English Studies’ Anchorage, Flotilla

Bruce McComiskey begins his introduction to
English Studies: An
Introduction to the Discipline(s)
with a striking anecdote about the annual
Raft debate among scholars from various disciplines at Alabama-Birmingham.
The Raft debates start with a sinking-boat scenario. The main ship is in
crisis, and all of the passengers have hurried into lifeboats, saving just one
spot for a final survivor. The quandary, however, is that three
passengers remain on the sinking ship, and all of them are professors at UAB who
must vie with the others for the final seat on the life raft by making the most
persuasive arguments for their discipline. The arguments–a braid of
humor, deliberate provocation, and refutation, frame the event, which unfolds in
front of colleagues and students. Audience applause determines the winner.
The scenario, in effect, contributes a sense of urgency to an otherwise playful
(if viciously candid) cross-disciplinary interchange. A professor of public
health defeated McComiskey (who was representing English Studies) in 1999, but
the outcome was inevitably the result of disciplinary incoherence, a problem the
book sets out, following the early pages, to resolve: "What exactly is English
studies?" (2).

The bulk of the introduction is divided into three sections: English Studies
in Historical Context, The Problem of Specialization, and The New English
Studies. For my own purposes, I’m attending primarily to "The Problem of
Specialization," as I intend in one chunk of the dissertation to address
specialization and its forms of relief (if they’re not bona fide
remedies). The rest of the collection is organized according to fields and
subfields more or less belonging to the super-category of English Studies:
Linguistics and Discourse Analysis, Rhetoric and Composition, Creative Writing,
Literature and Literary Analysis, Critical Theory and Cultural Studies, and
English Education.

I find the sinking-ship scenario striking because there’s a certain shock in
considering how my own defense of English Studies above any other discipline
would take shape. I’m not alarmed at the thought of defending or explaining the
work I do, but it would be especially difficult to do so while at the
same time disparaging the work of another field. I mean that I know little
enough about surrounding disciplines (a problem of specialization) that the
spontaneous assertions I could make about the work of most others in the academy
would be based at best on myths, stereotypes, and rumors. Perhaps in direct
proportion to specialization, all disciplines suffer from obfuscation and
misunderstanding. Meanwhile, the ship bobbed in the on-rushing waters….

I have another reason for taking note of the sinking-boat scenario, a reason
I will say a few things about tomorrow (or later in the week).