For a long while now I have planned to write an essay about the habit of keeping a notebook, and have even, from time to time, started to take notes on the topic. By now there have accumulated more passages hectoring myself to settle down to work on it than pages containing actual insights. It seems the project has a short circuit.
But it may be that this reflects a basic tension within the notebook itself, considered as a genre of writing. On the one hand, it is turned towards the outside world; it is absorptive and assimilative, a tool for recording information, ideas, impressions. On the other, it is the ideal venue for self-consciousness to run amok. Even when a notebook is integral to a specific project, the writing always seems to be lacking something. Thoughts remain unfinished or provisional. You are moving but you aren't there yet. This can be frustrating. But then a notebook can also be where you can dig in your heels -- summoning up the confidence, or the vital reserves of energy, needed to continue.
Sometimes the notebook provides escape from the work in progress, rather than contributing to it. This is not necessarily a matter of procrastination.
The best essay on the notebook as workshop is probably “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” by C. Wright Mills.(See this column on it.) But an important supplement comes from Elias Canetti, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. After spending decades on his idiosyncratic and sui generis work of scholarship Crowds and Power (1960), Canetti published a mordant essay on notebook-keeping called “Dialogue with the Cruel Partner.”
“One cannot avoid the fact,” he writes, “that a work being continued daily through the years may occasionally strike one as clumsy, hopeless, or belated. One loathes it, one feels besieged by it, it cuts off one’s breath. Suddenly, everything in the world seems more important, and one feels like a bungler... Every outside sound seems to come from a forbidden paradise; whereas every word one joins to the labor one has been continuing for so long, every such word, in its pliant adjustment, its servility, has the color of a banal and permitted hell.”
From such dark moods, the notebook offers a reprieve. When the writer “views himself as the slave of his goal, only one thing can help: he has to yield to the diversity of his faculties and promiscuously record whatever comes to his mind.... The same writer, normally keeping a strict discipline, briefly becomes the voluntary plaything of his chance ideas. He writes down things that he would never have expected in himself, that go against his background, his convictions, his modesty, his pride, and even his otherwise stubbornly defended truth.”
There is a third modality of the notebook habit – a matter of treating it, neither as the warehouse and workshop for a project nor as an escape from its demands, but as something like its own form of writing, imposing its own peculiar demands.
Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook” is astute on how this third mode is a function of temperament: “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.” The fragments jotted down are “bits of the mind's string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its own maker.”
The resulting collages of stray data and random insights are a way to keep track of one’s earlier incarnations, the personalities adopted and left behind in the course of a lifetime. “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with people we used to be,” Didion writes, “whether we find them attractive company or not.”
As it happens, Canetti made much the same point. “The mechanisms one uses to make life easy are far too well-developed,” he writes. “First a man says, somewhat timidly: ‘I really couldn’t help it.’ And then, in the twinkling of an eye, the matter is forgotten. To escape this unworthiness, one ought to write the thing down, and then, much later, perhaps years later, when self-complacence is dripping out of all of one’s pores, when one least expects it, one is suddenly, and to one’s horror, confronted with it. ‘I was once capable of that, I did that.’ ”
On this account, then, notebooks are, in effect, an annex of the superego. My own notebooks play that role at times.They document opinions or enthusiasms that sometimes prove embarrassing, after a few years have passed. But they are also full of injunctions – usually to work harder, or to finish some project now gathering dust in one of the more workshop-like volumes, or to start studying X in a systematic fashion (and here’s the syllabus...).
Recently the text of Didion’s essay was posted at an online venue called The New Inquiry, which is something of a cross between a group blog and a salon (it sponsors face-to-face meetings in New York between readers and contributors) and seems to be in transition towards becoming a magazine. Its three founders are recent graduates of Columbia University and Barnard College.
The site itself is a kind of collective notebook. It made me wonder how the proprietors understood notebook-keeping – and whether digital technology influenced how they practiced it. My own habits are irremediably old-fashioned. A netbook is not a notebook, to my mind anyway, and I still do a lot of writing with pen in hand, even while exhorting myself to be more productive and efficient (a performative contradiction, if ever there were one). But being stuck in one’s own habits does not preempt curiosity about those of other people, so I asked the New Inquirists how they saw “notebooking.”
While she prefers to read from paper, Jennifer Bernstein, a New York-based writer, finds that reflecting on what she reads is another matter: “I often create a Word document in which to jot down the best ideas and quotations from a book. Then I end up reading commentary on the book and articles related to its theme, excerpts from which I also paste into the document, usually with my own thoughts. The document becomes a kind of mini-scrapbook, the record of my exploration of a concept (for example, one I did recently was conservatism in the 20th century). This isn’t a perfect method. It’s led to a proliferation of strangely titled documents on my hard drive that at some point I should probably sort through and systematize. On the other hand, the chaos reflects how my mind really works.”
Rachel Rosenfelt, a cultural critic living in Brooklyn, told me: “I've never been a paper-notebook keeper in the sense Didion means it. Or in most senses, really. When I moved out of my last apartment I unearthed a pocket notebook that I had bought years earlier to track my expenses. On the first page was written: ‘notebook- $3.14.’ That was the only entry.”
Instead, she uses whatever book she is reading as a recording surface. They end up “profaned,” as she puts it, “filled with unrelated scribblings in the front and back pages, marked up with underlines, stars and notes....The notes I take within the texts and margins of books work like a diary for me in that sense, and often have a second life online in the form of the ideas I formulate and write about on TNI and elsewhere.” One consequence is that Rosenfelt can never part with a book when she is done with it. After all, you don’t sell a diary.
The attitude of Mary Borkowski, an arts programmer for the Columbia University radio station WKCR, sounds closest to my own. “I'm a bit eccentric in that I rarely write anything initially on the computer,” she told me. “I compose most essays, letters, short stories, poems, even emails, in long hand and then transcribe them onto the screen. I do realize that writing in longhand is, well, time-consuming, but there is something about writing in longhand that is always more surreptitious, more crafty, almost silent -- the least painful way to wrench a thought from my mind.”
The exact format of “notebooking” matters less, Borkowski says, than the impulse to find “a canvas for the mind” – a place for “the spurts of thoughts and memes, blurps from the brain stems that have no order yet.” The notebook is “the outline before the outline.”
I sensed that The New Inquiry serves as a place to record (the preferred term now is “curate”) things its participants had read, and to gloss them if the spirit so moves. Jennifer Bernstein confirmed this: “I usually just post several cultural artifacts that I see as closely related, without comment (see this, for example). This format allows me to maintain the loose, associative connection between them (and to suggest that connection to others). Websites can accommodate all kinds of media, including audio and video, which allows juxtapositions that weren’t instinctive or even possible before.”
