My employer, the University of Houston, has been in the news: after much hemming and hawing, UH confessed it has forked over $135,000 (as well as $20,000 to the agency representing him) to the actor Matthew McConaughey to speak at next week’s graduation.
The money seems to have been well spent: our brand-new stadium, which stood half empty during the football season, is filling up for this event. Still, I cannot help but wonder if the money could have been spent otherwise. Given that our university advertises itself as the House That Innovation Built, why not use the honorarium as seed money for a time machine? After all, McConaughey managed to bounce through time in Interstellar.
I know, I know: What does a liberal arts professor know about the mechanics of time travel? Not much, I admit. But being a liberal arts professor has taught me a bit more about the mechanics of the Western tradition, the great conversation, the classical canon -- or whatever label you want to slap on the great books I have taught for more than twenty-five years. Reading is just another kind of time travel, of course. And having read and taught these works, I’ve come to see them as little more than a glorious series of commencement speeches. Some of these speeches are longer, some shorter, some in rhyme, some in prose, some pretending to be history, others posing as fiction, but all offering advice on how to live our lives.
What if we could bundle a few of these figures into our machine and bring them to our stadium to speak? While our engineers are working out the kinks -- don’t forget the airbags! -- here are a few previews.
Niccolò Machiavelli: “It’s good to be here. Honest. Honestly honest. I know: Why trust the author of The Prince? Easy: if you had the Medici family as an employer, you’d be honestly glad to be sweltering in this stadium, too. Let me share with you the knowledge I’ve acquired through long experience of politics, extended reading in antiquity and a recent jab at gardening. Primo, it is a general rule about men and women that they are ungrateful, fickle liars and deceivers -- except, that is, for the men and women, garbed in your magnificent robes, sitting here today in this great arena!
“Secundo, never forget that fortune might be like a river, but the job market in the humanities is like the plumbing at my place in Lombardy: nonexistent. If you wish to succeed, keep in mind it is good to be feared, but it’s even better to have a balanced investment portfolio.
“E terzo, keep in mind that how we live is so very different from how we ought to live. And so, he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation. This is why the English majors out there should get up now and enroll immediately in your school’s hotel and restaurant management program.”
Franz Kafka: “I shouldn’t even be here. As I explained to your emissaries, my one wish was to die in obscurity. Take my friend Max Brod. Please. No, seriously, this is why I asked my friend Max to burn all of my writings. He didn’t, it turns out. Max, if you’re out there, we need to talk. Let me level with you: when I learned about this invitation, I was moved. Until, that is, I was floored by this sudden fear that I’d show up today as a beetle. With two e’s. And not the ladybug sort of beetle, but the sort that just sends shivers down your spine. A roach, in fact. Dad, Mom, Sis: if you’re out there, look, I’m not a roach!
“But I did wake up with two strange men in my hotel bedroom. All of this didn’t give me much time to prepare my remarks -- the men seemed nice enough, but they ate my breakfast -- but I do have some advice. As you march into the world, armed with your endearingly ridiculous optimism and utterly unfounded confidence, bring a book along with you -- but the right kind of book.
“We ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. I’ve always said that if the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? Oh, I see the president is waving to me: my time seems to be up. I wonder where those nice men from breakfast went. I’m sure they’ll find me.”
Friedrich Nietzsche: “Stop me if you’ve heard this one. ‘There was a madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours…’ Wait, I see several hands raised. What is that? You have heard this one? Talk about eternal recurrence, right? You know the punch line, then: the madman, searching for God and failing to find him, announces, ‘We have killed him,’ throws the lantern to the ground and blurts out, ‘I have come too early, the news has not yet reached your ears.’ Were he to see the wires running from your ears to those black wafers you carry everywhere, our madman, I think, would shatter yet another lantern. The news is still here, but still cannot be heard.
“You know, I used to say there are no facts, only interpretations. Don’t tell me -- you’re wondering, ‘What about student debt?’ Well, yes. But remember that if you stare at your bank account for too long, your bank account begins to stare back at you. For this reason, you must live dangerously! Love fate! Reject who you are: we must constantly overcome ourselves to live fully. Overcome, even -- especially! -- all you have learned at this august institution. I always said that in heaven all the interesting people are missing. How much truer for the academy.”
Jane Austen: “What dreadful hot weather we are having! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance. I scarcely recognize myself in the colors of your splendid university. But you do not recognize me at all, of course. How could you? You see, it was only a short while ago that I learned from your university’s Jane Austen specialist that posterity has not a single portrait or drawing of me.
“A certain Mrs. Woolf, I also learned today, has made much of women needing a room of their own, just as she made much of the creaky door pivot and desk blotter that allowed me to hide my writing from the world. But here I must make much of my own view: I do not regret these constraints.
“Lean in I did -- a charming phrase -- but not so far as to lose my balance. Family and friends often accompanied me as I wrote; they were my best and most critical readers. Yes, my freedom was frustratingly limited, but these limits also reminded me of duties I always treasured as a sister, daughter and aunt, as a friend as well as a writer.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. But let me add that a single man or single woman in search only of a good fortune has misunderstood the ends of a good life. As I once wrote, know your own happiness. And want for nothing but patience -- or give it a more fascinating name. Call it hope.”
Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston's Honors College and author, most recently, of Boswell's Enlightenment (Harvard 2015).
George Mason economics professor has won many fans with playful videos, but a Roosevelt U professor and his students have produced a response -- and fans of the Austrian school may need to cover their ears.
A colleague from another department passed me on campus the other day, a week before the end of classes. “Hi,” I said as we approached one another.
“Glad the semester is almost over!” she exclaimed in response and walked on.
“Glad the semester is almost over”? What kind of greeting is “Glad the semester is almost over”?
Is this how people acknowledge each other’s presence in a fleeting moment of recognition -- with a declaration regarding the semester’s demise? I’m familiar with common phatic addresses of greeting: hello, how are you, what’s up, how’s it going, hey, nice day, looking good, nice weather we’re having and many others. But why would a nod to the semester’s conclusion be treated as a greeting?
“Glad the semester is almost over” is unique among all phatic exchanges in that it is not actually a greeting at all. “Glad the semester is almost over” is specific to one type of encounter, the academic exchange.
Greetings are phatic. That is, greetings serve no real rhetorical purpose other than to perform a social task or ritual that recognizes the encounter taking place among at least two individuals. Greetings are like small talk. They make the social moment easier to deal with. There is no reference point for the repeated phatic greeting other than its communal recognition (we all know what “hello” is supposed to do when two people meet). There is no real meaning in the greeting.
“Hello” conveys no information in and of itself. One does not walk away from the greeting with new information, only the greeting. In the moment of social encounter, two individuals coming into proximity with one another search for a way to -- even in passing -- acknowledge the other without conveying any information other than the expression itself. Hello. How are you? What’s up? How are things? Glad the semester is almost over!
“Glad the semester is almost over” would not be a greeting in any profession other than academia. “Glad the semester is almost over” marks the academic anxiety and apprehension about work (we work in semester blocks) and about not working (whew, the semester is finally over and I can go on with my life). Besides this interest in a semester’s length, academics excel at phatic expressions and greetings.
In hallways, at conferences and in the grocery store in town, when two academics come together -- and I am usually one of the two -- we greet each other in phatic expressions. Some traditional, professional phatic greetings found in many places of work include “Thank God it’s Friday” or “Hump day!” Academic phatic greetings, however, center on the supposedly rigid occupation of reading books for a living and working with students on a daily basis. This labor tension creates such a level of exasperation one can only exclaim upon seeing a colleague, “Glad the semester is almost over!”
Semesters begin and end. In the fall, we work with X number of students, and in the spring, we work with another X students. We likely go to some departmental meetings along the way, and maybe we are conducting some research during the semester when we have time. The important point about semesters is that they do not really end. Each one replaces the other. My only response -- when I have the chance -- to “Glad the semester is almost over” is “Yes, but another one will begin right afterward.” Is “Glad the semester is almost over” really an expression of joy that these 16 weeks have concluded and another 16 weeks will begin again?
Knowing that we will do the semester all over again after a short break, what does it matter that the semester is almost over, and why should I be glad? Or is “Glad the semester is almost over” a statement about how little academics -- who should have so much to talk about with each other given their political, disciplinary and social interests and concerns -- have to say to one another in any real fashion?
