Back in one of the communications skills threads, Karen comments about science and humanities:

It’s easy enough for a humanities major to avoid doing much science in school. The converse is not true. It strikes me that for those earlier scientists who attended univeristy, both their early education and university years were more suited to focusing on the science.

This relates to the communication issue as this often means that the science inclined are often put in a position of being evaluated on their communication in area that are areas of weakness for them, those areas where communications are often based on subjective evaluation. For some, this is merely something to get though. For others, it may put a major roadblock on their path into science.

This is an area where I’ve had to slightly moderate my opinion recently. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important for humanities people to learn some math and science– I still think they’re a little too coddled– but some recent conversations with students have led me to think that the science majors aren’t quite as put-upon as I used to think.

Specifically, I have heard of a surprisingly (to me) large number of cases of students who were, trying to fit English 101 into their final term of their senior year, because they had managed to get through without taking a single literature class to that point. And I’ve had to really push a few students to take the required literature courses.

I’m not suggesting that these requirements need to be dropped or loosened– I’m just going to be a little more vigilant about making sure my advisees are taking their required humanities courses earlier. But I have realized that it’s a little easier to duck the humanities than I used to think, even at an elite liberal arts school.

Of course, the effects of this are very different than the effects of ducking math and science. Avoidance of math and science continues to have a sort of institutional sanction that avoidance of the humanities does not– someone taking the bare minimum of required humanities courses will have a very difficult time getting into Phi Beta Kappa, for example, while students taking only the minimum required math and science get in much more easily. But there is more of a culture of avoidance than I had appreciated.

I don’t think, though, that this has all that much to do with communications skills. The core problem is not so much that science majors don’t have the reading and writing ability to do the classes, it’s that they have a dim view of the whole endeavor. The attitude that arts and humanities are all just a pointless bullshit game is surprisingly common, even among students at a liberal arts college.

(To be fair, I am occasionally prone to that myself, even when I was a student at an elite liberal arts college. Though I felt that way most strongly when I was taking 300-level English classes– the cavalcade of critical theory we ran through in one of them put me off literature classes entirely for two years.)

In the end, I don’t think that attitude is any more appropriate than the “Science is just for nerds…” attitude from the other side of the Two Cultures divide (though it’s probably less harmful to society as a whole). Scientists have an obligation to understand the world we live in, and that necessarily includes some understanding of arts and culture. Which means scientists ought to take some real humanities courses, just as humanities majors ought to take some real science courses. The proper response to the innumeracy of intellectuals is to set a higher mathematical standard for all educated people, not for scientists to turn their backs entirely on the arts in a fit of pique.

So, as I said, I’ll be making an effort in future to step on that sort of thinking a little more quickly, in my advisees and in my own writing. I can’t guarantee success– there’s a certain level of literary over-analysis that I’ll never stop rolling my eyes at– but I will try.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    July 16, 2010

    Try fully appreciating the titles to the original series Star Trek without some knowledge of the two most influential bodies of literature in Western Civilization (specifically: the Bible, and Shakespeare)….

    OK, that’s an argument for nerds, but not necessarily for science nerds. (Although there’s a correlation between appreciation of science fiction and being a science nerd, it’s not as strong as lot of people assume it is.)

  2. #2 Stuart Coleman
    July 16, 2010

    Maybe things at Union are different, but at Stanford I had to do 5 units (out of 20) of a specific humanities course every quarter for the first year. On top of that there were two 4-unit courses required in the first two years. There were very, very few options there, maybe a dozen to choose from each quarter. Plus an additional minimum of two (or three, I forget, I’m over a year past all this nonsense by now) humanities courses taken from a much larger group. Oh, plus a full year of language.

    How many math/sci/engineering courses were required? Two.

    To me it’s not so much that humanities are worthless and and I don’t need to know about them (I really enjoyed my Philosophy of Ethics class, and of course Phil. of Science was great), it’s just that the scale is weighed so heavily toward humanities, and it’s so frontloaded.

    Besides, I’m not really sure you need to be taking literature courses to get an appreciation for literature, you can just read on your own (in fact, I’d warrant that the vast majority of people would get more out of the same reading material if they did it on their own). Of course, many people simply won’t do that if left to their own devices (yo), but it’s pretty damn difficult to get out of a reasonable high school program without a pretty solid lit background (or, at least, I managed to).