Besides “collective notebook-keeping in the form of group blogs,” Bernstein noted the potential of formats such as Google Documents, “where people can edit the very same text, or Wave, which supports all forms of media. Basic software innovations like Word’s Track Changes and Google Wave have multiplied the forms that commentary can take.”
But part of what I value about The New Inquiry is that its participants always seem at least somewhat ambivalent about the technologies they have grown up with – and this comes through in Mary Borkowski’s comments.
“We create tools for living,” she told me, “and they became objects that totally dominate us or we dominate them. Notebooking is then one of the last personal stands against the individual mind being dominated by outside forces, or having to 'think inside the box,' if you will. It's a 'secret,' 'private' outlet that used to exist in ledger or diary form but now, especially when we're so inundated by the busy-ness of technology, notebooking is a state of mind expressed in the time we are separated from our palm devices, or laptops, or phones. The notebooking state of mind comes up when we can think minus the chatter, when ideas clarify. Notebooking facilitates the spontaneity of creativity, thoughts that could occur at any moment, or random time -- the unaccounted for in our over-accounted for, micromanaged, lifehacking world. Notebooking is the place to process your thinking in a world that seems to only value the end product.”
About 20 years ago, while I was working in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, one of my fellow archival technicians was a recently graduated Yalie who had been employed at one point by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University is home to, among other things, the Ezra Pound papers. "After a while,” my friend said, “you started to notice something about the Ezra Pound scholars. They looked like Ezra Pound. Not all of them, of course, but a lot of them did. You could tell when there was a conference because all these guys who looked like Ezra Pound were in the reading room.”
This raised questions, of course, about influence and causality: Did you start imitating Ezra Pound after studying him for a while, or was it that guys who already looked a little bit like the poet were more likely to specialize in him? Did people in other specialties or fields of study do this? We did not have people in powdered wigs showing up at the LC asking to see the papers of the Founding Fathers. Did they maybe have powdered wigs in their backpacks but thought better of it when they saw the security guards?
And so the conversation progressed after work, after beers. I forget what conclusions we reached, but that may be for the best.
Some of it came to mind a couple of weeks ago while I was back at my own alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, standing in the lobby of the Harry Ransom Center, where there is a small display of a few items from the recently acquired papers of David Foster Wallace. I had made inquiries about having a look at the collection. It is still being processed, and I was told that doing so would only be possible during a return trip this fall. I imagined coming back in November to a reading room full of David Foster Wallace scholars -- unshaven guys in bandannas, presumably. So much for stealing a march on them....
The glass case in the Ransom Center lobby contains a few pages of the typescript of his novel Infinite Jest, and the page proofs of a biography of Borges that he wrote about forThe New York Times (full of the marginal and inside-the-cover notes a reviewer makes along the way), and also a poem about Vikings that he had written at the age of 7.
The display was a modest concession to public curiosity. While no amount of staring at it could spark in my brain any new insight into DFW's work, it had the virtue of being unsensationalistic. A writer who kills himself runs the risk -- and he must have known this -- of having his life and work turned into one long suicide note. That is both ghoulish and dumb, but perhaps understandable, given that the act of writing itself tends to be lacking in overt drama. It is easier to focus on the big exit than the steady application of backside to chair.
One small element of the display did have an emotional charge, at least for this viewer. Inside the cover of the Borges biography (which he ended up finding disappointing) Wallace recorded the word count and deadline his editor had given him when assigning the piece. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about either the note or its location; it is the kind of thing a reasonably efficient working writer jots down as a matter of course.
But there is a complex double-take involved in seeing Wallace in those terms: a genius, yes, but also, among other things, a reasonably efficient working writer, immersed in the everyday routines of that particular mode of being in the world.
Returning last week to the familiar clutter of my Inside Higher Ed cubicle -- a scene less of reasonable efficiency than entropic squalor -- I found that Broadway Books has sent a copy of David Lipsky’s new volume Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. It consists of the transcript of five days’ worth of conversations that Lipsky, a novelist and Rolling Stone contributing editor, had with Wallace in early 1996, when Infinite Jest had just appeared. There are a few pages of introductory material by Lipsky himself. They overlap a bit with the memorable article Lipsky published following Wallace’s death, but not that much, and anyone who has read the one should also check out the other.
Becoming Yourself is not that long a book (just over 300 pages, most of them well-ventilated with white space) but I found it a slow read, because something about the whole thing felt disquieting. Lipsky was accompanying Wallace on part of his book tour. Their discussions, recorded on tape, were meant to be raw material for a Rolling Stone profile that, for one reason or another, never quite came together. Although a sort of intimacy emerges, the whole thing is marked by the strained dynamic of self-consciousness squared -- for each of them is alert to the Goffmanian undercurrents of each step of the whole encounter, the way that each element of self-disclosure (whether by interviewer or by subject) is at least potentially a form of manipulation.
That tension will not come as a surprise to any reader of Wallace. The ratcheting-up of self-awareness, particularly as provoked and channeled by the mass media, is the vital pulse of his writing, whether fiction or non-. He never left you with the sense that he was exempt from it in its most inexorable and on-autopilot forms; on the contrary. But with pen in hand, he could, if not exactly regulate the pace and intensity of hyperlucidly self-conscious frames of mind, then at least do something with them, creatively.
Not so here. At times Wallace finds himself at sea, treading water, going in circles. His comments, made between stints of promoting Infinite Jest, are riddled with a sense of complicity in something he understands as both necessary and dubious. (Commercially necessary; existentially dubious.)
He has, he says, “written a book about how seductive image is, and how very many ways there are to get seduced off any kind of meaningful path, because of the way the culture is now. But what if I become this grotesque parody of just what the book is about? And of course, this stuff drives me nuts.... So the next level of complication is, do I congratulate myself on my worry and concern about all this stuff, because it is a sign that I’ve not been seduced about it? And then of course, if I get happy about that, then I’ve lost the edge – I mean, there’s just no end to the little French curls of craziness you can go through about it.”
True, that. But these are remarks, and remarks are not literature. Over time it becomes obvious that Wallace is in perfect earnest about the fear of distraction from work – from making literature, that is, rather than being part of the culture industry, with its ambient sound (as he puts it) of “this enormous hiss of egos at various stages of inflation and deflation.” Wallace is the most eloquent in the passages where, no mistake about it, you can hear his desire to stop talking.
