Author Archives: Katie

Preconceived Culture

The depiction of culture is essential to any well-constructed novel. In order for the author to create a believable “world” or “society,” they have to describe culture. Usually writers are good at this, however, the description of various cultures throughout literature may lead to preconceived ideas or even stereotypical ideas of a race, social group, state, city, or nation.

Duke University Press produces a triannual peer-reviewed journal entitled Novel: A Forum on Fiction which goes into detail about various struggles plaguing writers and readers of fiction alike. In the past few issues, the topics of culture and sociology have played a major role in the publication. According to its mission, Novel “publishes essays concerned with the novel’s role in engaging and shaping the world (Duke).” The means that the way in which we as readers and students perceive the world is A) important and B) influenced by the books we read.

We matter!

The most recent issue of Novel includes an article called “A Picture of Europe: Possession Trance in Heart of Darkness” written by Nidesh Lawtoo. The article focuses on Conrad’s stereotypical depiction of African people, especially the activity of dancing to the “sound of drums in a state of frenzy.” Lawtoo uses this article as a means of proving Conrad’s racism but ponders whether the dramatized description may also function as a “means to realize the dreadfulness of ritual frenzy in any place.” Regardless of Lawtoo’s conclusion, it  is clear that he is investigating how an author’s portrayal of a place or people can drastically alter how the reader perceives them.

In Lisa Zunshine’s article “Sociocognitive Complexity” she explores how the mind of fictional characters interacts with the reader. This relates to culture because the way in which certain characters perceive events that happen to them throughout a piece of literature may influence the reader’s perception of the same events, places, or people. The idea of historicism comes into play in her article as well as she explores the history of psychological understanding and progress of mental states.

Nathan Hansley discusses the shift in historicism and how cultural forms come about at the end of the “imperial life cycles.” Although Hansley focuses on three canonical works, the idea of historicism as in flux is applicable to most literature, including contemporary fiction. It correlates nicely with the idea of cultural depictions throughout literary history as well, because the same area, event, or people may be described differently depending on what the author thinks or the time during which he or she writes their work.

Finally, Christopher Douglas focuses on the depiction of multiculturalism in America – dealing specifically with Christianity. He bases his article upon “Gilead” bu Marilynne Robinson, because he sees it as different from most American fiction written today. Although religion may not play a major role in all literature, there are other defining characters aside from religion that may define a character, country, or other aspect of a literary work. He focuses on how contemporary American fiction leans toward an agnostic viewpoint but Robinson’s work focuses on the difference between spirituality and politicized religion. Again, this relates to the reader’s perception of the subject at hand.

Novel provided me with several different perspectives concerning how an author’s idea of a place, concept, event, or culture can drastically alter the reader’s own perception.

While it is important to allow the author’s views to permeate our thoughts as readers, it is essential to look at the opposing claim, play devil’s advocate when reading, and discover our individual understandings of  the subjects at hand.




The Liberal Arts Debate

by Katie Zwick

“There’s something severely wrong with postsecondary education in the United States.

That something might be liberal arts.”

Let’s talk about this statement for a minute. Matt Saccaro – the man behind these words – wrote this in an article published on Thought Catalog on February 19th. “The Case For Removing (Almost) All Liberal Arts From College” delves into Saccaro’s true feelings about how the Liberal Arts curriculum is the “easy way out” for students who can’t handle the “STEM” majors – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.

He claims that, “When intellectual cravens flee from STEM majors they often find refuge in “easy” liberal arts degrees. If those degrees were removed, those people would batten down their mental hatches and major in something useful, or they’d pursue building worthwhile skills outside of Academia; they’d become plumbers and electricians instead of miserable, cash-strapped, debt-laden retail workers.”

Oh, okay Matt. We’re all English majors because we failed biology. We decided, Hey, this English thing (or art thing/history thing/etc) is so much simpler. Why NOT be an English major?!?!

No. That’s not quite right.

I’m not going to go into the details of his argument which mostly seem to reiterate this idea that the Liberal Arts majors don’t belong in college. His article can be found here.

The day after Saccaro’s article was published on Thought Catalog, Chas Gillespie offered a response in an articled entitled “One Case Against Removing The Liberal Arts From Universities.” And thank goodness he did.

In his retort, Gillespie breaks down Saccaro’s articles into “Claims” and “Assumptions,” exposing the bits of Saccaro’s argument that are a bit too flimsy to hold up in reality. The result is a well-worded and well-informed explanation of why Liberal Arts are important to the university curriculum.

He also touches upon a major flaw in Saccaro’s claim: the inclusion of science and math as a part of the STEM degrees and in opposition of the Liberal Arts. He says, “This is very confusing to me because, in every academic circle I’m aware of today, Science and Math ARE liberal arts. Does he mean to say ‘humanities’ instead of ‘liberal arts’?”

