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English prof defends scholarly love for literature

Stephen Pender loves literature.

That might seem like a fairly obvious statement for an English professor to make, but according to an article recently published in University Affairs magazine, many literary scholars have become ambivalent about their raison d’être.

In an article headlined In Praise of Literature, University of Alberta professor Albert Braz writes about the “seemingly permanent crisis in literary studies,” suggesting a crucial element that hasn’t received much attention is that many literary scholars and teachers no longer believe in literature.

Dr. Pender, who will appear this afternoon on CJAM radio to discuss the piece, admits that he initially found the article provocative.

“I was first of all seduced by the argument because I thought it was strong, and I think he was quite right to point to a kind of malaise in our discipline,” he said. “And then I was astonished by the repeated claims that myself and my colleagues no longer love reading, no longer love literature, and by extension, do not convey that love to our students. I think all of those claims are patently wrong.”

A specialist in the poetry and prose of early modern Britain, intellectual history, the history of medicine, and the history of rhetoric, Pender focuses on the relationship between rhetoric, medicine, and emotion in early modern England, medical thought in contemporary historiography, early modern ethics, the history of the imagination, and laughter.

Despite Braz’s arguments to the contrary, Pender says the more he learns about literature, the more he loves it.

“I love it profoundly because it’s actually a forum in which human beings tend to work out problems without the threat of harm,” he said. “We get to explore without the threat of harm, we get to see human action and interaction in ways I think are indescribably diverse given what I think are most people’s limited experiences.”

Pender will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor scholars and researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.