Defending the “Pro” in Professor

Dr. Michael Clune defends the role of the literature professor, the future of the field in lecture at CNU

~Matthew Scherger, BreakingCNU Editor~

For many, studying literature is a chore. A pointless class spent reading boring books and memorizing small details that have nothing to do with anything of interest. It is a class to survive, not a class to remember.

Dr. Michael Clune disagrees. The Samuel B. and Virginia C. Knight Professor of Humanities at Case Western Reserve University visited CNU with the intent to persuade an intimate audience of about a hundred CNU students and faculty of the importance of literature professors.

He challenges the perspective that studying “great” works of art and literature is useless and argues that literature professors offer more to people than an elitist attitude biased towards books and poems written over a hundred years ago.

Truly great works of literature are important, because “They give us new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the world,” says Clune in the opening part of his speech.“It expands and transcends our sense of the world by revealing new dimensions of life.”

What are those dimensions of life? The purpose of reading, of reading anything, is to make the reader think.

The role of the literature professor is to direct people towards media that is worth the effort and will allow the reader to “get something” out of the experience.

What makes a work of art or literature “great,” according to Clune, is not its age or who wrote it (although those may both play a role), it is how that work affects its consumers and changes them.

“The Great Gatsby” appears on more syllabi than “The Hunger Games,” not because “The Hunger Games” is not a great book, but because there is something contained within the pages of “The Great Gatsby” that a literature professor may want their students to consider.

Defending these preferences in a way that makes sense to everyone is where the struggle lies.

“We have a standard for moral judgements, we have a standard for obtaining measurements of length and height, but we have no standard for judging between art works,” says Clune.

That lack of standard is exactly what makes the literature professor valuable, however.

These people have read works by many types of authors spread over many centuries, and that background gives literature professors a natural advantage to makes judgements about ranking certain works higher than others.

We would all prefer a group of doctors to prescribe our medicine based on their years of expertise rather than a Facebook group of concerned friends.

Similarly, we should prefer a group of trained professors to recommend literature that will expand our minds and enrich our lives over a best-seller list.

According to Clune, judging a work of literature should be based on the community of literary experts, a communal effort backed by the combined years and experiences of people who have dedicated their lives to the study of literature.

He also thinks this judgement is important, even if it excludes many works of literature from the “great literature” distinction.

The erasure of judgement limits the progress of literature studies, says Clune.

Literature should unlock new forms of beauty and challenge the limits of the written word. 

Without some sort of standard for what those limits are and what qualifies as literary beauty, it would be impossible to find works of literature that enrich our lives through all the hundreds of thousands of works in the world.

If you still have doubts about the importance of literature professors, Clune ends his speech with a promise to every student obligated to read through a literature class syllabus: “We will show you a better way to live.”

Give him a chance, and he will enrich your life through literature.

The full speech will be published in the humanitarian academic journal “Critical Inquiry” this summer.

To read more about Clune and to check out his books and essays, visit his website, 

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