Best to end, then, with one of them:
“What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit – to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level. And that if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is. Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time. And it’s not a question of the writer having more capacity than the average person. It’s that the writer is willing I think to cut off, cut himself off from certain stuff, and develop ... and just, and think really hard. Which not everybody has the luxury to do. But I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person.”
Usually the reader imitates the author -- hoping to absorb that state of grace or genius, or at least to share in its aura. Here the roles have shifted, the polarities reversed. This is why his death seems such a loss. Reading him, there was the sense that he understood the way we live now. He would tell us what we knew about it. Almost knew, but not yet.
What's in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.
These lines from Romeo and Juliet are often quoted to indicate the triviality of naming. But anyone who has read or seen the play through to its end knows that the names Montague and Capulet indicate a complex web of family relationships and enmities that end up bringing about the tragic deaths of our protagonists.
Lore also has it that Shakespeare's lines were perhaps a coy slam against the Rose Theatre, a rival of his own Globe Theatre, and that with these lines he was poking fun at the stench caused by less-than-sanitary arrangements at the Rose.
I write now in response to the naming of a newly created department at my large state university called "the Department of Writing and Rhetoric." This new department is being split off from the English department and given the mandate to install a new Writing Across the Curriculum program, convert adjunct positions to "permanent" instructor positions, and establish a related B.A. degree.
While the acronym WAR may seem appropriate to some of my colleagues, many of them think we have more important things to worry about than a name right now. We have also been repeatedly told in the face of previous protests that referring to Composition as Writing is a trend nationwide. Nonetheless, I believe that this title is an indication of bad faith and a negative harbinger for the work of the new department and programs like it elsewhere.
Since the announcement of this change, I attended a tenure party for a colleague in another department. Every single person I spoke with at this party assumed from the title of the new department that "all" writing would be taught there, including my field of Creative Writing. People repeatedly asked me what I thought about being in a new department, and I repeatedly corrected them as confusion spread over their faces. They couldn't understand how the Department of Writing and Rhetoric would not include the writing of fiction, poetry, and so on. I repeatedly had to say that “Writing” in this usage means Composition. They repeatedly asked me why, then, the department will be using the title Writing.
That's a very good question, and one that indicates something disturbing, not just here, but in that nationwide naming trend mentioned above and so often cited. Referring to programs in Composition by the title "Writing" indicates that this field is the authority over all meaningful types of writing – in all other fields. By implication, it implies that no other type of writing but what Composition Studies teaches is valid or important – or even exists. Both of these claims are demonstrably false, although they are the silent assumptions that often underlie Composition's use of the term Writing to describe itself.
Perhaps even more disturbing is that using the name Department of Writing and Rhetoric indicates a willingness to write badly in order to empire-build. Good writing is always about clarity and insight, precision and accuracy. Therefore, this confusing name calls into question the very quality of the writing instruction that will be given in the new department. If the department cannot and will not name itself accurately, then what does that bode for the students to be educated there?
Don't get me wrong. I also differ from some of my colleagues in that I am happy about the creation of the new department. Composition is an upstart field that, like my own of Creative Writing, has often not gotten its due. Partly this is because it stems from a remedial function -- Composition became necessary when the sons and daughters of the working class began attending colleges and universities and were not adequately prepared in the finer points of belles lettres.
Naturally, due to the fact that the background -- and the goals -- of these individuals differed from those of the upper classes that had established belles lettres, Composition began to explore and defend less artistic, more practical forms of writing. This evolution differs from that of such programs in mathematics, for instance, where remedial algebra still focuses on the same formulas as those used in advanced courses. In Composition Studies and Writing Across the Curriculum programs, there has been a focus on supplanting the literary scholarly essay as the gold standard of writing. In the past few decades, Composition as a field has worked hard to establish the legitimacy and importance of other forms of writing and their teaching. Much of this effort I admire.
I am also happy that Composition will be given resources long absent. Having taught Composition courses myself for several years, I understand the need for acknowledgment and support, even if the specifics of the plan at my university have not been widely shared or discussed and seem to me based on suspect methods. I wish the new department nothing but the best in its attempts to improve basic writing instruction for our students.
However, many in the field of Composition have also brought resentment of old wounds and insults to bear by attempting to claim that it is foundational and that it is the expert in all types of writing. Advocates for the field have accomplished this by theorizing what they do and by selling it to those in other fields as the answer to literacy. Among other things, they have also tried to change its name to something less associated with its remedial roots and more grandiose in its scope. However, it remains the case that Composition Studies does not represent a universal approach to literacy, critical thinking, or writing.
In my own field of Creative Writing, for instance, we have far different assumptions about what constitutes effective writing instruction. Admittedly, we have somewhat different purposes. But let me also point out that the rise of Composition Studies over the past 30 or 40 years does not seem to have led to a populace that writes better.
In fact, it has coincided with a time when literacy rates have dropped and where complaints about the poor writing skills of college and university graduates (especially of large public universities) have continued to rise. Obviously many complex social factors contribute to this. It is also debatable whether universities have contributed to this state of affairs because the changing methods of teaching Composition are misguided or because there simply haven't been enough resources. I'm all for giving Composition the resources it needs, respecting its right to self-determination in its field, and letting us see what happens. I am all for the general population writing better, even if it is in an instrumental and limited form disconnected from the literary traditions that have fed most love of and respect for the written word in our culture.
Beyond the details of these various professional debates, my negative reaction to the new departmental name stems from the corruption of language that is so prevalent in our society today, where advertisers and politicians and many others lie through exaggeration, omission and indirection. The best analysis of this is perhaps Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature. In it she talks about uses of language that are destructive, about language that obscures rather than clarifies, and how so often such language "tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind."
If we put the writerly education of our students into the hands of people who insist on rejecting the accurate term Composition for the grandiose and unclear one Writing, what will they learn? They will learn, I am afraid, that they can say whatever they want, even if it is sloppy, confusing, manipulative, or a knowing lie.
Misnaming this department also evokes the negative definition of the title's other half: Rhetoric. In academe we know that rhetoric can be "the study of effective use of language," but most of the world is more familiar with rhetoric defined as "the undue use of exaggeration and display; bombast." This latter definition seems apt when combined with Writing in this name.
I, for one, will never call it the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. I will call it what it actually is: the Department of Composition and Rhetoric. If its practitioners truly respected their own history, they would call it that, too. A "rose" sometimes can smell not so sweet, especially if it turns out not to be a flower at all.
Lisa Roney is associate professor of English and coordinator for the undergraduate Creative Writing program at the University of Central Florida.
Many of us committed to the liberal arts have been defensive for as long as we can remember.
We have all cringed when we have heard a version of the following joke: The graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?”; the graduate with an engineering degree asks, “How does it work?”; the graduate with a liberal arts degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”
We have responded to such mockery by proclaiming the value of the liberal arts in the abstract: it creates a well-rounded person, is good for democracy, and develops the life of the mind. All these are certainly true, but somehow each misses the point that the joke drives home. Today’s college students and their families want to see a tangible financial outcome from the large investment that is now American higher education. That doesn’t make them anti-intellectual, but simply realists. Outside of home ownership, a college degree might be the largest single purchase for many Americans.
There is a disconnect as parents and students worry about economic outcomes when too many of us talk about lofty ideals. More families are questioning both the sticker price of schools and the value of whole fields of study. It is natural in this environment for us to feel defensive. It is time, however, that we in the liberal arts understand this new environment, and rather than merely react to it, we need to proactively engage it. To many Americans the liberal arts have a luxury they feel they need to give up to make a living -- nice but impractical. We need to speak more concretely to the economic as well as the intellectual value of a liberal arts degree.
The liberal arts always situate graduates on the road for success. More Fortune 500 CEOs have had liberal arts B.A.s than professional degrees. The same is true of doctors and lawyers. And we know the road to research science most often comes through a liberal arts experience. Now more than ever, as employment patterns seem to be changing, we need to engage the public on the value of a liberal arts degree in a more forceful and deliberate way.
We are witnessing an economic shift that may be every bit as profound as the shift from farm to factory. Today estimates are that over 25 percent of the American population is working as contingent labor -- freelancers, day laborers, consultants, micropreneurs.
Sitting where we do it is easy to dismiss this number because we assume it comes from day laborers and the working class, i.e., the non-college-educated. But just look at higher education's use of adjuncts and you see the trend. The fastest-growing sector of this shift is in the formally white-collar world our students aspire to. This number has been steadily rising and is projected to continue its upward climb unchanged. We are living in a world where 9:00-5:00 jobs are declining, careers with one company over a lifetime are uncommon, and economic risk has shifted from large institutions to individuals. Our students will know a world that is much more unstable and fluid than the one of a mere generation ago.
We have known for many years that younger workers (i.e., recent college graduates) move from firm to firm, job to job and even career to career during their lifetime. What we are seeing now, however, is different. And for as many Americans, they are hustling from gig to gig, too. These workers, many our former students, may never know economic security, but they may know success. For many of the new-economy workers, success is measured by more than just money, as freedom, flexibility and creativity count too.
If this is the new economy our students are going to inherit, we as college and university administrators, faculty and staff need to take stock of the programs we offer (curricular as well as extracurricular) to ensure that we serve our students' needs and set them on a successful course for the future. The skills they will need may be different from those of their predecessors. Colleges and universities with a true culture of assessment already are making the necessary strategic adjustments.
In 1956, William Whyte, the noted sociologist, wrote The Organizational Man to name the developing shift in work for that generation. Whyte recognized that white-collar workers traded independence for stability and security. What got them ahead in the then-new economy was the ability to fit in (socialization) and a deep set of narrow vocational skills. Firms at the time developed career ladders, and successful junior executives who honed their skills and got along advanced up the food chain.
Today, no such career ladder exists. And narrow sets of skills may not be the ticket they once were. We are witnessing a new way of working developing before our eyes. Today, breadth, cultural knowledge and sensitivity, flexibility, the ability to continually learn, grow and reinvent, technical skills, as well as drive and passion, define the road to success. And liberal arts institutions should take note, because this is exactly what we do best.
For liberal arts educators, this economic shift creates a useful moment to step out of the shadows. We no longer need to be defensive because what we have to offer is now more visibly useful in the world. Many of the skills needed to survive and thrive in the new economy are exactly those a well-rounded liberal arts education has always provided: depth, breadth, knowledge in context and motion, and the search for deeper understanding.
It will not be easy to explain to future students and their parents that a liberal arts degree may not lead to a particular “job” per se, because jobs in the traditional sense are disappearing. But, we can make a better case about how a liberal arts education leads to both a meaningful life and a successful career.
In this fluid world, arts and sciences graduates may have an advantage. They can seek out new opportunities and strike quickly. They are innovative and nimble. They think across platforms, understand society and culture, and see technology as a tool rather than an end in itself. In short, liberal arts graduates have the tools to make the best out of the new economy. And, above all, we need to better job identifying our successes, our alumni, as well as presenting them to the public. We need to ensure that the public knows a liberal arts degree is still, and always has been, a ticket to success.
This could be a moment for the rebirth of the liberal arts. For starters, we are witnessing exciting new research about the economy that is situating the discussion more squarely within the liberal arts orbit, and in the process blurring disciplinary boundaries. These scholars are doing what the American studies scholar Andrew Ross has called “scholarly reporting,” a blend of investigative reporting, social science and ethnography, as a way to understand the new economy shift. Scholars such as the sociologists Dalton Conley and Sharon Zurkin and the historian Bryant Simon offer new models of engaged scholarship that explain the cultural parameters of the new economy. We need to recognize and support this research because increasingly we will need to teach it as the best way to ensure our students understand the moment.
We also need to be less territorial, and recognize that the professional schools are not the enemy. They have a lot to offer our students. Strategic partnerships between professional schools and the arts and sciences enrich both and offer liberal arts students important professional opportunities long closed off to them. We also need to find ways to be good neighbors to the growing micropreneurial class, either by providing space, wifi, or interns. Some schools have created successful incubators, which can jump-start small businesses and give their students important ground-floor exposure to the emerging economy.
Today’s liberal arts graduates will need to function in an economy that is in some ways smaller. Most will work for small firms and many will simply work on their own. They will need to multitask as well as blend work and family. And, since there will be little budget or time for entry-level training, we need to ensure that all our students understand the basics of business even if they are in the arts. We also might consider preparing our graduates as if they were all going to become small business owners, because in a sense many of them are going to be micropreneurs.
Richard A. Greenwald
Richard A Greenwald is dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, director of university partnerships, and professor of history at Drew University in Madison, N.J. His next book is entitled The Micropreneurial Age: The Permanent Freelancer and the New American (Work)Life.
When the economy goes down, one expects the liberal arts -- especially the humanities -- to wither, and laments about their death to go up. That’s no surprise since these fields have often defined themselves as unsullied by practical application. This notion provides little comfort to students -- and parents -- who are anxious about their post-college prospects; getting a good job -- in dire times, any job -- is of utmost importance. (According to CIRP’s 2009 Freshman Survey, 56.5 percent of students -- the highest since 1983 -- said that “graduates getting good jobs” was an important factor when choosing where to go to college.)
