Let's start at the very beginning. What is a scope? What is its purpose?
One of the reasons why Stack Exchange is different from a lot of other Q&A sites on the internet is that our sites have scopes. Unlike Yahoo Answers or Quora, where you can ask questions about any topic under the sun, each Stack Exchange site has topics that they always accept questions about, topics that they never accept questions about, and topics that they sometimes accept topics about. Why? Well, it has to do with the idea that Stack Exchange sites are online communities that come together and share knowledge. Too big of a community, and you can't get a critical mass of people who can answer all of the questions in that community. The right size is usually around the size of a university department.
So: the right size [for a Stack Exchange site] might be somewhere around the size of a university department. Somehow, the cultural anthropologists don’t mind sharing a building with the physical anthropologists, and when they both find themselves at the Yale-Harvard football game, you can bet that they’ll sit together and find something anthropological to talk about. Similarly, at Stack Overflow, the Java Entity Bean programmers at insurance companies don’t mind all the iPhone developers asking Objective C questions about the horrible, horrible game they’re working on. Heck, they might become iPhone developers one day. And they both share the humiliation of not being able to fix their uncle’s virus-infested Windows XP machine when they’re home for Thanksgiving.
If you know anything about university departments, you'll know that they don't come together based on strict, objective definitions that everyone agrees on. This is particularly the case for something as subjective as Literature, where I would be shocked if you could find me a department at any university in the world where more than two members of that department shared the same definition of Literature. In fact, if you go to the webpage of any large university department (here's Harvard's), you'll find that professors will study everything from "visual media" (David J. Alworth at Harvard) to poetry (Jorie Graham at Harvard) to drama (Marjorie Garber at Harvard) to film (Kathryn Roberts at Harvard). I haven't found any at Harvard during my very cursory search of their department, but I'm sure that depending on the university, yes, there will be professors who study, write about, and teach about music as well. But despite working on all these separate topics, and despite not sharing the same definition of literature, somehow members of literature departments manage to share the same building and (sometimes!) collaborate.
All we're trying to do is share the same building and collaboratively build expert Q&A about literature. In that respect, we're just like any university department.
Scope is a tool to help us build a community. I worry that in our discussions about formulating a definition of literature that we can use as a scope, we have lost sight of what scope is actually for.
Let's review our efforts to find our site's scope. We started by trying to explicitly define literature. Why don't we all agree that Literature is about text? Because many would argue that such a definition is too broad--it includes works such as instruction manuals, which some argue couldn't possibly be literature. And many would also argue that such a definition is too narrow--it excludes oral literature, and ignores the fact that not all writing is textual (here is a western example and a non-western example). OK, why don't we define literature as anything with a narrative? Again, some would argue that this definition is too broad (it includes film, for example), while others would argue that this is too narrow (good luck finding a narrative in "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough."). It quickly became apparent that coming up with a strict definition was an unproductive exercise.
We then moved on to our current strategy, which is to appeal to some definition of literature that we all agree on but that we won't explicitly define. Except that we don't all agree on this definition! This becomes quickly apparent any time we try to make a scope decision. You can't resolve any sort of conflict of opinion if the only thing you can do when arguing that, say, oral literature is off-topic, is make claims about a definition that you won't actually define. This approach strikes me as equally unproductive as finding an explicit definition.
I think these conversations will be a lot more productive if we can recognize the difference between the following two questions:
- is x literature?
- is x within our scope?
Defining literature is a interesting philosophical exercise but also a subjective one. There will be topics for which it is impossible to come to a consensus about whether they count as literature. But that doesn't mean that we can't come to a consensus about scope. We just have to separate scope from a definition of literature.
Let's return to the idea of a university literature department. What brings a university literature department together? It's not necessarily what they are studying. Some people in a university literature department may study ancient scrolls, others may study pulp paperbacks, others may study music. What brings a university literature department together is how they study things. I guarantee you that everyone in a university literature department knows what close reading is and has used it, in various forms, in their research.
The same thing is true for a math department, or a sociology department, or really any university department sized group of people who are collaborating to produce knowledge. Two math professors may study different things, but I guarantee that they all know how to write a proof. Two sociology professors may study different things, but I guarantee that they all know something about social theory.
Collaborative knowledge disseminating communities, of which university departments are one example, aren't brought together by the things they study but by the methods they use. Rather than trying to find a new way to reinvent the wheel, it seems to me that we should take a page from university department's books and organize our scope around methodology and ways of thinking rather than topic matter.
Now, this leads to the question: what methods do we want to restrict our scope to? Let's review the history of the site:
When we first started out, answers would restrict themselves to quotes from authors. But then we learned about the concept of authorial intent, and that the author's word wasn't enough.
Close reading wasn't a concept people were familiar with until I introduced it in a self-answered question. But now close reading is slowly working its way into answers and becoming part of the site.
Scansion wasn't a concept we were familiar with until I started asking scansion questions. But now we're starting to use it to analyze poetry.
There are other concepts that we are unfamiliar with. But I'm sure we will learn them eventually.
There are concepts and topics that I have introduced, but that have not proven useful. Oral literature is one example.
There are many different ways to study literature. One way is to study literature by asking questions about plot points (which character did x). There is still a methodology behind those questions (reading, finding the scene in question, and writing an answer).
When we, the members of this site, created an Q&A website about literature despite knowing next to nothing about the field, one of the things we signed up for was having to learn new things. We are still learning new things, and have no idea when we will stop learning new things. So yes, if we tie our scope to literary methods, our scope will most likely expand for quite some time. But no, this is not a slippery slope because I can think of a million techniques that we will not find useful and will turn away. I doubt, for example, that we will find the concept of motifs or archetypes (used in Mythology), or perhaps the concepts around framing shots in film (Movies & TV) useful.
Tying our scope to literary methods does not mean tying our scope to academic literary methods. Academia has neglected certain faucets of literature, such as reader response criticism and the study of physical books. That does not mean we have to do that as well.
- Scope is a tool to build collaborative communities to disseminate knowledge. The most similar analogue to this is a university department.
- Collaborative knowledge-disseminating-communities are not organized around what they study but how they study it.
- We are still learning how to study literature.
- Lets continue learning, and see how we can apply the literary methods we know to songs, and what new literary methods we will learn from studying songs.