Teaching Criticism

from the "English Grad Student Shaming" tumblr.

“What Mom always said doesn’t go far in grad school…” (from EnglishGradStudentShaming.tumblr.com)

This post attempts to puzzle through the impulse to critique and criticize in literary studies; in particular, it considers a grad-student culture of shame via the newly-created tumblr “englishgradstudentshaming.” What happens when grad students and instructors feel like they “can’t say anything nice about books anymore”?

This .jpeg comes from the English Grad Student Shaming tumblr, which catalogues the standard repertoire of academic anxieties: fears about not knowing one’s field well enough, about being “outed” for not knowing supposedly foundational texts or concepts, and about feeling ill equipped or ill prepared for teaching. It’s where English grad students can go to confess that they suffer from impostor syndrome; alternatively, it’s where grad students can go to pose as sufferers of impostor syndrome while smirking behind a sheet of 8×11 printer paper about such risky transgressions as liking Harry Potter or not liking the Oxford comma.

I struggle to understand many of the confessions on English Grad Student Shaming, probably because I don’t suffer from impostor syndrome. A few friends and colleagues have asked me about this;  they are incredulous. Incredulous!  I cannot credit many of the anxieties that issue from impostor syndrome; they cannot credit my lack of these anxieties.

It may be easy to assume that I can luxuriate in a sense of academic and professional ease because I’m arrogant (which I may be), or accomplished (which I’m not–at least not more than anyone else I know), or know what the hell I’m doing better than those around me (which I don’t). But I like to think that I’ve been able to avoid this affliction because at a certain point in my life I decided I was tired of being constantly anxious about my academic performance. It’s just so much better to be only occasionally worried about it–like the 20 minutes before a conference presentation or the night (or, let’s be real here, the week or entire month) before my dissertation defense.

I have also taken to heart the words of a senior scholar who emphasized to myself and a group of young Humanities and Social Science scholars that we are “shaping our fields on the ground running.” Thinking about what we study, how we study, and why we study what we do is incredibly important not because we need to evaluate whether we are doing these things according to some sort of external standard, but because in the doing of these things we are actually participating in creating standards, even as seemingly powerless grad students.

This is why the one confession from English Grad Student Shaming that really struck a chord in me was:

“I don’t know how to say anything nice about books anymore.”

Oh what a sad, not-so-shocking shocker of a confession.

If this is a common feeling amongst English grad students, what sort of field does such a sentiment create? And how might such a sentiment shape classroom experiences, or even pre-empt certain learning outcomes?

So, I’ve got to ask: Do many grad students feel this way? Is this a problem particular to grad-student culture? Does a culture of criticism impact your classroom experiences? What the ‘eff is going on here?

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Criticism

  1. It was D.C. from McMaster who taught me both to be critical of novels, but never to leave it at the criticism (or to not *always* be critical). He stressed that in the Humanities we’re building something, and if we want to build and create we have to be willing to declare what we find impressive, or exciting, or (yes) beautiful in texts. So I credit D.C. and the other folks at MAC who thought it was not only okay, but necessary, to take pleasure in reading and to be brave enough to declare (parts of) a text great. (and maybe that extends to the rest of my life – that I’m not satisfied with saying “this is a problem,” or “this is wrong,” without wanting to also believe in something. Maybe.)

  2. Pingback: 10 Improvements | Dry-Erase Writings

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