Something has gone awry with the way universities teach their students to write. What high school composition told us to avoid, college honors English tells us to embrace. For instance, using the first person is now welcomed as a form of socio-political protest in the place where we apparently need activism most: honor’s theses in English literature.
This phenomenon became apparent to me during a group editing session for my thesis class, where we were practicing how to give feedback by analyzing an honor’s thesis from a previous year. It was a piece on Postmodern Black men’s fiction. Some of my classmates and I criticized the piece for using the first person and narrating a personal childhood anecdote for the opening paragraphs of what was supposed to be a scholarly literary thesis. But the professor leading the workshop dismissed our comments, asserting that such a rhetorical strategy was permissible. The professor said the repeated insertion of “I” was actually a “feminist and political statement” from the thesis author, who belonged to a group that had traditionally been “disenfranchised” from the literary canon and from scholarly commentary.
For the remainder of the class period, everyone was complimentary toward the piece. We lauded it for its bravery and its originality. Then, everyone who tried to make a comment tingeing on critique began to preface his remarks with the least controversial phrase possible: “I feel that this sentence is awkward”; “I feel that this paragraph detracts from the main point.” As honors English students completing an honors thesis, we laid aside our training in literary analysis and instead merely expressed our feelings.
Privileging personal passion over reason negates the teaching of writing and composition. The point of receiving live feedback on a paper is to receive comments that are actually constructive, not just flattering. Turning class into reparations for the literarily disenfranchised might score some political points, but it undermines the purpose of literature—the medium through which we are able to relate the universal human experience. Being able to make a coherent argument and to prove a point, open for all to see and understand, is what makes writing good and what makes an argument rational.
English departments have become a prime platform for students seeking to write about their personal beliefs by trading impartial scholarship for arguments rooted in personal passions. The university’s solution for the social issues of today has been to trade the pursuit of knowledge (which comes by asking serious academic questions) for the more “virtuous” task of promoting social justice. Students follow the professors’ lead, and professors who see themselves as activists rather than as educators indulge their students by allowing them to write political manifestos and pass them off as academic work.
But when subjective opinion assumes legitimacy simply because it goes by the prestigious title of “scholarship,” then the ground for civil dispute crumbles, leaving little room for dissent. Literary academia treats as a fable the idea that one would be able to write anything in an objective manner. I’ve heard it many times during my undergraduate years: “There’s no such thing as objective writing.”
Some of finest literary minds disagree. Criticism that is “nothing but an expression of emotion,” T.S. Eliot wrote, is no criticism at all. Emotional or passionate writings become indisputable—who can argue with another’s feelings? And if no one can argue, then no one can engage in criticism.
Argument based on emotion circumvents proper, objective research, and it leads writers to refuse the challenge of writing clearly and objectively. More important, we forget to ask the questions that truly matter about literature: questions about truth and about life as experienced by man. The writer, the “dogmatic critic” as Eliot calls him, who uses his emotions to respond definitively to such questions, forgets that literature is not for answers; it is for questions. Such a writer commits a great fault, according to Eliot: in laying down a rule and telling his readers what to think, he leaves his labor incomplete. The critic’s job, Eliot says, is not to coerce or make judgments of worse and better, but to “elucidate.”
Writing a thesis is meant to train students in formal academic writing: preparing rigorous arguments and mastering the research methods that are required of professional critics. It also is meant to help us consider viewpoints outside our own by considering and rebutting other scholars’ research. It is difficult, because scholarship is supposed to be a long process that causes us to challenge our beliefs.
Being exposed to scholarly work during undergraduate years rightly provokes in students a desire to join the academic discussion and add their own voices and arguments. Eliot also said that criticism is as “inevitable as breathing.” But he also gave a warning: we should not only wish to articulate what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it; we should take a step back and criticize our minds and the way that we interpret what we read. Doing so will not only make for better writing, but for better thinking; it will produce not only a more mature thesis, but a more mature person.
Nayeli Riano is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and completing an honor’s thesis on a manuscript study of a Medieval Spanish Nativity Play.