Against Periodization; or, On Institutional Time

A key context for literary studies: the shapes and times of the institutions that sustain, permit, and organize it. This essay argues that we have not thought enough about the impact on concepts of literary history of the ways in which the literary profession organizes itself and finds itself organized by the curriculum, the job market, the professional associations, and the scholastic calendar. Each of these, I claim, exerts a distorting force on the ways in which we think about literature, and each of these, I show, could just as easily be imagined otherwise. The following practices come under fire: the interaction between norms of reading and the 15-week semester; the structure of curricula that lead from first-year surveys to narrowly defined senior seminars; the microscopist historicisms reinforced by the academic job market; the seminar paper format; our own ideological and conservative relation to the comforts of periodizing history.