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On the humane life of the academy

That’s the magnolia tree from my backyard in that picture, looking like in just a few days it might be fully splendourous in pink, or in the freeze of the next couple of nights might drop those petals to the ground in a browned mess.  Even now, there’s a sepia tone to the blossoms that leaves little confidence in the rebirth motifs of spring.  Something something lilacs something dead land.

IMG_0861I’ve had a packed few days in the life of the academy this week, full of fantastic experiences with incredibly promising students and colleagues.  In just the last eight days I’ve learned about a grant that I’ll be very enthusiastic and less vague about next week; I’ve sat in on interviews with the most promising incoming in-state undergraduate students; I’ve gotten to listen to and be a judge at the finale of our campus three-minute thesis competition; I’ve given a talk about personal statements to students on track for outstanding fellowships and scholarships like the Fulbright; I’ve heard news that tells me that we’ll have big news to report about this year’s WVU Fulbright applicants (I’m the faculty advisor); and I got to prepare and participate in the elections for our newest Phi Beta Kappa inductees (I’m the acting chapter secretary).  I also, significantly, got to teach my class, which is turning into one of the most wonderful teaching experiences I could have hoped for in this semester.  Nothing extraordinary–just a great group of students willing to dive in to almost any discussion.

But amidst all of this hope and celebration and joy, I’ve also worked in some way with three different students in crisis: friend and family deaths, accidents, traumas (I won’t say more since these are ongoing issues).  Another is trying desperately to return to school after years off fielding health and financial crises, so that she can earn the degree that she roundly deserves to earn. And for all of those astounding opportunities that I had a hand in offering to students this past week, there is the disappointment that inevitably comes with those not offered them and a strange ambivalence about being a gatekeeper in this way at all.

To round it out, I saw a student pedestrian hit by a pick-up truck yesterday afternoon (this story turns out ok).  The accident was hardly reckless negligence on the part of the driver (the pedestrian did not seem to be looking, was wearing earbuds, and was darting through traffic), but that pedestrian did not ask to be hip-checked hard enough to crack the truck’s fiberglass bumper, to be sent flying and rolling and sprawling, to feel the shame of having been laid low in public.

I was the first person to this student, and another driver pulled over to call 911 and assist. As is often the case with a shockingly unexpected injury, adrenaline had flooded his body and he really seemed to just want to skitter away to nurse his limping hip and his scraped hands, but I got him to sit down and collect himself, wait for the EMTs (who located nothing more than scrapes and bruises), and file a report.  I also helped calm the driver, who was understandably rattled, himself ashamed and upset, as the student drivers who passed by shouted “idiots!” out their windows: retribution for the traffic delay.

After the EMTs arrived, I just stuck around in case I was needed, offering sympathetic glances to the driver and pedestrian alike, though not speaking to either.  When I was free to go, I went home and told my kids about the afternoon’s drama, forging lesson from incident.  But how close I had been from witnessing something terrible yesterday afternoon!

I read something in passing last week that mentioned that it was very difficult to incentivize good teaching, because teaching as an impulse was largely driven by intrinsic motivation, a commitment to the business of serving our service, or maybe just to the business of making and conveying knowledge.  While we may say much about a college education being a kind of luxury, for so many of the students I felt connected to this week, this time felt like the blossoms on that magnolia tree: just on the verge of splendor, still at great risk of wilting in exposure to the elements.  Sometimes I’m thrilled to help them fully bloom, but sometimes it’s most important to help them to the side of the road.

 

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Some brief reflections on the direction of national support of the humanities, or, my brief chat with Jon Parrish Peede

