Fakes and Yale

Helena Echlin went to study for a PhD at the most famous English department in America. Once there,

I am sitting in a windowless conference room. The walls are lined with sets of leather-bound books with gold-lettered spines. "The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism," a young man is saying. He pauses for a long time. Underneath the table, one leg is twisted around the other. A stretch of gaunt white ankle shows between trouser leg and sock. "In order to approach participating in . . ." He pauses again, his body knotted like a balloon creature made by a children's entertainer. Finally, in one rush: "The unity which is no longer accessible." My fellow students utter a long, soft gasp, as if at a particularly beautiful firework.

"Brilliant," says the professor. "Very finely put. But I didn't quite understand it. Could you repeat it?" I write the sentence down in my notebook, like everyone else in the seminar. The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism before it can approach participating in the unity which is no longer accessible. When I have pieced it together, I realise he is talking nonsense. I am struck by the thought that literary criticism - at least as it is practised here - is a hoax. And the universities that offer it, and the professors who in America earn large salaries teaching it, are fraudulent, wittingly or not.

I came to Yale to do a PhD in English and American literature. I imagined that an academic career would also give me time to write, and I was congratulated when I won a fellowship. Yale, after all, was the home of the most famous English department in America. Generations of important critics had been nurtured here - from the New Critics to the Yale Deconstructionists, J Hillis Miller, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman and the magisterial Harold Bloom.

Yale sent me a note of congratulation and a fat folder of material. A list of crime statistics was tucked in the back. In 1995, Yale had been ranked, disconcertingly, number one for on-campus burglaries. But I filled one suitcase with books and one with clothes and set off.

The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism before it can approach participating in the unity which is no longer accessible. Think about that sentence until your brain hurts (it shouldn't take long). It won't help if you, too, are or once were a graduate student in English, or if you know that the poet in question was Geoffrey Hill. It doesn't make sense - so cleverly one might have thought it was designed that way. How can one "traverse" a problem, or "participate" in a unity? But at Yale, obfuscation is de rigueur. Sentences are baroque in their lengthiness; suffixes are added, like flourishes in music, to words considered too plain.

On the lips of one Professor, "inert" becomes "inertial". One graduate student substitutes the more rococo "relationality" for "relation". In a class on Thoreau, we turn a noun into a verb, and speak of how he "solitudinised". It is common to speak of "technology" when one perhaps simply means "method".

For some weeks, I listen to people talk like this. I tell myself I'm not stupid. Besides, I was educated to value clarity. My tutor at Oxford wrote "Eh?" in the margin when something I'd written wasn't clear. He taught me that you should be able to present even the most abstruse ideas in language that anyone can understand. At Yale, I begin to say "Eh?", or sometimes "Huh?".

How can we embed this discourse within more gendered parameters? Eh?

Let's talk about the technology for the production of interiority. Huh?

Sometimes, from my peers, I earn a small, shy chorus of agreement. But my professors look at me as if I am the village idiot. It tires me out listening to long sentences that sound like English but lack all meaning. And resistance isn't easy. Where there is no paraphrasable meaning, dissent is impossible, because there is no threshold for attack. It is like trying to disagree with a poem by Mallarme. (Without the poetry.) I stop talking altogether in seminars.

No one has mentioned enjoying a book. Analysis is practised completely free of evaluation. Manifestly, analysis is more important than the texts themselves. In a class on The Canterbury Tales, the secondary literature dwarfs the Tales. We are asked to review books on Chaucer, and even review reviews of books on Chaucer. I see an infinite sequence of mirrors into which Chaucer has disappeared.

In the lift down from the English department, I ask one professor what is on her bedside table. The answer: a bestseller about physics. "No novels?" Her reply: "I don't read literature for pleasure any more." One of my peers, who came to Yale after abandoning a degree in creative writing, is scornful of writing and of reading. "The joy of analysis - that's what it's all about," he rhapsodises. "Pure intellectual play. Much better than reading." His expression is quite serious. For him, enjoyment of literature is a stage that one transcends. The critic is far superior to those who enjoy reading and writing.

Critics are ranked first, then readers and, lastly, writers. When I try to get graduate credit for taking the novelist Robert Stone's fiction workshop, my request is refused. After all, I am doing a PhD in literary criticism, not in creative writing. But graduate students are allowed to receive credit for taking a course in any other graduate department. I could take a course in inorganic chemistry and be awarded credit for it, but I can't take a course in creative writing. The department supervisor, Professor Ruth Yeazell, is unpersuadable. The English department will not accept that a fine novelist such as Stone has anything to contribute to my literary education. Having Stone teach literature is, in their eyes, like having a gorilla teach zoology. I take the class, without credit, and learn more from Stone than I learn from all my other professors put together.

Yale answers any queries about creative writing with the same crisp sentence: "We believe that writers should learn, as they have always learned, from reading." They imply that although they don't teach writing, they do encourage it. A PhD may be the path to becoming a writer. Yet not one student in my year writes poetry or fiction, and there is no magazine of graduate writing.

Yale is a Disneyland version of Oxford - yellowish-grey stone buildings with diamond panes and gargoyles. Frustrated that the architecture didn't look olde worlde enough, the Yale authorities once poured acid on some of the buildings to speed up their decay. Yale's colleges enclose carefully guarded quadrangles. To unlock the heavy gates, you must slip your student card through a digital reader.

Students do not venture much beyond their colleges, no further than to Broadway for a slice of pizza, or to the Yale Co-op on the edge of the town green for computer supplies and books. Faculty members, for the most part, live comfortably in the suburbs. They socialise, shop and dine far from the problems of the town. Living in the town is so unpopular that Yale has launched a programme paying $25,000 to those who purchase homes in New Haven. No one is suggesting that faculty members should put aside their Derrida and start working in soup kitchens (although that wouldn't hurt), but the word "insular" comes to mind. Yale is as far removed from reality socially as it is intellectually.

Why has all this happened? In general, students and faculty at Yale do not explicitly espouse theory, or particular theorists. But high theory, whatever its merits or demerits, has validated the use of jargon. People who talk nonsense are now looked upon not as sloppy thinkers, but as sages. The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism . . And it is literary theory that has made us see writers as fallible, blinkered creatures, unaware of what they write. The critic's job is to expose their blind spots and expound their contradictions. This goes some way to explaining the scorn for writers that I encountered.

But the problem also has its roots in the crisis in the job market. Research done by the Modern Language Association indicates that fewer than half of those who earned PhDs in English in the United States between 1990 and 1995 found full-time tenure-track positions teaching English within a year of receiving their degrees. The number entering English PhD programmes has risen rapidly - between 1952 and 1972, it escalated from 333 to 1,365. Now the number is in the thousands. The market for PhDs is saturated.

Faculties rely increasingly on part-time lecturers and graduate teaching assistants, instead of offering full-time positions. Professor Yeazell warns us what to expect: although Yale has cut its graduate numbers, even those who have been admitted will have to fight hard for jobs.

During the year I spend at Yale, the English department is housed on the 16th floor of an office building, while its usual headquarters are renovated. Professors dress like top management consultants and sit in glass-walled offices with magnificent views and plastic plants; they seem to luxuriate in the newly professional atmosphere.

Grooming oneself into a marketable academic is now the thing - forget about the pursuit of truth and beauty. There is a stream of workshops on publication and public speaking. In my class on The Canterbury Tales, the reason we spend so much time analysing book reviews is because, as successful academics, we will be writing them ourselves. Our final assignment takes the form of a mock Chaucer conference. We each deliver a 20-minute paper. Grades seem to be awarded as much on the basis of one's professional poise and command of handouts and slides as on the quality of one's thought.

In seminars, it is now impossible to have an interesting discussion, because each student is struggling so hard to impress the professor. No one listens or responds to other comments. They are too intent on framing what they will say next.

As the number of PhDs increases, and as theses crowd on to library shelves, there is increasingly less new ground to cover. There are now more than a thousand articles on the "Wife of Bath's Tale" alone. Yet tenure-track positions are still awarded for original articles and theses. As a result, the young man who delighted in the joy of analysis decides to write a dissertation on the image of the pin factory in the work of Adam Smith - its significance and influence. I leave without finishing my PhD.

Why, then, do so many people still pursue PhDs in English? After all, this is America, where a college drop-out, Bill Gates, became one of the richest men in the world. Now, more than ever, there are fortunes to be made outside the academy. The answer is partly economic. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell's hero takes up a career in advertising and makes his fortune with the marketing of PPP, Pedic Perspiration Powder. Smelly feet do exist, but do we really need to combat the problem with a medical powder? Orwell's advertising agency makes us think we do, partly by packaging the solution in jargon - the neologism "pedic" and the latinate "perspiration". Something similar has happened with literary criticism.

Everybody should read literature but, spying a commercial opportunity, universities have turned this activity into something that requires an arsenal of theories and an army of professors. Because universities stood to make money from literary criticism, they developed a supply that far exceeds the demand. They drew paying undergraduates with a greater range of courses (and rather popular ones, too). They made money from graduate tuition fees - usually paid at least in part by the students themselves. In addition, each new graduate student was a source of profit, because departments needed teachers for freshers' introductory courses in writing and literature, and graduate students provided a pool of comparatively cheap labour. In the second half of the 20th century, undergraduate admissions expanded rapidly, leading to an increasingly diverse, and consequently often unprepared, body of students. Inexpensive graduate teachers became increasingly necessary. Professors shied away from this work because they saw it both as too hard and not hard enough - tough work without much intellectual challenge or cachet. Instead, they were left to compete for the rewards of promotion and tenure by pursuing ever more recherche research. Literary criticism has reached its current overdeveloped state at Yale as a result of the profit motive. It has become the Pedic Perspiration Powder of the academy.

But the oversupply of PhDs is not just a matter of economics. It's about psychology, too. Graduate school has a special appeal for those who have always done well academically. They can continue life in a world they know, a world with clear goals, rewards and respectability. The job market is tight, but for most students it will be six or more years before they have to face it. Some of them may eventually enjoy the sizeable salaries of professors ($119,000 on average at Yale in 1990-2000, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education). True, during those six years or more, you must live on loans or, for the lucky few, slender grants.

But the average Yale graduate student does not seem to mind the ascetic life. They work the same hours that investment bankers are working down the road in New York. The harder they work, the less ability they have to resist. Their energy is so reduced that they have none left over to question their situation. At the bottom of Sterling library, there is a dim, desk-lined basement. Because of its ranks of candy and soda machines, it is known as Machine City. At midnight, clusters of pallid graduate students can be seen there, making notes and sipping bad coffee from paper cups.

Because critics are hazy about their function, because their function becomes even less clear in a world that may prove to have no need for them when they graduate, graduate students raise their work to the level of religion. I have never known anyone to pursue an activity so furiously as Yale graduate students pursue literary criticism. They rush between library and seminar, clutching the outsize refillable plastic mugs you can buy from coffee houses. During discussions, they take constant sips of coffee and jiggle their feet as if in a state of continual electric shock, as if the intellectual energy flowing through them is so great that it must have some outlet other than speech. Even the professor's foot is twitching madly - and I can't take it any more.

At Yale, professors are revered. I am accustomed to calling my teachers by their first names, but in graduate school I learnt to call them "Professor"- even when they are not, in fact, professors. My peers struggle to ingratiate themselves with these august figures.

Professors do not deserve this kind of worship. Why don't we give all great teachers the same admiration and pay, whether they work in graduate departments, colleges or even high schools? The number of people doing PhDs should be cut to a fraction of its current size. The people who put so much into PhDs should do a general MA, then hone their teaching skills for high-school students and for college undergraduates.

(To give Yale its due, the department does offer a course in teaching skills, although not in the skills needed by high-school teachers, or even in those needed by teachers with challengingly underprepared college students. Meanwhile, the highest status and pay are still reserved for the scholarly thinkers.) Among those few who do study for PhDs, there should be room for generalists as well as specialists. The concise introduction and the extensive survey should be rewarded, as well as the occasional dissertation on Wordsworth's thumbnail or Shakespeare's big toe.

Those in the academy should also make sure that they leave plenty of room for pleasure. We know by now that our pleasure is culturally relative. When we read, we cannot transcend our time and place. So what? Is that a reason to stop enjoying literature or trying to work out why we enjoy it?

T S Eliot once divided literary criticism into "the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste". Nearly a century later, his vocabulary seems suspect. "Elucidation" is too final - it suggests that a text offers up a single absolute and correct meaning, rather than a range of possibilities. And "correction" is a little chilling, with a savour of the penal institution. But he is right about the twin pillars of criticism, analysis and evaluation. Until it cuts back on one and makes room for the other, Yale will continue to be the place where language goes to die. And in the next century, we will look back upon literary criticism as it was practised in those Disneyland cloisters with pitying wonder - the same wonder with which we now look back upon medieval scholars quibbling over lists of rhetorical terms.

Helena Echlin graduated from Oxford, and from Yale with an MA in English in 1999. She lives in Boston, US

This article was first published in Arete, autumn 2000 issue (www.aretemagazine.com)