Excellent stuff. This will feel like a breath of fresh air for your professor, who likely got into English because he or she wanted to talk about interrelating ideas. That's what grad students are trained against, sadly, tragically. However, I wonder if he/she will respond by saying something like, Scholarship is where we get things we can hang onto, not talk about ideas in just an interesting way. That may mean relating the humbleness idea in Steinbeck that you have to a particular historical moment for the American working class, and how Steinbeck, of course, was especially influential in developing a sort of critical consciousness of American class--that what Cannery Row (which I haven't read) privileges (i.e. humility) has definite "causes" that the literature scholar can talk about so as to better define the cultural moment out of which Cannery Row sprang. Thus a lit prof would use primary source material like an advertisement for a workers' union from 1935 or an editorial chastising union organizers instead of leaping to very interesting writing from China centuries ago.
I'm not trying to say any of this arrogantly or patronizingly, but whether your prof is a textualist (close reader) or an historicist (concerned with how historical conditions made the text you're reading), every graduate school class in literature is essentially the same: using the text to recreate and define the discourse out of which said literature came from, and "take a position" (to be argued at conferences and in articles). Text, ideas, culture, history, meaning (in that order, I think)--that's the scholar's current work in literature departments. And it's a lot of work, and difficult to teach to another person (like me). The word "context" comes to mind.
I'm sure that you could have written much more; I wanted to share with you some parts of the grad school game that I have learned. I actually think that what I have written above would get by in court, and would have seemed obvious to me 1.5 years ago, but subsequent classes have made me internalize what scholarship in English is currently. Making it happen for me, actually doing it, is another story. --adam
response to laowai, (trying to) define current scholarship in literature depts.
No profanes - sacred