I've been talking to some former students about their experience in grad school and I just don't get it. When I ask them how they like their literature courses, they say, "What literature courses?" They're in grad school because they love literature but they seem to be taking nothing but theory courses: African American literary theory, feminist theory, theory of theory. Here's my theory: effective teachers of literature must be immersed in literature the way the fish is immersed in water, and that requires taking some literature courses.
I realize I'm old and out of touch, but really: I finished my Ph.D. only five years ago and in all my years of grad school, the least helpful course I encountered was my one (one!) course in literary theory. (Sorry.) I've had to do a lot of outside reading to keep up with current trends in theory, but in classes I had the wonderful privilege of studying just about everything. I spent a semester struggling through Beowulf in the original language (with Kevin Kiernan! The Beowulf god!) and another semester immersed in Wordsworth and Coleridge--and none of those authors are part of my area of specialization. (Wrong place, wrong time.) I took graduate courses in California literature and nature writing and contemporary American narrative and southern American women writers and science fiction (with some scary guys who thought Robert Heinlein's fictional worlds were real, or ought to be) and British modernist novels and Shakespeare and I don't remember what else. The first time I went to grad school I took a course on images of the city in fiction (with John Cawelti! The Grand Old Man of Popular Culture Studies!) in which we read three (three!) novels by Saul Bellow plus James Joyce's Ulysses, and the second time I went to grad school I spent an entire semester studying Ulysses. By that time I knew what I was doing.
I'm willing to admit that I went about things the hard way, taking seven years off between the Masters and Ph.D. and taking a wide variety of courses that interested me but were unlikely to make me attractive on the very competitive job market. And I have had to do some remedial reading in literary theory, but still: my former students rarely get to study literature at all. They may never once read Ulysses for a class, much less read it carefully for two different classes ten years apart.
Maybe they'll get a job, but will they get an education?