    Anyway, I’m not sure the same is true of science/math, you certainly *can* learn it independently, but it’s nontrivial. And given the incredible innumeracy and breathtaking lack of understanding of basic science in the population at large, I’d say we have bigger fish to fry than worrying about whether people will get the Shakespeare references in Family Guy.

  3. #3 Tom
    July 16, 2010

    I think the existence of “physics for poets”/”rocks for jocks” classes on the science side, with no corresponding dilution of humanities classes, is a tacit admission that the divide is there and institutionally sanctioned, if not reinforced. I sat through a couple of 300-level humanities classes. I saw no humanities majors in any of my 300-level physics classes, and doubt there were any in chem or geology, simply because they never took the prerequisite intro class — never had to, and could not have taken the advanced classes without them. They took the watered down, math-free version.

    Making sure students don’t put off English 101 until senior year is something that has a relatively easy fix. Tell them they have to take it by (pick your target). If they haven’t hit the milestone, they can’t register unless the class is on their schedule.

  4. #4 Peter Morgan
    July 16, 2010

    What 300-level litcrit theory course was it? Why did you take that choice instead of something old-style in the humanities, for example? Why not Art History, instead? I’m muy curious!

    My feeling is that the heaviest continental philosophy is only doable or presentable well by a very few people. Even at its best, it’s barely constructive, it’s much more usefully taken to be a critique of naive modernism/realism. I take the critique to be substantive, even though it boils down to something rather close to “it’s soooo complex”, but even the most effective critic rarely comes up with a good constructive response to such questions as how we should think about the effectiveness of mathematical models, if, as one example, we cannot “justify” our use of induction beyond some pragmatic point.

    So much perverse delight can be taken in saying “you can’t do that!” to almost any attempt to be constructive, that it can sometimes be forgotten that finding creative ways to destroy something else is not, at least not always, as good as finding a way to create something. [Some creativity is not so good, I suppose, such as finding new ways to create new oil leaks.]

    A 300-level litcrit course presented in a confrontational way could be an abomination that I think should not be taken to represent the subject. You could as well take ScienceBlogs to be all of Science. Some hints, but it’s what you do elsewhere in your intellectual life that dictates whether you get it.

  5. #5 Lassi Hippeläinen
    July 16, 2010

    You’ll learn more about communication if you don’t waste your time in literature. Don’t even study your mother tongue. Any other language is better. Preferably one that is as little related to your mother tongue as possible. Gives you a very different avenue to think along.

    In Good Old Days a man of letters was espected to speak at least four languages (even though they all tended to be Indo-European).

  6. #6 Mark P
    July 16, 2010

    I got a bachelor’s in a liberal art (journalism) with a history minor, and even I could barely stand the upper level literature courses. Too many would-be Hemingways. I later went on to a PhD in atmospheric science, but I certainly never regretted the liberal arts undergrad courses (except that one damned C because, apparently, I broadcast my contempt). But I wonder if my attitude was formed because of my prep school days. We had to take both literature and science classes, and if you were halfway respectable, AP classes in all of them.

  7. #7 LazyAstronomer
    July 16, 2010

    I was a physics major with a minor in art history (simply because I was interested in it, and it was a good distraction from physics and math). I had plenty of science major friends who had minors in humanities disciplines, such as art, art history, English, music, philosophy, etc. The converse was not true. None of my humanities or social science friends minored in chemistry or geology or biology simply because it interested them. Sure, many of them were interested in science, and in fact my Spanish major roommate and I had many interesting discussions about science. But a science minor was simply thought of as beyond the reach of most non-science majors.

    Anecdotes aside, I wonder that the data says? What % of science majors have humanities minors, and vice-versa?

  8. #8 Becca Stareyes
    July 16, 2010

    My undergrad institution had two sets of general requirements. The first was a sort of breadth requirement — so many communications, social sciences, humanities, science, etc. courses. The second was Integrated Studies, which were courses in all fields which had an [IS] label — you needed ten, and at least two had to be at the 300 and 400 level. For science/math, it usually meant that there was a lot of writing. Lab courses usually counted here, since they required lab reports. For humanities classes…

    … they required a lot of writing. Which is both good and bad. Good because I remember my fellow Freshman Comp. students weren’t up to my own little freshman standards, even the ones who were humanities majors. Bad because… I thought the whole point was to work some reading/writing/language into science classes and some math/science into humanities courses. Admittedly, writing an essay takes some degree of logical thinking, but setting out ‘this is how science matters to English or History or so on’ would be nice. No point in teaching students ‘planets for poets’ if they are going to forget it because they are just there to get their degree and get out.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    July 16, 2010

    What 300-level litcrit theory course was it? Why did you take that choice instead of something old-style in the humanities, for example? Why not Art History, instead? I’m muy curious!

