This year, I was promoted with tenure at my university. Many tenured colleagues had warned me that "a change" would occur around this time. I remember one medievalist at another institution proclaiming, "the summer you receive tenure, you will enter a deep, dark depression." I don't know if that's happened (can any sadness be traced to a single source in 2018?), but I can say for sure that this milestone has caused me to do a lot of thinking about the state of the university, the state of my field, and the next few years of my own research work. All this thinking left me wondering, what am I about as a scholar?
I phrase it this way because I know lots of people who leave little uncertainty about what they are about. I think of Claire Bourne, for instance, or Adam Hooks. I think of Erika Lin and Whitney Trettien and Brett Greatley-Hirsch. I'm constantly impressed at the way these great scholars and friends have established a clear sense of what they are about. I'm not sure I have the same kind of focus. So, for whatever they're worth, here are some thoughts I recently composed as I thought over this question:
What am I about as a scholar?
In terms of theory and literary critical methodology, what am I about?
What do I want to accomplish in the next five years?
In the classes I teach, I often make a version of this proclamation: to understand the world today, you have to study the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is, I say with considerable grandeur, irresponsible and even damaging to emphasize contemporaneity at the expense of the relatively recent past. Typically I appeal to some kind of metaphor to express how important the early modern period must be to those who want to consider themselves educated, literate, critical, informed, thoughtful, wise, woke, smart, insightful, engaging, engaged, and so on: the early modern world is the foundation on which the contemporary world is built. It is the wood in which the fires of postmodern society burn. It is the roux that makes the twenty-first century soup taste as it does. It is the violence that precedes the, well, violence. It is the stage on which the actors of the last four-hundred years performed the play of modernity. I won't pretend that each of these metaphors makes the same claim about the importance of early modernity. Part of the fun is that they model the situation differently. The response is usually a mix of annoyance (is that why we have to read Shakespeare?!), skepticism (that simply can't be!! This stuff is so old!!) and ignorance (wait, there was a Civil War in England?). The latter response is most common.
If asked, of course, most people would agree that the Renaissance is a crucial period in human histories and cultures. But values and priorities come out most clearly in the hard choices: curriculum (pre-1800 writing and Shakespeare have been given less and less emphasis in recent years), hiring (there used to be six early modernists at my university; now there are two), and what we might call marketing (emphasizing contemporaneity and skills rather than a historically-oriented body of knowledge). In what I'm told was a controversial essay in the Chronicle (and in American Affairs before that), Justin Stover recently pointed out that the humanities is being "squeezed on both sides." I don't think it's untrue to observe that this has become especially true of fields like mine, which for a long time were considered "central" to the humanities. My own experience tells me that folks are more indifferent than hostile, though in both cases, as I suggested, ignorance underlies the response.
There are very good reasons why “Renaissance English Literature” is no longer considered the central point of literary and cultural history, but here are a few equally good reasons to keep studying early modern English literature and history. In no particular order, and with no commentary. The exclamations are my way of indicating that the importance of these should be obvious to you.