Saturday, January 4, 2014

Humanities scholarship is incredibly relevant, and that makes people sad.

Man, two of them today, one in 3am Magazine (h/t Robin James) and one in the relentlessly regressive WSJ (remember this guy, whose cranky pan of the Cambridge History of the American Novel is a classic of this genre?), h/t Noel Jackson.

Don't bother clicking; you've already read it a hundred times. It's the article titled "The Humanities Are Relevant and I Hate That."

The humanities are often represented as an irrelevant, moribund, and merely preservationist field, passing on old knowledge of old things without producing anything new. That's why it keeps having to be "defended" by people saying, "no! old shit matters too!" (It does—witness one chapter from Washington Irving's 1819-20 Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. getting rebooted yet again, this time as a goofy paranormal procedural—but this already accepts a basic misrepresentation of humanities scholarship.)

Yet it’s precisely the production of new knowledge in the humanities that powerfully influences the everyday lives of Americans, and which leads to pearl-clutching by those who insist on the humanities’ irrelevance. David Brooks, for example, is very sad that the humanities have failed to be stagnant. He claims that humanities enrollments have substantially declined (factually untrue) since the rise of critical theory and its concurrent attention to race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability in the 1980s. But the humanities didn’t just turn to these categories for kicks (still less because it was “fashionable,” as culture-wars critics like Alan Sokal have claimed); turning to them was the result of research. Through research, scholars found out that these categories were complicated, powerful, and important for understanding culture. Brooks seems to suppose that doing research that has a broad impact makes your field irrelevant. This is deranged.*

Do you know a black child who grew up knowing about America’s great traditions in African American literature, visual art, music, and film? Are you glad Their Eyes Were Watching God and Cane are in print? Then thank the scholars, artists, and activists who have recovered that work—often obscured by a racist publishing culture and by an academy that didn’t think it was important at the time. There’s a reason that students protested and sat in to fight for the establishment of ethnic studies and women’s studies departments in the 1960s and 70s. It wasn’t a fashion statement: serious formal engagement with the cultural contributions of women and ethnic minorities was urgently needed. No one can credibly say in public that women cannot be great authors anymore, for example, and when the writer V.S. Naipaul tried in 2011 (and David Gilmour in 2013), everybody knew how ridiculously wrong he was. How did they know? Thank the humanities. Thank those horrible feminist critics from the '80s who allegedly ruined literary scholarship. They worked like hell to change the language, and most of them never got famous.

Why does my cousin complain about her high heels as a way of bonding with other women?** Why does the criminal justice system so routinely view black minors not only as criminal but also as non-children? Why do gender and sexual categories like “male,” “female,” “gay,” “straight,” or “trans” have such an outsized effect on the way that you and I experience public space? The humanities address the questions, big and small, that we urgently want answered. Answers often lie in the history of the way that we’ve mediated these problems, in cultural artifacts like novels, poems, newspapers, visual art, music, and film. Sorting through, analyzing, and theorizing those artifacts is the business of the humanities.

Academic humanities scholars do this very well, but non-university-affiliated people engage in humanistic work all the time. (Let's NOT give all the credit for the above to academics—many of whom are still firmly in the crankypan/ts camp and hold great influence. A great deal of this work was led by activists and non-academics—but that's my point: the academic humanities are not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world in the way that some believe, or that David Brooks and Heather Mac Donald would like.) If you're a "completist" who has to watch every Eric Rohmer film you can, you’re doing humanities. When you decide you need to watch every single episode of every single Star Trek franchise, and when you decide to write about it on a blog or in a forum, you’re still doing humanities. You’re doing humanities if you write Harry Potter fanfiction to reinterpret the world of Hogwarts as a place where gay romances can flourish, or where characters of color aren’t relegated to supporting roles. (Humanities scholars study fanfiction, too. Cue the pearl-clutching about the decline of Standards.) Sometimes books by academics are difficult to read, because they’re specialized and technical and reference a lot of things you haven’t read. That’s fine; it’s harder to read an academic science journal than it is to read National Geographic, too. We may not always notice the ways that academic concepts are circulated and reinterpreted in popular culture, but that's because we live and breathe it every day. Just like scientific research, humanities research constantly crosses in and out of the academy, and it’s so much a part of everyday life that most of the time we don’t even bother to think of it as “humanities.”