    The specific course that really turned me off was on Medieval Lit. freshman year (I had AP credit that let me skip the 100-level altogether) The works we read were all pretty enjoyable– Chaucer, etc.– but outside the texts we had to read these godawful turgid theoretical critiques of them. There wasn’t any particular pattern to the application, either– sometimes we got multiple different critical approaches applied to the same authors, which really enhanced the impression that it was all a bullshit game to see how you could twist and shift the works to fit the model of the moment.

    A couple of years later, I took a class on Comedy that was much better. The critical readings weren’t any more enjoyable– nothing wrecks a joke faster than a Ph.D. explaining why it’s funny– but the professor’s approach was much more laid-back, and the critical works weren’t nearly as heavy-handed.

    I never took Art History 101 because it met something like five or six times a week, and I was always taking at least two science/math courses, usually with at least one lab. It was too much to fit in my schedule. I do regret that a little, as the Art History department at Williams is supposed to be really outstanding, and I know next to nothing about fine art, but I never felt like I had the time.

  10. #10 The Phytophactor
    July 16, 2010

    A panel discussion on the common curriculum featured one lone scientist, moi, and all the rest from the humanities. In my opening statement I defined the humanities as the study of human artifacts, and every thing else, life and the universe, studied by science, thereby arguing that things were a bit out of whack in terms of how much we knew about how little (the humanities) and how little students knew about so much (science). Wow, was that fun! Thought an English lit professor was going to have a heart attack.

  11. #11 Eric Lund
    July 16, 2010

    I echo the above comments that anybody who is not an English major should stay the hell away from lit crit. Learning a foreign language is a better use of your time. It wasn’t all that long ago that learning a second language was mandatory for a bachelors degree, but most US universities have dropped the requirement.

    Breadth requirements have their uses, but if badly implemented your students will end up with an education resembling that of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Major General. The Major General actually got some background in mathematics:

    I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
    I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
    About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news,
    With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

    However, if you inspect the lyrics you will find that the Major General didn’t get much instruction in the thing he’s supposedly trained and specifically paid to do: run a military campaign.

  12. #12 tcmJOE
    July 16, 2010

    Out of curiosity, why do science departments bother to offer the various watered-down courses? Why not just do away with “rocks for jocks” and the rest and demand that humanities and social science majors take the same intro courses that the science and engineering majors do?

    I think your average precocious university student could get through Modern Physics or build a robot out of Legos without too much difficulty if they just bucked up a bit (and took some real Calculus).

  13. #13 marciepooh
    July 16, 2010

    Quick comment about “rocks for jocks” – While many people at my alma mater called Introduction to Physical Geology (GEO 101), “rocks for jocks” it was (and still is) neither watered down nor easy, much to the dismay of the jocks, frat boys, and sorority bimbos hoping for a crib course to fulfill their science requirements. They just think that because the last time they took an earth science course was 8th grade (or maybe 4th grade) and ‘rocks’ rhymes with ‘jocks’ it has to be easier than Intro to Physics without calculus.

    I recognize that this may not be true at all institutions, but it kind of gets on my nerves (as a geologist who heard far too many times “this is HARD” during 101).

  14. #14 Alex
    July 16, 2010

    Out of curiosity, why do science departments bother to offer the various watered-down courses? Why not just do away with “rocks for jocks” and the rest and demand that humanities and social science majors take the same intro courses that the science and engineering majors do?

    The standard intro sequences last a year or more, and spend a lot of time on very technical aspects rather than the big picture that one would want an educated citizen to retain and hopefully apply in the future. I want the humanities graduates to know how nuclear power works, and know that EM fields from powerlines are not the same as ionizing radiation, and know what a stem cell is. I don’t care if he can solve a momentum conservation problem, or distinguish s and p orbitals, or know which molecule is involved in which step of DNA replication and which end of the chain these molecules start on. Yet freshman physics will spend a lot of time on solving motion problems (deferring details of nuclear physics until later), freshman chem will spend a lot of time on orbitals and equilibrium constants, and freshman bio will spend a lot of time on details of molecular bio.