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Instead of attending JD Vance’s talk on campus last night, I went to a reception at the WVU Humanities Council in Charleston with Senior Deputy Chairman Jon Parrish Peede (though he seems to have been appointed as acting chairman last the summer, there is not a current chair, and he is being referred to under this, his permanent title).  Peede is in town to participate in today’s West Virginia History Day activities (something I’d like to be more aware of in the future!).
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Peede’s imprimatur as chairman-in-action-if-not-in-name is an interesting one.  Though he’s done scholarly work he’s not an academic. He’s a publisher first: he made his name at VQR where he did genuinely great work in raising the profile of that august publication, and got his start at Mercer University Press.  I know nothing about his political affiliations, but there are all kinds of clues to a kind of disciplinary conservatism in Peede’s bio (and I say this not to cast aspersions, but rather to read the tea leaves, as it were).  The literary profile here is of a “great books” mindset–the belletristic cast of his interest in Southern literature, the fact that “excellence” as a standard comes up often enough around his tenure overseeing literature grants at NEH, the limited-edition book publishing company he started in his 20s (which published Dana Gioia, the republican NEA chairman under George W. Bush who brought Peede to the NEA), the mention of being a member of American Mensa. I’d encourage readers to do their own close reading of his National Humanities Alliance speech from November.
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For what it’s worth, Peede was also accompanied by the NEH Congressional Affairs director Tim Robison, a long-time Republican congressional staffer (Orrin Hatch, Phil Crane, Chris Stewart, Tom Price).  All of this is to say that (not surprisingly) Peede seems to represent a vision of the National Endowment for Humanities shaped by an administration that is interested in eliminating the office, or at least stripping it of liberal or progressive influence.
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My takeaway from Peede’s brief remarks last evening, and a brief chat we had afterwards, is that the agenda for the current leadership is “preserving cultural resources.” (I could say more about the very brief chat we shared, but that’s all more observational, and almost certainly featured dynamics surrounding the fact that I have a pending grant application at the NEH, one that is perhaps a long-shot.)  But I was really there to listen carefully to the values he extolled for the humanities, and the ones on which he remained silent.
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So  my sense is this: while the vision of the previous NEH chair, Bro Adams, was to encourage public humanities as a relevance-and-survival strategy, this leadership is investing the the material resources of the humanities themselves.  Admittedly, in a vacuum, this is an important priority for archives, libraries, museums, etc. But it became increasingly apparent that there’s less (maybe significantly less) space for the scholarly work that might make use of those resources.
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This communicated difference in priorities is also certainly tempered by Peede’s audience last evening: the state Humanities council is very much in this same business of preservation and public access of humanities resources, and these things are easier pitches to the state legislators also in the room–so he could have been crafting specific appeals to the audience.
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That said, he also talked about two initiatives that he was excited about.  One was the “Common Heritage” program (and let’s unpack that title, shall we?), a series of small grants designed (as he described it) specifically to get preservation experts to local and regional sites to consult on proper storage and preservation techniques for things like public records–think courthouses and hospitals as much as libraries and museums.  The grant seems to encompass more than this in execution, but his rhetoric was telling: that this is a move that shifts resources to non-experts–people who need the resources to be sure. But his description was definitely not referencing those who make their expertise out of the interpretation of those resources.  On its face, it’s a democratizing move: humanities for the people.  But it also seems part-and-parcel of a general cultural shift that devalues expertise.
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He also discussed with great enthusiasm the return of the infrastructure grants–large-scale grants ($500k with a 3:1 fundraising match) to ramp up humanities infrastructure.  In their last iteration a decade or so ago, these were often the ground work for Humanities Centers, and so you can see that I’m cautiously excited about this one.  In fact, the gorgeous building that houses the WV Humanities Council was supported by an infrastructure grant.  It is important to note, however, that this grant is no longer in their Challenge Grants office (though this is a challenge grant), but rather in the Division of Preservation and Access).  Peede here was excited to talk about the idea that infrastructure might be more than just bricks-and-mortar; he specifically mentioned digital infrastructure as a way of thinking flexibly about this grant.  But even so, this strikes me as a rhetorical move similar to the  Common Heritage grants–an emphasis of the materials of Humanities research, rather than the research itself. This mitigates my enthusiasm about the Center’s chances for the grant, though we shall see.
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So let’s take this at face value:  we all know that the NEH is a political football with an outsized symbolic impact relative to its actual budget.  If I’m reading the current situation correctly (and I’m surely missing a lot of detail), then it’s likely that many of the things coming out of that office in the very near future are going to looknonpartisan,” to borrow a word from Peede’s November speech.  Whether this is (like Adams’s approach in the last administration) a survival strategy, or instead a specific political stance, I can’t say.  But it seems likely that the work of scholars doing politically inflected work is likely going to have to supported by their academic institutions rather than the Endowment. But for those working with material cultural resources, now is your time.
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[Edited to add:  NEH just announced that they were upping fellowship grants, so maybe I’ll back off of that zero-sum theory a bit.]

 

“Becoming a Public Humanist”: workshop notes

pexels-photo-326496.jpegBelow are my (very subjective) notes on the “Becoming a Public Humanist” panel, held February 15, 2018, at the WVU College of Law, hosted by the WVU Humanities Center.

Panelists were Dr. Janet Snyder (Art History), Dr. Kirk Hazen (English, Linguistics), and Dr. Melissa Bingmann (Public History), and the panel was moderated by Prof. Atiba Ellis (Law).

Janet Snyder from Art History was the first presenter, and she set the stage by posing some big-picture (no pun intended) questions for the remainder of the panel

  • Who is the public for the Artist?
  • Who is the public for the Art Historian? Students, people who express particular interest, more broadly those who come to the art museum.

Professor Snyder espoused a baseline practice of “looking closely together”:

  • –Looking closely allows you to ask questions: This struck me as an important way of translating what we do in the classroom to other interactions–that in many ways, we need to be teaching broader publics (not just our students) how to ask questions, not just of us, but of the objects, texts, discourses, and scenarios they encounter.
  • –Looking closely is a tool to understanding the real thing.
  • –Travel as a crucial component: I noted this particularly out of a personal interest…how does travel and tourism (both scholars’ travel to archives, etc. as well as our mobility to meet public audiences where they are) condition our work? What are the ethical and environmental implications of those kinds of travel?
  • I also noted that Professor Snyder’s slides were not images of art itself, but of students/ colleagues looking closely at art.  The act of looking (or more broadly, inquiring) becomes crucial.

