ENGLISH 5000             DISCUSSION QUESTIONS                        FALL 2018



Discussion questions for 8/29/18.   Please reply to two: # 1, and then either #2 or #3. Bring your printed responses (which should be at least 300 words each) to class. Please double-space your replies (and please do not reprint the questions).


1. Gerald Graff devotes the middle section of “The Humanist Myth” to what he calls the “field coverage model” that organizes English studies in American higher education. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this model, according to Graff?   Does his account of the structure of English departments accord with your experience and/or the structure of the English department in your undergraduate institution?  (You’ll want to look at both the way the major is organized there, and at the faculty areas of specialization, wherever they are indicated on the department’s web page.)


2. Eagleton (sweepingly) and Baldick (in a more limited survey) describe the historical justifications for the study of English—what the practice will allegedly do for the soul, or for society, or for civilization.  Do you see this history reflected in contemporary thinking about the topic—in departmental or college mission statements, in the popular press, in friendly conversations with strangers who discover that you’re an English major?


3. Matthew Arnold writes in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” that the rule for criticism should be “disinterestedness”(703)—a “free disinterested treatment of things” (707).  (A) What does he mean by this?  (B) Do you think he is correct to recommend it, and that such a thing as he describes is possible?



Discussion questions for 9/5/18.   Please respond to #1 and either #2 or #3, ± 300 words each


1. Culler and Eagleton make what has become the standard contemporary argument that the question “what is literature?” is best answered functionally rather than ontologically—that is, that "literature,” as Terry Eagleton puts it, cannot be said to exist "as an 'objective,' descriptive category." Do you agree with this claim? If not, why not? And if you do agree, have you always held that opinion, or is it of more recent vintage? What was your “conversion experience,” and what have the consequences been for your reading/writing/teaching/thinking about “literature?”


2. Writing during the height of the “culture wars” of the 1990s, John Guillory suggested in Cultural Capital that both the traditionalist defenders of the central importance of “Western Civilization” and those “multiculturalists” who sought to open the canon of university-taught texts to previously excluded or neglected works shared, unwittingly, both some common assumptions and some common blind spots. Like what?


3. Speaking of common assumptions: does the contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum share any with the 19th- and 20th-century writers and critics responsible for “the rise of English,” as Baldick and Eagleton describe them? Where does she differ from those earlier champions of the importance of literature?



Discussion questions for 9/12/18.   Please respond to #1 and either #2 or #3, ± 300 words each


1. Provide four good sentences of the sort that Stanley Fish describes at the beginning of How to Write a Sentence...— four sentences that you would count among your favorites.  Two of the sentences must be sentences you wrote—not new sentences produced for this assignment, but sentences you wrote some time in the past (in an essay, a letter, an email, a blog post) and felt pleased about having composed.  Include a sentence (a new one) about each sentence that explains what we should admire about it.


**Please email me your sentences by 10PM Tuesday, September 11, so that I can make them available in class.**


2. When it comes to language and language use, do you consider yourself a descriptivist or a prescriptivist, in the terms Anne Curzan sets out?  Describe and defend your position.  (For more on this matter, you can look at the New Yorker piece by Joan Acocella on MyGateway, and the response to Acocella by Stephen Pinker at http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_good_word/2012/05/steven_pinker_on_the_false_fronts_in_the_language_wars_.html)


3. At the end of her book about Westerns, Jane Tompkins turns from cowboys and gunfights to what she calls the “bloodless kind of violence” that takes place between professors, at conferences and in essays.  Is she correct that the fundamental mode of academic discourse is agonistic? Does the expository advice provided by They Say/I Say confirm or refute her suspicions?  What does your own experience—in reading and writing—suggest about her claims?