As a scholar working in English studies, I do quite a bit of reading. Much of it is in academic journals, which I use to further the research I do and to improve the way in which I teach. The journals thus speak to both parts of my duty as a scholar, even though it is not seldom the case that the articles are somewhat dry and may not speak to my specific set of interests as a literary generalist with an emphasis in late medieval English literature and in contemporary fantasy writings of the United States and the United Kingdom. They are not always dull, however; some stick out in my mind, becoming common points of reference for me and exerting significant influence on the way in which I conduct myself as a scholar. Perhaps most notable among these for me is Mark Edmundson's contribution to the 2009 issue of Profession, "Against Readings."
In the article, Edmundson, amid some unfortunately problematic comments, asserts that those involved in teaching texts, people such as myself, "need to befriend the texts we teach" (63). They are, in his words, "the testaments of human beings who have lived and suffered in the world. They too deserve honor and respect" no less than the people who have produced them (63). This is true even of the driest piece of technical documentation; someone went to the trouble of putting together the words, and the ideas which the words represent in fleeting bits and ill-defined glimpses, offering in doing some evidence of the writer's existence even if there is no author credited. It is true of the criticism in which I and my fellow scholars of literature and other writings which may or may not deserve the title perform, examining texts to find out what they reveal about the ideas and attitudes of their writers and the contexts in which they live; in doing such things, we create our own texts that reveal much of who we are and what sort of world it is in which we live. And the texts we analyze are themselves such testimonies, as our analyses reveal and as the experiences of readers attest.
I initially read the article while I lived in New York City, likely on the subway and probably on the Q train as I traveled from the Parkside Avenue station to that at 57th Street and 7th Avenue. As is common practice for me, I read with a pencil in hand, marking up the pages as I went along; I know this because the copy I read and annotated sits on a small shelf in my office even now. Some of the marks are of things with which I take issue in the text, and that is not infrequent in my reading. But the comments near the end of the article, comments in which Edmundson encapsulates his vision, resonated within me, echoing in my thoughts ever since. They recalled to me--and still recall to me--something fundamental to my study of English languages and literatures, something rooted deeper within me than the reason I began formal study of the material; they recalled to me the joy in which I began the work and which I had too often neglected under the burdens of teaching while trying to write a dissertation and continue to present research at conferences and publish articles in other academic journals, and of living in New York City, generally.
The joy soon manifested in my writing. It is frequently the case that those who newly feel joy are eager to share it, to proselytize to others about that thing which has produced the joy, and I was very much in that mood. In conversations with my co-workers, I repeatedly brought up the article and recommended it to their reading, knowing that the school's library did not have access to the publication, but that the New York Public Library very much did and does. "Did you read the recent Profession?" I am sure I asked more than one of my fellow instructors, and I am sure I followed up with something like "Did you read Edmundon's article? You need to read it." I am sure also that I annoyed them with my insistence, much as many people are annoyed by a small child exulting in the delight at being able to do a new thing or young adults flaunting before wide audiences what they perceive as evidence of their ability to enjoy the sensuality of their bodies.
Like both child and young adult, I did leave off the open and overt rejoicing in my newfound wonder. But I did not set aside the joy entirely, instead subsuming it into my work. Aside from in some initial comments I published about the article, my more formal writing works to evidence my befriending the texts I examine. One way in which friendship is shown is in familiarity, not just in knowing well, but in being able to relax away from formality and the strict dictates of etiquette that ease interactions among those who do not know one another or whose relationships involve much of the critical--as scholarship tends to with its objects. My writing manifests both types of familiarity, the deep knowledge that is expected of intellectual, academic work in any event, and the transcendence of mannerly barriers of separation. The acknowledgements page of my dissertation contains two or three quips that would not have appeared had I not held to at least one of the things "Against Readings" says (iv). Other papers I have given have deployed litotes, a device not seldom used by older Germanic writers as a means to put across a joke, and at least two works I have in the slow process of drafting treat forms of humor as they appear in places where they are not currently recognized. In putting in and searching out jokes, finding sources and outlets for my giddy joy, I continue to display the echoing effect of "Against Readings" on me.
It is not only therein that I act upon what Edmundson asserts, showing its influence upon me. The ebullience Edmundson's comments had provoked from me manifests in my scholarly service. Part of what I have done as a scholar for some years is promote the scholarship of others through proposing special sessions at research conferences. The happiness, the attempt to befriend my material, that Edmundson asserts is vital to work in the academic humanities, appeared in my doing so as I proposed to one conference a special research session treating taruoscatology--and when the conference organizers contacted me to ask after the proposal, seeking more details, I did not hesitate to note, amid grounding the panel in publications from Princeton University's press and several major academic journals, that "Against Readings" and its thesis that evidencing a personal engagement with the materials being studied informed my putting forth the proposal. That the proposal was accepted and the session offered to much favorable comment, confirms for me that Edmundson is correct, validating my reliance upon his article's core tenet.
Further validation came in the process of my being hired to teach at a major institution in the middle of the country. While I was being interviewed for the position, one of the faculty conducting the interview referred to my curriculum vita--indeed to the very tauroscatological panel I had successfully proposed--and asked after my motivations for putting forward such an idea. The other faculty chuckled a bit at the question, and I smiled deeply before answering much as I had earlier answered the conference organizers. Once again, in addition to the more formal academic underpinnings of treating the subject matter of the panel itself, I referenced the need expressed in "Against Readings" to recall, and to demonstrate recall, the elation which brings people into the study of the academic humanities as justification for my having proposed such an unorthodox session. It evidently served me well, for I was offered the position for which I had applied; through the article and what it encouraged me to do, I was able to further my career in academe, enabling me to do more to read and write well and, hopefully, teach others to do the same.
Reading Mark Edmundson's "Against Readings" in the 2009 issue of Profession has been a major influence on my work as a scholar. It has changed the way in which I work to disseminate information and understanding of how language works. It has more importantly reminded me that I got into doing so for the joy of it, something that I had neglected to recall and that many of my colleagues in the academic humanities would do well to bring to mind. Doing so and showing that they are doing so would do much to combat the perception, too often held by people in the world, that what I and my comrades do is a dry, dull, detached thing, devoid of life and joy and not at all worth doing.
- Edmundson, Mark. "Against Readings." Profession (2009): 56-65. Print.
- Elliott, Geoffrey. The Establishment of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as the Standard Text of English-Language Arthurian Legend. Diss. U. of Louisiana at Lafayette. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2012. PDF file.