Friday, March 16, 2007

Why English Professors Are Particularly Ill-Suited To Examine The Authorship Question

The following is a guest blog from Ross Carter.

As we know, most English professors -- I shall call them EPs -- are quick to dismiss anyone who lacks university credentials, as if their particular sect of scholarship represents the One True Way and followers of anything else are infidels. I won't deny that EPs working within the confines of their profession perform a valuable service; while I haven't yet figured out what it is, nevertheless I grant the possibility that they in fact do something worthwhile. But their profession has nothing to do with deductive reasoning, and that is what the Question is all about.

My point goes further than the simple fact that EPs have no special ability that makes them best suited to examine the Question. I contend that the nature of their work in fact renders them the least capable.

EPs live -- or at least work -- in a world where fact is secondary to supposition. What do EPs do? They publish articles that argue for or against some interpretation of a literary work. The principal source is the text of the work itself. The objective of the article is simply to get published, which essentially means writing something that peers who do the peer-reviewing will approve. It is a closed system. The EPs reach into the real world long enough to grab a literary work and then retreat into their private conclave, opinionating among themselves, writing articles that are incapable of verification or disproof. The only judges of their work are their own kinsmen.

As revealing as what EPs do is what they don't do. They don't, as far as I am aware, develop research techniques that enable them to interview living writers and discern what an actual author intended her work to convey. They don't investigate the creative processes that actual writers use. They don't compile data that will be of use to other scholars. In short they make no attempt to correlate their conclusions with the actual facts regarding what a writer intended to communicate; they do not even have research protocols developed for that purpose.

The EPs' world is entirely subjective. It is all argumentation about opinions that can never be verified or disproved. The fruit of an EP's labor is tested only as to its plausibility among compatriots. It is not fired in a crucible of observable fact, as in most other scholarly disciplines.

Back here in the real world, where EPs seldom venture, that crucible culls our every effort. Take for example a lawyer. His success depends not on what other lawyers think of him, but on his abilities, including above all his ability to make the right judgment from among an expanse of alternatives. Or take, say, a highly successful author of computer books. She could not have sold a gazillion fact-filled books if those facts were not accurate. In their careers, these people have to be right; not just plausible or provocative but right. They look at the facts available to them and make deductive judgments that are subjected to make-or-break dissection by disinterested or even hostile arbiters.

It should be clear to all who study the Authorship Question that it requires precisely that kind of ability. From available facts, the scholar submits a hypothesis that can be disproved or validated by the examination of other facts not known to the scholar when the hypothesis was offered. In this manner each scholar's effort contributes to our progressive knowledge.

The most important voices on the Authorship Question are those of people who have demonstrated success in the application of deductive reasoning. EPs can demonstrate nothing more than success in placating their colleagues. Those who are interested in the Question should regard lack of university credentials in English Literature as a credential in itself.

Ross Carter

From Robin: As Don Foster (the Vassar professor who "proved" the Funeral Elegy was written by Shakespeare and later someone else "proved" Shakespeare didn't write it) states, "In my field, no one is required to actually "prove" anything. We merely write incredibly clever commentary."