One expects students, then, to rush to courses and majors that promise plenty of entry-level jobs. Anticipating this, college administrators would cut back or eliminate programs that are not “employment friendly,” as well as those that generate little research revenue. Exit fields like classics, comparative literature, foreign languages and literatures, philosophy, religion, and enter only those that are preprofessional in orientation. Colleges preserving a commitment to the liberal arts would see a decline in enrollment; in some cases, the institution itself would disappear.
So runs the widespread narrative of decline and fall. Everyone has an anecdote or two to support this story, but does it hold in general and can we learn something from a closer examination of the facts?
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of bachelor's degrees in “employment friendly” fields has been on the rise since 1970. Undergraduate business degrees -- the go-to “employment friendly” major -- has increased from 1970-71, with 115,400 degrees conferred, to 2007-08, with 335,250 conferred. In a parallel development, institutions graduated seven times more communications and journalism majors in 2007-08 than in 1970-71. And while numbers are small, there has been exponential growth in “parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies,” “security and protective services,” and “transportation and materials moving” degrees. Computer science, on the other hand, peaked in the mid-80s, dropped in the mid-90s, peaked again in the mid-2000s, and dropped again in the last five years.
What has students’ turn to such degrees meant for the humanities and social sciences? A mapping of bachelor degrees conferred in the humanities from 1966 to 2007 by the Humanities Indicator Project shows that the percentage of such majors was highest in the late 1960s (17-18 percent of all degrees conferred), low in the mid-1980s (6-7 percent), and more or less level since the early 1990s (8-9 percent). Trends, of course, vary from discipline to discipline.
Degrees awarded in English dropped from a high of 64,627 in 1970-71 to half that number in the early 1980s, before rising to 55,000 in the early 1990s and staying at that level since then. The social sciences and history were hit with a similar decline in majors in 1970s and 1980s, but then recovered nicely in the years since then and now have more than they did in 1970. The numbers of foreign language, philosophy, religious studies, and area studies majors have been stable since 1970. IPEDS data pick up where the Humanities Indicator Project leaves off and tell that in 2008 and 2009, the number of students who graduated with bachelor's degrees in English, foreign language and literatures, history, and philosophy and religion have remained at the same level.
What’s surprising about this bird’s-eye view of undergraduate education is not the increase in the number of majors in programs that should lead directly to a job after graduation, but that the number of degrees earned in the humanities and related fields have not been adversely affected by the financial troubles that have come and gone over the last two decades.
Of course, macro-level statistics reveal only part of the story. What do things look like at the ground level? How are departments faring? Course enrollments? Majors? Since the study of the Greek and Roman classics tends to be a bellwether for trends in the humanities and related fields (with departments that are small and often vulnerable), it seemed reasonable to ask Adam Blistein of the American Philological Association whether classics departments were being dropped at a significant number of places. “Not really” was his answer; while the classics major at Michigan State was cut, and a few other departments were in difficulty, there was no widespread damage to the field -- at least not yet.
Big declines in classics enrollments? Again, the answer seems to be, “Not really.” Many institutions report a steady gain in the number of majors over the past decade. Princeton’s classics department, for example, announced this past spring 17 graduating seniors, roughly twice what the number had been three decades ago. And the strength is not just in elite institutions. Charles Pazdernik at Grand Valley State University in hard-hit Michigan reported that his department has 50+ majors on the books and strong enrollments in language courses.
If classics seems to be faring surprisingly well, what about the modern languages? There are dire reports about German and Russian, and the Romance languages seem increasingly to be programs in Spanish, with a little French and Italian tossed in. The Modern Language Association reported in fall 2006 -- well before the current downturn -- a 12.9 percent gain in language study since 2002. This translates into 180,557 more enrollments. Every language except Biblical Hebrew showed increases, some exponential -- Arabic (126.5 percent), Chinese (51 percent), and Korean (37.1 percent) -- while others less so -- French (2.2 percent), German (3.5 percent), and Russian (3.9 percent). (Back to the ancient world for a moment: Latin saw a 7.9 percent increase, and ancient Greek 12.1 percent). The study of foreign languages, in other words, seems not to be disappearing; the mix is simply changing.
Theoretical and ideological issues have troubled and fragmented literature departments in recent years, but a spring 2010 conference on literary studies at the National Humanities Center suggests that the field is enjoying a revitalization. The mood was eloquent, upbeat, innovative; no doom and gloom, even though many participants were from institutions where painful budget cuts had recently been made.
A similar mood was evident at National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, a gathering of some highly regarded assistant professors in the humanities and social sciences this past February. They were well aware that times were tough, the job market for Ph.D.s miserable, and tenure prospects uncertain. Yet their response was to get on with the work of strengthening liberal education, rather than bemoan its decline and fall. Energy was high, and with it the conviction that the best way to move liberal education forward was to achieve demonstrable improvements in student learning.
It’s true that these young faculty members are from top-flight universities. What about smaller, less well-endowed institutions? Richard Ekman of the Council of Independent Colleges reports that while a few of the colleges in his consortium are indeed in trouble, most were doing quite well, increasing enrollments and becoming more selective. And what about state universities and land grant institutions, where most students go to college? Were they scuttling the liberal arts and sciences because of fierce cutbacks? David Shulenburger of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities says that while budget cuts have resulted in strategic “consolidation of programs and sometimes the elimination of low-enrollment majors,” he does not “know of any public universities weakening their liberal education requirements.”
Mark Twain once remarked that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The liberal arts disciplines, it seems, can say the same thing. The on-the-ground stories back up the statistics and reinforce the idea that the liberal arts are not dying, despite the soft job market and the recent recession. Majors are steady, enrollments are up in particular fields, and students -- and institutions -- aren’t turning their backs on disciplines that don’t have obvious utility for the workplace. The liberal arts seem to have a particular endurance and resilience, even when we expect them to decline and fall.
One could imagine any number of reasons why this is the case -- the inherent conservatism of colleges and universities is one -- but maybe something much more dynamic is at work. Perhaps the stamina of the liberal arts in today’s environment draws in part from the vital role they play in providing students with a robust liberal education, that is, a kind of education that develops their knowledge in a range of disciplinary fields, and importantly, their cognitive skills and personal competencies. The liberal arts continue -- and likely will always -- give students an education that delves into the intricate language of Shakespeare or Woolf, or the complex historical details of the Peloponnesian War or the French Revolution. That is a given.