Professor Snyder proposed “global positioning studies”  to ask, persistently, “What kind of art should artists be making here and now?”

Professor Melissa Bingmann presented attendees with more pragmatic ideas borne of working directly with local public history organizations.

  • Like Prof. Snyder, she began with: How do you define public? For her, that work happened in two key ways:
    • Museums—Museum professionals do not always have the smoothest of relationships with academic for some justified reasons, which may in turn lead to tension between academic and public history sites.
    • Working with institutions
      • Institutions often want labor/organizational expertise as much as expertise.
      • Institutions are valuable for public humanities based on relationships built over time. (e.g. Interns, associations, advocacy orgs)
      • One key, connected from Prof. Snyder’s talk was the idea of learning together: scholars and institutions and–by extension–publics collectively developing public knowledge.
    • It’s important to ask questions about what publics/organizations really want.
      • Is a new institution viable?
      • Assess: are oral histories (or any rpre-defined project) the best pathway?
      • Is the idea the institution has going to give them the result they want?
    • Public memory is a huge component of how public history works–we might all do well to think a bit more broadly about how public memory functions for our fields.
    • Avoid being “the parachute scholar”!
      • Be a participant beyond the talk itself.
      • Treat others (teachers, curators, etc.) as scholar/experts in their own right.
      • Avoid critique without being asked to supply it—this can hurt relationships, even though it can be difficult to refrain from offering commentary based on expertise.

Professor Bingmann underscored that relationships are often as important the content, an acknowledgement that requires negotiating differences in standards of work, negotiating differences in priorities (e.g. raising money for preservation vs. scholarly rigor), and considering the potential value of failure.

She also urged participants to recall  the idea of writing as a public enterprise, esp. collaborating with public institutions that may or may not have that expertise on staff.

Professor Kirk Hazen began by noting that for his field of sociolinguistics, public outreach has been field-sustaining at a moment beyond when the academy alone might have sustained it.  (This raised, quietly, the spectre that socio-linguistics might provide a model for humanities surviving into the future if/as robust institutional support dries up.)

Professor Hazen described a series of tactics by way of a series of historical and current examples, beginning with:

  • Noah Webster: spelling book leads to spelling bees, broad cultural impact, which connected to the historical impact of the dictionary itself.
  • Appalshop (Non-profit)
    • Multimedia work, creative acts of listening and telling, etc.
    • Seriously, check out their link.  Wow.
  • “SKILLS” (app)
  • Language and Life project
    • Developed statewide (NC) curriculum modules
    • Produced series of documentaries

Professor Hazen then laid out a series of basic maxims that guided his interactions with the public (often k-12) beyond the university classroom

  • Start with very simple goals
  • Develop interactive lessons
  • Engage audience actively
  • Pique interest through ideas that matter to the audience
  • Understand the assumptions the audience brings to the table
  • In grant-writing: determine and articulate “BROADER IMPACTS”

 

From there, the session broke into a lively Q&A/discussion.  My notes there are a little more scattered, since I participated, too.

  • With a “target public” – how do we find out what a public wants?
    • Starting with the assumption that no one’s prima facie interested in our work.
    • How do you figure out where to go?
      • Consider audiences with time to listen: retirement communities, OLLI,
        • Young folk and old folk—people who have time
      • It’s important to developing materials/ approaches before the time may appear.  That way, there’s less scrambling when opportunities do arise.
      • Social media is effective
      • Department of Ed grants
  • How to negotiate differing starting points on “What the public wants ” vs. “challenging material” vs. “what they don’t yet know they want or need”?
    • Build on what people already have
    • Building trust, building relationships first
    • Work on self-interest
    • How do we follow idealistic goals in the face of public resistance?
  • Dialogue about “What one should value”
    • Already a political question
    • What do we let go and what/when do we correct?
  • Writing for different audiences?
    • Online resources with a wide audience (anxiety provoking)
    • Recycle things/ “re-usable assets”
    • Clarity and concision vs. density and complexity
    • Wikipedia/ other wikis/ hackathons
    • Medium.com (now behind a paywall) / blogs
    • The Conversation
  • Remember that a key element with students is about encouraging discovery over mastery–how do we help publics value discovery as part of the humanities ethic?
  • The Humanities Center could play a role in DIY public humanities skills (Section on website, videos, etc. that offers how-to’s)
    • Technical skills
    • Scholarly skills for everyday folks

 

Notes on a Pragmatic Humanities

pexels-photo.jpgAs yet another proposed White House  budget zeroes out funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and as Sharon O’Dair’s hot take (behind the paywall) in the Chronicle of Higher Education asks whether efforts at career diversity prep in Humanities PhD programs is hypocrisy (I simplify), and as our Humanities Center at WVU poses questions about how and when scholars should consider pushing their inquiry out to a broader public audience, a set of questions (re)emerges:  How pragmatic should the Humanities be?  How pragmatic must they be?

