This is, I imagine, the much shorter version of a post I have had simmering in my head for a few weeks now–or, well, actually, many of the issues dovetail with another post that’s been around since new years. But somehow I haven’t sat down to figure out my point rigorously yet, and so I don’t want to commit the multiple thousand words to wax.
Our current academic crisis, defined in many increasingly encompassing ways, seems to be gaining steam in coverage on the webs. First there’s the very inside-baseball humanities “discussion” over what digital humanities add to the humanities, culminating, for now, with the MLA president’s encouraging grad students, which is to say, the people who have the most to lose by being so outrageously bold, to blow off the monograph form of a dissertation for something new and collaborative. I am very much ok with being more collaborative in my life (my take home message of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was how worthwhile it is in life to have a collaborator–note, not “spouse”), but I will not risk future hireability figuring out how on earth one does PhD-level work collaboratively. That sort of stuff must come from the top down, much as it does in the sciences, where grad students work far more closely with their advisers, at least at my school.
From the level of the humanities, the concern spins out to a tension between the humanities and the sciences, or as Mark Slouka calls it in his piece for Harper’s from 2009 that I only read recently, “mathandscience.” Slouka makes a common argument for the role of the humanities in an especially well-written way. Mathandscience have taken over the university, and, in so doing, have changed the role of the university into something that is uniquely geared toward making Americans ready to enter the workforce. Study of the humanities, on the other hand, makes them not better workers (though the writing skills they pick up are often very handy) but better citizens. This, of course, is an argument that’s similar to the one Max Weber made 100 years ago in “Science as a Vocation“: “Tolstoi has given the simplest answer, with the words: ‘Science is meaningless because it gives no answer, the only question important for us: “what shall we do and how shall we live?”‘ That science does not give an answer to this is indisputable.”
I was thinking about this sort of thing in the context of ethics and public responsibilities the other night while unable to sleep, and it grows out of some of these collaborational arguments about the digital humanities. Very simply, it’s not that a prof with twitter is a good citizen, but it’s a means of getting the word out. And then once the word is out, the prof can show how her work is helping the world. In the humanities, I’m pretty hard-pressed to think of many examples of this sort of thing outside of Michael Bérubé, who has been blogging about all sorts of things very publicly for years now, leading up to his pleasant book on a topic similar to this, What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts? (he’s written even more to the topic, but I’ve not read that work).
But what I started imagining was what a press release about my dissertation (or about the work of anyone in my department) might look like. Outside of biographies about authors–and those we never get sick of–it seems unlikely that an English Department would get much press these days for its other scholarship. I was discussing this later with some students at the center, and the argument was that, in fact, during the 80s, English Deparments were making news. Similarly, I get the sense that they made noise in the first part of the Twentieth Century when English professors were more generally public intellectuals. This position in the public, in fact, is what makes Quiz Show an even moderately interesting movie, for example.
These days, though? Not a chance. Part of the argument is that newspapers compete with humanities departments in the “covering aesthetic production” beat. That is, the science beat covers scientists in science departments, but the books beat covers not literary critics, but, rather, authors of books. This might explain the biographical interest, of course, since it’s via these sorts of “new” discoveries that old books get reloaded in the public consciousness in newspapers. And when English professors do make the news with their scholarship, it’s a small number of intensely high-profile profs who work on high-profile authors–people like Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare who are, to be polite, in the back end of their careers.1
On the other hand, given the narrow interest of science journalism–”how will the future be better?”, and “how are men and women irredeemably different?”–maybe it’s good that my work will never have to be subjected to that sort of thing. Still, it has some kind of public component, I must imagine, and that seems to be the subject of Astra Taylor’s documentary Examined Life, a 2008 documentary that tracks a handful of “philosophers” and sees them mobilize their work in a public arena. As the trailer suggests, it puts philosophy “in the streets.” Jonny Thakkar’s review in The Point argues that the movie is at its most successful when it demonstrates philosophy generated for public consumption (much like Socrates’s was), not for other academics, with a later “popularization” (read: dilution) to come. This is an interesting sort of proposition when I imagine it: the goal of graduate study is to prepare someone like me to be then unleashed into the wild, into the public, where I can do stuff.
This is, of course, a crude but tantalizing definition of any sort of educational pursuit. Spend some time away from the real world to then be able to negotiate it better. Woodshed with your sax so you blow for real onstage, etc.
So now the argument spins out from humanities vs. sciences to higher education in general, and here I turn over to the stuff I’ve been reading on my neighbor at the center’s blog about the precarity of jobs in higher education. Precariousness, of course, allegedly hits the humanities harder than the sciences, to the point where Thomas H. Benton’s Chronicle article on advising people not to grad school in the humanities was forwarded all over cyberspace faster than a lolcat. But even the sciences are hurting, as AAUP president Cary Nelson argues in his blog post about the impending furlough/pay cuts University of Illinois professors are facing. The cost of turning disciplines into vocational preparation has been a perverse reëvaluation of what kind of scientific research is valuable. You can’t get money for your research unless a company thinks that, down the line, it can make money off your research. So, sure, the sciences get piles more cash than the humanities, but it doesn’t come for free.
Nelson then argues to take the case to the streets, too, by taking advantage of the furlough days to agitate against the administration. And again, academia is back in the public.
Anyway, I’ve veered over 1200 words, and I don’t want to go much longer. I find it interesting that at all three rings of conflict, what remains the ultimate argument is figuring out what the role of higher education is in the public. Maybe that’s always been the case, and I’m suffering from a presentist bias, but there it stands.
When it goes out into the streets, I know what I’ll be singing.
- I await counter-examples. They must exist, but I can’t think of them. [↩]
Tags: AAUP, Astra Taylor, Cary Nelson, Chronicle of Higher Education, citizenship, Decasia, digital humanities, Eli Thorkelson, Emily Dickinson, ethics, Harper's, humanities, ivory tower, Jonny Thakkar, Mark Slouka, Max Weber, Michael Bérubé, Michael Chabon, mla, Science as a Vocation, Sidonie Smith, Stephen Greenblatt, The Point, Thomas H. Benton, William Faulkner