Graff, Gerald

Assigned: Graff, Gerald. “Taking Cover in Coverage” (1888-96). Also read the editors’ introduction (1886-88).

“Taking Cover in Coverage” (1986)

1. On 1888-89 (“In addressing the topic…”), how does Gerald Graff initially define the term “theory,” and what conditions does he suggest gave rise to its popularity in college English departments? That is, what breakdown in consensus brought on a need for the kind of discussions that one encounters in literary theory? (To get a sense of what Graff alludes to by his phrase “Arnoldian answers” at 1888 bottom, if your time permits, review Matthew Arnold’s essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Leitch 684-703.)

2. On 1889-90 (“Clearly, we need to reserve…”), on what basis does Graff disagree with those who insist that literary theory is too difficult to teach to undergraduates and claim instead that theory is needed especially for students who struggle to make sense of literary works without using a mass-marketed study guide? Why are certain professors wrong to argue that they should “minister to the ills of literary studies by desisting from theoretical chatter and getting back to teaching literature itself” (1889)?

3. On 1890-91 (“These opening reflections will…”), Graff suggests that bringing theory to bear is not simply “a means of sprucing up ritualized procedures of explication” (using a bit of theory to explain how to read Hamlet,etc.) but rather that it is necessary to “train it on the literature department itself” (1890). How, according to Graff, is the very organization of American English departments already the product of theoretical assumptions and choices? How does he describe the two main advantages of the organizational and hiring model he labels “field coverage” (1890 bottom, see also 1891)?

4. On 1891-94 (“Unfortunately, these advantages came at…”), what drawbacks, according to Graff, does the “field coverage” model of departmental organization and hiring bring with it? How does it both make space for literary theory and yet result in further isolation among the various disciplines and sub-groupings of literary studies? (1891-93) What does Graff assert is the effect of such isolation upon students who must try to gain a solid education from their experiences in the various courses they take (1893 bottom)?

5. On 1894-96 (“Nor is it just the students who…”), what threat to literary studies and to theory itself does Graff see in the trend of departments simply hiring one or two faculty members who then devote themselves entirely to theory as a “field” of study and research? What five suggestions does he offer by way of dealing with such problems? (1895-96) How would you sum up the argument Graff has made with respect to the role of theory in literary studies?

6. General question: On 1889 of “Taking Cover in Coverage,” Gerald Graff refers to the inadequacy of the common demand made by literature professors that their students should engage in “close concentration” on the language of a particular text without much (or indeed any) contextual preparation during class sessions. No doubt you have been asked—probably many times—to write a paper that centers on “close reading” of literary works. What methodology do you understand to underlie such requests for close scrutiny of a text’s language? How do you go about satisfying those requests, and have you generally found the exercise useful? Why or why not?

7. General question: Throughout his essay “Taking Cover in Coverage,” Gerald Graff argues that it would be a good idea for an English Department’s faculty to determine “what potential conflicts of ideological and methodological perspectives it [i.e., the department] harbors” (1895) and then, as Graff’s slogan goes, “teach the conflicts” as part of the undergraduates’ experience. How do you suppose this would look and feel in a given classroom? Try to offer a scenario in which faculty follow Graff’s suggestion: let’s say you’re taking a course in Shakespeare and a course in some other subject—say, cultural studies, political science, feminist theory, etc. How might the respective instructors get together and “teach the controversies” that arise when one must try to determine the canonical status, significance and meaning of Shakespearean drama?

8. General question: Gerald Graff’s essay “Taking Cover in Coverage” touches upon a longstanding topic in humanities-based higher education: the individual and societal value of literary and art-centered study. The older humanistic claim is that as students learn to interpret great works of literature, they are developing their individual human potential and coming to a better understanding of their own and other cultures. It has long been acknowledged that the work of professors in this regard must be slow and patient since no immediate practical results will ensue. This acknowledgment is sometimes said to invoke “the paradox of Anglo-American humanism”: art may well prove helpful in the long run, but it can’t change the world right now, and teachers should refrain from suggesting otherwise. (Matthew Arnold’s essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Leitch 684-703, is a classic statement of this thesis.) In recent decades, however, with the advent of cultural studies, women’s studies, queer theory and other such disciplines, we find an assertion of the primacy of ideological and cultural critique, and a coequal assertion that such critique can and should have near-term practical social and political consequences. What is your view of the argument among older-style humanists and today’s proponents of “critique”? Do you prefer one group over the other? Why or why not?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake