ENGLISH AND AM-LIT. IN THE ELECTRONIC WORLD



College study of English and American literature is such a basic part of our Liberal Arts tradition, that we might easily accept it as it stands and not inquire further about its aims and methods. But there are problems, which I would like to summarize briefly as follows:

a)    Most of what is being intensively "studied" originally appeared on the book publishing market as pleasure reading of one sort or another. People bought and read copies of Sterne, Dickens, Faulkner and Steinbeck because they enjoyed reading, not because they wanted to study them. The college study of books shifts the emphasis and changes the meaning of Literature, it even re-orients the way we think about literature.

b)    The study of Literature is basically "commentative", s it talks about the nuances of meaning, about plot development and about subjective reactions to what is read. In a typical literature course, this gives students a good chance to develop their conversational skills around the seminar table, and these are skills which will be useful later in life without question. The teacher can merely "host" the discussion and often prefers to let the students take the lead in discussion. Some students might even wonder if the teacher is needed there at all, he or she is so quiet and unobtrusive at times.

c)    Serious study implies tools, techniques and analytical skills, as we see used in the Social Science and in the Physical Sciences. So the study of science is intrinsically very different from the nature of literary studies. This is not entirely because of the difference of the material being studied, but it can be, I suggest, a difference in both approach and technique. Literary studies tend to be initally commentative, drawing collaterial material from a wide range of information, but they do not have a basic analytical structure and hence can be essentially "techniqueless".

Now the question is whether Literary Studies can change and develop in a fast-changing global scene, or whether they are lock-stepped into an outmoded Liberal Arts system of education. I have discussed this in an essay on the Liberal Arts in more detail than I can outline here. There are many ways of developing literary studies to bring them into line with the kind of work being done in other sectors of Academe, of which I note these:

1)    Use of globally available Internet resources for bringing together all pertinent information bearing on the literary topic at hand. For example, in the case of Faulkner, there is a wide range of social, geographical, historical, photographic and linguistic material available which bears on Faulkner's world. Some of this is in printed books, much background material can be dredged up through serious work with electronic searching, and this kind of study-in-depth can begin to assemble "tools of technique" which should be the ancillary core of literary analysis. Discussion must follow the assembling of ground materials, you cannot not discuss literature intelligently merely on the basis of reading the book and talking out the storyline. Many college classes survive on a thin gruel of this sort with undernourished personal and commentative returns on the reading.

2)    Students majoring in college in English and American literature find themselves in a terrible situation after graduation, since in the new technological and competitive society we find little use e for finely tuned literary sensibilities at the present tim. But a student trained in deep research techniques, well practiced in searching out and evaluating electronically available materials, will have along with his literary skills a working sense of the research and communication methods now widely used. This may not qualify for a job later, but it opens the way to learning how to qualify, rather than throwing up hands in despair.

3)    Pressing this one stage further, the new style of modern Literary Student I am describing, who is familiar with the current electronic world and has used it in college study beyond word-processing a paper, can produce studies as part of the course assignments which verge into HyperMedia, an area which has been growing within the realm of Literature. This means mastering new techniques and new ways of thinking in writing a student paper, and opens the doors of the mind to many possibilities. This enlarging of the mind is of course what education is all about.

&4) nbsp;  Now the new style literary student can process the papers and written work from his courses into a personal academic WebPage which summarizes all the thinking and stages of development done in the college sequence. Work rewritten into a final form should become part of the student's ultimate personal "dossier", a record of the curve of learning and exploration, and this on a single CD ROM has a coherence and a value which piles of marked up student papers will never have. Reviewing where you have come from and where you are now standing should be invaluable to the college graduate, not as a memory of seminars and discussion and professors in the receding distance, but as one's own documentation registering the kind of mature thinking person who one has has become.

5)    Then there is the matter of going into the "microstructure" of literature and the art of writing, often largely ignored in favor of Theme and Storyline which are easy to discuss in class.. This is too large a subject to outline here, since it addresses the matter of detailed study of text down to the level of paragraph structure, the phrase and the word-constructs at ground level. In music this would be the analysis and discussion of a Mozart symphony ranging from the pitch and instrumentation as forming sequences which consolidate into motifs and structural blocks ---- and only then on to the overall form. But without attention to the sounds as sounds, the orchestration and harmony functions, and the "small constructions" on the score-page, you would miss the essential and basic sense of the music as music. It is exactly so with written text. Especially when dealing with literature as art-writing, we need to devote great attention to this micro-structure, and this will entail linguistic analysis, the study of stylistics and of course great attention paid to the phonetic sound of words and phrases, since language is basically an oral and Sound-based phenomenon. We have often thought of Literature as the business of the printed word, and some poetry has become silent paper-poetry. Attention to the Microstructure reclaims Sound and reminds us that Literature is a part of the activity of Human Speech. I do find it strange that we should have to be reminded about something so basic!

6)   As individual students assemble large batches of information in a modified new-style literature course, their cumulative and common work must be put into some sort of accessible form to make sense and to be usable in the future. By tying together all parts of a course's inputs into a well designed Internet accessible .html document, the course can generate a serious and permanent "Academic Paper on.... " with a special kind of double identity. For the students this can be a record of the group's activity and results, and they should possess a CD copy for off-line browsing as part of their personal library. But this material can also be available online through the Internet for other other people in courses at other places, and this can be a valuable asset for students who do not have to begin their research at ground-zero. Global linking of information, which is such an important part of the scientific and economic world today, should also be a part of the academic study of Literature

In short:    A new approach to Literature involving the modern range of tools and techniques for exploration, with a sense of the widest possible range for each finite matter under the microscope, can bring the study of Literature into range with a range of "hard" college disciplines which develop specialized methods and techniques for handling data. This should open new windows for a wider vista in the viewing of the literary art, and incidentally match better with what is going on in the actively developing "real" world beyond the gates of Academe.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris