The End of Victorian Studies?

Caroline Levine

In his recent MLA commons article, “The Sky is Falling,” Eric Hayot suggests that students have lost interest in courses that offer “coverage of a geographic region or historical period.” This has been the case at the institutions where I’ve taught since 2010, when the first big drop in enrollments hit English departments across the US. Since then, dangerously under-enrolled courses have included titles like “Restoration and 18th-Century Literature,” “Renaissance Poetry,” “British Romanticism,” and yes, “Victorian Literature.”

This shift unsettles our work at the most infrastructural level. Historical periods shape the ways we were trained, the courses we took, the jobs some of us were lucky to land, and many, if not most, of our journals and conferences and professional associations. We could of course put up a strong resistance. But I’m not even sure where to direct my protests. My own administration would be relieved if students continued to take our courses and didn’t try to squeeze into chemistry classrooms too cramped to hold them. It seems that our students just don’t love what I loved when I was their age, and no amount of pleading will reverse the profound shift in tastes and values that seems to be taking place around us.

So: what if we took charge of the task of reshaping our work? How would we choose to organize ourselves? Would Victorian literature merge with adjacent fields, perhaps lengthening our period to become the literature of the long nineteenth century? Would we move out of periods altogether, becoming scholars of themes and genres across time and space, taking our cue from popular courses like “desire” (a course at Cornell that enrolls nearly 100 students) and “science fiction” (which enrolls over 300 at Wisconsin)? What do we most want to preserve, and what can we risk casting off? If you could redesign the discipline according to your own values, what shapes would you give it?

Caroline Levine10 Comments