All posts by Bo Jacks

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