An Advancement of Texts: Calling in the Big Guns

We’ve lost count of how many posts comprise Ryan Sheldon 13’s series, but in any case, this is the next one.

For the most part, this series has remained concerned with student opinion—all of the respondents are current Wesleyan students, and I myself was obviously subject to the same biases, propensities, proclivities, etcetera in constructing the interview questions and selecting content for the blog. The issue of perspectival variance is tricky here; a focus on students was definitely something I wanted to achieve in the project. This exploration of academic and intellectual habits is meant to offer the Wesleyan faculty some food for thought: a bit of insight into how students think and feel in the classroom and outside of it, and how they engage with the world around them as writers—or at least, as individuals who care deeply about the art of writing and the world of literature.

I wanted to put the Wesleyan faculty in the audience without casting the dynamic between students and their professors as purely oppositional. To that end, I decided to bring a few ringers into the debate—individuals who, having completed the process of undergraduate education, might offer more direct, incisive commentary on the nature of contemporary higher education: the editorial staff of the groundbreaking journal n+1.

In 2007, a group of n+1 editors and writers conducted two roundtable discussions (moderated by editor, novelist, and activist Keith Gessen) on the subjects of reading and undergraduate intellectual development, and transcribed these conversations for publication. The result was a slim volume of highly accessible critical discourse entitled What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions. It’s light, informal, and edifying all at once—the kind of enthralling but intellectually serious conversation you wish you could have at the brunch table after a rough night out. My intention is to present y’all with a series of brief quotations from the discussions and use them as a contextual framework for the analysis of the student opinions I’ve collected. These are but a few gems, and I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in making sense of this mysterious beast we call undergraduate study. Hope you dig on it!

Our Patchwork Text (Some Argumentative Fodder n’ Fragments):

“My thought about students, though, is that, since they have to choose, they have to be exposed selectively…Don’t read academic stuff unless it’s great academic stuff. Because you’re learning, you’re being exposed to great things and discovering some sort of enthusiasm in yourself.” – Ilya Bernstein (27)

Caleb Crain

“That’s the thing. Nobody can get a proper undergraduate education. You’ll never know in advance what that education should be. Regret is the feeling you have when you finally realize what the education is that you want…And so it’s not bad to have regrets.” – Caleb Crain (64).

“Academia’s an empty vessel, but the ones who don’t realize it end up going all the way and end up in charge.” – Marco Roth (76)

Marco Roth

“And then you think…oh, I just relearned the entire 13th century to read the late 20th century. This esoteric vocabulary isn’t even my own, I’m adopting an alien tradition, and there must be some way to speak about this in a language that’s my own.” – Marco Roth (83-84)

Chad Harbach's debut novel, The Art of Fielding

“So economics, in a way, is the primary discipline at the moment, because it dictates so much of what we do as a society, and even dominates our language.” – Chad Harbach (89)

“But it has to be said, if someone had told me that that would happen when I was 18, I would not have believed them. When I was young, when I heard people saying that you have to wait until you have some experience, or you’re more mature, in order to be able to read certain things or write certain things, I was like, ‘That’s just bullshit.” It’s what the economists call “rent” ’…” – Caleb Crain (101)

“So, I don’t think you should be precocious, and I don’t think you should beat yourself up for not having published a book at the age of 28, but I think that a young person should keep a journal, and read seriously, and, you know, think about everything that happens.” – Caleb Crain (114)


The commentary here is perhaps a bit more cynical or world-weary than what we’ve heard from the project interviewees. This might be because, as Caleb Crain observes, academic regret is a largely retrospective sensation—we don’t know what we want in terms of academic preparation until it becomes patently clear that we’re intellectually unprepared for life outside of our collegiate matrix. We can’t lament our inability to swim until we miss the boat (forgive me for that one).

Is true academic self-direction a hermit's endeavor?

So: are we wasting our time in college? There comes a point in Two Discussions when the participants hint as much. There’s something inspiring in the deliberate extremity of such a declaration—confidence in one’s intellectual independence, faith in the idea that we haven’t been so molded by what we’ve studied as to view it as infallible. We know our study should be self-directed, but the reality is that such self-direction isn’t really possible at this stage in the game. And so, much later on, we repudiate what we’ve learned—indeed what we’ve come to know—and point to what we should’ve studied in an attempt to compensate for it. As a current student, I can’t say I’m looking forward to this…

Yet this regret really isn’t a bad thing. I’m on board with Crain; if we lacked the capacity for retrospective anxiety, we’d fail to locate ourselves within academic traditions old and new. In his interview, Glenn Stowell ’13 remarked that he never felt a literary “kill your idols” impulse—that’s fair, but could we say that a “kill your idols” sentiment can (perhaps must) fly as far as our academic environments (I’m talking about classrooms, in a general sense) are concerned? I think we might, if we pose it a little less violently. We should, as Ilya Bernstein advises, question everything we’re exposed to as we come across it.

Reading attentively does not imply the wholesale acceptance of a text’s fixity in a canon; it requires engagement, even active skepticism. Should we meet our assigned readings with hostility or prejudice? Of course not. Alternatively, should we exalt them from the first page? Surely that doesn’t make sense, either. Should we open ourselves to them wholly, and commit ourselves to their study and exploration? Without question.

We’d do well to follow Caleb Crain’s exhortation: we ought to read and think seriously, and do so constantly. It’s a promise we must make to ourselves, as well as to the books and scholarship we read inside and outside the classroom. True, some texts require greater maturity, and we might look back on our experience of them and think only of how foolish it was to try them when we did—but such is the luxury of regret. We needn’t shy away from what attracts us naturally, nor should we commit ourselves blindly to that which is handed down to us by our professors and teachers. We have, of course, at least partially invested our confidence in the academy by making the choice to study at this level, and I don’t believe we were unjustified in doing so. I’m confident that our professors (especially here at Wesleyan) have a real interest in producing capable, ambitious, active students. We owe it to them and ourselves to treat them as human scholars, and to debate and challenge them as they do us.

So too with the material we read during this intellectually formative stage in our lives—we must converse furiously with literature. As Marco Roth suggests (I think Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz, the authors of “The Novice as Expert,” might agree), we need to take the alien, unwelcoming world of academia and make it work in our language.


Selections reprinted with permission from the n+1 editorial staff.

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