But what the liberal arts also provide is a rich site for students to think critically, to write analytically and expressively, to consider questions of moral and ethical importance (as well as those of meaning and value), and to construct a framework for understanding the infinite complexities and uncertainties of human life. This is, as many have argued before, a powerful form of education, a point that students, the statistics and anecdotes show, agree with.
W. Robert Connor and Cheryl Ching
W. Robert Connor is the former president of the Teagle Foundation, to which he is now a senior adviser. Cheryl Ching is a program officer at Teagle.
Reflecting on the recent The Humanities and Technology conference (THAT Camp) in San Francisco, what strikes me most is that digital humanities events consistently tip more toward the logic-structured digital side of things. That is, they are less balanced out by the humanities side. But what I mean by that itself has been a problem I've been mulling for some time now. What is the missing contribution from the humanities?
I think this digital dominance revolves around two problems.
The first is an old problem. The humanities’ pattern of professional anxiety goes back to the 1800s and stems from pressure to incorporate the methods of science into our disciplines or to develop our own, uniquely humanistic, methods of scholarship. The "digital humanities" rubs salt in these still open wounds by demonstrating what cool things can be done with literature, history, poetry, or philosophy if only we render humanities scholarship compliant with cold, computational logic. Discussions concern how to structure the humanities as data.
The showy and often very visual products built on such data and the ease with which information contained within them is intuitively understood appear, at first blush, to be a triumph of quantitative thinking. The pretty, animated graphs or fluid screen forms belie the fact that boring spreadsheets and databases contain the details. Humanities scholars, too, often recoil from the presumably shallow grasp of a subject that data visualization invites.
For many of us trained in the humanities, to contribute data to such a project feels a bit like chopping up a Picasso into a million pieces and feeding those pieces one by one into a machine that promises to put it all back together, cleaner and prettier than it looked before.
Which leads to the second problem, the difficulty of quantifying an aesthetic experience and — more often — the resistance to doing so. A unique feature of humanities scholarship is that its objects of study evoke an aesthetic response from the reader (or viewer). While a sunset might be beautiful, recognizing its beauty is not critical to studying it scientifically. Failing to appreciate the economy of language in a poem about a sunset, however, is to miss the point.
Literature is more than the sum of its words on a page, just as an artwork is more than the sum of the molecules it comprises. To itemize every word or molecule on a spreadsheet is simply to apply more anesthetizing structure than humanists can bear. And so it seems that the digital humanities is a paradox, trying to combine two incompatible sets of values.
Yet, humanities scholarship is already based on structure: language. "Code," the underlying set of languages that empowers all things digital, is just another language entering the profession. Since the application of digital tools to traditional humanities scholarship can yield fruitful results, perhaps what is often missing from the humanities is a clearer embrace of code.
In fact, "code" is a good example of how something that is more than the sum of its parts emerges from the atomic bits of text that logic demands must be lined up next to each other in just such-and-such a way. When well-structured code is combined with the right software (e.g., a browser, which itself is a product of code), we see William Blake’s illuminated prints, or hear Gertrude Stein reading a poem, or access a world-wide conversation on just what is the digital humanities. As the folks at WordPress say, code is poetry.
I remember 7th-grade homework assignments programming onscreen fireworks explosions in BASIC. When I was in 7th grade, I was willing to patiently decipher code only because of the promise of cool graphics on the other end. When I was older, I realized the I was willing to read patiently through Hegel and Kant because I learned to see the fireworks in the code itself. To avid readers of literature, the characters of a story come alive to us, laying bare our own feelings or moral inclinations in the process.
Detecting patterns, interpreting symbolism, and analyzing logical inconsistencies in text are all techniques used in humanities scholarship. Perhaps the digital humanities' greatest gift to the humanities can be the ability to invest a generation of "users" in the techniques and practiced meticulous attention to detail required to become a scholar.
Trained in analytic philosophy, Phillip Barron is a digital history developer at the University of California at Davis.
A genome biologist, Gregory Petsko, has gone to bat for the humanities, in an open letter to the State University of New York at Albany president who recently (and underhandedly) announced significant cuts. (For those who haven’t been paying attention: the departments of theater, Italian, Russian, classics, and French at SUNY-Albany are all going to be eliminated).
If you are in academia, and Petsko’s missive (which appeared on this site Monday) hasn’t appeared on your Facebook wall, it will soon. And here’s the passage that everyone seizes on, evidence that Petsko understands us and has our back (that is, we in the humanities): "The real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained."
He's right. And if scientists want to speak up for the humanities, I’m all for it. But Petsko understands us differently than we understand ourselves. Why fund the humanities, even if they don’t bring in grant money or produce patents? Petsko points out "universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment."
How many us willingly embrace that interpretation of what we do? "My interest is not merely antiquarian...." is how we frame the justification for our cutting edge research. Even as we express our dismay when crucial texts go out of print, any sacred flame that we were tending was blown out when the canon wars were fought to a draw. Why should we resurrect it? Because, says Petsko, "what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future." His examples are virology and Middle Eastern studies. Mine is 18th-century literature — and with all the imaginative vigor at my disposal, I have trouble discerning the variation on the AIDS scare or 9/11 that would revive interest in my field. That’s OK, though: Petsko has other reasons why the humanities matter:
"Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn't a question for science alone; it's a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including -- especially including -- the humanities and arts... If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future."
Well, that would be great. I have no confidence, though, that we in the humanities are positioned to take advantage of this dawning world, even if our departments escape SUNY-style cost-cutting. How many of us can meaningfully apply what we do to "the question of just what it means to be human" without cringing, or adopting an ironic pose, or immediately distancing ourselves from that very question? How many of us see our real purpose as teaching students to draw the kinds of connections between literature and life that Petsko uses to such clever effect in his diatribe?
Petsko is not necessarily right in his perception of what the humanities are good for, nor are professionals in the humanities necessarily wrong to pursue another vision of what our fields are about. But there is a profound disconnect between how we see ourselves (and how our work is valued and remunerated in the university and how we organize our professional lives to respond to those expectations) and how others see us. If we're going to take comfort in the affirmations of Petsko and those outside of the humanities whom he speaks for, perhaps we need to take seriously how he understands what we do. Perhaps the future is asking something of us that we are not providing — or perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining why anyone other than us should care about what we do.
