Category Archives: thrice-yearly responses to Margaret Wente’s columns

Wente, again.

dalhousie-sign

Anyone who has followed my blog over the years knows the contempt in which I generally hold the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, not least because it seems that, whenever she’s at a loss for something to carp about in her column, she reverts to her favourite target: the contemporary university, especially humanities programs, and even more especially English departments.

Reader, she’s at it again.

I’d gotten pretty good at ignoring Wente, something made easier by the Globe’s general decline—given that I no longer read the paper as a matter of course, that has tended to relieve me of the occasional temptation to click on her invariably cickbaity columns, and I’ve been of much sounder mind for it. But in her most recent screed, she’s taken aim at the Dalhousie University English Department, and I can’t help but take that a little personally: I know a significant number of the professors in that department, people whose devotion to teaching and research and to generally making the world a better place is unimpeachable.

Well, unimpeachable if you’re not a lazy, sinecured columnist with little actual idea of what she’s talking about.

Let’s start with her title: “Universities preach the new religion of anti-racism and anti-oppression.” I could go on for a long while about the reactionary right’s antipathy to “social justice,” but I’ll try to be succinct: who, precisely, is pro-racism and –oppression? Aside from the obvious, I mean; Wente isn’t stupid enough (not yet, anyway) to come out and declare that racism and oppression are net positives, but it’s emblematic of our current cultural moment that the Wentes of the world are comfortable slagging people actively engaged in opposing racism and pursuing social justice. The usual argument tends to say that racism and sexism are bad and all, but the puritanical PC left (or, in Jordan Peterson’s framing, postmodern neo-marxists) have morphed into the equivalent of Orwellian thought police, silencing all who dissent.

Because, yeah … hardly a peep to be heard. It’s not as if Canada’s newspaper of record would employ such dissenting voices.

I suppose this argument is now so frequently made that Wente doesn’t really feel the need to rehearse it; she spends the first half of her column sneering at Dal’s attempts to address the fact that their founder (George Ramsay, Earl of Dalhousie) was, well, hella racist, a fact made more problematic by the city of Halifax’s troubling past of racial injustice. She similarly sneers at the university’s attempts to promote diversity among its faculty and student population, writing:

Why is diversity so important? “Diversity is a powerful agent of change,” insists Dalhousie. “Indeed, diversity is an imperative that must be embraced if colleges and universities are to be successful in a pluralistic and interconnected world.”

Actually, I thought that colleges and universities got to be successful through excellent scholarship and teaching. But I guess that’s old-fashioned thinking.

This is why reading Wente is bad for my blood pressure. First, a proven plagiarist has no standing to opine on “excellent scholarship.” But more importantly, the canard here is the suggestion that diversity, and excellence in scholarship and teaching, are somehow mutually exclusive. Wente’s columns on the sorry state of university curricula today almost invariably nostalgize the halcyon days when the canon was ascendant and only Great Books by Great (Male) Authors were considered worthwhile of study. (I wrote a post eerily similar to this one five years ago on this very topic). So rather than continue to harp on Dalhousie’s social justice preoccupations, she turns to their English department offerings, and needless to say,

I was shocked. I knew the field had fallen on hard times, but little did I realize how marginal it has become. Judging by the meagre offerings, would-be English Lit majors have fled to the greener fields of Social Justice Studies.

Gone are many of the staples of my youth, when I was an English Lit major at a different university. Now on offer is less taxing fare, seemingly designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books: a heavy sprinkling of courses on pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism. I did find one lonely little course on Shakespeare – but it’s not required. One thing you can say for it, though the English curriculum is certainly diverse.

(Excuse me while I take some blood pressure medication).

The second most galling thing about this characterization of Dal’s course offerings is how easily refuted it is. Check it out for yourself: the courses ostensibly “designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books” are crowded out by such “traditional” fare as Chaucer, Renaissance poetry and drama, medieval literature, as well as a course devoted entirely to the Brontes.

The most galling thing about this characterization of Dal’s course offerings is that I felt obliged to write the two previous sentences. What the actual fuck is wrong with offering courses on “pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism”? None of which, I feel compelled to add, suggest that students will not have to read. All of those topics Wente apparently disdains are embedded in the contemporary cultural moment: if an English degree is at least partly about developing critical reading and writing skills, it doesn’t hurt to be able to deploy those skills with regard to the various discourses in which we live.