The interpretation of culture and of cultural artifacts is everywhere, whether we’re deciding whether a book or television show is appropriate for a child, parsing an ambiguous email from someone we love, or trying to understand out a falling out among friends. The academic humanities are the serious, formal study of such interpretation. And that interpretation fundamentally—not incidentally—involves the conceptual categories that shape everyday life, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. Interpretation is social. It's political.

My hunch is that some people would rather that the humanities weren’t as relevant as they are, and have projected a distorted image of a self-involved, isolated profession in order to justify defunding the very research that makes the humanities so important. “Pay no attention to the research that’s going on here! It’s irrelevant!,” they insist. They wish that instead of doing new research on under-studied archives, bringing public attention to hidden histories, or offering new and challenging ways to think about the categories that most shape politics and everyday life, that we’d pipe down and eternally reproduce old, unchanging narratives about the usual suspects. They wish not only that we’d keep teaching about Thomas Jefferson (which we do, happily), but also that we’d keep teaching him the same way, forever, never bringing to light new historical evidence (Sally Hemings, anyone?***) or reinterpreting his writing through theoretical frameworks that bring new insight [Duke journals paywall]. They wish it were mere faddishness causing the humanities to do this kind of work. Sorry, guys: it’s evidence.

They stereotype us as standing up in front of a classroom and teaching the same old syllabus in the form of lectures that remain the same from year to year. But they only wish that were true. In reality, humanities scholars continually rethink their syllabi, taking into account recent research in the field, new approaches in our own research, and successes and failures in our previous teaching, which rarely takes the form of lectures. That’s because at the university level, the humanities, like every other field, is a field in the making. New knowledge is being created all the time, and that’s a good thing.

It seems to me that when pundits deride the humanities as irrelevant, it’s because we aren’t, and that poses a threat. Yes, studies in the humanities do raise uncomfortable questions, like when Susan Reverby, a women’s studies professor at Wellesley, documented a series of horrific unethical medical experiments that the U.S. Government performed on Guatemalan prisoners in the 1940s. They do make you change your textbooks. They challenge firmly held beliefs about culture, and offer evidence to back it up. People who want humanities research to be "timeless" do not believe that it can or should be timely. They are wrong.


Many thanks to Tressie McMillan Cottom for comments on an earlier version of this post.

*Yes, I violated my #neverclick rule. For you, dear readers.
**Not a real cousin.
***Historical research on Sally Hemings actually comes up in the aforementioned goofy paranormal procedural yes I admit I have watched it. It was all the tweets about the show using Middle English that drew me in. (By the way: Middle English in the 1590s? Wtf?) The point is: time-traveling eighteenth-century Ichabod (yeah, very loose adaptation) doesn't know about Sally Hemings but EVERYBODY in the present day does. THANK YOU, ANNETTE GORDON-REED.

I wish I could have a "BEYONCE as Bildung" symposium with all my students from last semester. I know they would rock it.


Dave said...

I enjoyed this, but it was kinda tangential to Mac Donald's piece. Granted, her portrayal of a curriculum shift at UCLA as the end of civilization is nonsensical red meat for WSJ op-ed readers. I'm all for the inclusion of identity in the curriculum, but why does it have to come at Shakespeare's expense?

Having just made my way through an undergrad humanities major, I can say that my favorite classes were ones that took new, diverse ideas about race, gender, etc. and applied them to the stodgy classical tradition, which turned out not to be so stodgy after all. They made me appreciative of the tradition of Western scholarship yet also mindful of its problems.

Anonymous said...

Well-written, Natalia, and quite thought-provoking. Thank you. Ms. Peterson

Natalia said...

Ms. Peterson: thank you!

