cover image Literature: An Embattled Profession

Literature: An Embattled Profession

Carl Woodring. Columbia University Press, $55 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-231-11522-3

Occupying an excellent vantage from which to assess the state of his profession, Woodring (professor emeritus of English at Columbia) here happily resists the temptation to pen a polemical culture-wars screed. Instead, he combines a short history of his discipline with sensible recommendations for its future. Late 19th-century professors, seeking academic legitimacy, delved into linguistic history. In the early 20th century, biographical research became standard practice. The ""New Critics"" of the 1940s rejected research for interpretation; their methods proved perfect for teaching the floods of new students the G.I. Bill brought, while the newly invented paperback put more modern work, and more fiction, on syllabi. After the political upheaval of 1968, the ascendance of literary theory in the '70s deepened literary studies' ""isolation from the general public,"" and approaches closer to everyday experience--notably feminist criticism--largely failed to repair the gap. Now professors and critics must justify their work to anxious students and parents, to cost-conscious administrators and to state legislators. Neither reactionary nor defensive, Woodring prefers more research to more theory, and wants professors to address a wider reading public. His last three chapters pile on practical advice: he condemns academic ""star systems,"" proposes to curb the use of part-time faculty, details programs for graduate training and explains the benefits of core curricula. Woodring (whose other books include Wordsworth and Virginia Woolf) writes in an odd, impersonal voice, in which abstract nouns and institutions become subjects of sentences wherever feasible. This tedious style may prove the only barrier between Woodring's intended broad readership and his useful, well-synthesized arguments. (July)