Gillespie is correct. The Liberal Arts curriculum existed since Ancient Greece, when it was composed of seven core subjects divided into a Trivium and Quadrivium. The Trivium consisted of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic, while the Quadrivium consisted of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music & Harmonics, and Astronomy.

Maybe if Saccaro took a few more dreadful Liberal Arts classes, he would know this.

Gillespie later debunks Saccaro’s claim that everything an English or History major needs to know can be learned independently from a library book or the internet, without spending money on college. Saccaro thinks STEM majors absolutely cannot learn everything on their own and need college professors to explain the loftier, more complex elements of their subject to them.

I thought that after freshman year people were aware of the fact that every major is challenging in its own way, but I guess not. The following chunk of the article makes the most sense out of why the “this-major-is-more-difficult-than-that-one” statement isn’t very accurate at all:

I’m not sure where this idea comes from, but I’ve heard it from a number of people, none of whom provide evidence for it. I often hear it from students who take an intro lit class to satisfy a requirement, do half the reading, get B-’s on the essays, and somehow find a way to get a B+ in the class. Then they say, “Hey, lit classes are super easy.”

Yes, they are easy if 1) You do half the work. 2) You only take intro classes. 3) You grade grub to get a decent grade.

However, they are very difficult if 1) You do all the work and 2) Take advanced classes. A literature or philosophy or history or religion etc. seminar with five people, a professor who’s willing to embarrass you if you say something stupid or don’t do the reading, in which you have to read a book a week, write response essays, and write a final essay of 25 pages is not an easy class. In fact, it’s a very difficult class. And these types of classes are, quite often, the heart of many “liberal arts” majors.

Thank you, Chas. You just explained – quite eloquently and with only a hint of snark – what I wish I could say when people roll their eyes at my major/course load/homework/finals/etc.

In the end, Gillespie sums up his argument with the classical “Isn’t there a place for everyone in this world?” and says: “Those who wish to study the humanities, those who wish to study business, engineering, theoretical physics, (dare I even say that dreaded major?) art: is there not a place for all of us in our struggling Empire?”

First I laughed at art being deemed “that dreaded major,” then I thought about all of this in relation to my own college career.

I’ve seen history majors, English majors, and art majors find success after graduation. I’ve seen math majors and science majors working as cashiers at the supermarket a year after graduation. I’ve also seen the opposite.

I personally think that any person, regardless of their major, can find success and find a career in this crazy economy-obsessed world if they’re passionate about what they do.

Matt Saccaro and Chas Gillespie are regular Thought Catalog writers who also do other things with their lives. Their articles can be found here & here

“liberal arts”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2013


Constructive Criticism

by Katie Zwick

When I was in second grade, I went through a deceitful phase of reading only the thinnest books in the school library and lying for the sake of personal pizzas (the coveted Book It! reward). By the time I entered fourth grade, I had magically found my niche. I was introduced to what I needed to motivate my reading habits: literary criticism. Finally being shown, taught, and exposed to the fact that I didn’t have to love what I read for it to be of value to me changed the way I looked at reading. I was only nine years old.

As Marjorie Garber writes in The Use and Abuse of Literature, literary criticism gets a bad rap. She might not use those exact words but you get the idea. She quotes from Harold Brooks’ 1974 lecture, summing up the pros and cons (or uses and abuses) of lit crit. The first point made in each category gives a general idea of why literary criticism is good – “Literary criticism is meant to help us, either in writing literature; or in reading it with more enjoyment and discrimination; or in understanding, through the literature, the civilization it belongs to.” – and how it is bad – it provides a “half-baked interpretation formed by attending to only part of the evidence in a text (43).”

Alright, so there’s good and bad ways to utilize literary criticism. We, as college students (and seniors at that!), have faced and will continue to face daunting or sometimes just downright annoying exercises that force us to look at a piece of literature through various modes of literary criticism – feminist, psych, formalist, etc. These exercises are intended to provide us with several interpretations of a singular work, enable us to delve deeper into the author’s mind, and help us create strong opinions and arguments in reaction or relation to the work. We’ve all been there. We’ve all done that.

I’m not sure, however, that this is using literary criticism the “correct” way. Garber might say that unless we are taking it upon ourselves to apply the various criticisms to what we read, we are simply “abusing” literary criticism. Then again, she might not say this.

She definitely believes that “…every reading produces an equal and opposite rereading (46).”

Garber doesn’t want us to simply use literary criticism to enhance our intellectual interpretation of a literary work. She wants us to seek out our own criticisms and interpretations with existing criticisms acting as catalysts. I get a lot more joy out of reading when I am applying literary criticism to a literary work for fun and without being pushed to do so.

In other words, studying literary criticism is essential but the application should happen in an unstructured way. You don’t have to read everything through from the perspective of feminist criticism or Freudian psychology but if it happens, it happens.

*I no longer lie about how many books I’ve read for the sake of stickers, but I do believe that stickers should be given out in college. It couldn’t hurt.