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Media Studies and Literary Studies

I was somewhat bemused to see the white paper recently released by the MLA, reporting to the Teagle Foundation on the goals and objectives of the undergraduate major in language and literature in the context of a liberal arts education. (From what I can tell, the report itself was actually released in December — as reported by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed — and posted on the MLA website or announced as available yesterday.) This paper argues strongly for the core values that have long rested at the heart of such an education (in particular, language proficiency as developed through and complemented by the careful reading of literature), while at the same time proposing to bring students into these majors by acknowledging and even including in the major the many other kinds of texts that comprise the contemporary cultural scene.

However, it’s clear that the center of gravity remains in a fairly dated definition of the literary in particular and of reading in general:

While we advocate incorporating into the major the study of a variety of texts, we insist that the most beneficial among these are literary works, which offer their readers a rich and challenging–and therefore rewarding–object of study. Our cybernetic world has brought us speed and ease of information retrieval; even where the screen has replaced paper, however, language still remains the main mode of communication. Those who learn to read slowly and carefully and to write clearly and precisely will also acquire the nimbleness and visual perceptions associated with working in an electronic environment.

This is a move that has repeatedly been made by English departments, precisely the thing that gets them accused of a colonialist approach to interdisciplinary studies: incorporating the texts and methodologies studied in other fields, but only insofar as they shed light on the still narrowly defined category of the literary, and refusing to imagine that those other fields, methodologies, and texts might have their own histories and significances apart from the light that literary studies can shed on them. In part, this colonizing project is evidence of a field reacting against its apparent decline. One might see, for instance, Mark Bauerlein’s evaluation of the report, in which he sees “the realization that unless literature is defended, literary study will shrink with each media expansion. Long novels and complex poetry cannot compete on their own, not in a Web 2.0 universe. English and foreign-language professors are the guardians of them, and the MLA report is an inspiring example of that duty.” It’s fine, both Bauerlein and the MLA report seem to suggest, to use things like film to sex up the major enough to bring in the students, but once they’re in, they need to be taught what’s really important: print, and not just print, but literature. The understanding of reading presented here is as narrowly circumscribed as is the definition used by the NEA in its much-discussed reports, Reading at Risk and To Read or Not to Read — how can anyone be shocked that a small percentage of the population reads when reading is defined in such particular (and dare I say elitist) terms?

This kind of colonizing gesture is one of the reasons why a few of us on the executive council (or whatever it is we’re called) of the MLA’s discussion group on Media and Literature are scheming a change in that group’s title, making it simply “Media Studies.” If the MLA wants to read the texts that we read, in the ways that we read them, we’re happy to engage in that dialogue with them. But the organization, and the field of literary studies more broadly, needs to understand that media texts aren’t just the frosting on the literary cake; they are texts with their own histories and their own modes of study, and engagement with them requires literacies that include but are far from limited to a facility with language.

In short: the future of the literature major, it seems to me, is in media studies, in its interdisciplinarity, its openness, its acknowledgment both of the specific histories and literacies engaged and promoted by different media forms and of the multiplicity of ways those forms interact in an increasingly complex media culture. I encourage the MLA to think less about how media might be used to promote the primacy of literature than about how the notion of literature might be opened to interact with (rather than take over) the serious study of other kinds of cultural texts.


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