My new year begins with a commitment to focus on the primary subject of my book: the near past. Reunion: The Role of English Departments in Reshaping Writing is about how English departments influenced epistemological and cultural change in the 1990s and how we are living with this change today. In this decade, we get the only example in the history of English in American when scholars in cultural studies, composition studies, and literary studies were united on a primary question: why do scholarship?
I decided that my historical research on the 1990s would be confined to the years 1992-2000. In the Introduction to the book I offer a few historical, political, and literary reasons for this. But here I will offer another one. These years mark my time in college and graduate school, when I spent most of my days in or around English departments. But though English was my home discipline, like most students, I pursued my degree blissfully unaware that the structural foundation of my field was altering profoundly. The central terms of my discipine, “literature,” “writing,” “culture,” together formed the triumvirate that defined the culture and science wars and shaped a new direction for language, literary, and rhetorical study in the years to come.
*** A memory: the summer of 1992, around midnight. My mother, only a few years older than I am now is lying in bed alone reading and marking up my copy (from a freshman year writing course) of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory (first published in 1983, revised in 1996). ***
Reunion will require some self-reckoning. Why return to the 1990s? What is left unsaid and unfinished? What do I want to resurrect through the veil of historical and rhetorical scholarship?
So the book is, on the one hand, about the cultural shift in the discipline of English in the 1990s. On the other hand, it’s a treatise about bearing witness, and the vexing, perpetual problem of observing with hindsight.
Even if the hindsight is blurry.
Everything I am reading now speaks to the problem of looking back to the recent past in search of something in the soon to be present.
1. Life and Times of Cultural Studies: The Politics and Transformation of the Structures of Knowledge, (2003) Richard Lee. A history of cultural studies in the English-speaking world.
Main idea: “The institutionalization of the intellectual movement [of cultural studies] however, was accompanied by what was often remarked to be an exhaustion of the political project.”
Note: there is evidence about the failure of cultural studies to unite theory and practice but a lot of work goes into avoiding the ambiguity of phrases like “by what was often remarked to be”.
2. Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today Cynthia G. Franklin (2009). A study of memoirs written by academics and the relationship between this genre and changes in “the university today.”
Main idea: “As I argue for a serious consideration of the subgenre of contemporary academic memoir, I am especially interested in how academic memoirs anticipate and impact contemporary considerations of humanism and the state of the humanities.”
Note: I like this book but have no idea what to do with it. What if she is right, that scholarly-personal musings do (as surely they must) predict, transform, and create epistemological and institutional landscapes of the humanities?
And, best of all, I am reading two primary texts from the 1990’s:
1. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education, Gerald Graff (1992)
2. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, John Guillory (1993)
Both of these books are brilliant–and prescient–in their eager optimism (Graff) and persistent pessimism (Guillory): united in the belief that the humanities always requires finding a resolution between memory (loss) and meaning (future).