***

While I was writing this post, my friend Jason, who is chair of Dal’s English Department, wrote a wonderful response to Wente’s idiocy. He begins by imploring people not to read Wente’s column and thus reward her trolling with ad revenue for the Globe (which is why I just removed my own link to the column—if you must read it, by all means do so, but I won’t facilitate it).

I’ll end here by quoting Jason:

We don’t need to defend ourselves against Wente’s spurious claims; we need to double down on what we do. Nothing would make me personally happier than to have a program that makes Margaret Wente shudderingly, inconsolably uncomfortable, simply because that would mean it more fully and accurately reflects the growing and ever diversifying field of English Studies as new and previously silenced authors, texts, approaches, and contexts, past and present, make themselves heard.

Let’s walk past the braying calls for a bounded and bordered ignorance and into an open space resounding with an ever more complex cacophony of voices. Let’s commit curiosity.

Amen.

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Wente on Gilmour (because none of us saw that coming)

ab-Toni-Morrison

For the record, Toni Morrison could totally kick Hemingway’s ass.

Once the scope and scale of the reaction to David Gilmour’s comments became clear, is was also clear that the chances Margaret Wente would not put in her two cents in her weekly column were slim to none. Huge surprise: she’s pro-Gilmour, anti-feminist, and if you weren’t certain what her response would be, her opening sentences put that uncertainty to rest: “How does an obscure Canadian author become an international sensation overnight?” she asks, and answers: “Easy. Just insult some feminists!”

Yes. Some feminists. Because the range of responses was limited to a narrow, shrill band of men-haters who haunt Wente’s imagination and, presumably, the imaginations of her devoted readers. And for the record, it is this latter group that makes me inclined to say something more on this topic: however often I promise myself I’m just going to ignore her—to avoid feeding the troll, as the saying goes these days—I can’t help but remember that there are people out there who take her words as unalloyed truth and imagine that she is a brave and besieged voice of reason in the midst of leftist hate, as opposed to a lazy, sinecured columnist who writes the same argument over and over, and even then sometimes can’t be bothered to use her own words and ideas.

Or perhaps the horde of Wente admirers is just what haunts my imagination.

Nevertheless, no matter how much I know she’s just poking us with a stick to goad a response, I can’t help pointing out where she’s being misleading, mendacious, or simply wrong. Take for example this seemingly mild defense of Gilmour, which is actually just an excuse to reiterate her biggest complaint about current English curricula:

Frankly, I was surprised and glad to learn that there remains one small testosterone-safe zone at U of T (although I guess it’s not safe any more). As anyone who’s set foot on campus in the past 30 years ought to know, courses in guy-guy writers are vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers, and various sub- and sub-subsets of the above. But if you’re interested in Hemingway, good luck. No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities.

If by “testosterone-safe zone,” she means courses devoted exclusively to male writers, you don’t actually have to look too hard to find them—you just have to look early, as in chronologically, to find numerous courses on the U of T 2013-2014 undergraduate schedule dedicated entirely to dudes. That their names are Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton doesn’t exactly obviate their gender. After that? Well, the women start to creep in. They’re sneaky that way. But what Wente doesn’t say (as I’m sure it never occurred to her) is that the presence of names like Austen, Gaskell, Eliot, and the Brontës on nineteenth-century literature courses isn’t some feminist conspiracy to eclipse the dudes, but an honest and scrupulous attempt to construct curricula that offer a representative range of authors well-regarded and widely-read in their own times (even if George Eliot and the Brontë sisters did have to assume male pseudonyms). Ditto for the twentieth century.