    A freshman philosophy class, by contrast, could immediately start applying some of the ethical discussions to, say, anti-terrorism policy, or healthcare, or whatever. A freshman literature class could (if the instructor wishes) compare the dilemmas faced by characters in classic novels with dilemmas faced by people today. A history class could present lessons with clear implications for questions that people face today.

    The big advantage of the classes we offer for science majors is that we teach how scientists solve problems and analyze information, in ways that “rocks for jocks” and “physics for poets” classes usually don’t. The challenge for us is to somehow design classes that have the intellectual rigor of a standard intro science class, but get to the issues that matter for non-scientists more quickly than the standard science major courses do. I’ve heard good things about a book called “Physics For Future Presidents”, but I haven’t reviewed it personally. It may or may not be what I’m thinking of, but I’m sure there are some other courses out there that do it.

    Also, we’d have to persuade them to take “The Physics of Things That Will Actually Matter in Your Life and Decisions” instead of “Look! Black Holes!” Everybody loves “Look! Black Holes!”

  15. #15 tcmJOE
    July 16, 2010

    @14

    “Physics for Future Presidents” is an excellent book, and would serve as a spring-board for a very interesting class. But it would really need to be supplemented with something else to really go into the mechanics and math. As you said, we need more rigor.

    As for building robots and taking Modern Physics, I really DO think those are valid options for everyone to take. For the former it would give students a chance to appreciate the design, build, test, rethink process in engineering. For the latter, I know relativity and quantum have filtered enough into the public sphere for people to have some thoughts about it, and it would be nice to teach it properly, help students understand what the buzz about the LHC is all about, and let people know that Deepak Chopra is full of it.

  16. #16 I.P. Freeley
    July 16, 2010

    I’m reminded of my first day training to be a planetarium operator (best undergrad job ever!). My boss told me:

    “There are two types of people that make good planetarium presenters–Those trained in theater that can learn a little astronomy, and those trained in astronomy that can learn a little theater. It’s a lot easier to teach theater to the astronomers.”

    Isn’t the dismissive attitude of science majors about humanities sometimes a little justified? Is there really a symmetry between how hard it is for a Physics major to be an English major and vice-versa?

  17. #17 Pen
    July 16, 2010

    Wooo, I’m afraid I’m constantly shocked by the poor grasp the science geeks I know have of basic history… and they think most classic literature was based on the film produced several centuries to decades after the book… and they’d really better hope that spelling and grammar are beneath them! Now, I’m not saying learning this stuff is as hard as physics. I’m saying it’s general knowledge, please!

    As for art history, since the subject came up in the comments thread, I don’t think many people in the science field know what goes on there. I’d like to give one example of an undergraduate research project that happens to be mine. I’m afraid it’s a typical, high labour, nitty-gritty detail, unglamarous thing, like quite a lot of undergrad science projects, really. I was interested in the changing use of gold in late medieval paintings. One hypothesis has been that the reflective properties of gold were deliberately manipulated for spiritual impact. This may well be true in some periods and places, and if you haven’t seen how gold can behave in paintings, well, just say nothing. It was also hypothesized (in a course text) that the owners of a particular painting most likely altered their building to enhance this effect. I reconstructed the long gone building from drawings, diagrams, and contracts made at the time and found that this was implausible in this case (the extra light was supplementary and from the wrong direction optically). I also found that the textile that the gold had been tooled to represent would have been superlatively expensive and that expensive textiles were a very important status symbol at this place and time. I came to the conclusion that, at least in this case, the represented material value, rather than the optical effect of gold, were actively sought after, and that the architectural alterations had very little to do with the painting directly.

    This was a fairly typical project for my course. I will admit that it didn’t include any equations and does not follow the structure and conventions of science research, though the feeling of certainty all that provides would have been nice. But, it was not boring, at least not for me. In fact, I have never felt more excited in my life than when I actually unearthed the plans I needed in some little known museum on the outskirts of Florence or decrypted the Italian in the contracts. Nor do I think the question I tackled was immune to objective consideration, or that the larger problem of why humans make the artifacts they do, and why they change their habits over time is trivial or inherently unadressable.

    Perhaps the worst problem I have with ‘humanities virgins’ is that they’ve never really thought of any of this on any serious level.

  18. #18 Patrick LeClair
    July 16, 2010

    @17 – Even as a science geek, I have to agree. In high school, I thought all humanities were fluffy subjects, and looked down on most of them. After taking some higher-level humanities classes in college (history, political science), I realized that they were coddling us … after you start thinking about anything on a deeper level, it is much easier to appreciate. My wife was a sociology major in college, and until I met her I didn’t really appreciate that field either.

