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Friday, February 13, 2009

Undying war on the very concept of 'literature'

I have very little memory of taking the English subject test GRE, other than that I walked out of it thinking, "Why were there five questions about Major Barbara?" Which there weren't, probably, but those kinds of things always feel like a conspiracy of things you don't know. I have a stronger memory of wearing fishnet stockings to the regular GRE test on Halloween, when I got only one math question wrong--the only time I've ever been "good" at math since I was twelve years old. I should be tawdry more often.

Every week, as our trivia team prepares for battle, we make plans about what to "study" for the next week. "You were in charge of mid-twentieth-century American poetry by men, right?" Brette asked one week. "Shit, I did mid-twentieth-century American poetry by women!" I joked. But who correctly identified a passage from Robert Lowell's "Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" that very evening?! And who boasted about it to seven different people, at least?! But who always mixes up her F. Scott Fitzgerald first and last novels, too?

Michael Bérubé is one of my favorite academic bloggers, and his discussions of the Sokal hoax and what it did and didn't mean for postmodern theory and science studies are excellent. They're collected in Rhetorical Occasions; What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? is also very interesting. I was particularly struck by this section of his article about retaking the GRE English subject test 25 years after going to graduate school:
But the "theory" questions were a joke, a very bad joke. Literally. The first question involving literary theory — 54 questions into a 230-question exam — asked students to identify parodies of Marxist, reader-response, and structuralist criticism. The Marxist parody was hideous: "Fulvia Morgana said that the function of criticism was to wage undying war on the very concept of 'literature' itself, which was nothing more than an instrument of bourgeois hegemony, a fetichistic [sic!] reification of so-called aesthetic values erected and maintained through an elitist education system in order to conceal the brutal facts of class oppression under industrial capitalism." My stars! Who knew that Fredric Jameson and Raymond Williams could be so reductive?

There were, in fact, very few "theory" questions — one involving Harold Bloom (the word "clinamen" was the giveaway), one involving the late Northrop Frye, and one basically asking you to identify the author of Writing Degree Zero (answer, Roland Barthes). And OK, maybe the one about female readers being asked to sympathize with stories of heroic men surrounded by scheming or trivial women was an "intro to feminist theory" question. But that's about it. Abysmal, really, if you're designing an exam that has anything to do with graduate study in English. Not that every student immerses herself in theory, of course; but most students, it's safe to say, will be expected to understand and respond to a "theoretical" argument — a real one, not a parody of one — at some point in their graduate studies.

I vaguely remember a similar situation when I took it--I seem to remember having to identify parodies of critical positions. Any other memories I have about the English subject test will really sounds like stunts out of a David Lodge novel, as Bérubé puts it: somehow I've never taken a Shakespeare class and have all sorts of weird gaps in Victorian novels and the Updike, Roth, Bellow books I'm supposed to have read. But as Bérubé notes, the Columbia English department doesn't require the GRE subject test and so however well or badly I did neither matters now nor mattered then.

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