Her suggestion that people wishing to study Hemingway at university are shit out of luck comes as rather a surprise, as I just wrapped up a unit on A Farewell to Arms. Before that? The Great Gatsby, another Gilmour-approved novel. And on Tuesday, we start The Sound and the Fury … and while Gilmour had nothing to say about Faulkner, I have to imagine he wouldn’t complain about that one. But here’s the thing: having devoted the first half of my C20 American Fiction course to a holy trinity of the American fiction canon, I was compelled to offer some balance, and the second half will be Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, and Julia Alvarez. Not out of some politically-correct, milquetoast liberal guilt, but because I owe it to my students to offer some sort of representative balance. Filling out a survey course is always a mug’s game, especially when you have thirteen weeks to cover an entire century. So you do the best you can, and in the end there is always room to teach your passion.But it’s not about what the professor loves, it’s about how best to give your students a wide range of ideas, styles, voices, experiences, personalities, worldviews, and vocabularies. That, ultimately, is why the humanities are so crucial: they offer the opportunity, to paraphrase critic Denis Donaghue, to encounter lives more richly imagined than our own. And, I would add, lives we would not otherwise encounter unless we devote our own to traveling all over the world.

But to return to Wente’s harrumph, re: Hemingway. As I said, I just taught one of his novels. But I suspect she’s using Papa metonymically here, having him stand in for the broad range of proud literary masculinity currently getting the short shrift. Is what she says true, my own class notwithstanding? Are these white hetero men, as Patrick Buchanan suggested in another context, an endangered species? Let’s check out the current undergraduate course offerings for U of T English’s 2013-2014 school year.

Well, OK … I don’t see any listings for “Testosterone 101” or “Guy-Guy Lit.” And yes, many of these courses include women authors. Well, not the first-year course “The English Literary Tradition.” Nary a woman to be seen on that list. Or how about “Literature in Our Time”? Seven authors listed, but only two women, Virginia Woolf (whom we’ll call an honourary guy-guy, as she is Gilmour-approved) and Sylvia Plath. Moving on to second-year classes, “The Novel” gets a little more estrogen-heavy with five women (Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison) elbowing onto the course with seven men. Then we come to three sections of  the course “American Literature,” whose C20 readings do not, in fact, include Hemingway but do feature William Faulkner, Richard Brautigan, Cormac McCarthy, and such Gilmour-approved guy-guys as Fitzgerald and Philip Roth. Moving on to third-year courses, “Modern Fiction to 1960” gives us yet more Faulkner, as well as Malcolm Lowry, whom I suspect is a guy-guy. (Just so it’s clear, I’m not mentioning every hetero male on these courses, just the ones I imagine Gilmour would approve of. Nor, for that matter, am I mentioning most of the actual courses offered). In “Twentieth Century American Literature,” hey—Hemingway! As well as even more Faulkner (wow, U of T loves it some Faulkner), more Richard Brautigan, more Philip Roth, as well as Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Raymond Carver. “Contemporary American Fiction” features more Roth, more Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo. Fourth year course offerings, admittedly, seem to feature fewer guy-guys, except for the fact that there is one course devoted exclusively to Ezra Pound, who was perhaps the ultimate stereotype of the guy-guy (once comparing the pen to the penis and ink to semen. Ick).

All of which is by way of pointing out that Margaret Wente, once again, really needs to do a little research before she honks off. Does the U of T undergraduate English curriculum—as well as most in the country—make a point of offering women’s literature? Yes. Does it attempt to balance canonical, male writers with women, with authors or colour, and with other traditionally marginal groups? Yes. Does it do so to the utter exclusion of the aforementioned canonical male writers?

No. No, in thunder. And if people like Margaret Wente would spend the five minutes it would take to actually peruse course offerings rather than screaming in outrage the moment they saw courses with titles like “Gynocentric Approaches to Modern Literature,” (not actually a course) they would know that.

*

One more thing (he said, putting on his Columbo voice).

Did anyone else notice Wente’s little bit of implicit racism in the passage I quoted above? To repeat, (italics mine) she says that courses in “guy-guy” writers are “vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers.” Catch it? Apparently “guy-guy” also means emphatically white and, weirdly, non-Canadian. There are no macho, straight-up hetero black authors? (paging Richard Wright). Caribbean authors? (V.S. Naipaul would be surprised by that one). African, Asian, South Asian, or Canadian authors? (Because on this last one, I can think of at least one Governor-General award-winner who would protest). To “testosterone-safe zone” I suppose we must also append the sign “whites only.”

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