What Does/Should Citizenship Look Like In Literary Scholarship?

This is a tangle of thoughts, so bear with me.

In the writing world we have a culture of support that we call “literary citizenship,” and it includes activities like writing reviews, holding readings, buying books, and finding creative ways to make the world aware of all the great reads that are out there, especially in the indie markets.  We keep tabs on each other, for competitive and inspirational reasons, and when someone drops off the radar, there is at the very least, gossip about their absence. I’ve noticed also that in my academic life (20 years in an English Department), my colleagues and I have more successful, sustained relationships with our alumni who specialized in writing, folklore, linguistics, and media studies than with any from our literature disciplines.

This difference in connection beyond the classroom becomes especially clear when, on an annual basis we ask an accomplished alum to return and speak at our graduation reception. The person we invite is almost never from literature, despite our calls for recommendations. We can make all kinds of guesses about  this apparent lack of attachment, but I’m most satisfied with an assumption that lit students graduate in a different way, emotionally. I talked about this with a colleague who is an 18th Century scholar, and he admitted that he didn’t know much about his past students’ present activities. He also suggested that in other disciplines there is a tradition of intimacy and bonding that isn’t part of lit culture.

In writing, folklore, linguistics, and media studies we expect that our apprentices will eventually become our partners, helping to advance our disciplines in academic and commercial realms. To that end, we are social, collaborative, and promotional in very visible ways. I’m sure the energy for our activities is a matter of scale and youth; smaller/newer disciplines have to place great emphasis on identity development.

So the question I pose in the title of this post is genuine, especially as the central privilege of literature studies within English departments may appear preserved by program requirements as well as subsidized by other enrollments. This is an inaccurate characterization, but not completely, and if the accusation is ignored, an illusion of smug entitlement prevails.

going to stop here. rabbit hole just ahead


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