I’ll confess to being divided on the issue.

As a scholar, I trained in modern and contemporary experimental drama and performance.  I find the material extraordinarily thought-provoking, intellectually challenging in a way that produces great pleasure, politically engaged in both direct and indirect ways, and in the end, accessible to only a very small audience.  That training has led me down a path that has lent me (I flatter myself to believe) a great deal of insight into the histrionic world around me, how much our sense of ourselves is a performance, what is theatrical about “real life,” and how different ways of being-in-our-bodies teach us reciprocity and mutuality.  Those are lessons that I am sometimes able to show my students; sometimes I’m just able to show them how to use the tools that have led me to these insights.

These tools have great value, because they help me navigate the culture around me, to communicate with other humans, and to be (I flatter myself to believe) a better person.  In a late-market capitalist economy, these tools have less immediate value because they are very difficult to attain–years of study and some amount of “natural” inclination–difficult to measure, difficult to quantify, and therefore difficult to commodify.  I can take them to market only in the sense that a literary education is still (though tenuously) a signal part of American liberal higher education.  Separated out on their own, spots in the literature classroom would be very difficult to sell.  It would be hard to counter the argument that those seats were a luxury.

Of course, those of us on the inside of this field feel quite confident that the decline in a robust and complex humanistic education is connected to the fraying social fabric and deteriorating political discourse–that we might be better equipped to spot fake news, specious political argument, inhumane stances if we were better-trained interpreters of our culture present and past.  So: pragmatic indeed, but neither simply so, quantifiably so, nor commodifiably so.

And so, as American liberal higher education sets itself about the task of marketing, measuring, quantifying, and commodifying its various courses of study, those most resistant, those that themselves don’t sell like widgets in the marketplace of majors (which is different than the marketplace of ideas) are being called upon to be pragmatic.  This seems to be taking several forms (as my opening suggests): a certain kind of blunting of the political edges of our scholarly conclusions, a mandate to change the training to meet labor-market demands, and a call to make our work more accessible and (one presumes) more palatable to a wider swath to the public.

So while my training as a scholar resists these impulses (radical feminist autobiographical performance art is political, esoteric, and lacking in transferable skills), my training as a teacher of writing and rhetoric kicks in.  This other training asks me to know my audiences, and analyze how to appeal to them in different contexts.  It tells me that I have been taught in my primary training to address a very specific audience, thereby meeting very rigorous standards but with very limited efficacy.  It tells me that I might concede that there is luxury in the critical unpacking of a novel, but only as a bridge to declaring my desire to make it a much more accessible luxury, simply by bringing more people to the college classroom, or that it might someday be seen as a civic necessity.

This is, I think, the pragmatic turn that we witnessed at the NEH during the tenure of William “Bro” Adams.  His advocacy of public humanities, under the banner “The Common Good: Humanities in the Public Square” seemed then to be, at its heart, a rhetorical move as much as a scholarly one.  Does Bro Adams believe that public humanities makes for more valuable insights?  Maybe. Was the program a gambit to help shore up the perceived  value of our insights?  Almost certainly.  Did the NEH fund projects under this banner that were able to thread the needle of rigor and accessibility?  Check them out.  They look great, if limited in scope–which is to say, only some kinds of projects fit.  Postings about new projects also seem to have ceased sometime around Adams’s resignation as NEH Chair (though his essay, “Valuing the Humanities,” to accompany the recent AAAS study on employment outcomes for humanities majors, reveals his continued commitment to this pragmatic turn).

And so I am torn.  In my classrooms (especially at the general education level) I insist that students can disagree on political terms without fear of being shot down on those terms (though I will persistently defend the logic that I’ve used to occupy my own position, which I make clear). This past fall, I wrote a grant application to build different kinds of professional training in alongside the training that we offer PhD students as scholars and teachers, so they might also learn to do advising and program coordination and public-facing jobs.  And we are organizing activities in the Humanities Center to help our colleagues facilitate a conversation about presenting our fascinating paths of inquiry to both a rigorous audience of our peers AND also to broader audiences beyond the academy.

In each of those cases, I see the danger: backing off of the political implications of real wisdom I see through my inquiry of texts and performances; potentially diluting of, if not the quality, then the perceived value of a focused training in academic humanities; dialing back on a critical conversation that is able to achieve its levels of intense concentration precisely because we are not breaking our address to each other to see who else might be listening.

For the moment, my approach, and my vision for the WVU Humanities Center is to continue to celebrate and amplify the work done by specialists and for specialists for the wisdom and insight that work provides, but to create incentivize that encourage scholars to present their work more pragmatically and publicly.  Though perhaps no less politically.  That’s where I think my invitations to pragmatism reach their limits.

The WVU Humanities Center has just released its first RFP for internal grants each of which supports insightful humanistic inquiry that seeks to interpret human thought, culture, and history while emphasizing interdisciplinary,  and/or collaborative, and/or publicly accessible and or innovatively presented scholarly and teaching projects.  At some level, these grants are wide open for all manner of projects.  And at another level, they are trying to thread the needle: rigorous scholarship that nonetheless might make the pragmatic turn.  We’ll see what happens.