    Your post also makes me want to learn more about art history. It may not be quantitative for the most part, but your project seems like science to me, looking broadly.

  19. #19 perry
    July 16, 2010

    Chad, your post seems to be a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man.

  20. #20 Will
    July 16, 2010

    @Alex #14

    In chemistry many departments teach a course called “GOB”, short for “general, organic, biochemistry”, a 1 semester terminal course, quick overview of almost all chemistry. Very superficial, but you can see the whole shebang “subatomic particles to life” in one semester.

    This is the one chemistry course taught to *nursing* students. I always thought the humanities students would really benefit from this, but evidently, its too hard. They go for really watered down crap. Just to get it over with.

  21. #21 Chris
    July 16, 2010

    Pen, that’s a wonderful project. I’d love to see what you came up with.

    (MS in Botany, now medieval historian)

  22. #22 TrishB
    July 16, 2010

    @Pen #17 – As an art history major of long ago, thank you for your post. It’s a great example of the rigor than can happen in a good humanities program. I think one of my favorite courses was called Art Historical Methods. We spent a good part of the semester studying and then watching restoration techniques at the local museum. Yes, it involved chemistry and scientific observation.

    As to the thread at large, there seems to be a great deal of generalization happening. I think of my nephew who will graduate next year from Oberlin with a double major in philosophy and physics, and a minor in German. Now granted, most of his friends in the conservatory program are taking less science, but I’m also guessing most of the physics majors aren’t composing music to graduate.

  23. #23 Danil
    July 16, 2010

    I arrived at Rice just as they decided that a distribution requirement wasn’t enough, and all matriculating freshmen would be required to take specific survey courses.

    In particular, they decided that, for the science and engineering majors, a 3 hour survey course on western mythology would be sufficiently “broadening”.

    And perhaps for the pre-meds, it was; all of the math/physics/engineer types had a minimum of 5 years of D&D under their belts…. “Remind me why we are using this translation again?” “This hero’s analog in Indian myth is much more interesting” etc.

  24. #24 CCPhysicist
    July 17, 2010

    You do not have to go beyond the most basic college math (something at the level of 9th grade algebra) to offer a challenging science class if you use a book like “Conceptual Physical Science Explorations” by Hewitt et al. If you have used the FCI you surely know that even physics majors will screw up on questions like whether you need a small net force to keep a car moving or whether a=0 when v=0 or whether your speed can decrease when your acceleration is positive. And those aren’t even the hardest ones in their test bank. Some of them are right up there with the best of the lit crit nonsense, with the virtue of being real.

    There are important topics in a course like that. This semester I made sure that I got to the section about how soap (dispersants) work to mix oil with water, and I always make a point to get to the basics of nuclear proliferation. These are critical issues for every citizen.

  25. #25 Conan the Pseudonymous
    July 17, 2010

    From my perspective, an art history piece like #17 mentions is, essentially, science. Science is just trying to rationally piece together and understand the world as it is, and looking at something like art is definitely within that remit. Why limit it to the realm of personal judgements and subjective criteria?

    Personally, I’m always concerned about this “two cultures” stuff, because my field is social anthropology. Is it science? Is it a humanities subject?

    In soc anth, everything (ideally) stems from accurate ethnography. If it doesn’t come from accurate ethnographic data, if it uses “theory” in the lit crit sense of contrarianism or untestable, unqualifiable hypothesis, if it clearly has a political edge that affects the data, then people like me will reject it. To me, and to most anthropologists (I think), soc anth is definitely science, in that it uses empirical data and theoretical projections based on that data to understand a part of the universe in which we live and to incorporate that knowledge into the corpus of knowledge gleaned from other disciplines. It has its own issues, of course – mostly to do with ethics and epistemology, and its special problem is, of course, that the anthropologist is herself a human being. In deciding what to record as ethnographic data, the anthropologist risks imposing her value judgements on the people she is working with. And this is, of course, why accurate ethnography minimises speculation and sticks almost entirely to what was actually observed and actually said.

    It has its own challenges, but if you want to understand the universe in all its facets, why limit your rational investigations to inanimate or unthinking things?

