“Flipping” the History of Literary Studies

By John GuilloryJuly 29, 2021

“Flipping” the History of Literary Studies

The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study by Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan

LOOKING BACK IN 1975 on the history of the New Criticism, Hugh Kenner dismissed the movement as glorified pedagogy: “The curious thing is how a classroom strategy could come to mistake itself for a critical discipline.” For Kenner, literary study was properly defined by its landmark works of scholarship, still today the view of most scholars. In their important new book, The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study, Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan contest the notion that the history of the discipline is best represented by the “famous monographs and seminal articles” that are disseminated “outward” and “downward” to the classroom. They believe that “the opposite is true,” and that “the teaching archive overturns nearly every major account of what the history of literary studies has been.” The revisionism here is a familiar gesture in scholarship; but the authors argue strongly for the urgency of their “new history” of the discipline. It is, as the title of their conclusion has it, “the past we need now.”

In Buurma and Heffernan’s new version of the discipline’s history, even methodological conflict is dislodged from its obsessional place in scholarly discourse. When we descend from the battles in the sky to the humble venues of pedagogy, we discover that “method wars” have little real impact there. Their archival history of 20th-century English pedagogy reveals that what goes on in the classroom today is for the most part what has been going on since vernacular literature was first taught in the colleges and universities: a peaceful and largely collaborative labor, in which teachers and students work together to makes sense of literature: “In classrooms, teachers and students have invented and perfected the core methods and modes of literary study.” Kenner mocked New Critical pedagogy as “the cult of the blackboard.” Buurma and Heffernan celebrate everything that happens in the classroom as the true history of the discipline.

The Teaching Archive examines archival materials connected with the careers of nine teachers of literature working in the 20th century — some of them very famous, some less well known or less cited today. Among the former are T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, Cleanth Brooks, and Edmund Wilson. Among the latter are Caroline Spurgeon, Edith Rickert, J. Saunders Redding, Josephine Miles, and Simon J. Ortiz. Buurma and Heffernan present their findings in seven chapters that together recount an alternative history of the discipline from the early decades of the 20th century to the 1970s. The Teaching Archive raises profound questions about the relation between teaching and research, questions that consistently fail to be addressed by the discipline’s system of professional rewards, its de facto demotion of teaching to a practice of lesser value than scholarship. I am very much in sympathy with Buurma and Heffernan’s insistence on “how our teaching has made our scholarship, and how scholarship has happened in classrooms.” Before turning to this central hypothesis, however, I want to raise a question about the “teaching archive” as empirical evidence: How can we know what “happened in the classrooms” — not yesterday, but decades ago?

The “teaching archive” is presumably as close as we can come to the event of teaching. This event can only be inferred from its material traces, like the faint remainder of words on an erased blackboard. For Buurma and Heffernan, the teaching archive consists mainly of syllabi and course descriptions, sometimes supplemented by student testimony when that is available. There are a few other traces — lecture notes, assignments — but in practice, the syllabus stands as the principal document of the archive. The syllabus attests to an event: the words uttered by teachers and students during the time of the class, the graffiti on the blackboard, the nonverbal signals betraying interest or boredom, excitement or annoyance, all the thoughts and feelings that surge through participants in the complex social interaction that occurs in the classroom.

As archival evidence of the classroom, the syllabus has some complications specific to its genre. In the colleges and universities of an earlier era, the syllabus circulated as an advertisement for a seminar or lecture. To a great extent, it still performs that function for us today. It is also an aspirational document, more or less revisable, though students in recent years have come to regard it as a quasi-legal contract. The important complication relating to its evidentiary status is that it comes before the class. It is a statement of what the teacher hopes the class will be, or will accomplish. In some respects, the testimony of students would be closer as empirical evidence to the inferred event taking place in the classroom; but testimony has its own issue of reliability. The syllabus has by contrast a kind of documentary solidity, even if it is only the textual forerunner of the classroom experience. The first question I want to press about the teaching archive is whether the syllabus is sufficient evidence for this reconstruction. This is not an easy question to answer.

