This letter, sent to The Globe and Mail on June 12, 1991 in response to an article defaming university teachers of English, was not published: newspapers which would hesitate to print similar comments about other professions evidently feel that academics are fair game.
The Globe and Mail. June 12, 1991.
One hesitates to intrude upon the apocalyptic reveries of Ray Conlogue (“Cross Current,” June 11, 1991): it would be unkind to spoil the pleasure he evidently takes in posturing as a defender of Shakespeare against a new breed of academic Philistines. But only in his imagination are English professors, whom he seems to have trouble distinguishing from Red Guards, engaged in smashing up the monuments of our culture.
As a Renaissance scholar and a teacher of Shakespeare, I honour Mr. Conlogue's love of literature—but not his more obvious fondness for academic gossip, threadbare anecdotes, and cheap gestures of contempt. Samson laid about him with the jawbone of an ass; Conlogue prefers to brandish that of Claude Rawson, whose abusive article in a recent issue of the London Review of Books appears to be his principal source of information about contemporary academic life. Mr. Conlogue also has a friend who is a graduate student in English: rejecting her view of art and culture as “a site of contestation” in favour of a more urbane comparison to “a conversation among related people,” he promptly spoils the gesture by denouncing Jacques Derrida, the philosopher and literary theorist, as “a reactionary intellectual fraud.”
That may be the way some of us talk to our relatives. But one can only regret the intrusion of such language into what ought to be a reasoned debate over the role of the universities in transmitting a heightened awareness both of our cultural traditions and of the liberating potential of contemporary cultural and interpretive practices.
English studies have been revitalized during the past fifteen years by the work of feminist, poststructuralist, new historicist, and cultural materialist scholars. In my experience, and that of many of my colleagues, this work has made us more responsive to the needs of our students, more sensitive to the interactions between literary texts and the social contexts within which they are produced and interpreted, and more alert to the ethical implications of our teaching. It has also given new energy—I speak again from experience—to such traditional areas of literary scholarship as textual editing and the close reading of texts.
There have been and will continue to be lively debates among the exponents of different modes of literary interpretation. Students of literature are exposed to a wide variety of approaches by teachers who, whatever their methodological differences, share a commitment to the inculcation of independent critical thinking. The notion that university classrooms and lecture-halls have been “hijacked” for political ends is thus both malicious and absurd. Equally fatuous, as a glance at the course offerings of any North American university will show, is the claim that the literary classics have been dumped from the curriculum.
Only in ill-informed or ill-disposed minds could the rich diversity of new voices that is now evident in literary studies take on the nightmare shape of a monolithic, anti-democratic wave of “political correctness.”
Michael H. Keefer
University of Guelph
Vice-President and President-Elect, Association of Canadian University Teachers of English