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Wednesday, September 22, 2004
Pleasing Pease?

I note with great concern that Donald Pease is all of a sudden among the Review's "Best Professors at Dartmouth." How on earth did that happen? Last year, he was in the other category, thanks to yours truly. This is what the Review says about him this year:

Pease is a leading Americanist and a highly respected scholar in the field of American Studies.His dense lecture style takes some getting used to, but if you’re able to get beneath his jargon there’s something deep and profound to be had.
And this is what was said last year:

Several years ago, Professor Pease was mentioned in Philosophy and Literature's annual Bad Writing Contest for the following sentence: "When interpreted from within the ideal space of the myth-symbol school, Americanist masterworks legitimized hegemonic understanding of American history expressively totalized in the metanarrative that had been reconstructed out of (or more accurately read into) these masterworks." He lectures like that, too.
So all of a sudden there's something "deep and profound" beneath sentences like the above? All it says, if I'm not wrong, is that "The greatest works of American literature have helped to institutionalize a particular view of American history." Which, given the historical contexts of such works as The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick (check out those details on whaling), should come as no surprise to anyone. (I'm less clear about what the "myth-symbol school" is.)

When I took his class on American Drama (it's too big, the plays are boring and largely unimportant, and Bill Cook redeems only half of it), I didn't find anything significant underpinning his meandering, incoherent, unstructured lectures. If anything, he took relatively simple concepts and drenched them in so much postmodernese as to frighten away all but the most ardent English or Drama majors. This is not a rant against literary theory per se -- take English 15 with Peter Travis if you are serious about your English major -- but a criticism of one man's utterly ineffective teaching style. It's also highly unusual for a conservative publication to excuse bad writing and speaking -- especially postmodernese -- in the belief that something meaningful lies beneath it. (Skim this essay to see what I mean -- the Review and TNC usually concur on matters cultural.) Of course, I'm not demanding that the Review toe any particular party line, but I am surprised, and would be very interested to talk to the person who penned that blurb.

NB: International students will find me endorsing Pease heartily in a particular brochure that you get before coming to Dartmouth. I've since changed my views, and am prepared to acknowledge that, and apologize profusely for encouraging any undergraduates to take Pease's classes.