Kirstin Wilcox is senior lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Over the summer I was fortunate to attend a symposium for department chairs. I was glad of the experience, and grateful to my institution's leaders that they supported me in this way. I was at a swanky hotel in a fabulous city (ironically, despite the recent economic turmoil). While I was there, it was a pleasure to talk to and hear from other department chairs from across the country. The speakers were generally well-qualified, experienced, and good presenters (although the perspective was what the chief academic officer expects of the chair — and we have other constituencies, after all).
But the thing that concerned me during the experience was the focus on … well, what was it? Fiscal responsibility? I can’t complain about fiscal responsibility — that wouldn’t make sense. I’m not so quixotic that I’d counsel running an institution into the red, but I kept getting the impression that our talks weren’t entirely about fiscal responsibility as much as they were about profit margins.
In one session we were taken through some cost implications of a variety of different class offerings. The underlying idea was that the more we fine-tuned our offerings to maximize seats in classes the stronger our program would appear to the chief academic officer, and the more likely we were to be well — the cynic in me wonders, "adequately"? — funded. So, instead of offering a couple of upper-level classes that catered to six students each (a reality in a lot of small colleges, and a net loss financially to the institution), if the program could tinker with the class scheduling to offer one class that catered to 12 (or more) students, there would be a net gain for the institution.
In English — like a lot of departments that have a service component — smaller, apparently esoteric, upper-level classes are generally far outweighed by the fully enrolled composition classes (and the program thus generates significant income that offsets occasional loss classes). Still, I could still see the merits of creative scheduling. Obviously the higher the student yield in each class, the better the financial implications. So, the session was thought-provoking and challenging.
We are sometimes guilty of thinking that schedules, rotations, and course offerings are set in stone. Like my students who sometimes think that the first draft of an essay is the best and only draft they need to write, I could see that perhaps I was sometimes guilty of maintaining a status quo of class rotations that occasionally resulted in small upper-level classes where creative planning might create a program that was much more vigorous (though presumably with significantly less choice for students). We end up caught in a conflict between constituencies, between the CAO who would prefer one Shakespeare class with 12, and students (and perhaps faculty), who would probably prefer the choice of a Shakespeare seminar which might end up with six, and a Faulkner seminar with six.
Financially, the answer is straightforward, but the best situation for the institution is another matter, and a follow-up session worried me about the potential ramifications.
We were offered a scenario similar to this: Times are lean. A variety of departments are competing for a single tenure line. The English department has a prominent, and well-loved, Shakespearean scholar retiring. As chair, you must make a pitch for a new hire, and the chief academic officer has a penchant for fully enrolled classes (how unreasonable is that?). The broader context of the hire is that the business department is aggressively expanding its coverage of e-commerce, and the graphic design department wants to add writing certification to its web design classes. Only one hire is going to be authorized because of the economic situation. What is your pitch?
I have to admit that most of the room had little problem with this one. They came up with an English hire with expertise in e-writing and web publishing. The English department would get an interesting new hire: current, engaging, relevant to today’s students. The hire would also foster a dynamic interdisciplinary relationship with other schools, and the potential for cross-listed classes that would cater to a range of majors. The business department was happy, as was graphic design, and English had kept its tenure line. Everyone was happy and the CAO had a grin that rivaled the Cheshire cat. This was easy.
As a general rule, I would have been perfectly content with this kind of hire under different circumstances. I could see the benefits. I was/am excited by the current content, the interdisciplinary focus, the potential benefits to a variety of programs. But, at what cost? For me, the takeaway message here was that Shakespeare had had his day and I felt that an important line was being crossed.
It seemed to me that the very nature of the university was at stake somehow, and while most of the room was watching the numbers add up in an Excel spreadsheet, something important was being lost in the debit column. What is the role of the university, after all, and the officers of the university from the chief academic officer, to the dean, the chair and the faculty? To what, or to whom, are they answerable? Certainly they are responsible for the economic well-being of the institution. But isn’t there more to it?
Though perhaps it sounds like it, I'm not a snob. I worked for years in the community college system and was, for example, truly excited by the Harley Davidson repair certification program offered at one of my previous institutions. It was a genuinely cool program, and a terrific career opportunity for some students, and the state-of-the-art workshop looked amazing. I can see the merit of strong vocational offerings at the community college and the university, but is that the totality of the mission of the higher education tier? And are numbers the bottom line?
In the session I argued for the replacement of the Shakespearean scholar. It was a significant loss to the department, and one that would hurt the fundamentals of the program. I could see the benefits of the counter-proposal, and was broadly supportive of the rationale that came up with the web writer instead of the literature scholar. I suppose if I were more conciliatory I could have compromised and proposed a strong e-Shakespearean (no doubt they exist). But the implications of my choice were serious.
According to the strict parameters of the exercise, I had probably just lost my department a tenure line. But I had held strong to values that seemed worth it at the time. Perhaps it was an empty gesture, or a foolish one? I thought it was an intellectual position, a cultural role that was important to defend.
In the real world, and away from tricky seminars, the problems are just as profound, though the answers are seldom as obvious. What is certain, however, is that numbers play an increasingly important role in the shape of our departmental offerings. Though I wonder sometimes if the economic background is being used as an excuse to push through certain kinds of institutional reform, this one isn't likely to be going away, and it's our responsibility throughout the various levels of the university to examine our educational, intellectual and cultural responsibilities to our communities within the context of responsible fiscal management.
David Mulry is chair of English and foreign languages at Schreiner University.
For this week’s column (the last one until the new year) I asked a number of interesting people what book they’d read in 2010 that left a big impression on them, or filled them with intellectual energy, or made them wish it were better known. If all three, then so much the better. I didn’t specify that it had to be a new book, nor was availability in English a requirement.
My correspondents were enthusiastic about expressing their enthusiasm. One of them was prepared to name 10 books – but that’s making a list, rather than a selection. I drew the line at two titles per person. Here are the results.
Lila Guterman is a senior editor at Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly magazine published by the American Chemical Society. She said it was easier to pick an outstanding title from 2010 than it might have been in previous years: “Not sleeping, thanks to a difficult pregnancy followed by a crazy newborn, makes it almost impossible for me to read!”
She named Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, published by Crown in February. She called it an “elegantly balanced account of a heartbreaking situation for one family that simultaneously became one of the most important tools of biology and medicine. It was a fast-paced read driven by an incredible amount of reporting: A really exemplary book about bioethics.”
Neil Jumonville, a professor of history at Florida State University, is editor of The New York Intellectual Reader (Routledge, 2007). A couple of collections of essays he recently read while conducting a graduate seminar on the history of liberal and conservative thought in the United States struck him as timely.