Dave: I'm glad you got a lot out of re-theorizations of the "stodgy classical tradition," which is an important thing to do. I get a lot out of it too and often teach this way. But actually, most of the curriculum remains extremely Eurocentric, white, and male, with a few texts from other traditions sprinkled in. The result is that we have a lot of context for reading Shakespeare (or T.S. Eliot), and less for reading Hurston. So a lot of times when students "get less out of" texts written by authors of color and by women, it's because half of it is whizzing right over their heads. They aren't catching the references or the contexts because they've seen so little of the tradition. To be properly impressed by Invisible Man, you need to know your Melville and your DuBois (and much more besides). If you take an African American lit class (or several, which would be more than warranted, but one is already more than most students take), more of it starts to fall into place. But "I'm not getting as much out of these texts for which I have little context and little history" is pretty much a foregone conclusion, is it not?

We can rest on our laurels, re-read the same stuff in different ways, and pat ourselves on the back for noticing how racist some older texts are (we're so mindful of their problems). Or we can actually attempt the harder but far more responsible task, which is to remake our understanding of what "literature" and "culture" are in light of rich but under-documented and under-studied traditions. This is important for studying more canonical texts, too. Hawthorne looks different if you also know something about the "damned mob of scribbling women" of which he was so famously contemptuous.

And trust me, good old Shax is in no danger. I guarantee that if there is any theater at all, then someone in your locality is staging one of his plays within the calendar year, something that cannot be said of, for instance, Lorraine Hansberry (who is really canonical). Stephen Fry is currently playing Malvolio. Shawms are involved. "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme": dude's going to be okay.

Annette said...

Great, thoughtful piece. Thanks!

Based on your argument here, I'm thinking now of the relevance of "everyday humanities." "Everyday humanities" extends even beyond history and identity and art, as you highlight here, and into important questions about what it means to be human with each other every day. It helps us figure out what questions we should ask about our lives and how we might go about answering them.

Dave said...

That makes sense. Thanks! And you're right, I do have a tendency to stick to historical context I appreciate, which ends up only reinforcing what my conception of history is. That's something I'm looking to broaden.

I got out of school thinking I read way less great literature of any background than I should have, so I'm trying to catch up now. The classics are so easy to identify as a group (and have so much material on the web for independent study). After reading and thinking about this today, I'll be sure to mix in other stuff too.

Anonymous said...

I agree with so much you say, but Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont do not go after the categories you mention. He goes after the borrowing of scientific terms in loose, associative ways.

I don't agree with his hatred of this, I mean, metaphors are not evil, but what you cite is not what he calls "fashionable." Have you read Fashionable Nonsense?

What Sokal would have agreed with is the interpretation of real experience through cultural filters other than effete, elitist filters. Lacan (an abusive, white, cis man) is bullshit. People's lives are not.

I agree with you that humanities starts in our lives.

Natalia said...

Anonymous: Yes, I read Fashionable Nonsense years ago. You're right that Sokal and Bricmont's target is, narrowly, what they see as misappropriations of mathematical terminology, and I glossed this too quickly. Their broader target, and Sokal's broader target in the Social Text hoax, is then-recent humanities research ("postmodernism"), including and especially the notion of social constructedness, which was (and remains) crucial not only for science studies (as we remember, the issue of Social Text in question was a special issue on the "science wars") but also for a a broad span of work including women's studies, ethnic studies, and the new historicism in literary studies. From Sokal's Lingua Franca essay: "What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance." It's a basic misunderstanding of how social construction works, but that's what Sokal is calling fashionable nonsense. (There's more to say about this, of course.)

Of course, the word "fashionable" is far from limited to Sokal and Bricmont; here's John Hollander (RIP) trotting it out, for example.

Natalia said...

Annette--thank you! I agree. Everyday humanities is about engaging with the world.

cat said...

