Friday, June 04, 2004

Mike Adams' reading list (or: on actually reading literature)

[As I mentioned in my post on Bérubé, the culture wars are still with us.]

First Mike Adams published this suggested summer reading list. It's not that exciting, really, except for the part at the end where he takes a jab at politically correct English professors ("You know, like the kind they used to assign in college when English professors taught English instead of homosexuality and feminism.")This part doesn't bother me too much -- I've heard it too many times before.

And I even approve of several of his choices:

1. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: As Adams facilely puts it, "Thinking about committing adultery? Think again." I would be horrified, but it's kind of funny.

2. Shakespeare's As You Like It

3. Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees: I haven't read it, but I find the choice surreal, so I include it.

4. Chaim Potok's The Chosen: this is really a book for teens, but the image of the Hasidic Jewish community in New York is timeless, as are the discussions of baseball and the controversy within the orthodox Jewish community over the state of Israel.

5. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe: take out the bit about the cannibals and this is a great book.

6. Orwell's 1984 (which he likes because it reminds him of campus hate speech; I like it because it reminds me of George Bush)

The Dostoevsky novels he lists I can't get behind -- they're more what people read when they're trying to be serious. I also find the inclusion of Agatha Christie on a 'classics' list amusing, and the mention of Ayn Rand deadly.

But that wasn't the end of it! Someone from Ithaca wrote in protesting his jab at PC English profs. (quoted above), at which point Adams published a list of Cornell English Professors. The composition of the list is patently dishonest -- nearly everyone he mentions has a primary interest in a traditional field of literature, with fields like feminist theory listed only secondarily. He only lists the secondary, political-sounding interests, and neglects to mention all the famous medievalists, renaissance scholars, Victorianists, and modernist literature scholars at Cornell. He doesn't bother to look up the courses they teach or the arguments of the books they write. He assumes 'critical theory' always means 'Marxism', when in fact critical theorists like Satya Mohanty are definitely not Marxists. [Full disclosure: I was an undergrad English major at Cornell, and I have fond memories of many of these people]

But even that wasn't the end of it. Clearly he was besieged by emails from people who actually looked at the list of faculty interests, and attempted to set him straight. Today Adams has another column on the subject, where he has to change his tack since his misdirection (thin to begin with) has been revealed:

Of course, it would have been correct for me to mention in my article that there are three English professors at Cornell who claim expertise in William Shakespeare. But, of course, many of today’s English professors use Shakespeare only to talk about gay and trans-gendered issues. If you don’t believe me, pick up a copy of the Pelican Shakespeare version of “As You Like It.” Just read the introduction and you will soon realize that expertise in Shakespeare isn’t all it used to be.

And of course, the real questions for my liberal readers follow: Why are there as many experts in Karl Marx as there are in William Shakespeare in the Cornell English department (three apiece)? And why are there eight experts in sexuality and homosexuality? Shouldn’t more professors take an interest in Shakespeare than in “queer literature?”

Ah, so people do teach Shakespeare at Cornell! Now the problem is, they teach it the wrong way. The last question in the passage quoted above is especially telling: "Shouldn’t more professors take an interest in Shakespeare than in “queer literature?" There's an easy response: if professors tried to avoid queer literature, they would have to burn Shakespeare. Adams claims to have read As You Like It. Did he notice the part where the heroine dresses up for the whole play as a man, and has the man she was in love with act out his scenes of courtship with her while she is in drag? 'Burning' Shakespeare indeed! (cf. Flaming Creatures)

Similarly: Did he notice the native American themes in the Kingsolver novel? Did he notice the struggle over ethnic identity and assimilation in The Chosen?

There are legitimate questions that can be raised about what is the best way to teach an English class. I'm even willing to grant that primary skills as well as the technical concepts and terms of formal analysis are being taught less than they should be. But I don't accept Mike Adams' lazy trashing of the discipline as a way to start the conversation.

[UPDATE: Also a nice post on this subject at Sadly, No.]