The Catholic University of America

The following interview with Ernest Suarez, chair of the Department of English at The Catholic University of America, ran in the fall 2008 issue of Literary Matters, the newsletter of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (ALSC). It is posted on the university's Web site with the permission of ALSC. See the article below.

Ordinarily Professing
LM Interviews Ernest Suarez on Theory and Practice in the Catholic University of America Department of English

From: Literary Matters
Date: Fall 2008
Author: Jennifer Formichelli

CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY'S "ORDINARY PROFESSOR," perhaps, but not, surely, an ordinary professor, Ernest Suarez arrived at Catholic University of America (CUA) in 1991, and has been chair of the Department of English since 1996, where he teaches courses on American poetry, American novels, and a course on "Poetry and Rock". "Music", Suarez says, "had a good deal to do with spurring my interest in poetry," leading him to investigate "the relationship between lyrics and sound."

Suarez received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s, writing on the poems of James Dickey. Suarez's dissertation shaped his thinking as a critic, by giving him "a chance to pursue … close reading of poetry, literary history, and the ways in which history impacts interpretation." His doctoral work led to his first book, James Dickey and the Politics of Canon (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993).

Catholic's English department, which has thirteen full-time faculty and whose doctoral graduates regularly attain full-time tenure-track positions, was recognized in the Style section of the Washington Post in 2000 for having "sat out the political firestorms that wracked many English departments in the 1990s." The department, Suarez says, aims to "make sure that students comprehend the flow of literary history and how literary forms work."

So to get a better sense of the sensibility of this impressive department - how it works, what kinds of faculty it contains, what sort of graduates it produces, and what its aims and means are - I spoke to Suarez this spring and questioned him about literary studies, his own interests, his department, his faculty and his thoughts on the future of literary studies in American education.

JF: The Washington Post article of 17 June 2000 states that Catholic University's English department "mostly sat out the political firestorms that wracked many English departments in the 1990s." How and why do you think the department decided to stay out of these conflicts?

Suarez: I don't think there was a conscious decision to avoid the "political firestorms." Joseph Sendry, chair of the English Department from the mid-70s to the early 90s, is a Harvard-trained Victorianist who worked on Tennyson's manuscripts. He was a guiding force in the Department, and he was more interested in literature than in theory. He remains a very valuable member of the Department and he's helped me every step of the way.

JF: What kind of department did you hope to run when you were appointed, and how did you go about assembling it?

Suarez: I wanted to chair a department of literary history and aesthetics. In terms of faculty interests, many of the pieces were already in place, but I think that we started to think of ourselves in those terms more consciously.

When we hire, discuss curriculum, put together exams (we give undergraduate and graduate comprehensives), devise reading lists, or review applicants to the graduate program, we do so with an emphasis on literary history and aesthetics. I think it's important to have a cohesive program, one in which faculty possess the same general goals. Our faculty is made up of people from different backgrounds with a wide spectrum of personal, religious and political convictions, but we all value literature as art, and that belief informs our teaching and scholarship.

When I became chair, we began advertising our emphasis. I remember we put an ad in PMLA that read "Literary Study at CUA: Where Reason is more than a Social Construct." The profession has, of course, been dominated by literary theory since the late 70s, though things have been turning around. We want students to know that our department is a place that studies literature as literature. Creative literature addresses every topic theory stresses - gender, class, race, politics, power, identity - but does so in a much more various and sophisticated manner. Theory tends to use jargon to veil the rather simplistic tropes it employs in order to make literature seem reductive. But there's a reason why theories come and go. Our faculty realizes the literary canon isn't static, but we know that great literature has remarkable longevity.

JF: How many new faculty members have been hired during your chairmanship?

Suarez: Six - approximately half the department.

JF: What are you looking for in new faculty members?

Suarez: My goal is to put people in a position to succeed, and we have a very demanding set of standards. CUA is a unique place. There are approximately 3,500 undergraduates on campus and about the same number of graduate students. Essentially, we're a graduate research institution and a small liberal arts college. We have the same general tenure requirements as most research universities. In respect to publication, this means the faculty member needs to have published a book from a refereed scholarly press, and a handful of articles. At the same time, the Department and the University take teaching very seriously, and effective teaching is an important part of the tenure process. There's an average of 16 students in each of our undergraduate courses. Faculty members are expected to give them a good deal of individual attention. Eventually, faculty must also teach graduate students and direct dissertations. In other words, the "teacher/scholar" division can't exist here. We'd rather perform another search than hire someone whom we don't think is an exceptional teacher and scholar.