The evidentiary question is not addressed directly in The Teaching Archive; but the possible insufficiency of the syllabus is implied by Buurma and Heffernan’s frequent recourse to the published work of the scholars they treat, the same monographs and articles they otherwise question as constituting the landmarks of disciplinary history: “[F]or some professors, the only extant traces of their teaching are in their publications.” For the scholars discussed in the book, published works are presented as emerging from the classroom. Even the famous monographs and articles are in this way incorporated retroactively into the “teaching archive.” Although the tactic risks a circular logic, it is crucial to another line of argument in The Teaching Archive: Buurma and Heffernan want to see these published monographs and articles as the products of the classroom in a deeper sense, as the result of a collaborative enterprise, the joint creation of teachers and students. In their view, it was always a mistake to credit these famous works of scholarship and theory to feats of solitary thinking and research. The argument for acknowledging the inherently collaborative nature of what happens in the classroom is persuasive, and modeled obliquely by the collaboration of Buurma and Heffernan themselves. But again, as with the syllabus, there is an empirical question worth pressing: How can we demonstrate that the collaborative work of the classroom is the source of those ideas and arguments for which the singular scholar takes credit? How do we credit students themselves in some measure for these achievements?

The Teaching Archive might be seen in context as an expression of the “student-centered” theory of pedagogy that currently dominates this field, and has given us the “flipped classroom.” There is something right about the impulse of this pedagogy, although I also believe that there are unresolved problems with its assumptions. We needn’t pursue those problems in order to recognize that this new pedagogy has indeed given birth in The Teaching Archive to a new kind of disciplinary history. Again, the deep issue here is the relation between teaching and scholarship. It is to the credit of Buurma and Heffernan that their case studies are consistently implicated in this relation. Of the case studies in the book, the hardest to argue, in my view, is that of T. S. Eliot, which I would like to look at more closely here. This chapter offers a vigorous argument for the generative relation between a course Eliot taught in a worker’s extension program during World War I, and his 1920 volume of essays, The Sacred Wood, by consensus a watershed work for the development of modern literary study.

We don’t usually remember Eliot as a teacher; he consistently refused the offer of teaching positions. But during this period of his life, Eliot taught a three-year extension course under the auspices of the University of London and the Workers’ Educational Association. The topics were proposed each year by the students. For the third year, the students suggested modern literature, but Eliot rejected this proposal (he did not want to teach living authors), and his students agreed to a second choice, Elizabethan literature. The peripheral documents relating to the course include “syllabuses, course descriptions, lecturer’s reports, and graded assignments,” perhaps as close as we are likely to get to Eliot’s classroom without a time machine. Buurma and Heffernan emphasize the collaborative ethos of the Workers’ Educational Association, the hope that teachers and students would work together to define their courses, and they confirm that Eliot’s approach was in conformity with this agenda.

The syllabus for Eliot’s course was voluminous, but his instructions on that document say only that “students should prepare themselves by reading some of the material indicated.” The actual class meetings are described indifferently as “tutorials” or “lectures.” Buurma and Heffernan do not give us the size of the class, but it was evidently small. Given the range and number of authors, and the relatively arcane works involved, many of which would not have been easily available to the students, I would guess that Eliot did much of the talking. But I’m happy to believe that he was a generous and conscientious teacher, willing to entertain the comments and questions of his students. I would also agree with Buurma and Heffernan (who follow other scholars in this hypothesis) that Eliot’s experience teaching this course gave him the opportunity to develop some of the arguments that appeared shortly thereafter in The Sacred Wood. The question before us is not just one of opportunity, however, but something more — precisely what Buurma and Heffernan call “collaboration.” How collaborative was the authorship of The Sacred Wood? Buurma and Heffernan argue not only that Eliot’s subjects but his arguments derive from his teaching experience with the WEA. And further, that this relation between teaching and scholarship might be taken as paradigmatic for the whole history of literary study. This is the strong thesis that drives the revisionism of The Teaching Archive.

