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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.


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