The power of words for a world in crisis

So what am I, a Ph.D. in comparative literature with years of teaching experience in global women’s literature, gender studies and media studies, doing writing and thinking so much about the environment?

Why am I spending time blogging rather than diligently writing research-based articles for peer-reviewed academic journals?

I entered grad school part-time in 1984, first in English, and then in Comparative Literature.  Why those fields?

As an undergraduate, I started out wanting to major in environmental studies, but was soon turned off by the level of statistical empiricism required by my biology professors.  Having always loved to read and write, I gravitated towards English, and ended up interning for the local newspaper and becoming somewhat of a prodigy cub reporter.  I went on to work as a reporter for a daily newspaper, then a staff writer and editor for trade publications in New York City.

After a while, I missed the excitement of the classroom, began taking a class or two at night, and was soon drawn into the orbit of the comparative literature department at NYU, where things were really hopping in the late 1980s and early ’90s.  It was the time of the culture wars; of deconstruction and post-structuralist theory; of post-colonialism and eco-criticism and Marxist feminism.  It was an exciting time to be a budding scholar, learning to talk the talk and walk the walk.

And now here I am at mid-career, looking back and wishing that I hadn’t allowed myself to be discouraged from environmental studies so easily.

These reflections are spurred by the lead article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, about the Modern Language Association convention, which starts today in Seattle.  I’ve already written about why I’m not there, and reading today’s Chronicle article, I don’t feel too sorry to be missing this year’s conference.

The article, by Stacey Patton, presents a pretty bleak picture of the field of languages and literature–a picture I recognize only too well.  Enrollments in literature classes are at record lows, and many leading voices in the field are being called upon to explain just why an education in the humanities is of continued value in the 21st century.

The Chronicle article quotes James Donelan, a lecturer in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara: “We have been going about our business as if the study of literature were self-justifying, and that making an overt case for its relevance to society was somehow too mundane a task for us….The immediate consequence of this attitude is that we’re losing undergraduate majors and financial support at a terrifying rate, and the far-reaching consequence is that anti-intellectualism and a general lack of empathy are running rampant in civic life.”

Meanwhile, as many as 70% of English department faculty nationwide are so-called “contingent” faculty–hired as adjuncts, on a semester-to-semester basis, often earning minimum wage or less despite their doctorates and their publications.  As one angry commenter (evidently an adjunct English teacher) put it, “I for one will not encourage ANYONE to be an English major.  I will teach them their required composition classes for their OTHER majors because I know those majors will actually change their financial lives and allow them to support their families and move out of poverty.  This IS an elitist profession filled with elitist ivory tower ‘folks.’  Everybody knows it; that’s why the numbers in this field are dropping so much.  Get real.  Stop b.s.ing and face what is really going on.”

Yeah.  So we have an anti-intellectual student body, most of whom are highly resistant to reading books at all; combined with a demoralized and exploited faculty.  Although things are somewhat different at my college, it’s impossible to ignore what’s going on in the field as a whole.

And although some literature professors may be willing to put time and energy into justifying why it’s essential that we continue to study so-called “high literature,” like Shakespeare, Milton, Dante,  and Joyce–or even Pynchon, Rushdie, and Roth–I am not.

Egyptian author, doctor and activist Nawal El Saadawi

My whole career has been dedicated to the kind of literature that provides windows into the real material conditions of people living on the margins of society–people outside of the ivory tower, whose voices are rarely heard in the American classroom.  My own personal canon includes Rigoberta Menchu, Wangari Maathai, Buchi Emecheta, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Paula Gunn Allen, Shirin Ebadi, Nawal El Saadawi, Mahasweta Devi, Malalai Joya, Vandana Shiva, and many others, few of whom would be familiar to most of the scholars gathered at the MLA this year.

These writers have taught me, above all, to listen.  They’ve taught me to be aware of the intractability of my own privileged social conditioning, and to work hard at overcoming the elitist worldview into which I was born and raised.  And many of them have shown me again and again how in a patriarchal culture women are lumped together with Nature as commodified resources to be managed and controlled.

I never wanted to be a scientist.  My interest in environmental studies sprang from my love and reverence for the natural world, which was so strong in me as a child, and my horror at learning what human beings were doing to the flora and fauna of our planet.

Knowing what I know now about the dire urgency of the manmade threats to our ecological systems on Earth, I cannot sit by and write yet another academic essay on literary theory and disembodied “texts.”

Yes, I care about the sad state of English and literary studies in the academy.  But we’ve doomed ourselves, each of us, by the short-sighted and self-centered decisions we’ve made as individuals and as institutions.  If students today see reading books as irrelevant, and if administrators see English professors as expendable, well…who should we blame but ourselves?

As we hurtle into the 21st century with its multiple crises of climate, ecology and economics, I find myself  still reading, still writing, and circling back around to where I began, in environmental studies, where I will do all I can to use the power of the written word to ignite the social changes we so desperately need.

In narratives of women and the natural world, I have found my home–and my voice.

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. I’m unfortunately the least competent persons to comment here because I’m not at all talented in languages and I’m not even a native English speaker, yet your post arose a few associations and awoke memories that I want to share:

    Statistics was, what caused me to stop studying music ethnology. Today I see statistics as an indispensable analytical tool.

    I never took Derrida (or Heidegger) serious, some of his texts appear to make fun of the reader. In the field of linguistics he undoubtedly has something to say, he was a bright mind. Beyond that, Wittgenstein resonates more with me.

    Since the written word was the most essential part of our extended mind for centuries (arguably for millennia), literature is a good choice to understand human nature.

    One could consider linguistics as a phenomenological branch of neurology. Our logic evolved from grammar, we interpret and construct our internal version of reality in the same way as we construct language. Linguistics and comparative literature show us how our brain works and what our limitations are.

    Reading books and studying literature will decline further, young people are too busy checking their Twitter and Facebook accounts and looking the latest viral YouTube videos. This is intentional and gives the ruling elites free hand to create their euphemisms, their vocabulary, their narrative. And with that a public reality which conceals their crimes and protects their profits.

    The skillful use of language is more important that ever in the battlefield of public consciousness.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  January 6, 2012

      Oh my, scary thoughts here. I hate to think it’s INTENTIONAL, I just don’t want to believe in that level of malevolence. But maybe I am naive and you are right. All the more reason, as you say, to continue to engage in narrative, especially with young people.

      I have just been reading this essay by David Abram on the importance of storytelling and want to share it–will probably dedicate a post to it soon–

      http://www.wildethics.org/essays/storytelling_and_wonder.html

      Thanks Mato, I always look forward to your comments!

      Reply

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