In the preface to the 1928 reprint of The Sacred Wood, Eliot apologizes for the “pontifical solemnity” of his style — not, one would like to believe, his manner in the classroom. In fact, his students appear to have been pleased with the course, and presented him with a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse, inscribed with an expression of their gratification. Buurma and Heffernan tell us that after the course concluded, “Eliot spent the next several months transforming his lecture materials into book reviews, publishing thirteen reviews of criticism and scholarship on early modern literature,” of which six appeared as essays in The Sacred Wood. There is no question that Eliot was spurred to gather his thoughts about a number of subjects in the process of preparing for his extension course. The question is rather what Buurma and Heffernan are able to show about The Sacred Wood that can only be explained by its relation to Eliot’s extension course. And here, as with the question of the archive, some empirical questions arise.

There is, to begin, that over-stuffed syllabus, which must have required a good deal of expository lecturing in order to engage even the better part of it. It’s difficult to imagine how students in Eliot’s course managed so much reading, much less whether they contributed observations on complex lines of influence in English literary history, or expressed nuanced comparative judgments of the sort that populate The Sacred Wood. This is not a matter of their intelligence or engagement, but of Eliot’s massive erudition, as well as his strongly revisionist interpretive agenda, already evident in his syllabus. (Buurma and Heffernan give us an image of the first page of the syllabus, but it would have been helpful to have the whole document.) Eliot, as we know, had a theory of literary history, which he prosecuted in The Sacred Wood, and which Buurma and Heffernan acknowledge. According to this theory, English literary history was characterized by an unfortunate disparity between the high quality of its “second-order” or minor poets, and the heterodox cultural affiliations of its major talents (the examples in The Sacred Wood are Blake and Swinburne). Later, Eliot would sharpen the point of his history with the notorious concept of the “dissociation of sensibility,” a hypothesis aimed in part at toppling Milton from his bad eminence in the history of English literature.

Eliot burst onto the critical scene in the 1920s with a critical revisionism that was puzzling to early readers. His judgments were consistently for the minor writers over the major: Kyd over Marlowe, Dryden over Milton. He gleefully demotes Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“an artistic failure”) in favor of the much less popular Coriolanus. He dedicates many pages to figures like Webster, Tourneur, Chapman, and Massinger, and hints at the immaturity of English culture by comparison to French. The first readers of The Sacred Wood, as Buurma and Heffernan observe, suspected a sly elitism, not an implausible impression. But Buurma and Heffernan have a different view of Eliot’s project, a much happier view. They see in Eliot’s affirmation of the “workmanlike” productions of the minor figures, in opposition to the aberrant genius of major writers, an identification of the lives of the “second-order” English dramatists with his students’ working lives:

That volume’s [The Sacred Wood’s] characteristic gesture — its rejection of the major authors to which literary culture pays lip service and its appreciation of the subtler virtues of more workaday writers — draws on the WEA’s attempts to revise authoritative, disciplinary knowledge by incorporating working-class history and experiences.

Whatever Eliot may have thought about the Workers’ Educational Association, there is a leap here to “working-class history.” Did Eliot really see Elizabethan dramatists as working-class figures? The playwrights in question were, for the most part, over-educated and under-employed, difficult to locate in class terms. They often lived on the edge of poverty, but they were also the clients of aristocratic patrons, a social position very different from that of the modern working class.

Buurma and Heffernan identify these Elizabethan dramatists as working-class on the basis of Eliot’s consistent emphasis in The Sacred Wood on the notion of “craft.” But it seems evident to me that Eliot employs this notion as a nostalgic trope intended to summon up a world that was lost, a world of craft rather than industrial production. The concept of craft for Eliot did double duty, as a means of demolishing the notion of “genius” as Romantic twaddle; and as a means of reaffirming the “framework of accepted and traditional ideas” characterizing pre-modern culture and sustaining work of the “second order.” Buurma and Heffernan’s hopeful reading of Eliot is epitomized in their citation of this sentence from his essay on Massinger: “To understand Elizabethan drama it is necessary to study a dozen playwrights at once, to dissect with all care the complex growth, to ponder collaboration to the utmost line.” Eliot is far from representing the playwrights here as working-class. When he credits the composition of any one play to “a dozen playwrights at once,” he means to credit the whole of Elizabethan literary culture, and firmly to distinguish that culture from our own.

