The English literature department at The University of the South (Sewanee) in the early 70s was fairly conservative and single-minded. As a student majoring in English Lit I was forbidden to pursue any literary critical option other than form criticism. In our courses, we were not permitted to read anything after Joyce.
The drama department, on the other hand, was filled with wonderful renegades, reading and performing Beckett, Pinter, Osborne, and others, and harbored a few who were bantering around terms like “structuralism,” semiotics, and “archetypal criticism.” I had some small ability as an actor, which led me into the clutches of these mis-guided people on occasion, and I began to read “outside the lines” prescribed by the English department. Of course, I ran into serious trouble when I wrote my honors English thesis – “An Archetypal Study of Moby Dick” (can you imagine!). I’ll never forget the day I found myself sitting at the end of a long wooden conference table in the library basement defending my work, as ten Oxford drape-clad form critics leaned forward eagerly awaiting their turn to attack.
I survived (barely), and surprisingly discovered that my mind had been stretched by having to defend my ideas. Not only had I learned form criticism better, but I had pushed into new territory (archetypal criticism, structuralist criticism) that would prove immensely important in later years. And I had pursued and learned to defend ideas that stoked my emerging intellectual passions.
Unguided reading became a kind of obsession for me in later years, and continues to be crucial to my work today. At the University of Glasgow, studying Anglo-Irish literature, I thrived on the tutorial system, reading the book list for the M.Phil, but spending hours parked in the library stacks reading other books next to those books on the shelves – and on surrounding shelves. This practice continued when I later arrived at Princeton for doctoral study. It continued when I began to write – juxtaposing structuralism and semiotics with homiletics in The Four Codes of Preaching, continental philosophy (Levinas primarily) and theologies of the interhuman (E. Farley) with homiletics in Otherwise Preaching and The Roundtable Pulpit, and theories of culture, cultural production, and composition in Mashup Religion.
I find myself worrying a lot these days that we insist on too much coursework for our students at Vanderbilt, or too much controlled reading, not allowing the latitude for students with genuine intellectual passion to pursue unguided reading. I’m not sure what can be done, but from where I sit, this kind of reading is absolutely crucial if students are to find the scholars that speak most powerfully to their true and best intellectual interests and instincts.