That said, we look for candidates whose teaching and scholarship fits the Department's emphasis. We want people who are widely read, who have interests beyond a narrow specialization, and who value literature as literature.

I believe that the way a candidate writes is a tell-tale sign. We want faculty who write in a sophisticated but accessible manner. I hate jargon-riddled criticism. Reading Foucault, Spivak, or Jameson makes me want to jump off a bridge. I admire Bloom's and Greenblatt's prose styles. I believe that people with the ability to write lucidly tend to make better teachers.

Collegiality is also a concern. We get along very well as a faculty and that helps us function better as a department. I prefer people who take literature very seriously, but don't take themselves too seriously.

JF: What do you think is the place of theory in literary studies?

Suarez: It depends on the particular theory and how it's used, of course, but I assume you're referring to what's often called "post-structuralist theory."

One problem with recent theory is the way in which critics conceive of it. Theory, in the sciences, means that one comes up with a hypothesis and tests it. The theorist tries to mount arguments against the theory and attempts to disprove it in order to evaluate whether it holds up or not. In literary studies, theory tends to be driven by an agenda, a restrictive interpretive framework, which generates what the critic already believes to be true. It provides a false impression of objectivity and often misses what is most valuable about literature.

Trends in the job market have had a great deal to do with the boom in theory. As we all know, the academic job market has been tight for a long time. This year we received roughly three hundred applications for one assistant professorship in Victorian literature. The numbers are overwhelming.

In order to be competitive, people feel that they have to start publishing right away. Theory can provide a short cut. Rather than having to engage in the long process of researching a topic thoroughly, a person can become familiar with a theory and run the literary work through the mill. A similar situation applies to the process of tenure and promotion. The expected publication requirements have soared since the job market tightened up. Theory is a made-to-order vehicle for tenure and promotion, especially when the theory allows the theorist to be identified with a particular political point of view. If you challenge the person's scholarship, it can be interpreted as a political disagreement.

I tell my graduate students to know theory - they should never shun information - but to avoid letting theory guide their thoughts. I push them to read as much primary material as possible, to study writers' lives and times, and to become familiar with works' critical reception and publication history. I urge them to think for themselves, to try to tell the truth while realizing there's no monopoly on it, to avoid jargon, and to write in their own voice. I tell them to read The New York Review of Books, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Yale Review, and other venues that publish lucid, intelligent literary criticism.

JF: Do you have requirements in literary theory for graduate students? If you do require a theory course, could you describe the content of the course and how that content was decided upon?

Suarez: We require a course in the history of criticism, which starts with Plato and Aristotle and extends through the nineteenth century, and we require a course in modern critical movements, which covers the twentieth-century. We feel it's important for our students to be aware of and to engage in what's happening in the profession. But we examine theory's limits, and stress the importance of literary history and form.

JF: What are the requirements for an undergraduate degree in English at Catholic?

Suarez: On the undergraduate level, CUA provides a classic liberal arts education, with a range of distribution requirements. Our undergrads have to take four courses in philosophy, four in world religions, two years of foreign language, as well as requirements in math, science, history and the social sciences.

The English Department requires two-semester surveys of both British and American literature; two courses in the history of a particular literary form (poetry, fiction, or drama); one course each in Shakespeare and Chaucer; a two-semester senior seminar covering a major author or a closely related group of authors; and four upper-level English courses: a two-semester survey of British literature; a two-semester survey of American literature; two courses in the history of a genre (either poetry, or fiction, or drama); a course in Shakespeare; a course in Chaucer; a two-semester senior seminar in a major author or a closely related group of authors; and four other upper level English courses.

JF: What are the requirements for a graduate degree in English at Catholic?

