We all have one: the inescapable reading that surfaces and resurfaces in every class to which it is even remotely relevant. Long after every law of reasonability and probability dictate its disappearance, it continues to rear its stubborn and over-read head. As one of my friends so eloquently put it, "If I have to read one more introductory explanation of Saussure, I'm going to kill myself."
I cannot say that I am unsympathetic to her academic plight. By my fourth reread of Descartes' meditations, I found myself wishing that the scholar could have existed without thinking, if only to spare philosophy majors the trouble of parsing their papers with such frustrating frequency.
The problem of academic overlap plagues literature and film departments to an equal if not greater degree. In French, film and comparative literature classes, the same theoretical texts are perennially recycled, the same Neo-Freudian analyses perennially performed and the same power structures perennially problematized.
I do not mean to question the significance or salience of recurring readings and concepts. It is undeniable that Descartes set the stage for modern philosophy, and it is likewise undeniable that a firm grasp of Saussure's linguistic theories is indispensable in today's literary climate. I do not deny that psychoanalysis is often edifying, if scientifically questionable, nor do I deny that rereading is often a useful and intellectually illuminating exercise.
What I do deny is that the rereading inadvertently promoted by Dartmouth's humanities departments is instructive. Rather than delving into the nuances of a difficult text with students who have taken time to reflect on its complexities, humanities majors in high-level classes are repeatedly subjected to introductory summaries aimed at providing first-time readers with basic understanding of the material. Such a phenomenon does not represent a progression it represents a plateau.
When half the students in a film class are completely new to critical theory and the other half are consummate theorists, resultant discussions are unpleasant for everyone. Students unfamiliar with the ideas in question emerge confused, while veterans of upper-level film courses emerge dissatisfied and unenlightened. Newcomers are denied the in-depth explanations they deserve, and theory-enthusiasts are denied the intellectual engagement they crave.
Issues of redundancy are magnified across departments that deal in similar subjects. Anyone who hopes to dabble in more than one national literature will be irked by the apparent omnipresence of French literary criticism, which has wormed its way into even the remotest corners of the multicultural canon.
There are obvious solutions to the problems that beset the humanities at Dartmouth namely, more rigid prerequisite requirements and increased interdepartmental communication.
One benefit of strictly enforced prerequisites is that they would eliminate the all-too-common situations in which Dartmouth students are assigned secondary authors before they have read primary authors and primary authors before they have read the works to which these authors refer. The system I advocate would also allow humanities departments to ensure that every student draws from the same intellectual resources as he or she moves forward, thereby facilitating more productive and pointed dialogue between peers.
Furthermore, prerequisites would do much to improve the logical sequence of our academic careers. It seems counterintuitive to study literary and critical theory to explore various approaches to reading and art only after the completion of a degree in English, French literature or film studies. If literature, film and art history departments required that majors take an introduction to criticism at the beginning of their studies, students could more effectively apply critical ideas to their work throughout the course of their scholastic development.
Champions of the liberal arts tout the merits of accessible humanities courses, arguing that it is important for everyone to feel welcome in literary and philosophical environments. But when inclusivity trades off with scholastic rigor, it comes at too high a cost.
If the humanities have a reputation for laxity, it is because they have earned one. There is no reason why Dartmouth's humanities departments could not offer the sorts of non-major classes that science departments provide, and, in so doing, improve the undergraduate experience of their own majors immensely.