Step Aside, Quit Lit and Adjunct Lit. Here Comes Retirement Lit.

Given the collapse of the job market, the casualization of labor, the contraction of humanities departments, and the dismantling of tenure, is it possible to celebrate — earnestly and passionately — the life of the mind today? Perhaps it is unsurprising that The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing (Princeton University Press), which does just that, is written by someone at the end of an eminent career spent entirely in the Ivy League. Arnold Weinstein went directly from his Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1968 to a tenure-track job at Brown University. He’s been there ever since. The book is partly an exaltation of the value of reading great works of literature, and partly a memoir of how he himself has taught these books. Literary studies is home to “quit lit” and “adjunct lit”; perhaps it’s now time to add “retirement lit” to that list.

This genre, if it can be called such, consists of eminent scholars reflecting on their careers in academe. Offering the wisdom earned over decades of experience as teachers and readers, such career retrospectives also inevitably serve as indices of historical change. In light of the radical transformations English departments — and the larger university — have undergone in the last few decades, what does it mean for someone with a senior profile to take stock of the profession?

The stock-taking given in The Lives of Literature is largely a spirited defense of the power of great books. Weinstein’s faith in his preferred authors — Sophocles, Kierkegaard, Ibsen, Kafka, Morrison, and above all, Faulkner — seems limitless, and his appeal is of a resolutely old-fashioned humanist kind. Great works of literature illuminate our experience, offer moral instruction, and teach us about “what never makes it into the world of numbers and facts and archives: human sentience.” Reading such books also brings us closer to others, making them feel real and giving us access to lives we could have lived. His vision of teaching, accordingly, frames the professor as charismatic medium, someone who unlocks great books to produce ethical and spiritual transformation in his students.

To these arguments — familiar from books like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and too many decades of the culture wars, as well as more-recent polemics like William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep — Weinstein adds a number of other well-entrenched oppositions. Literature is opposed to the sciences. Words are warm and human, numbers are cold and lifeless. Humanistic education provides “knowledge” and “understanding,” equipping us to answer the moral-existential questions of life, while data provide only “information” and technical training. Within departments of English, meanwhile, teaching is pitted against research: While teaching connects great books to students’ lives, research pursues pseudo-objectivity or ideological critique. A mistaken emphasis on research, Weinstein argues, has led the humanities to develop “a way of doing intellectual business (arcane vocabulary, theory-speak, massive concern with ideology, arguable proneness to political correctness)” that is off-putting to students and the public alike. Accordingly, turning away from just “reading the books” has led to the declining enrollments and shrinking numbers of majors that English departments face today.

Who is this book for? It’s easier to say who this book is not for. Weinstein appears to be a dedicated, caring, and by all accounts highly effective teacher of undergraduates, and the book is as much a defense of teaching as it is a defense of great books themselves. But the portrait he paints of a life spent teaching literature will be largely unrecognizable to early-career scholars and current graduate students. Indeed, while Brown has a robust Ph.D. program, grad students appear in The Lives of Literature only as TAs for large undergraduate lecture courses. The book exhibits no sense of the institutional landscape that makes it highly unlikely any of these TAs will get to have a position like his.

When Weinstein does acknowledge the challenges facing younger scholars, it is to express outrage at the “low esteem often accorded to teaching at our universities,” especially in the tenure process that he sees as solely valuing research. But Weinstein’s diagnosis of the shortcomings of the tenure process applies to just a small group of research institutions and fails to acknowledge that most classroom instruction in the 2020s is carried out by graduate students and adjuncts, who are in fact constantly subjected to evaluations of their teaching. Indeed, his mention of the “meat market” for jobs is comically out of date — the annual MLA conference is described as taking place just after Christmas, which hasn’t been true in a decade.

This ignorance of the current reality seems to stem not from any personal lack of generosity on Weinstein’s part but from his extremely sheltered position. But his defense of teaching, however eloquent, is undermined by the absence of concern for the continued availability of that path to others.

Appearing out of touch is a common pitfall of retirement lit. But the genre can also be quite varied. Take, for example, Marjorie Levinson’s Thinking Through Poetry: Field Reports on Romantic Lyric (2018), a survey that tracks methodological and disciplinary shifts over 30 years of Romanticism studies, and, by extension, literary studies more broadly. Very much a scholarly monograph, Levinson’s book does not explicitly address the crisis of the humanities. Yet the book’s tone reveals her awareness of the precarity facing the current generation of scholars.

illustration of a young student asleep in class while an older professor is at the blackboard

Jan Feindt for The Chronicle

In her acknowledgments, she thanks the students between 1978 and 2018 who have thought with her, adding, “If thanks can be wishes, let mine be for the survival of a discipline as intellectually serious and therefore as inspiring and life-sustaining as this one has been for me. And in that discipline of the mind in the world, let the scholars of this generation find their proper, honored place.” These moving lines are an elegy for a path increasingly closed to the very people who train for it, and a wish for those people to have the support and respect they deserve. Unlike Weinstein, who reserves his admiration for rich, vital works of literature, Levinson offers here a vision of literary criticism as a nourishing and world-expanding enterprise, one whose loss would be worthy of mourning — and resisting.