 

On Timeliness (and timelessness)

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Remarks at the January 29 WVU Humanities Center Coffee Hour.

Earlier this month, Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham, published a piece in the Chronicle entitled “How to go Public, and Why we Must.”  The article set out to make the case that scholars should “vault themselves out of the ivory tower and into the public square.”  The bulk of the piece was a profile of children’s literature scholar Philip Nel, whose work on J.K. Rowling and on Dr. Seuss has garnered him a great deal of public attention, mostly very good.

One piece of Nel’s strategy that Cassuto advocates is to recognize when a subject will be timely—his first Seuss book was timed for the children’s author’s centenary.  Another piece of advice was to be vigilant about meeting publishers’ deadlines that might be based on public appetites.

As the WVU Humanities Center has taken on as one of its goals the idea of facilitating scholarship that is accessible to the public (and that may occur in many ways), Cassuto’s piece interested me.  I even posted it on the Center’s Facebook site (I hope you’re following, if you’re on Facebook, by the way).

But buried at the end of the article, a single paragraph: “Not every scholar’s work translates easily into public terms, but everyone — both graduate students and professors — ‘should try, if they can,’ [Nel] said. ‘Public scholarship can be an expression of good citizenship.’”

That line: “Not every scholar’s work translates easily into public terms,” struck me as the understatement of the month.  What has 17th century Spanish drama to tell us about the latest tweets from a short-fingered Twitterer?  Well, perhaps plenty, but also–perhaps to its credit–nothing at all.

So as I have been thinking about the public humanities, about making humanities work more publicly engaged, I’ve been thinking about issues of timeliness.  Rhetoric gives us the term “kairos,” the proper moment for acting or speaking, the notion that it’s not just a good argument, but the right moment.  Propitiety becomes relevant.

But humanities scholarship is slow.  It takes time in the archive, time in the library, time at the writing desk to hammer out ideas.  We often collectively look askance at scholars who seem to be chasing trends.  Rushed work, we know, is rarely rigorous or sound work.

How then, do we balance the absolute necessity of taking time with our ideas with the increasingly rapid pace of our news cycles and the short attention span of our public sphere?  I don’t have a perfect answer, though the Humanities Center is working in that direction.  First of all, WVU faculty members (and Humanities Center Advisory Board members)  Travis Stimeling and Atiba Ellis are currently working together to help the Center realize the goal of helping people go public.  In our fall survey of faculty, many folks indicated an interest in reaching out to a public audience but had little sense of how to go that direction.

Travis’s work on country music has had a great deal of appeal in our local environment and so he has some important insights about our local context.  Atiba’s work on civil rights law is also particularly timely right now, and I’ve read his blog and social media posts on “the meme of voter fraud” with interest.  The two of them are hosting a workshop  (get out your calendars) on Thursday February 15 at 5 pm at the College of Law called “Becoming a Public Humanist.”

Like many humanities folks, I like the word “becoming” there, as it rejects a kind of absolute identity for humanities scholars, the idea that someone IS or ISN’T a public intellectual.

Other things too.  I am trying to keep myself attuned to creating opportunities to discuss contemporary events in a humanistic context.  I follow the example of my colleagues in our History department who organized a very successful panel last fall on thinking through the Confederate monuments question through the lenses of the Civil War, US Civil Rights, European public memorials, and art-history criticism.

Later this month, in an event co-hosted with the WVU ADVANCE Advocates group, I’ll be moderating a panel on the role male faculty can play in this post-#MeToo moment.  We’ll have scholars of multiple genders from women’s and gender studies, leadership studies, law, and sociology there to discuss this issue in a way that doesn’t focus simply on institutional policies, but also on the broader issues of violence against women, allyship, construction of gender roles, and other issues of broad humanistic concern.

But I also want to underscore this: despite a focus on timeliness, I don’t mean this to become a shorthand or substitute for academic value.  The search for eudaimonia—better living through philosophy, language, and letters—that underscores not just humanistic inquiry but the university as an institution generally has been focused on something like timelessness.  Studying French or Russian just because of US national interests in francophone Africa or Eurasia is simultaneously exigent and beside the point.  There is wisdom in those linguistic and cultural traditions that transcends timely knowledge.

The Center’s program on Thursday afternoon, launching WVU Press’ new edition of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead might be an example.  Of course, labor history in West Virginia is an ongoing issue of timely concern and Rukeyser’s poems speak in unexpected ways to our current moment.  But there’s not an anniversary to commemorate or a current controversy upon which to comment.  What there is, though–in those poems and in Catherine Venable Moore’s gorgeous introductory essay–is a set of powerful meditations on resilience, memory, justice, and our sense of place.  And dwelling on those meditations might, for a time, help us live better.

