Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Academic study of literature

Shit's stupid.
Literature teachers acknowledge the subjectivity of their "work". It's commonly understood that there's no definitive meaning to any piece of work, and scholars claim that even the author of a work is not authorized to say what it means. Yet many college students, headed for other majors, are forced to write academic papers claiming something about a book whose meaning is subjective. As pointless as this seems in itself, the real problem is that these papers are then graded. Teachers assign percentages to papers, often without any consistent standard for grading, based on argument, organization, style, and a variety of other factors. Yet teachers have preferences with respect to each of those factors. For instance, a literature teacher in highschool gave me A's consistently, regardless of how much effort I put into work. However, one I had the next year gave me B's fairly often. However, the one who gave me lower grades was generally considered an easier grader. He gave one of my friends much higher grades than the other teacher (who had graded my work highly) had given him. The only possible explanation I can see for this is that each preferred a certain style and was punishing and rewarding students based on it. While style is an important aspect of writing, teachers do not have a consistent, objective standard about it, and that leads to discrepancies such as the one I described. Since they don't have an objective standard, they shouldn't grade work in the same way math and physics work is graded.

Secondly, with the large number of people with strong political and cultural biases, some of them English teachers, personal ideological bias plays a role as well. I have not personally experienced this since most of my teachers have had fairly similar political and cultural views to my own, but many students have complained of unfair treatment because their writing showed certain viewpoints rather than because of defects in their writing. For instance, in many large public universities, English classes are dedicated in part to "cultural awareness" with regard to literature. Students are taught to see famous literary works written hundreds of years ago as feminist manifestos or arguments for other ideas that were nearly nonexistent at the time those works were written. On the other side of the cultural and political spectrum, there are teachers who want a strictly Christian interpretation of many works, some of which were written by people who were not Christian, or only nominally so. Also, if I were to teach a literature class, my instinct would be to give bad grades to students who made any sort of moral claim without explaining the source of whatever truth it had. So, if a student said that Raskolnikov was an evil character, or even had any flaws, and did not explain what moral standard they were using to evaluate his actions, I would be tempted to give them failing grades for making unsupported statements. Yet most people in schools in the United States assume that it is evil to kill people. So, what seems unreasonable to me (unjustified assumptions) is a completely natural and unquestioned assumption for most students. I can't say what I would do in grading such papers, but even if I decided not to punish such papers, I would probably subconsciously give them lower grades. The vast difference between teachers' basic philosophies and worldviews causes papers to often partly be graded based on the similarity between teachers' and students' views rather than the quality of the students' arguments.

I have nothing against writing in itself. At one time, I wanted to be a journalist or columnist, and if I could easily get either of those jobs now, I probably would take them. However, I think that the subjectivity of literary criticism disallows it as something to be graded.

I had a few other arguments, but I have to go to class. May post them later.

I'd like to hear what you think about this...I'm often unsure of my own opinions, simply because I don't get an evaluation of them from others.


  1. yeah you have to develop a bullshit sensor to spot biased opinions and information that doesn't make sense
    also look at my blogs if you like sick politics and want to know about the economic crisis!

  2. I can't say I am the most studious of people but I suppose such things factor into me passing the majority of my education. If it effects everyone then what is the big deal?

  3. Aar':
    the problem is that it can be very unfair, for instance what I said about one teacher giving me good grades and the other bad, just because they had different *preferences* about style.
    Gangrenous: Politics is like my 3rd favorite academic interest so I'll check it out.

  4. I agree with the above dude about developing a bullshit sensor. It really helps out later in life.

  5. This is what happens when you study liberal arts. They are supposed to encourage rational and critical thinking, but the reality of the matter is that the ivory tower academics deem what is right and wrong about subjects that are so subjective, and if anything they are setting critical thought backwards.

  6. damn right, i'm transferring away from the liberal arts college i'm attending ASAP. can't wait to study engineering or math.

  7. liberal arts major here, its a just a giant ass circle jerk. If i could go back in time i would have skipped college and went to a trade school instead.