This recognition of the value of serious intellectual work — and of literary study as a discipline where such work takes place — is a prerequisite to our ability to defend it. By laying the blame at the door of the discipline itself, Weinstein’s argument inadvertently bolsters those who would dismantle the very institutional pathways that have made his career possible. If the academic study of literature has gone so far astray, why is it worth fighting for more tenure lines, increased stipends, or improved health insurance for graduate students? Why not just advocate for more book clubs and be done with it? Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Faulkner have defenders aplenty. Rarer are those standing up for literary studies.

This is not to say that literary studies should exempt itself from self-reflection, or that we should not think seriously about how to make the case for our relevance. But as many have pointed out, the argument that the crisis of the humanities is simply a product of our own doing is a pernicious one that fails to account for the economic changes underlying the decline in enrollments or even the wholesale shuttering of humanities departments. Such changes include: the financialization of student debt, cuts in state funding for public education, the massive growth of an administrative class and a concomitant investment in facilities geared toward “student life,” and dual imperatives to increase endowments and cut spending.

Moreover, decreasing enrollments in humanities classes appear to be due not to a decline in interest, or even a decline in actual job prospects (English majors’ median earnings are comparable to that of biology majors and higher than that of psychology majors, for instance). They are due, instead, to the mistaken perception, especially in the wake of the 2008 recession, that humanities majors are impractical. These are the sorts of harmful myths that we need to fight, not to rehash old canards, as The Lives of Literature does, that blame professors for turning away from “reading the books” toward theory and politics. For one thing, the latter claim fails to recognize that literature courses centered on race, gender, sexuality, and ability often have precisely the kinds of transformative effects on students’ self-understandings so often claimed for great-books courses. Witness, for example, the recent outpouring of mourning in the wake of the deaths of Lauren Berlant and bell hooks.

The Lives of Literature, along with Roosevelt Montás’s Rescuing Socrates, has reignited a new round of the great-books debate, which has centered on the meaning and status of teaching literature in the modern university. Louis Menand took a skeptical view of Weinstein and Montás’s books in The New Yorker, which led to spirited responses in these pages by Brian Rosenberg, who warns that Menand’s critique of great-books courses leads to further defunding of the humanities, and Leonard Cassuto, who defends generalist over specialist teaching. All of these disparate pieces share an acceptance of an opposition between research and teaching, whichever side the author comes down on.

But that separation is vigorously refuted in Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study (2020). Examining materials ranging from T.S. Eliot’s lecture notes from his classes at an extension school for working adults to Simon Ortiz’s efforts to establish a Native American-studies curriculum at the College of Marin, Buurma and Heffernan show that many of the key methodological developments in literary studies over the 20th century have developed in and through the classroom. This startling claim counters the familiar idea that the discipline’s theories and practices are pioneered by scholars at a handful of elite institutions “only later to ‘trickle down,’” as Buurma and Heffernan put it, “to non-elite institutions, students, and teachers.” It also challenges classic disciplinary histories like those by Gerald Graff and John Guillory, which characterize the history of literary studies as a series of “method wars,” whether between belletrists and philologists at the turn of the 20th century, or formalists and historicists towards that century’s end.

Through careful archival research into a range of instructors’ actual teaching materials — the reams of syllabi, lecture notes, and assignment prompts we all produce as part of our daily work — Buurma and Heffernan unequivocally reject the idea that the “our discipline has been pulled in two directions … or that its goals of producing knowledge about literature and appreciating literature have been mutually exclusive.” Moreover, they show that the sense among both the faculty and the public that research and teaching are incompatible activities is due to major changes in funding structures over the second half of the 20th century. Buurma and Heffernan’s account is a bracing corrective to the bifurcated picture offered by both Weinstein and his critics, which bears little resemblance to what really happens in the classroom or the conference hall. More perniciously, insisting on a vast gulf between teaching and research leaves the faculty “vulnerable to interests … that profit from declaring humanities research valueless and teaching a failing endeavor to be radically reinvented” by a new army of “higher-ed disruptors” and “teaching and learning professionals.”

