the class, we read different types of works — poems and short stories — and emulated different techniques to create a version of our own. Given all the English courses I have taken at Cornell, I am pleased that I have a mental library of the types of literature (and experience) that existed at certain time periods throughout human history from Biblical times to our contemporary moment.
DRS: If you have a historical vision from your courses, even if it is not within the traditional canonical perspective, you have ended up not so far from where we used to want our graduating majors to be.
Readings of fiction, poetry and drama are windows into the lives of others, often in different places at different times, but such readings also let our imaginations try out different ways of living in our own world. Do we not learn from rereading of Camus’ The Plague and Mann’s The Magic Mountain how others imagine living in pandemics without recourse to known cures? At a time when democracy is under siege, does not Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America open the windows to what might happen? Does not the work of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison help us understand the Black Experience in America just as Roth and Bellow help us understand the Jewish Experience?
In functional classrooms both close reading with attention to the inextricable relation between form and content and the belief that literature opens the door to a better understanding of the world go hand-in-hand. In fact, some of the best if not always the most polished writing about literature takes place in the classroom. What matters for many of us — students and teachers — is the assumption that creative literature helps us understand what Wallace Stevens defines as “ourselves and our origins.”
Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].
Rebecca Sparacio is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Space Between is a discussion on student life, politics and community. She can be reached at [email protected].
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