Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Will Kit Dobson Last? Unfrying An Egg

About a year ago I started following a Canadian academic named Kit Dobson. I didn't literally follow him; rather I looked him up on Proquest and started to read his work. This was after I saw him present a paper at the '07 ACLALS conference in Vancouver; a paper in which he argued that Vincent Lam's Giller win was the product of back-room scheming by Atwood and the Atwood Crew.

I couldn't believe that any non-tenured academic would make such an argument. Yes, I'd been saying it for a year. But Dobson isn't ABD--he's PhD. He's done. He's a postdoctoral fellow. SSHRC gave this man money.

At first, I couldn't figure out how he'd done it. How had a non-box thinker scored a SSHRC grant. Then someone told me that Dobson had gone to UofT. Question answered. Everyone who goes to UofT gets a SSHRC grant. My grandfather's cousin restores old homes, and Trinity College hired him to refinish a century-old banister. Two weeks after the job was completed he got the university's cheque. But he didn't need to cash it--a week earlier he'd gotten a SSHRC grant.

Dobson's "Culture as Resource? The Function of Literary Research and Criticism in Canada" is an interesting read. Is it radical? Yeah, I guess it is. But it's an argument that, at times, does the splits. SSHRC gives grants to academics whose work tends to provide an economic benefit/stimulus to areas of Canadian culture. That's fine. Dobson's point that such a policy might exclude kinds of criticism that critique Canadian modes of cultural production is well-developed.

But that's only one fork of the argument. Again, Dobson has a SSHRC grant. And it's possible that he's had more than one. So what lies did he tell to get his money? If SSHRC doesn't like that kind of writing, then you can sure as hell bet that Dobson danced for his five-digit cheque. It's always a little awkward when a guy who's funded stands up and decries the lack of funding for "guys like me." Yet it's also possible that Dobson's the token eccentric critic who's supposed to play the designated Robin Mathews role. I guess they figured they'd get him while he's young.

I like Dobson's idea of a non-traditional form of literary criticism. His adjective--"self-contained"--describes the kind of work that I'm not really interested in doing. "Be Justin Edwards," a professor told me. "I can't," I said. "I can't write like that." "Well," he said, "hold your breath."

And Dobson's creative; he argues interesting points; he stays away from easy wins. That's terrific. But will it last?

Dobson's going to have to find a job. And even though David Chariandy seems to love him, hiring covens aren't going to smile at his jeans-blazer youthful face smack. I want to believe he'll keep his cool, but that Atwood argument was just too dangerous.

Kit, if you're going to do that again, pills are faster.


Margo said...

I don't think the argument Dobson makes is that radical. Ever since Bourdieu published The Field of Cultural Production in the early nineties this kind of argument has been standard fare for critics interested in the cultural studies aspect of literary criticism. The reverence for the author as unmediated genius has died along with the card catalogue. If anything, I think the "trendiness" that has been popularized by the rise of cultural studies across the disciplines is becoming the desired norm, even in conservative departments like English. Can't be a young academic on the rise without a cool pair of designer jeans. They're the new suede patches.

Kit Dobson said...

Yeah man. I also have a jacket with suede patches -- I just didn't wear it that day. And you'll see a revised version of my essay on the Giller controversy coming out as part of my book _Transnational Canadas: Globalization and Anglo-Canadian Literature_ from Wilfrid Laurier UP next year.

To be frank, I think that I and a number of my colleagues who are SSHRC-funded make similar arguments. With my piece in _English Studies in Canada_ (to which you refer), I hope I was voicing concern not so much for myself as for others. My arguments are often about economics and are therefore absolutely "applicable" in many of the senses SSHRC advocates, even though I'm uncomfortable about it. Instead, I'm more concerned about people who do what I think of as more "traditional" work (philology, medieval studies, etc.), whose applicability is less clear in today's university marketplace.

That said, it's fun to read someone trashing me online. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

By the way, Kit Dobson did get a job:) Tenure Track at a university in Alberta:)

And by the way - all U of T grad students do *not* get SSHRC funding (in fact, many of us don't. You'd be shocked to know how many of us don't get that coveted funding [sigh])

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