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.
- 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.
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?
You may remember Raining Cats and Dogma, started nearly 10 years ago (or you may not). I blogged there for four years or so, beginning as a finishing PhD candidate. I then went pseudonymous, blogging at the first iteration of To Delight and To Instruct, as Horace. Here, in the revised version of this post in January 2018, I’m Ryan Claycomb, Professor of English, with affiliate appointments in Theatre and Women’s and Gender Studies at West Virginia University. I’m also Interim (and Founding) Director of the WVU Humanities Center.
Maybe you already know me. Maybe you knew one of those blogs. Maybe you know about my scholarly work, often on life writing in the contemporary theatre. I’ve spent most of the last six years balancing an identity as a faculty member and an administrator, first for five years as Associate Dean of the Honors College, and beginning in Fall 2017, in the Humanities Center.
So: this here blog. It’s largely a blog with public inflections–about higher education; about the place of humanities in a changing academic landscape; about work that is interdisciplinary, collaborative, public-facing, innovative; about literature and theatre and culture and gender. No guarantees about posting frequency, and none about how interesting I’ll be, but stay tuned to see ho this develops.