So whether the work is of-the-moment or transhistorical, I return to Philip Nel’s exhortation that we should all try to engage the public as an act of scholarly citizenship.  And I echo it, but with a caveat: that the public works on a different timetable than we do, so when we can engage the public, yes let’s…and come out to the workshop on February 15 to consider practical ways to do that.  But also remember that there is value to thinking beyond the timely, for something deeper, something more enduring.  The public may well come back around to it yet.  And we’ll be glad for that work, too.

 

In which the author composes a manifesto for English Studies…

I have, for some time now, been hammering out what it is that I believe about the humanities, and why humanistic study–literature, history, critical inquiry of other arts, philosophy–remains an important part of an education in our current cultural moment.  There exists a particularly deleterious line of logic: short-sighted, but not altogether ridiculous.  It is often espoused by parents eager to see an immediate fiscal return on their investment in their children’s education (a return often in the form of a high-paying job).

This logic holds that in order to secure a stable job that leads to a long term career, a student must choose an academic course of study that corresponds directly to specific vocation.  Engineering benefits mightily from this logic, but so does biology and other courses of study that might lead to a medical or health-related profession.  Business schools thrive on this logic, too.

This is not to undercut these fields of knowledge.  I wish I knew more about engineering, even from a beginner’s level.  And I have heard that the failure to provide a basic education in the business of personal finance is one of the prevailing black marks on the books of many a modern university (indeed, I think that such a  course would be an excellent general education requirement).  And I love the knowledge I’ve gained in my contact with biology and psychology.

And I agree that in our moment, training more scientists and engineers and computer programmers is probably a good idea.  And those people should have a healthy helping of the humanities as a part of their education, just as we should better value those who make the humanities central to their education.  What follows then are first some premises on the value of a humanities education (many of them well worn, but worth articulating as a part of the bigger picture), and then some principles about how we might reconsider constructing the modern English program to both maximize the benefits of the humanities and better articulate its value to a whole range of people who currently believe that it is an essentially useless field of study.

Some premises:

  • Humanistic study prepares students for citizenship: This is an old chestnut of a rationale, and while it may seem tired, it remains true.    Much humanistic study begins in the tradition of a nationalist education from the 19th Century continental university, and while that very mode of thinking has taught us to challenge nationalist models, it also teaches us to think lucidly those models, because they are still in place.  Say what you will about a liberal bias in the models of citizenship that are taught, but if liberal models of citizenship include informed and thoughtful participation by citizens, then I call that democracy.  And we teach these models of citizenship by thinking about identity politics and imperialism and Shakespeare is as interested in how leaders use power as he is in the idea of love, or in the nature of being, or in the beautifully turned phrase.  There is much for a leader to learn from Macbeth or from Prince Hal, and much for citizens to learn from the subjects of Coriolanus or from Julius Caesar.  I’ll also marshal up some of the arguments of cultural studies, whose integration into the English curriculum is somewhat more controversial, but is (I would predictably argue) highly significant.  For insofar as cultural studies and literary studies together help us interpret the signs of culture, to read them for both their literal meanings, but also their deep and pervasive representational ideologies and subtexts, we become better participants in the polis (or better informed should we choose to opt out of the polis).
  • Humanistic study prepares students for the marketplace: Loathe that I am to be using the marketplace of labor as a justification for the study of labor (for I find that marketplace to be tyrannical and gradually but inexorably in opposition to both personal freedoms and human equality), we must nonetheless acknowledge that the education you get in an English major study is, in fact, a valuable commodity.  You can find evidence for it peppered around the internet, from voices both dubious and eminent.  Try here, here, here, here, or here.  To summarize, though: writing skills are more important than you can imagine; the scenarios we encounter in literature prepare us for any number of other scenarios we might encounter on the job; the kind of thoughtful, in-depth, careful study we do makes for important training; and the simple act of interpretation, central to this field, trains us in finding patterns, hidden messages, and relevant analogies in many contexts.  English majors (on average) are thoughtful, articulate, and flexible employees.
  • Humanistic study teaches critical thinking (but does not have a monopoly on that): So Academically Adrift, in excoriating the effectiveness of the American academy, did give comparatively high marks to humanities disciplines in promoting learning.  See here and here.  But as much as we all say that we love students to think critically, blah blah blah, we’ve never gotten much further than than, and at many levels, other fields also promote critical thinking.  Biology, for example, with its emphasis on experimentation and on complex systems, seems to produce some pretty fine critical thinkers with some pretty creative problem-solving minds.  So what kinds of critical thinking do we emphasize in English.  Broadly: we privilege the How, Why, and So What? over the the Who, What, Where, and When?  But that’s so vague as to be useless.  Let’s talk specific skills: Interpretation. Analogic and metaphorical thinking. Pattern recognition. Historical Consciousness.  Communicative nuance.  These are all very important skills for both the polis and the marketplace.  It’s critical thinking with a bent toward processing complicated language systems, making sense of them in layered, complex ways, and conveying them on a variety of frequencies.