    Anyway, my point is; there shouldn’t be two cultures. There should be one academic culture: science culture, an attempt to rationally understand the world in all its facets. Literature certainly counts as part of the world, but lit crit isn’t approaching it in a scientific way. I’m a philistine, I realise, but dealing with fuzzy-headed Sokalophobes has made me hate intensely the madness of lit crit, and if I had the power, I’d abolish it. Throw it out of universities, along with theology. It’s not science. It’s not really knowledge. It’s just unverifiable, supposedly radical, politically motivated flatulence.

    Science is what should be taught in universities (not to be an overly demanding snob or anything…). Science as applied to all manner of things, from human culture to physics, from geology to linguistics. Philosophy and language teaching are exceptions. Possibly.

    Yes, that’s extreme and I’m definitely guilty of so-called scientism. Yet I can’t help but see these lit crit people, these post-structuralist zombies, as fundamentally heinous. I’m sure they mean well. I’m equally sure that it’s because of these folks that 30% of all soc anth articles and books are absolute drivel.

    So should there be requirements for literature students to do science subjects? No. Because ideally, they should be doing a scientific subject anyway, in analysing human literary output in a rational way. Similar tools should be applicable across the board. So it should be a binary thing of humanities/science. It should be about studying a range of scientific techniques and subjects so as to develop broad as well as deep knowledge, all of it in the realm of science.

    The traditional comeback whenever I start a rant like this is for someone to say, “but there’s more to life than can be purely rationally analyzed!” And I agree. Novels, music, and art are all wonderful things. But 1) rationally analyzing them does not diminish their impact and 2) sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll are all wonderful things that don’t require rational analysis to make them great. Strangely, though, I don’t seem to recall a Professor of DMT and Poppers at any university on earth. Why there should be a professor of literature who simply writes impenetrable utopian fantasies as critiques of barely-referenced novels is to me equally implausible and ridiculous.

    tl;dr: There is really only one of these culture that’s worthwhile (science culture) and it applies more widely than most people think (in anthropology, political science, history, etc), while the barbarian hordes of literary criticism are a fringe group of intellectual terrorists. :P

  26. #26 Conan the Pseudonymous
    July 17, 2010

    *shouldn’t be a binary thing of humanities/science.

  27. #27 bardiac
    July 17, 2010

    How much straight theory do your physics majors read? Do they read the originary arguments of string theory, for example? At what level, and after how much preparation?

    When I did my undergrad (BS in a now-defunct zoology program) many years ago now, we didn’t read much research or theory, but textbooks that explained concepts. I had one class that actually challenged me to think theoretically about evolution and ecology. It was the best course I took, but there was only the one.

    We lit folks (I’m a convert) tend to read the texts (of theory or whatever) directly in class. And some of those texts are really hard. They’re often hard because they’re dealing with really complicated intellectual histories, and because they’re originally written in French, German, Latin or whatever, and in cultures that have very different ideas about how to make an argument. You have to learn how to read those sorts of arguments.

    The intellectual challenge is as exciting as is the challenge of understanding string theory or relativity. Really.

  28. #28 DuWayne
    July 18, 2010

    I think that a rather significant part of the problem is that a lot of lit classes are taught by instructors who don’t seem to understand the largely subjective nature of literary analysis. I think the other problem is that students are required to focus all of their analysis on instructor chosen texts, rather than seeing a few broken down as examples and then being freed to take a work they have chosen and with instructor approval, used that as their major assignment.

    There is room for grading students based on the effort and thought they put into their analysis. Trying to grade on “right” or “wrong” responses is completely antithetical to the notion of literary analysis. And trying to force students to spend the entire semester/term, analyzing only what the instructor demands creates a near certainty that several students are not going to put a lot of thought into it and that they will finish the class believing that literary analysis is a) bullshit and b) completely pointless. Sometimes there is little more to say than, “I rather thought it sucked.”

    I do think that communications also has an important place, but isn’t for everybody. I would love to see intro-comm as an across the board requirement, mainly because I think a lot of people would be shocked by just how interesting it can be, but also because a good instructor will make use of this opportunity to make sure that students coming out of that class will actually think about how they communicate.

