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Which English grad programs would you consider to be on the more "conservative" end of the spectrum? I guess what I mean by that is where a student would be most likely to spend most of his or her time studying literature qua literature as opposed to cultural studies, gender studies, queer theory, etc., etc. Thanks much.

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I'm not sure "conservative" is the word you want here; you might also want to draw your distinction a little differently, as most theorists view their discipline as a study of literature (no less than a more old school and less contextualized close reading approach). That said, you might take a look at the following thread from last year:

viewtopic.php?f=56&t=16074&p=75768&hilit=formalism#p75768

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  • 2 weeks later...

I hate that there is this chiasm between theory and formalism in English departments. The centre cannot hold and things fall apart among this dissension. I go from one class where the professor prates on Badiou while disregarding anything about the novel we 're supposed to be studying, to the next where the professor scoffs at the mention of Derrida asking "where is an aporia mentioned in the text?" While a foolish consistency may in fact be the hobgoblin of little minds, I don't think it can be denied that English departments have become precariously moribund due to this lack of unity. Sometimes I wonder why I'm pursuing graduate work in a discipline that, well, lacks any accepted discipline. Maybe I should just give up and go to law school. *I realize this is flame and I apologize, but I needed to get this out of my system.*

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I see more and more impatience with these kinds of methodological dichotomies in our generation, and I find it encouraging.

A good friend of mine has a theory that the big methodological contribution of our generation (i.e., those of us just now getting Ph.D.s, going on the job market, or entering Ph.D. programs) will be synthesizing available methodologies and breaking down the vertical silos currently compartmentalizing the field. Hope so.

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Will lit folk ever be able to shake their envy of rhetcomp folks? If so, English departments will be a much happier place.

I suppose things will change if job prospects ever even out.

Minnesotan, I love you, but I don't want to be you. :) I feel about rhetcomp like I feel about any other humanities field outside my own: fascinating, valuable, powerful, but ultimately not for me. Why on earth do you think that lit people envy rhetcomp people? All of us made a choice not to go into rhetcomp, after all...

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Will lit folk ever be able to shake their envy of rhetcomp folks? If so, English departments will be a much happier place.

What a strange comment, Minnesotan. Perhaps I've misunderstood the context. What do you mean by that?

Reef: I don't know if there is an easy answer to that question. I can't think of any program that is purely formalist (on the other hand, every program that I know of still incorporates some element of formalism). Even the more "conservative" programs (let's say, Yale) engages in several interdisciplinary approaches. I'm not very familiar with this program, but I've heard that historicism is popular there--but I simply doubt that it's the *only* approach. At a much larger program, such as Berkeley, you're more likely to see a greater variety of approaches, most of them interdisciplinary to some degree. And quite frankly, I don't think ANY program is truly monolithic: it'll really depend on who you end up with as an adviser, or recruit for your committees.

Are you looking for programs with faculty that engage in more historicist approaches? For programs that avoid "theory" and interdisciplinary studies? Even if we accept narrow definitions of those vexed terms, I'm not sure that the latter exists, certainly not among the top programs. It's more a matter of *which* other discipline(s?) most strongly informs the approach, and how theory is integrated into the argument. As literary scholars, I don't think we can just get by with close-readings, not anymore. That said, you can probably find individual people at programs with more formalistic approaches.

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I totally feel like I've said this five gazillion times in the last month, so please allow me one more moment of soapbox-filled glory:

FORMALISM IS THEORY! That chasm is mythological.

Let me hand you a virtual megaphone for your soapbox by saying "HEAR, HEAR!"

Lotf629--Thanks! I'm glad you found my post worthwhile enough to warrant a cross-reference.

Since that post I finally found time to read Ellen Rooney's "Form and Contentment" (MLQ March 200; 61:1 pages 17-40), which I highly recommend. A very convincing article which argues (among other things) that "the loss of form threatens both literary and cultural studies, not only at the level of methodology, where reading become impossible without it, but also at the level of disciplinarily or (in the case of a cultural studies that resists the merely disciplinary) at the level of intellectual specificity and political coherence" (Rooney 20). Rooney states that "the extinction of an entire range of modes of formal analysis has eroded our ability to read every genre of text--literary texts, nonliterary texts, aural and visual texts, and the social text itself" (italics hers 26). She also warns against a knee-jerk return to Formalism (which I myself might be prone to). Ultimately Rooney suggests that we will probably need to reassess our current models of "reading" and "textuality" in order to move ahead in both literary and cultural studies. Perhaps it's time to go back to Hayden White and see what is the baby and what is the bathwater?