Some more premises:

  • As a discipline, we do well with the citizenship issue:  Anecdotally, I know that English majors are an engaged, outgoing bunch.  They write letters to the newspaper and to their governmental representatives, and they get involved in activist causes across a range of political spectra. Even though I’m always a little happier when those shift leftward, I am also heartened to see students participating even when I disagree.  And I think that there is a correlation (a good one, I believe) between the kinds of student we teach and the engagement preached by many of our critical frameworks: Marxist studies, feminist studies, queer theory, ecocriticism, critical race studies, etc.  I feel fairly confident that our students graduate knowing that when they read a book, there is a politics there, and when they hear a speech, they can better read the politics there.  I think we should  protect this success, even though this success is not one that gets measured by our current metrics.
  • As a discipline, we are deeply conflicted about the marketplace issue.  We know that employers want employees to write better.  And we know that we have some important skills to teach those students.  I think we could do a lot to not only show how rhetoric and composition are helpful for the labor market, but also (with a bit of redesign) we could make much clearer how literature has a strong pragmatic effect on students’ abilities in the workplace.  I have some ideas for that below.  But that pesky training in Marxist theory makes us (rightly) deeply ambivalent about the idea of preparing students for the marketplace.  I think sometimes, though we will not admit it, we valorize the political aspects of our work, while conveniently ignoring or even poo-pooing the economic value.  To do so would be to readily admit how deeply interpolated within a system of production of middle-class laborers we are, and how little there is that we can do about it (and even more so, how little we are willing to sacrifice if we really believe that such a thing is ethically wrong).  I will readily admit my left-leaning tendencies, and my desire to see social change toward global economic equity and robust protection of universal human rights.  But I will also admit that the vast majority of my students, no matter how socially engaged, are taking this degree and moving directly into the workforce, presumably with this degree as their primary credential.  I know that this is an overly simple statement, but I think we can and should continue to teach them the skills of the polis while also teaching them overtly how those skills are useful (and can be ethically deployed) in the marketplace.  One way I have heard this articulated is that we help transform students from passive consumers of verbal culture into confident analysts and producers of verbal culture.
  • Our inability to reconcile our proclaimed political commitments with our position within a late market capitalist economy leaves us (surprisingly) speechless when if comes to defending our value, and teaching our students the value of what we are teaching them (I know: like a good bourgeois capitalist functionary, I am concerned with value.  And you know who else is? Our students who are going into deep, deep debt to get the education we offer.
  • The uneasy status of the physical book in an increasingly digital era erroneously assumes that those of us who love and study and teach books will soon be equally antiquated.  We must do more to de-ghetto-ize the digital humanities and show how virtually all of us are digital humanists in some way.
  • English departments are fragmenting into sub-disciplines in a way detrimental to our collective well-being.  Breaking off Rhetoric and Composition and professional writing and creative writing and English education, etc. etc. from the traditional English department hurts us all.  As much as I will maintain that students of creative writing or English ed or rhetoric will benefit from, even NEED a thorough grounding in literature and cultural studies, I am equally convinced that literature majors need more writing skills, need to think more about teaching, need to practice the literary forms they are analyzing.  The more we splinter off, the more we compete for resources with each other, instead of finding ways to share them.  More on this below.

Some Suggestions  (I know: for a manifesto “Suggestions” is an awfully soft word.  But that’s how I roll).