  29. #29 Conan the Pseudonymous
    July 18, 2010

    The problem I have with lit crit is threefold. 1) Everything is heavily politicised. 2) Lit crit adherents seem to believe that their subject is important. This seems to be unwarranted, as what they are actually doing is something of a minor activity – analysing a tiny segment of human culture in isolation from the rest. 3) I don’t get what questions lit crit is supposed to answer. Are they trying to understand human cognitive processes and develop realistic epistemologies for human beings based on an analysis of their fiction? If so, why does lit crit so rarely incorporate findings from genuine (rather than fringe) academic psychology and neuroscience? Are they trying to understand the aesthetic appeal of literature? Why not, then, study popular works and interview people about their views on them? Why not use actual data instead of repeating how some of reality as humans perceive it is socially/mentally constructed? And why politicise the subject? Why not look for answers in an unbiased way? And why write such impenetrable nonsense? The signal-to-noise ratio in a lit crit article is unlikely to be high, based on the pomo articles I’ve read over the years.

    I don’t get it, at all, and the only work I’ve ever read about lit crit that made any sense at all (that was, you know, parseable) was Barry, Beginning Theory, the most basic introduction of them all. And in that book, there was a lot that angered me, frankly. It answered few of my questions, and just made me think that maybe a better title for the book would have been Beginning Untestable Heavily-Politicised Hypotheses. Doesn’t roll off the tongue as well, though.

    I’m a pomophobe mostly because it puzzles me.

    There is room for grading students based on the effort and thought they put into their analysis. Trying to grade on “right” or “wrong” responses is completely antithetical to the notion of literary analysis. And trying to force students to spend the entire semester/term, analyzing only what the instructor demands creates a near certainty that several students are not going to put a lot of thought into it and that they will finish the class believing that literary analysis is a) bullshit and b) completely pointless. Sometimes there is little more to say than, “I rather thought it sucked.”

    So what would good literary analysis look like? That’s what I don’t get. Is all literary analysis totally subjective? How could it be? There are words on the page; you can’t say that it talks about monkeys when it talks about squid. I’m all for analysing the subtext, but when a student, or a teacher for that matter, proposes a subtextual analysis that doesn’t grapple with the text itself or its context at all, but instead comes from some seemingly unrelated and politicised non-science like Marxism/feminism/pseudo-psychology (Lacan &c) then what’s the value of it?

    Freaking out the squares?

    I’m genuinely puzzled, and I apologise if I come across as confrontational. Lit crit is like a cape to a bull with me. It makes me want to charge, but I don’t really know all that well what I’m charging at. Which leaves me open to being stabbed repeatedly.

  30. #30 DuWayne
    July 18, 2010

    Conan –

    The point of lit analysis is not to answer questions, but to get students to think. At least that is what the point should be. While there are obviously aspects of literary criticism that are textually dependent and therefore objective, analysis of subtext is not. Poetry is very useful for this explanation, because you don’t have to depend on subtext for abstractions.

    Here is a poem that I wrote for ENG220 in June. Questions that might be explored would be, “What the hell is that all about?,” “Why should I care?” and “What, if anything, does that make me feel?” The most important question is, “Do I like it?” Mainly because if the answer is no, then you cannot begin to analyze it. But if the answer is maybe, or yes – then you can explore it and see what you can make of it.

    I chose that one because, as the person who wrote it, I can absolutely guarantee that it is simply not possible for you to accurately assess what I meant by it. That is not to say that it meant nothing to me, just that it has meaning for me in multiple contexts. But that isn’t the point of lit crit. The point is that you take the time to consider the abstractions embedded in, underlying, overarching or hidden in a given text. It doesn’t matter really, what the author meant, felt or was trying to impart – if that is what we were looking for, we could see what the author has to say about it.

    Look at it as an exercise in critical thinking, which is exactly what it is. It’s subjective because we all approach a given text with our own inherent biases. What that poem I linked means to me has absolutely nothing to do with what it might mean to you or anyone else. We all have different experiences in life and unless you knew me more intimately than I know myself, you couldn’t possibly know what I meant.

    The same is true of good (read: what the beholder likes) literature. I have read very few novels that I really liked, that I couldn’t analyze. But again, I take my
    biases into the fray with me.

    Another major use of lit crit, is in learning to recognize our biases. By allowing yourself to dive into something without trying to suppress your biases, it is easier to figure out what they are – thus making it easier to suppress our biases when it is necessary to do so. And though it may not seem that recognition of cultural/philosophical/emotional biases are important for hard science, they really are. All of our biases are rooted there, which is exactly why it is so important to develop that recognition. (going into neuropsychology, this is rather more obvious to me, than it might be to others)

    While we can never completely shut out our biases, indeed because we can’t completely shut out our biases, it is critically important to do everything we can to learn what they are. Even that much is pretty well nigh on impossible – but even scientists are human.