Suarez: For the doctorate, students take fifty-four hours of course-work beyond the baccalaureate. In addition to the courses in theory, students take a course in bibliography and research methods, and four research seminars. They need to have certified a reading knowledge of two foreign languages, and pass a comprehensive exam consisting of three parts: the general history of English and American literature, literary theory and the history of criticism, and an individualized topic related to the field in which the dissertation is to be written.

Beyond that, each student works with the Director of Graduate Studies and faculty in their area of interest to devise a course of study. Our philosophy on the doctoral level is to ensure that the student has thorough understanding of literary history, but to give them the chance to pursue particular interests. The relatively small size of our department makes it easy for us to know our students well and to work with them closely.

JF: How many of your graduate students are able to find full-time tenure-track positions teaching English at the university level?

Suarez: I'm very proud to say that the overwhelming majority of our graduates get tenure-track jobs. My experience is typical. I've directed nine completed dissertations to date, and seven of my dissertators found tenure-track jobs during their first or second year on the market. The other two didn't seek academic positions - one manages Borders Books in Los Angeles and the other is an administrator at a private high school.

The Director of our Writing Program, Pam Ward, does a wonderful job mentoring teaching assistants, and holds regular workshops for them throughout the academic year. We provide our TAs with the opportunity to teach a range of courses and to work with faculty. I think that our emphasis on literary history and aesthetics has been a boon for our students on the job market. Most of the positions our students get offered are at liberal arts colleges and at non-flagship state universities. Colleges and universities that hire our students realize they are steeped in literary history, know the major traditions, and that they're ready to step in and teach a variety of courses, from composition to the surveys, to courses on major periods and major authors.

JF: What does the department tell graduate students at the beginning of their studies about their employment prospects?

Suarez: We tell them the truth. The job market remains tough and there are no guarantees. One should be ready to move where a position exists. We let them know that our graduates have been successful finding tenure-track jobs, and that the jobs tend to be at liberal arts colleges and non-flagship state universities. We also let them know what tends to be required, particularly in terms of publication, if they eventually want to move on to a research university. That's a goal for some of our students, but others are happy to spend their careers working with undergraduates.

JF: What do you think is the most important discipline in the humanities now?

Suarez: You'll never get me to answer anything except literary study, although I think that the humanities can't ultimately be separated. In our department, American and British literature occupy the foreground, but world literatures, history, art history and philosophy are part of the landscape.
I believe, with the strongest conviction, that literary study can best provide ideologically nuanced insights into the human condition. I resent it when critics push literary study in a highly charged ideological direction. It's the exact opposite of what should occur.

JF: What are your thoughts on the future of literary studies?

Suarez: I'm optimistic. I see more and more work by young scholars who are interested in literature's formal dimensions and who possess a nuanced understanding of literary history - and I'm seeing less theory. I've chaired so many job searches over the last decade that I've had the opportunity to witness what new PhDs out of my field are doing. In the mid-90s, it was difficult to find a freshly minted scholar of the appropriate quality who fit our emphasis. We found them, and they've been terrific, but there weren't many choices. That's changed.

The amount of applicants to our graduate program also makes me optimistic. Once we started promoting ourselves as a department of literary history and aesthetics, our applicant pool increased right away, and it's kept increasing.

I've also noted that more young scholars are well-read. In casual conversation, they prefer to discuss literature than theory, something that wasn't true when I attended graduate school in the 1980s. It seemed that most people had read more theory than literature, which doesn't meet my definition of being well-read. At times I wondered what I was doing there.

But I was lucky in that I had a small group of tight-knit friends in grad school who loved to talk literature, even if that wasn't the norm. I had terrific professors, too. My dissertation director at Wisconsin, Tom Schaub, and I would head to the student union on Fridays, buy a pitcher of beer, and discuss poetry and novels.

When I became an assistant professor, several senior scholars were very supportive of my work. Matt Bruccoli and R.W.B. Lewis became my good friends. I spent wonderful evenings at the Lewis' home eating, drinking and talking literature with Dick, his wife Nancy, Harold Bloom and John Hollander. They provided me with camaraderie and terrific examples. That was in the heyday of theory, when literary study was at its lowest point. But, as I mentioned, the situation has improved, as it must, because great literature and people's thirst for it will outlast us all.

Jennifer Formichelli is Lecturer in the Core Curriculum at Boston University; she also serves on the ALSC Membership Committee.