Natalie, thank you for this. It's really marvelous and on the mark. I plan to refer to on Thursday for the Chicago Humanities Summit and I've just dropped it into my "History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education" course--on Coursera and as a partnering course at Duke, Stanford, and UCSB--and as part of HASTAC's #FutureEd Initiative. You say succinctly and unpretentiously and pointedly what needs to be said. Required reading. Happy new year and thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I agree that the best humanities scholars do precisely what you say they do, and that it's a great thing. But I think we need to admit that there are an awful lot of humanities scholars out there who are just posing, strutting their cleverness, "performing" readings, etc. And I wish that the impenetrability of much academic writing in the humanities were just a function of professional jargon, specialized language, etc. But the fact is that a lot of us just write very poorly. We claim to be into the transmission of important ideas, and yet we go to professional meetings and assault each other by reading at each other!!!

Paula said...

Fabulous piece, Natalia. Really well said and fun to read as well. Thanks for writing and posting it.

Scott Johnson said...

Thanks Natalia, we seem to have lost the spirit of the humanities to talk back and actually HAVE values that can't be scared out of us or deemed unimportant to the economy--therefore useless. That said, who's fighting back? I don't mean talking to each other. I mean talking to power and the electorate who continue to select representatives intent on further marginalizing the humanities. It's fine to talk to ourselves but I think we are afraid of alienating support from outside the group and aren't heard at all.

Anonymous said...

I think you're incorrect in claiming the humanities have been under attack for being old and preservationist, no? The 3am article ("cura te ipsum") you linked to criticized the humanities precisely because they've lost any semblance of a canon. This point, incidentally, formed the gist of Harvard's recent inquiry into the decline of the humanities, "Mapping the Humanities." What Harvard's study revealed is that the politics of a hermeneutics of suspicion, which has pissed on the canon of dead white males, has oddly enough alienated young people by transforming what the humanities once did (teach aesthetic appreciation) to what they now do (teach cultural history).

Doc McGrail said...

Thank you, Dr. Cecire, for this pep talk for those of us humanists who go back into the classroom tomorrow and who need a good speech. And just a plug: not just university humanists but community college humanists do this work!

John McLaughlin, PhD said...

Had we but world enough and time, we could do both, of course - keep the classics, and add the currently-neo-canonical feminist and anti-imperialist concerns, totally legitimate in themselves. Given the limitation on credit hours in a major at places like Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA, that's a bit of a bulge. Something's going to give or refuse to give. Test: What is purely and necessarily literary, and what is purely and necessarily sociological about either end of this spectrum of concerns? If I have to read one fewer Shakespeare play to make room for one more sociologically-theoretical article in a Shakespeare course, I know what I'd choose. And the students currently dropping English lit - factually correct, sorry to say - agree with me, not with you. So sorry.

John McLaughlin, PhD said...

(I recently retired - a second retirement, the first got boring - this time from teaching English in a community college. And the students take Shakespeare to read Shakespeare, not to read sociologese jargon that is already moldering on the branch.

Anonymous said...

I regret that your idealistic portrayal of humanities scholars is too uncritical.

Humanities scholars, in general, are so deeply immersed in the leftist, egalitarian, social constructionist, multiculturalist worldview, that they are incapable of even recognizing it as a worldview. Instead, this worldview is simply taken on faith, much as evangelical Christians take the Bible.

I earned a humanities PhD at Yale myself, in the previous decade, so I have experienced it from the inside. I spent many years (undergrad, too) dutifully repeating the mantras, genuflecting before Judith Butler, before contact with the real world and with the internet led me to reject the stifling orthodoxies of the academic cult.

Joe said...

It would be interesting to be around after 100 years or so of "critical theory and its concurrent attention to race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability" driving American education and see what a mess would be left. Your confidence that you are making a better world is sorely misplaced. You should read, for example The Disuniting of America, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Disclosure: I'm a white male and successful capitalist. Probably makes me the anti-Christ in your world. Perhaps you'll remember this comment when the trains stop running.

Mark Bauerlein said...

If you think that humanities scholarship is relevant, you haven't looked at empirical data on unit sales of monographs and at citation data on books and articles. Try Googling "Literary Research: Costs and Impact."

