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The Ignored in Conversations About the Future of Humanities
May 28, 2012 - 9:05pm

I’m at Congress 2012, the annual mega-conference put together by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (aka FedCan), made up of various smaller member organizations that span the disciplines. On Sunday, I attended two sessions: a round table on the future of postcolonial studies, with relation to transnationalism, globalization, diasporic studies, etc., and a talk by former MLA president Sidonie Smith on the future of graduate education in the humanities. I’ve archived my live tweets of the two sessions (here and here).

As I pointed out on Twitter, never once did any of the panelists discuss the use/growth/spread of digital tools and the use of social media. Considering how the panelists insisted that we gather our knowledge from as many differing and varying sources as possible (not to mention that there is no master narrative to begin with), it was troubling to me to hear them ignore the power that social media has given to movements and traditionally marginalized communities. They even talked about the Occupy movement and the Montreal protests, omitting that social media has played an important role in spreading the message and growing the size and scope of the protests.

Another omission was about teaching. Certainly, the panelists mentioned (although often in passing) our role in teaching our students about being critical and introducing them to these kinds of movements. But, as I asked, how does one introduce these kinds of narratives in a setting where students are in school for job training? To be told by the panelists that we must be aware of the suffering, what of my students, many of whom are living in some form of suffering, ranging from poverty from family member with drug addiction? And, I could have added, in places where this kind of education is seen as indoctrination and overly political?

The question sat unanswered, but many people who were in the audience came up to me afterward and mentioned that they were experiencing the same challenges with their students, within their institutions. The panelists almost all came from elite, R1 institutions both in Canada and abroad, while those in the audience who came up to me afterwards were from nonselective public institutions and/or, as they refer to them in Canada and elsewhere, polytechnics. It is a depressing thought that those who are interested and engaged in the politics of the subaltern are either largely uninterested, unable, or unwilling to address those who teach truly marginalized populations (not to mention the students themselves).

I might be being a bit unfair. But the more interesting discussion for me as a educator came after the panel when people who were more my peers in terms of institutional profile approached me to talk about our shared challenges and experiences. This is where the divide happens between research and teaching in the humanities; I have no doubt that the work and research that the panelists do at their home institutions is valuable and important, but its applicability for those of us in the trenches is often difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate.

A few hours later I was thrilled to see some of the panelists I just criticized attend Sidonie Smith’s talk on reforming doctoral education and moving away from the dissertation and embracing more digital forms of communicating our research (and earning a Ph.D.). Not only were there plenty of old-school professors in the room (not to mention young doctoral students), but the presidents of both FedCan and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (or SSHRC), Canada’s version of the NEH. It’s important that those in positions to influence policy and distribute funding hear about the important shifts that are taking place and what we need to do to react and adapt, if not lead.

Dr. Smith talked about how academics need to redefine how we share our research, how we communicate, and learn new (digital) skills, while also training our doctoral students in the same ways. My question, and it is one that I have asked before, is what of the “lost generation” of Ph.D.s? Too far removed from graduation to get a (scarce) postdoc, too in-debt to get another graduate degree, and not in a position, either financially or professionally, to retrain on our own, what of my generation largely hanging on off the tenure track? How can the institution support us in our quest to “retrain” and reposition ourselves?

I stumped Dr. Smith. She had never thought of us, those of us off the tenure track. And this isn’t to say that she didn’t know that we exist; she rattled off the stats that we all (hopefully) know about the dismal job market for Ph.D.s in the humanities and the number currently teaching off the tenure track. Nowhere did we fit in her community of academics – on the one hand, those who have tenure need to be flexible to help those one the tenure track and graduate students, but does anyone have a responsibility to help us, too?

Dr. Smith would seem to agree with me that there is a responsibility. She suggested free only courses and workshops (like THATCamp), but acknowledged that time and resources are scarce commodities for those off the tenure track. She is about to take up the position of director of University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities and she acknowledged to me that she would work to provide support, training, and resources to those off the tenure track. So while I was initially disappointed that non-tt faculty were excluded from the initial conversations about this disciplinary shift, I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to insert us into the larger picture.

We make up a majority of the teaching faculty, either by working at non-selective institutions or being off the tenure track (and often both at the same time). We need to speak up and ensure that our voices are heard in these important conversations going forward. I’ll keep asking the awkward questions. I hope you do, too.  

 

 

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