In asserting a point of disagreement with Buurma and Heffernan on the reading of Eliot, however, I do not want to say that this disagreement is all that matters. I take the Eliot chapter as the hardest case for their thesis, almost the exception that proves the rule of collaboration. We might say that Buurma and Heffernan want to see in the classroom a site of collaboration that functions like Eliot’s pre-modern literary culture, a culture of collaboration. There is a hint here that is worth taking up, an intuition about the possibilities of the classroom. We still don’t have the tools to enter fully into the psychological and social dynamic of this peculiar space, a kind of heterotopia. We don’t know by what alchemy Eliot’s extension course might actually have entered into the formation of his thought. This process could never have been simply a transfer of his students’ ideas into their teacher’s scholarship. But was The Sacred Wood in some other sense the result of a culture of collaboration?

At this point, I would like to leave the chapter on Eliot and take a few steps back in order to get a better view of the work being done by its gallery of teacher-scholars, including Eliot, all of whom are offered as representative of the culture of collaboration. Here too there is a question of evidence, of what social scientists call “selection bias.” Are the nine scholars really representative of literary study as a discipline? Buurma and Heffernan equivocate, “Yes and no.” And yet, the weight falls on the affirmative: “Eliot’s syllabuses sit alongside the hundreds of other University of London extension syllabuses.” Or: “Josephine Miles’s exams and class notes and noun counts take context from Berkeley’s course catalogs.” But would some other University of London teacher or Berkeley professor have served equally well for the purposes of the book? That seems dubious. And in the end, the “sample” is very small, possibly too small to support robust generalizations about the literary professoriate as a whole. I wondered whether a different lineup of scholars might produce a different history of the discipline. What would a history look like with representative figures such as F. R. Leavis, Northrop Frye, F. O. Matthiessen, Louise Rosenblatt, Reuben Brower, or Mina Shaughnessy — there are many other possibilities. But it became apparent to me that with the exception of the three women scholars a different lineup was not going to produce a different version of Buurma and Heffernan’s story. I would like to bring out the reason for this peculiar effect of selection bias in turning toward conclusion, as it points us to what is most problematic and at the same time most suggestive and valuable about this book.

Anyone who reads The Teaching Archive will be struck by the fact that the book’s three women scholars developed methods of quantitative analysis much in advance of the digital humanities. When considered separately, however, the project of any one of the three scholars looks quite different from the other two. Caroline Spurgeon is best known today for her study of Shakespeare’s imagery, Josephine Miles for her stylistic studies of the history of English poetry, and Edith Rickert for her “new method” of textual analysis based on computation — on the face of it three very different signature projects. I don’t know that anyone before Buurma and Heffernan has brought these three figures together in such a way as to acknowledge the full extent of their common venture into quantitative analysis. In addition to the fact of their quantitative turn, the three scholars are also similar in their extraordinary commitment to collaboration with their students. They all undertook projects in which their students actively participated, and in which there emerged the real possibility of the co-authorship so much harder to discern in the Eliot archive. The six other figures in The Teaching Archive’s gallery of scholars were without doubt dedicated teachers, even engaged in forms of collaboration, as with Richards and Brooks. And yet, within this larger group, Spurgeon, Miles, and Rickert seem to me to stand out in their commitment to realizing the collaborative aim. How representative are they in relation to literary study as a whole, or to its history?