Mark Bauerlein

Natalia said...

Ah, Mark Bauerlein! Is it really only sales of your book, or formal citation in other academic work, that would persuade you that hum scholarship is relevant? Are you really so sure that it never manifests in other ways?

Here are some books you can currently buy on Amazon that simply wouldn't be there without humanities scholarship drawing attention to it or humanities scholars having done the research to recover it:

Thomas Harriot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World
Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie
Harriet Wilson, Our Nig
Pauline Hopkins, Of One Blood
Jean Toomer, Cane (there's even a Norton)
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

You may not personally care about these specific books, but it's a fact about the publishing industry that these books are in print, and it's a fact about our society that people not only know that these books existed but can get editions of them pretty easily, and have cultural contexts for wanting to do so. Siri Hustvedt cared enough to title her forthcoming novel The Blazing World (Simon and Schuster, March 2014). Maybe you haven't read some of them. I've read all of them—in paperback, thanks to scholars who've gone before me, whose work I mightily appreciate.

And that's just one of the more obvious ways that humanities scholarship moves things in the world. Most of the ways our research gets spread around isn't through things that get counted easily. Teaching, for one. (Quite often, students do the reading! Sometimes they even talk about it with their friends.) A Tumblr post here, a summary in conversation there, and by leaps and bounds in the kinds of places that don't often cite--magazines and blogs. Counterpublics, heterotopias, Foucauldian discipline, queer optimism, performativity, double consciousness, intersectionality, "late style," beauty, the sublime, avant-garde, kitsch—I could go on—these are all concepts that people use—constantly.

Why aim so very low? If all our knowledge were actually locked up in monograph sales and citation metrics, we'd be in a sad situation indeed. But isn't; it's everywhere.

Mark Bauerlein said...

I teach many of those works. It is odd to me that you would assume I "do not personally care" about them.

Certainly the sciences use citation as a primary measure of relevance, and we must ask a parallel question: Is the research productivity industry in the humanities as it exists today necessary to maintain the works listed? Is the cost justified? As you know, the notice of those works goes back several decades, and as I wrote in my report, the explosion of research in the mid-20th-century had its rightful impact. But when 90 percent of all the literary research that gets published goes into the library and is never heard from again, one has to ask whether the labor and energy and money were justified. This is not to "aim low." It is, rather, to respect humanities people enough not to ask them to spend their lives producing unappreciated goods.

Chris Wright said...

This is a relatively well-written attempt at self-justification--and, as an academic who lives off the surplus labor of others (to speak in Marxian jargon) and spends his time writing abstruse intellectual essays that are read by maybe forty people, I appreciate the author's desire to justify her professional existence. Nevertheless, on the whole, she fails. Certainly in a very broad sense of "the humanities," people are constantly engaged in them. And they always have been. It may be true, also, that, in some sense, such concepts as "Counterpublics, heterotopias, Foucauldian discipline, queer optimism, performativity, double consciousness, intersectionality," and so on are used by people. Most people, however, don't feel the need to speak in hyper-pretentious jargon that serves only to marginalize oneself and keep out the uninitiated. Insofar as things like these concepts are used by "ordinary people," they have been used for centuries, because such concepts are little but truisms dressed up in fancy clothes. Most postmodernism, in fact, is either truistic or empty--a statement that, surely, the vast majority of people would agree with if they concerned themselves with postmodern "texts" and "discourses."

Nor does one have to be a humanities scholar or sympathetic to the contemporary humanities in order to have good leftist credentials. In fact, if anything, resistance to oppression is facilitated by clear thinking and attention to objective structures of power, which means that postmodernist "woolly thinking," subjectivism, idealism and so on are actually rather useful to the current political and economic status quo. (No wonder that power-structures have allowed postmodernism to proliferate in academies over the last thirty years.)

Noam Chomsky knows whereof he speaks: I do find it touching, though, to read efforts at self-justification by pretentious academics who do--let's be honest--tend to live in a privileged bubble isolated from the oppressions of "the masses."