English Professor Edward Pechter has been asked to deliver the plenary address at the meeting of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English at the University of Ottawa on May 27.
The meeting is part of what are familiarly known as the Learneds. (The Learned Societies of Canada, which meets at a different university every year, has changed its name to the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities.)
While a number of scholarly papers may be given at each individual session, it is a distinct honour for any scholar to be asked to address a plenary session.
Pechter, a Shakespearean scholar, will deal with one of the three conference themes, Literature, Health, and Disease, and on the idea of "targeted research." It's a concept to which he takes a skeptical attitude, notably in his books, What Was Shakespeare (Cornell 1995) and Textual and Theatrical Shakespeare (Iowa 1996), which examine the way his field has taken off in many directions, reflecting the social fragmentation of our own society.
"Since critics disagree with each other fundamentally about the value of their different kinds of critical practice," Pechter said in an e-mail interview from Victoria, where he is spending part of his sabbatical, "they tend to make strong claims about the particular kind they prefer. The kind I do, they say, is really useful in teaching critical analysis, constructing good citizens, making the world safe for gays or women, or whatever.
"This process of claiming a practical social payoff for particular kinds of critical practice has been considerably speeded up by the financial constraints on universities. There's a lot less money around, and so our funders insist that we point to a specific social utility for our work in order to justify claims on the public purse.
"Such demands on work accountability are perfectly reasonable, but in the process of meeting them, humanists have, I think, tended to come to believe their own inflated rhetoric and to make claims for the social utility of specific kinds of critical analysis that simply cannot be justified.
"The implication of my paper is that we should be careful not to make claims to others that we cannot really substantiate, and, even more important, that we should avoid investing in such claims within our own academic community."