I would suggest that Spurgeon, Rickert, and Miles represent an ideal version of the discipline, only imperfectly replicated by the careers of Eliot, Richards, Brooks, and Wilson — not accidentally the more famous scholars. Not even Redding and Ortiz, important though their careers were in bringing minority populations into literary study, approach the realized collaboration exhibited by Spurgeon, Rickert, and Miles. The three women scholars establish the theme of collaboration as the constant of Buurma and Heffernan’s history of the discipline. This thematic continuity introduces a perspectival bias that corresponds to the “selection bias” collocating Spurgeon, Rickert, and Miles. We see all nine scholars as exemplars of collaboration. And yet, when we immerse ourselves in the individual chapters, it is not just this common feature that comes to the fore, but just as much the differences between them. These differences draw our interest, and to some extent resist the effort of Buurma and Heffernan to see all nine scholars as representative of the same thematic of collaboration.

The tension between the sheer interest of difference and the representative function exposes what is most problematic in Buurma and Heffernan’s history of the discipline, a surprising reduction of this history to one of sameness and indifference, a history without history. In The Teaching Archive’s history of literary study, trends, movements, schools, and revolutions are, in the end, illusions. Some differences disappear altogether, as with the political differences between Eliot and Richards, or Brooks and Wilson. The discipline was always much as it is today. The spectacular revisionism of this history will no doubt captivate readers who are weary of conflict, because it is difference that gives rise to conflict. But I don’t believe that the remedy for this weariness is to make the discipline’s history of conflict disappear. It may be true that on the ground of teaching, in the classroom, where the perspective is here and now, where the horizon is tomorrow’s class, the longer history of methodological conflict is not so urgent a concern. But this history is not an illusion.

In Buurma and Heffernan’s account of the discipline, the division between critic and scholar, between teaching and scholarship, between formalism and historicism — and all other possible antagonisms — cease to animate conflict:

This book rejects the idea that our discipline has been pulled in two directions, that its core has been formed by controversy over method or that its goals of producing knowledge about literature and appreciating literature have been mutually exclusive. Formalism and historicism, we argue, are convenient abstractions from a world of practice in which those methods rarely oppose one another.

I would agree that this statement is true in the classroom, that good teaching is not just partisan polemic. But I would also say that a conflict such as that between formalism and historicism is not just a matter of abstraction, that something needs to be argued here in theory, and that there are stakes in the weighting of these scales.

A similar reservation applies to Buurma and Heffernan’s repudiation of the received history of the discipline. In that history, there are two major moments of crisis, with subsequent periods of resolution and unwinding: the first saw the emergence of the discipline proper, with Practical Criticism and New Criticism. The second saw the unwinding of that disciplinary formation with the assimilation of Continental theory and the impact of the New Social Movements on literary study. Here again, Buurma and Heffernan want to argue that there is nothing but the illusion of change: “‘[I]dentity politics’ has flourished in all eras.” And: “Far from being a post-’68 phenomenon, ideology critique — Marxist and otherwise — threads through literature classrooms across the entire twentieth century.”

It is true that the work of J. Saunders Redding precedes the African American studies programs of the post-’60s; and it is true that there were Marxists like Edmund Wilson before Fredric Jameson. But something did happen in the ’60s that transformed the discipline of literary study, along with the university and the nation. Buurma and Heffernan don’t deny this, but want to direct our attention elsewhere: “[A] disciplinary historical focus on practice rather than theory reveals interconnections rather than oppositions and continuities rather than ruptures.” At this fork in the road, I worry that Buurma and Heffernan are giving us a choice that we don’t need to make, and which they don’t need to make. This is the choice between conflict and collaboration. We need both in order to account for the history of the discipline, a conclusion that I draw with the help of The Teaching Archive itself, its vivid portraits of teacher-scholars, both their differences and what they have in common. If the literary professoriate has sometimes forgotten what happens in the classroom, it is the great contribution of this book to remind us that without collaboration, there is no teaching, and that without teaching, the discipline has no history.


John Guillory is Julius Silver Professor of English at NYU. He is completing a book, entitled Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study.

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John Guillory is Silver Professor of English at NYU. He is completing a book, entitled Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study.


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