“The first is Gregory Schneider, ed., Conservatives in America Since 1930 (NYU Press, 2003). Here we find a very useful progression of essays from the Old Right, Classical Liberals, Traditional Conservatives, anticommunists, and the various guises of the New Right. The second book is Michael Sandel, Liberalism and Its Critics (NYU Press, 1984). Here, among others, are essays from Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Alisdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, a few communitarians represented by Sandel and others, and important pieces by Peter Berger and Hannah Arendt.”
Reading the books alongside one another, he said, tends to sharpen up one's sense of both the variety of political positions covered by broad labels like “liberal” and “conservative” and to point out how the traditions may converge or blend. “Some people understand this beneficial complexity of political positions,” he told me, “but many do not.”
Michael Yates retired as a professor of economics and labor relations at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 2001. His most recent book is In and Out of the Working Class, published by Arbeiter Ring in 2009.
He named Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, originally published in 1964. “I am not a Mormon or religious in the slightest degree,” he said, “and I am well aware of the many dastardly deeds done in the name of the angel Moroni, but I cannot read the history of the Mormons without a feeling of wonder, and I cannot look at the sculpture of the hand cart pioneers in Temple Square [in Salt Lake City] without crying. If only I could live my life with the same sense of purpose and devotion…. It is not possible to understand the West without a thorough knowledge of the Mormons. Their footprints are everywhere."
Adam Kotsko is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College. This year he published Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Continuum) and Awkwardness (Zero Books).
“My vote," he said, "would be for Sergey Dogopolski's What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement, on all three counts. It puts forth the practices of Talmudic debate as a fundamental challenge to one of the deepest preconceptions of Western thought: that agreement is fundamental and disagreement is only the result of a mistake or other contingent obstacle. The notion that disagreements are to be maintained and sharpened rather than dissolved is a major reversal that I'll be processing for a long time to come. Unfortunately, the book is currently only available as an expensive hardcover.”
Helena Fitzgerald is a contributing editor for The New Inquiry, a website occupying some ambiguous position between a New York salon and an online magazine.
She named Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, published by Ecco earlier this year and recently issued in paperback. “I've found Smith to be one of the most invigorating artists in existence ever since I heard ‘Land’ for the first time and subsequently spent about 24 straight with it on repeat. She's one of those artists who I've long suspected has all big secrets hoarded somewhere in her private New York City. This book shares a satisfying number of those secrets and that privately legendary city. Just Kids is like the conversation that Patti Smith albums always made you want to have with Patti Smith.”
Cathy Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, was recently nominated by President Obama to serve on the National Council on the Humanities. She, too, named Patti Smith’s memoir as one of the books “that rocked my world this year.” (And here the columnist will interrupt to give a third upturned thumb. Just Kids is a moving and very memorable book.)
Davidson also mentioned rereading Tim Berners-Lee's memoir Weaving the Web, first published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1999. She was “inspired by his honesty in letting us know how, at every turn, the World Wide Web's creation was a surprise, including the astonishing willingness of an international community of coders to contribute their unpaid labor for free in order to create the free and open World Wide Web. Many traditional, conventional scientists had no idea what Berners-Lee was up to or what it could possibly mean and, at times, neither did he. His genius is in admitting that he forged ahead, not fully knowing where he was going….”
Bill Fletcher Jr., a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, is co-author, with Fernando Gapasin, of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice, published by the University of California Press in 2009.
He named Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon, 2001), calling it “a fascinating look at the development of capitalism in the North Atlantic. It is about class struggle, the anti-racist struggle, gender, forms of organization, and the methods used by the ruling elites to divide the oppressed. It was a GREAT book.”
Astra Taylor has directed two documentaries, Zizek! and Examined Life. She got hold of the bound galleys for James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, out next month from Farrar Straus and Giroux. She called it “a book by the last guy I took a university course with and one I've been eagerly awaiting for years. Like a modern day Diogenes Laertius, Miller presents 12 biographical sketches of philosophers, an exploration of self-knowledge and its limits. As anyone who read his biography of Foucault knows, Miller's a master of this sort of thing. The profiles are full of insight and sometimes hilarious.”
Arthur Goldhammer is a senior affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University and a prolific translator, and he runs an engaging blog called French Politics.
“I would say that Florence Aubenas' Le Quai de Ouistreham (2010) deserves to be better known,” he told me. “Aubenas is a journalist who was held prisoner in Iraq for many months, but upon returning to France she did not choose to sit behind a desk. Rather, she elected to explore the plight of France's ‘precarious’ workers -- those who accept temporary work contracts to perform unskilled labor for low pay and no job security. The indignities she endures in her months of janitorial work make vivid the abstract concept of a ‘dual labor market.’ Astonishingly, despite her fame, only one person recognized her, in itself evidence of the invisibility of social misery in our ‘advanced’ societies.”
The book that made the biggest impression on her this year was Judith Giesberg's Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2009. “Too often,” Rubin told me, “historians ignore the lives of working-class women, arguing that we don't have the sources to get inside their lives, but Giesberg proves us wrong. She tells us about women working in Union armories, about soldiers' wives forced to move into almshouses, and African Americans protesting segregated streetcars. This book expands our understanding of the Civil War North, and I am telling everyone about it.”
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia. His next book, The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry), will be published by the University of California Press in March.
He thinks there should have been more attention for Carolyn de la Pena's Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda, published this year by the University of North Carolina Press: “De la Pena (who is a friend and graduate-school colleague) shows artificial sweeteners have had a powerful cultural influence -- one that far exceeds their power to help people lose weight. In fact, as she demonstrates, there is no empirical reason to believe that using artificial sweeteners helps one lose weight. One clear effect, de la Pena shows, is that artificial sweeteners extend the pernicious notion that we Americans can have something for nothing. And we know how that turns out.”
Vaidhyanathan noted a parallel with his own recent research: “de la Pena's critique of our indulgent dependence on Splenda echoes the argument I make about how the speed and simplicity of Google degrades our own abilities to judge and deliberate about knowledge. Google does not help people lose weight either, it turns out.”
Michael Tomasky covers U.S. politics for The Guardian and is editor-in-chief of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
“On my beat,” he said, “the best book I read in 2010 was The Spirit Level (Bloomsbury, 2009), by the British social scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, whose message is summed up in the book's subtitle, which is far better than its execrable title: ‘Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.’ In non-work life, I'm working my way through Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate from 1959; it's centered around the battle of Stalingrad and is often called the War and Peace of the 20th century. I'm just realizing as I type this how sad it is that Stalingrad is my escape from American politics.”