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Formalism is a theory insofar as any approach to studying literature must necessarily have a methodology, but it is exclusive rather than inclusive. I've had professors point blank tell me that it's inappropriate to read Hamlet through a psychoanalytic lens because 'there is nothing about Freud in the text'. Grades become a punitive reflection of how close your paper comes to the particular prof's conception of what 'responsible criticism' is. Eventually I stopped writing papers that I thought had merit and resorted to psychoanalysing professor CV's to determine what kind of paper would be judged most favorably. Ph.D. from Harvard in 1996 and a recent publication on The Cultural Poetics of Marlowe? Guess I need to make sure I cite Greenblatt. Ph.D. from Yale in the late '60s and no recent publications? Hmm, that's tough, he could have been an acolyte of de Man or Bloom and their views have famously diverged. I'll name drop both just to be safe. It's honestly quite comical because I double-majored in a hard science, and the juxtaposition of the schismatic obstinacy of English departments with the scientists who sought to unify their specialized knowledge to strengthen their discipline further elucidated the vain petulance of literary academe. I'm not calling for a scientific or dogmatic approach to studying literature, but the academic narcissism and snipery within the field really needs to be resolved.

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What a strange comment, Minnesotan. Perhaps I've misunderstood the context. What do you mean by that?

Sorry -- I thought everyone would be aware of the strange, often hostile divide between the Lit and RhetComp streams in English departments. Maybe R/C is housed in the Comm department at your school. Anyway, a lot of lit folks are threatened by what they feel are people moving in on their turf and taking all of the jobs (even though lit is historically a division of rhet).

Really, it's all about the bad job market for lit PhDs and the good market for rhetcomp PhDs. I was just being cute about it, tweaking the proverbial nipples of the lit folks.

(Yes, they discuss nipple tweaking in Proverbs. They really, really do!)

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Sorry -- I thought everyone would be aware of the strange, often hostile divide between the Lit and RhetComp streams in English departments. Maybe R/C is housed in the Comm department at your school. Anyway, a lot of lit folks are threatened by what they feel are people moving in on their turf and taking all of the jobs (even though lit is historically a division of rhet).

It's interesting to hear about this history between the two fields. I don't think I knew very much about RhetComp as a separate field of study until I read about here.

Well, at least someone's getting jobs.

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Not to pontificate, but don't you think you might benefit from engaging in a dialogue with the so-called School of Resentment folk rather than avoiding them?

Yeah, agree ... Not least because, while you can choose between a full range of schools when applying for graduate study and can therefore avoid whomever you want, your options when you're on the job market are going to be considerably more limited and, well, it would be unfortunate for you if the "School of Resentment" is the only one hiring.

Besides, as earlier stated in this thread, the chasm between formalism and theory/cultural studies/etc. is increasingly thin. Your energies may best be put to use trying to find schools that will support your project with many like-minded professors and graduate students and open-minded colleagues, rather than allowing you to segregate yourself from an entire body of thought (or bodies -- not sure I agree with Bloom on the singularity, here).

You never know. Graduate school is the place where people who walk in as 20th-C New Historicists sometimes eventually walk out as queer theorist, feminist Victorianists, all because of new exposures. Is this what you're afraid of? :D

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Your energies may best be put to use trying to find schools that will support your project with many like-minded professors and graduate students and open-minded colleagues, rather than allowing you to segregate yourself from an entire body of thought (or bodies -- not sure I agree with Bloom on the singularity, here).

This. As snazzy as we may be, I can't help but firmly believe that we are way too damn new at this to be so stubbornly close-minded. I also believe that it is worthwhile to learn from people who you disagree with--even if you never end up changing your mind. What better way to learn how to argue against what you don't agree with? Or--at the risk of sounding a little too holistic--what better way to, you know, just flat-out learn?

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I don't know what to tell you, OP. Today, there are a million people who can do extraordinarily good, traditional close readings and also hold their head above water in today's theoretical environment. You'll be competing with them directly for spots. All of you can do fantastic close readings, I assume, but your New Critical-type competitors are at least conversant with many of the major approaches popular today. Why on earth would you put yourself at this kind of disadvantage? It's as if you are daring the Establishment to reject you. The thing about that is, they will. If your personal statement projects any of the defensiveness and rigidity you are currently showing, even the New Critics on the committee will toss your app into the reject pile on the grounds that you lack the collegiality and flexibility necessary to handle a real-world scholarly environment. Sorry to be harsh: better you hear it from us, since our opinion means nothing, than that you scotch your chances.

