Legitimacy and the Graduate Student

We’ve all heard it:  “I don’t feel like I belong here”—the clarion call of English graduate students and the hyper-obsession of meta-conversations within Literature departments at the highest level.  What is this obsession, and who really does belong in graduate programs or the academy, if not those who are there already?  This problem has been my preoccupation for some time now, so much so that it has crept into my dissertation, in an attempt to unravel the problems of legitimacy, sovereignty, authorship, etc. embedded in Romanticism and Romantic studies.
Trying to tackle these problems as a total framework, or as a problem even at the level of pedagogy, has been met with lots of resistance.  My upcoming Fall course on “Banned Books and Novel Ideas” will look at illegitimate textual problems in Ossian’s Tales of Fingal, Byron’s issues with piracy, the thorny controversies in Shakespeare and Defoe, as well as the whole regime of intellectual property surrounding Scott and Coleridge.  To inaugurate this course, I began my description with the famous quote from Foucault’s famous essay which he “borrowed” from Beckett: “What matters who’s speaking?”  Quite a moment of reflexivity, where Foucault not only questions the regime of authorship, but also uses a phrase that is syntactically tangled and, apparently, illegitimate.  I say this because my proposal, after explanation and several revisions, was greeted with disapproval from the legitimizing force of the English department heads; Beckett and Foucault have non-standard English and tangled syntax, it was said—students will be confused and find the course doesn’t have authority!  Hmmm….  I have my own responses to this line of argument, but I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the subject.  That is, how does one negotiate teaching texts that are non-standard, taboo, illegitimate etc. while still telling them that plagiarism is naughty-naughty and they must write in standard, syntactically clear English?  One easy explanation is making the distinction between discursive and non-discursive texts but, in keeping with truth-telling, even that distinction breaks down with enough interrogation.
Within this same matrix of problems, I have often asked the question of how one can really integrate radical politics into a classroom space?  How can one develop a quasi-democratic, anarchic pedagogy when all available models have some basis in logics of sovereignty and authority, delegitimizing certain ways of learning and production of scholarship?  Your thoughts are very much appreciated, particularly in relation to your experiences of teaching problematic Romantic texts.

Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes

4 Replies to “Legitimacy and the Graduate Student”

  1. Just a brief comment:
    I wonder why it is that in English Departments, especially those in a post-modern groove, terms like ” sovereignty” and “authorship” tend to get jumbled up as if they are somehow sort of the same thing — God, the state, authors, all that *bad* stuff, those things with “authority.”
    This goes back at least to Roland Barthes flamingly ridiculous “Death of the Author” speech in 1968. Its not that one can blame a young man on the barricades for confusing God with “the author” and proclaiming the need to do away with both along with the state. I mean, babies were being napalmed in Viet-nam. He was right, imho, to be on the barricades. What I really don’t understand is why, more than forty years later, so many English professors still think that its legitimate to promote the confusions of the young Barthes. Of course it matters who speaks. Knowing the life history that informs the Shakespearean works transforms their meaning as literary artifacts and in history. Check it out. A real inquiry into the authorship question (not the narcotic pabulum of Shapiro’s recent book) will make your course the experience of a lifetime. Good luck with it.

    1. Thanks for the brief comment and advice and yes, I do agree with you that who the author is can matter. The quote taken from Foucault’s essay (which he borrowed from Beckett) was meant to be provocative (think that worked!) and not an endorsement of Barthes who I don’t mention. I didn’t mean to equate legitimacy, sovereignty, and authorship, though I do think they have some relation, and I also wouldn’t want to lump Barthes or Foucault as saying the same thing either. A concern with mapping authority or authorship is not the same as wanting to do away with it, as perhaps Barthes does.
      So to end, I’m still familiarizing myself with this blog genre–much of the story was omitted. The dispute over my course description was actually me trying to persuade my superior that authors do matter for studying controversial texts, and in different ways in the history of intellectual property, if only to identify who it was that is responsible for the inappropriate text (and for possible prosecution).
      I guess I would like some feedback on the level of pedagogy. Does anybody have thoughts on how to formulate a less authoritative position in the classroom or is this just never addressed with students or is it undesirable?

      1. Wow, I would love to discuss authority in the classroom. Just a quick response since I’m in the middle of a project right now, but I really struggle with how much authority to create/project/enforce for the teacher role, and frankly I’m not even sure what “authority in the classroom” really means. I’m short and look quite young for my age, and I’m just too darn nice, and this, I think, has on occasion made it difficult for me to educate a class by holding them responsible for certain standards of performance. I also encourage my students to do the teaching (that is, give guided presentations and lead discussions with their peers).
        So I punt this one: What does “authority” in the classroom mean? Being respected as the authority on the subject of the course? As someone with evaluative grade-assigning powers over the students? Being treated with respect by one’s students? Thanks for a great discussion!

        1. I’m thinking more along the lines of the second one: as someone with grade-assigning powers.
          Also curious to hear from people that have taught extended sessions from Ossian, the plagiarized parts or Bibliographia Literaria, or those who have involved students in a discussion of Byron’s publication troubles with Don Juan

Comments are closed.