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Literary Studies in the Age of Assessment, or: Must Literature Teachers Justify Their Existence?

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Organizer: M. Martin Guiney

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Ongoing debates over the practical, and even economic value of an academic degree pose a direct challenge to the field of literary studies.  As a result, justifications for the teaching of literature are increasingly expressed in very concrete terms.  We hear, for example, that the study of literature teaches communicative skills that will increase students’ professional opportunities and, consequently, improve their financial stability.  Even quantitative methods have been enlisted in recent years to assess the value of literary study.  Some justifications are more immaterial, but no less utilitarian.  For example, reading literary fiction is said to cultivate “empathy” and therefore promote civic morality, an argument supported by recent experiments in cognitive psychology.

Lurking behind these practical arguments for teaching literature are fears about the future of our profession.  What will happen to academic departments of literature if students are free to take only classes that (they think) will make their lives easier, more prosperous, or (in a less selfish vein) of greater benefit to society? This is not simply a question for higher education professionals: the teaching of literature in secondary schools in North America and around the world is subject to similar pressures. In this seminar, we will examine arguments that justify the study of literature as something other than an “end in itself.” The temptation, among literature teachers, may well be to reject such arguments as irrelevant; after all, to quote an outdated, but still potent, post-romantic “Baudelairean” stance, why should any art form, including literature, have any purpose other than its own existence? It is no longer possible, however, to ignore the widespread pressure on education in general to be of immediate and measurable benefit to students. Whether one agrees or not with such utilitarian arguments, they have become ubiquitous.  It behooves us to engage with them critically and creatively.   The future of the study of literature as an activity benefitting the general population, and not just those who aspire to a decreasing number of academic positions, depends on it.


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