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i think you should look into rutgers. in terms of close reading, old school methodology, and general awesome-ness myra jehlen is second to none. all the professors i've been in contact with at this university foster and encourage a traditional, close reading approach. specifically, a lot of the early american scholars and 18 cen brit lit folks are on this wagon. even the younger professors who are making their names are wedded to the kinds of old school approaches that it sounds like you favor.

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While I agree with the points being made about diversification of knowledge, I also find it troubling that so many people seem to take personal offense because someone does not want to study culture/race/gender. It is possible for people to disagree with the notion that context trumps text and still have a fine career in academia. Sure, that person will be castigated by the authoritarian radical left-wingers they will inevitably come up against, but that's a fight they might have to make. It would be nice to have the closed-minded 60s activists challenged a little more often in their good ole boysandgirls club at the top.

Mind you, I'm a liberal-leaning moderate sort of person, so me criticizing the dominant "left" in academia means a pretty special case of radical leftism that exists only in the Ivory Tower. And, while everyone is entitled to their own point of view, these folks (most of whom are big culture/race/gender studies advocates) disagree -- "you're either for us or against us, and since we have the power, all grad students had better publicly proclaim they are for us!"

I understand the op's frustrations. Some people like books without the politics. Cut him or her some slack.

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Well, Minnesotan, I think you're addressing the big conflict going on in literary study right now. While cultural studies seems too often to be a substitute for rigorous literary study these days, it's also true -- given how instrumental artistic forms like literature have always been to the expression of identity, political purpose, imagination, etc. -- that it'd be hard to imagine a discussion of "culture" that were absent of literature. This must be what makes literature so attractive to cultural studies folks, and this societal relevance certainly seems to be why those of us studying lit find it capital-I-Important rather than merely pleasurable.

I guess that's what makes the distinction between "formalism" and "cultural studies" seem to false to me. Formalist approaches aren't absent of historical and cultural context; in the first place, let's not forget that "Canon" is, itself, a context. The basic questions of when something was written, where and by whom remain important to all of us, I think, because these notions certainly inform our interpretations. I couldn't imagine a lesson on The Scarlet Letter, for example, that didn't elucidate the importance of Puritanism to the book's themes, characters, structure; rather, I wouldn't see the value in such a lesson if it existed, because the book's form is certainly not historically arbitrary. Similarly, worthwhile cultural critiques that use literature as a vehicle generally use formalist readings of a text to derive a sense of the culture from it, rather than the other way around. Cultural critiques that force context onto the text are not really of any use to anyone.

Frankly, the most liberal thing about cultural studies might not be the method of interpretation but rather the object being interpreted. The field's definition of "Text" is, I admit, ever-expanding, encompassing books, yes, but also bodies, buildings, all forms of visual production... Maybe that's the conversation we're really having? But if the old liberal arts argument is that we should emphasize the "how" rather than simply the "what," and if a graduate education is at least partially about being trained in a particular strain of "how," then perhaps the true worth of literary training is that it is a "how" applicable to a broad range of "what."

Either way, I still assert that it'd be in the OP's best interest -- anyone's best interest, actually -- to find professors whose objectives and methods match his/hers, to look at the departments housing these professors, to see if there are also graduate students of a like mind, and to apply accordingly. That seems far more important (and feasible) that aiming for a formalist majority. The most important thing is to be supported by your department, and you don't have to be the majority for this to be the case. Formalists haven't died out, and I think to ask for a *strong* program that only really pursues one methodology might be asking too much no matter what you study. Your graduate education should be individually driven, and as long as your work is being supported and you're comfortable, the stuff going on all around you may not be nearly as important.

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Either way, I still assert that it'd be in the OP's best interest -- anyone's best interest, actually -- to find professors whose objectives and methods match his/hers, to look at the departments housing these professors, to see if there are also graduate students of a like mind, and to apply accordingly. That seems far more important (and feasible) that aiming for a formalist majority.

Agreed wholeheartedly. The first thing the OP needs to do is find potential committee members and work from there.

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