    Put simply, lit crit forces us to think in ways that are somewhat unfamiliar – to think consciously about what we do unconsciously when we read or watch anything and it helps us recognize our biases.

  31. #31 Chad Orzel
    July 18, 2010

    I’m genuinely puzzled, and I apologise if I come across as confrontational. Lit crit is like a cape to a bull with me. It makes me want to charge, but I don’t really know all that well what I’m charging at. Which leaves me open to being stabbed repeatedly.

    I don’t really have anything to say about this, other than that I really enjoyed this simile.

    The point of lit analysis is not to answer questions, but to get students to think. At least that is what the point should be. While there are obviously aspects of literary criticism that are textually dependent and therefore objective, analysis of subtext is not.

    That’s a good explanation of the educational purpose of literary criticism, but leaves open the question of what the point of professional literary criticism is supposed to be. After all, there are small armies of scholars generating piles of monographs of critical work, the vast majority of which is never used in classes, as far as I can tell.

    I think the obective/subjective thing is the core reason for the split between scientific and literary academia. Scientists and engineers primarily deal with objective subjects, and expect there to be a Right Answer at some point. The notion that multiple different approaches to the same text can be equally valid is kind of a tough one to swallow.

    I’ve gotten somewhat accustomed to the idea, but I still find it frustrating to listen to some critical discussions. This is much, much worse in those areas where people approach social-science type topics in a highly theoretical manner. I find it actively irritating to listen to long discussions of the many problems of some area of the world, or some aspect of politics, and not have them followed with some recommended course of action. Even if the proposed solution is wildly unrealistic, I’d rather hear some sort of call for action than mere reveling in the complexity of some aspect of human interactions.

    That’s a very scientist-ish way of looking at things, I know, but I am a scientist by inclination and training. Which necessarily colors my approach even to things that aren’t scientific in nature.

  32. #32 DuWayne
    July 18, 2010

    …but leaves open the question of what the point of professional literary criticism is supposed to be.

    It is how English majors justify their existence, of course.

    Seriously though, I think this is largely because publishing is important, even in literary academia. That, and literature grads need to write their dissertations too.

    …but I still find it frustrating to listen to some critical discussions.

    Me too! I would add that it is rather painful sometimes.

    This is much, much worse in those areas where people approach social-science type topics in a highly theoretical manner. I find it actively irritating to listen to long discussions of the many problems of some area of the world, or some aspect of politics, and not have them followed with some recommended course of action. Even if the proposed solution is wildly unrealistic, I’d rather hear some sort of call for action than mere reveling in the complexity of some aspect of human interactions.

    I get more than irritated by this, because it is the primary force behind the popular notion that the social sciences aren’t sciences at all. As I am studying neuropsychology and linguistics – so that I can actively engage in research science, I get rather angry about it.

    Case in point, is a essay I just read for my World Security class. Written by one of the most distinguished scholars in international studies and global politics, it is nonetheless a load of meaningless drivel that is not only wildly inaccurate, but also useless. The single greatest point I have gotten out of all the reading for this class, is an understanding of why exactly we (as a nation) have consistently screwed up virtually everything we have touched.

    At the same time, it is also important to have some understanding of just how complex a given problem really is. The papers I have written thus far about what my research will be focused on, addiction, have mainly addressed the complexity and have only peripherally addressed what I think should be done about it. In part that is because I am an undergrad and know that my ideas have some potential. I would like to actually be able to tackle this myself, when I get to grad school.

    But I also focus more on the complexity because we have spent more than a century assuming addiction is a singular, common problem and thus have spent a century with success rates for dealing with addiction that are little better than those of spontaneous remission. One of my psych instructors liked one of my papers so much – for that very reason, that she uses a portion of it for her abnormal psych unit on addiction. So it can have some utility, sometimes.

    Of course I am not sure that this is really the same thing, as what I am describing is really just providing a clear and concise description of a complex problem.

    That’s a very scientist-ish way of looking at things, I know, but I am a scientist by inclination and training. Which necessarily colors my approach even to things that aren’t scientific in nature.

    While I have picked up on all sorts of wonderful, brilliant things, over about eight years of following science blogs, the single most important impact they have had, has been on the lens through which I view world. This has been even more important than the networking – without which going back to school would be exponentially more difficult. That is not to say that I didn’t think rationally before, it is just that I was much more accepting of commonsensical suppositions.

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