What it means to read and teach literature in the academy today looms equally large in what might be considered retirement lit’s inverse, adjunct lit. Although both are college teachers of literature, Dorothy, the protagonist of Christine Smallwood’s novel, The Life of the Mind (2021), could not be more different from Arnold, the protagonist of The Lives of Literature. A recently minted Ph.D., Dorothy is a contingent faculty member teaching English and writing at a private university “whose list-price tuition was twice her annual earnings.” When we meet her, the number of jobs in her field has shrunk from six the previous year to none. Still, she devotes to her classes “the minimum effort required so she could write the sample chapter that would get her the contract that would get her the job that didn’t exist.”

Weinstein exalts the powers of literature to act above all on the heart. Great books yield knowledge about “human sentience,” above all, by moving us, making us see “feelingly,” whether it is the plight of Abraham leading Isaac to be sacrificed, or Sethe’s haunting by Beloved. Dorothy, on the other hand, spends most of Smallwood’s novel living at some distance from her feelings. “She vaguely recalled a time when wanting to do the job she had trained for did not feel like too much to want. Now want itself was a thing of the past. She lived in the epilogue of wants.”

What Dorothy senses is not the grandeur of Aristotelian passions but above all the mundane discomforts of the body, most prominently a prolonged bleeding associated with a miscarriage (also an allegory for her academic career). Dorothy reads Kafka on the subway not to connect with her fellow man but to avoid “the human sublime” around her. “It would kill you to confront the agonies and joys pressed together in the crowd, in one single subway car. Each person with their disappointments, their millstones, their pleasures, their loves. Each person living a life only they could live. The only recourse was to hide somehow, to deaden oneself to the cacophony of pulsing, repulsive existence.”

Where Weinstein’s signature courses take on topics like “The Fiction of the Self” and “The Fiction of Relationship,” the class of Dorothy’s we hear about most is “Writing Apocalypse.” The question of apocalypse haunts The Life of the Mind, which is preoccupied with endings — personal (the end of a pregnancy, and perhaps a career), institutional (the end of an academic landscape), and societal (climate collapse). Arguing with her boyfriend about whether they are living in world-historically exceptional times, “Dorothy was pretty sure that she actually was living at the end of something, or too many somethings to say. But as an end, it didn’t have the texture of kairos, of, as Frank Kermode wrote, ‘a point in time filled with significance.’ It was instead the gruesome slog of chronos, of ‘passing’ or ‘waiting’ time. Ends came and came and they did not end. They sputtered and limped along.” Anyone who has experienced the protracted timeline of the academic-job market will no doubt recognize this description all too well, and Smallwood’s accomplishment is to connect the experience of academic precarity to a wider social landscape of uncertainty about the future and an apocalypse whose temporality is that of a slow drip.

Written from the vantage point of a career’s conclusion, The Lives of Literature, too, is about how to end. It begins and proceeds in a rhapsodic tone, but it concludes in a melancholy one. Reflecting that “quittin’ time is nigh,” Weinstein finally displays some awareness that his goodbye to all that is not only a farewell to an individual’s career, but also to a postwar vision of literature’s cultural status (and, implicitly, an institutional landscape) that no longer exists. His last section, on “gaffes,” includes an inventory of self-professed mistakes. The most recent one occurs as he teaches J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, in which an older professor has an affair with a young student, in the #MeToo era. He is bewildered by the reactions of his students, who see in the novel only an unambiguous depiction of violated consent. Alternating between beleaguered exasperation and mournful resignation, the widening gap from his students reveals to him his own obsolescence.

Explicitly in Smallwood’s novel and implicitly at the end of Weinstein’s book is a recognition that teaching literature requires engaging with the material and ideological conditions of higher education — and the wider world. The recognition of generational disconnect from his students that Weinstein finally exhibits is in fact not a “gaffe” but part and parcel of being a good teacher. This does not mean agreement or identification with one’s students (in spite of her much greater proximity in age to her students, Dorothy also feels alienated from her students, whose earnest activism she finds baffling). It does mean understanding that the lives of literature, no less than the life of the mind, are not untouched by political realities. If we want to understand our discipline and to make a case for its continued existence, in Heffernan and Buurma’s view, “we need now more than ever a fuller and more detailed history of how English has actually been practiced in all kinds of classrooms.” An academic memoir and a novel may not be exactly what they had in mind, but The Lives of Literature and The Life of the Mind could be considered part of an expanded teaching archive, one that gives us very different portraits of what it means to profess literature today.






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