  • Assess better and more strategically: English departments, myself included, have been loathe to get on the assessment train.  I have always worried about reducing our pedagogy to measurables, which then in turn begin to drive our pedagogy toward the merely measurable.  But I also believe that we actually assess ourselves in qualitative ways all the time, and that we are quite good at responding to that.  We tweak our syllabi and our curricula regularly.  I also think that we tend to have a very limited view of what we can measure and how we can measure it.  Perhaps this is because e have little training in the social sciences… But what if, instead of measuring a set of employment statistics about placement rates, we measure participation in community engagement activities?  What if we counted the number of voters against national averages? Tallied community service hours?  Counted pages written?  Kept track of the variety of jobs our students find themselves in, rather than the percentage that they get in 6 months?  Surveyed alumni about satisfaction in their careers?  in their avocations?  I think that we believe that we are powerless to set the discourse about our own fields when it comes to assessment, and so we think narrowly.  But I think we can change the conversation about our discipline by doing smarter assessments of what we do and what we want to do.
  • Clearly and specifically name the critical thinking skills we teach and identify their applications.  We’ve got writing.  Sure do.  (To the point that everyone assumes that each student grammar mistake is somehow the English department’s fault.  Greeeaaaat.)  Now we need to take that list I began above (interpretation, analogical and metaphorical thinking, pattern recognition, etc.) and start looking at all the ways they apply after college and outside of books (We already do fine in showing how they apply inside of books).
  • Build multiple competencies into every course.  We must learn to incorporate the instruments of composition, rhetoric, literature, creative writing, etc. without becoming simply instrumentalist.  This is the corollary to the premise that fragmenting the discipline is a problem.  Not only do I believe that students should  read literature in their creative writing courses (which they usually do), but that literature classes should have creative writing assignments, and also practical writing assignments that derive from education or other professional environments.  Design a syllabus or a lesson plan, sure.  But how about writing a grant application to edit a collection or to mount a museum exhibit on an author or group of authors? How about writing and editing a unit for a department textbook for the introduction course? I would actually set forth my Theater Tour course as a not fully realized version of this: in the course where I teach plays, and then take students to London over break to see those plays, I’ve built in a variety of assignments–brief travel brochures for places students would like to visit, a traditional literary analysis of a play, followed by notes for a production that would express that interpretive analysis, a cultural studies critique of a site we visit while we are abroad, newspaper-style reviews of the plays we are seeing, and a proposal for a theatrical season involving several of our class plays, coupled with a few others gathered in their own research, accompanied by synopses, an argument for the season’s coherence, an analysis of the company’s audience, etc.  These writing assignments not only ask them to read literary, performance, and cultural texts in deep and sophisticated ways, it also asks them to do the kinds of practical writing that they might do in other nonacademic venues.  And these students always have more trouble with the practical assignments, because they have to distill down their ideas into clear prose that conveys as much in 500 that their academic analyses do in 1000.
  • Build courses predicated on practical applications.  I’m not just talking about our wildly popular technical writing courses; I’m talking literature courses.  English: Research for Living is my new slogan.  This is an old fashioned liberal-humanist assertion, but I believe that when we read books we learn about the world. I believe that with a strong background in theory and cultural studies, so instead of discarding the idea that we learn ways to live from literature, I suggest we teach the critical tools to shape the way we learn from books.  I am planning a course in the future, designed primarily for students likely to study abroad.  I’ll call it “Americans Abroad,” and start with Daisy Miller, and hit some of our modernist expatriates (the romanticised image of the young and hungry in the world), but then also teach some critical tourist studies and have students “read” museums.  And read Ama Ata Aidoo’s Dilemma of a Ghost about a young African man who brings home an African American wife, and some postcolonial theory with  the Poisonwood Bible, and M. Butterfly, and You Shall Know our Velocity.  And the writing assignments will ask students to directly reflect on the ways that these texts might guide our own cultural practices as travelers.  How about a course on upward mobility?  I know I’ve used the knowledge I’ve gained in literature to achieve specifically that.  We could build whole courses out of literature that responds to specific social problems.  Read Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men, and then follow it with literary slackers from Falstaff to Bartleby to Jack Kerouac.
  • We’ve done an ok job of bringing popular culture into our purview, but again, that often gets shoved into a curricular niche that will never have the potency of Intro to Shakespeare.  If we want to be serious about helping students makes sense of the loads of verbal culture that they are presented with, we need to integrate that culture more thoroughly into our curricula, too.  And let me be clear here: while these ideas are clearly informed by a cultural studies pedagogy, this is neither the new historicist cultural studies practiced in the U.S. for the past three decades, nor the more directly Marxist Cultural Studies of the Birmingham school (although I think it is probably high time for us all to take another look at Guillory’s Cultural Capital).  I’m thinking some more avowedly pragmatic that is clearly an engagement with contemporary verbal culture without necessarily taking a specific pre-ordained political stance on that culture.

The humanities are not in the trouble that everyone says we’re in, but the discipline still has a target on its back.  Let’s begin to better utilize our own skills in analyzing discourse, and change the discourse about our own field.

In which Shakespeare is shown to have positive effects on brain activity

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This is your brain on Shakespeare.

This article in UK’s The Telegraph brings together two of my ongoing interests, literature and neuroscience.  (Neuroscience? you ask.  Yes, I’ve always had a thing for learning about the biological brain.  I think I’ll post more about that later.)

In it, cognitive neuroscientists in Liverpool measure brain activity while processing both “great” texts and on more pedestrian paraphrases of the same ideas.  No big surprise there, I don’t think: even the most surly student in the back of the room will admit that part of why Shakespeare is hard is that reading it gives the brain a workout…heavy lifting and all.

But I find myself most intrigued by why and how that brain activity leaps up in the presence of richer language, because it’s not just that figuring out the syntax makes the language processing more effort intensive.  Nope.  It’s both sides of the brain:

Intense activity is this area of the brain suggests that the poetry triggers “reappraisal mechanisms” causing the reader to reflect and rethink their own experiences in light of what they read.

“Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive,” said Professor Davis, who will present the findings at the North of England education conference in Sheffield next week.

“This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.”

On the one hand, I find this research exciting if not surprising, for the evidence that suggests that there is a high cognitive, educational value for reading literary language.  I believe that is true, and I will happily marshal that evidence when defending the humanities around the academy.  But I hesitate at adding “the emotional and the biographical” to the cognitive, if only because those elements are frequently derided a not being the proper objects of scholarship.

Here’s the question: when we cite “increased brain activity” as a value for studying the humanities, do we undercut ourselves by noting that the increased brain activity is due in some measure to an emotional or identificatory response, rather than a purely cognitive one?  Or do we acknowledge the necessary presence of the emotional and the biographical as components of learning that has implications beyond the simple retention of information?