“How’s your semester going?” “Can’t wait for spring break!” “I am so busy!” “What are you teaching this semester?” “What are your summer plans?” “Busy, busy, busy!” “I have so much grading to do.” “Grading! Grading! Grading!” “Can’t wait for summer!” “What are you teaching next semester?” “Glad the semester is almost over!”
At conferences, phatic greetings including the endless discussion of the weather where one lives. “Does it get hot there in the summer?” “I bet the winters are cold.” With each new job I have been offered, friends who learn of the news respond by asking me about the weather in the new city I will live in. Such greetings do not actually express interest in weather or lack of knowledge over seasonal change (winter and summer are regular occurrences in most locations, after all), but signify the lack of interest in the topic (“Who cares, you have a new job!”) or lack of ability to respond with any real content (“You have a job/I have a job/I have nothing else to add”).
In Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega stop talking for a brief moment while having dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. “Don’t you hate that?” Mia asks Vincent about the lull in conversation that has occurred.
“What?” Vincent responds.
“Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?”
We do, however, feel that it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in academe. The uncomfortable academic -- always hyperbolic in his/her semesterlong anxiety of teaching -- does not know what to say when passing a colleague on campus or chatting in a book exhibit at a conference or spending a minute in the elevator as it proceeds to one’s floor. There’s an uncomfortable silence. What to do? Express something phatic. “How’s your semester going?” “Busy, busy, busy!”
Phatic academics do not only occur on campus or at events. Via the status update, we greet each other online phatically as well. Disaster and social unrest turn us into phatic machines: Ferguson, celebrity RIPs, Nepal, Baltimore. On a daily basis, there is no shortage of phatic posting. It’s not that such events do not deserve commentary (they do). It’s not that the events don’t move us to emotions (they do). It’s that the update is not a moment of commentary or discussion but rather a ritual or social gesture of digital greeting where content is not emphasized. The update is meant to greet the follower or friend, not engage them, since engagement typically can lead to blocking or unfriending. The update says phatically: “Something terrible has happened in the world; look at me.” The update is not content based, but is a social ritual of online posturing as greeting, the way “Hello” can be in the physical world or even “Glad the semester is almost over” can be among academics passing each other on campus.
Do you care what happened in Baltimore or that Joni Mitchell is in a coma? Probably. But the update does not convey any meaning regarding either event beyond the headline. The shared headline is the repeated phatic greeting that avoids content by only focusing on address. A phatic address such as “hello” or “what’s up” avoids content by focusing attention on the empty greeting and not the actual encounter. I say “Glad the semester almost is over” because I do not know what else to say. I repost Baltimore headlines because I do not know what else to say. I want to avoid the uncomfortable silence that should accompany some of the world’s worst moments.
This ritual is the social media equivalent of “Glad the semester is almost over!” I really do not know if my colleague is glad the semester is almost over. I know she has heard this statement repeated for what is likely many years as an address from one academic to another when neither knows what else to say. “Spring break is almost here!” “What are you teaching this semester?” “Things are really crazy this time of year.” Is she glad the summer is over? Is she outraged suddenly by the socioeconomic and racist situation in Baltimore that has led to a senseless death and consequent rioting? Does she actually care what I’m teaching this semester or any other? Are things really that crazy? As academics, we are supposed to, after all, meet a few times in the semester as a department and assess student work toward semester’s end. Then we plan for the next semester.
Phatic addresses are comforting. They allow us to pass over that awkward silence that arises among academics who spend their days with so much to discuss (their own work, classroom lectures, theory, administrative issues, politics, race, gender), but when confronted with the casual moment know only the at-hand phatic comment. “Glad the semester is almost over” comforts both sides of the conversation. Thank God I don’t have to actually inquire into your life; thank God I don’t have to respond. Thank God I don’t have to know what really caused certain things to occur in a certain city in America. Thank God I don’t have to deal with any yak or bullshit.
Jeff Rice is professor of writing, rhetoric and digital studies at the University of Kentucky.
Were it so… that some little profit might be reaped (which God knows is very little) out of some of our playbooks, the benefit thereof will nothing near countervail the harm that the scandal will bring unto the library, when it shall be given out that we stuff it full of baggage [i.e., trashy] books.
-- Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, explaining why he did not wish to keep English plays in his library (1612).
On William Shakespeare’s birthday this year, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) issued a report, “The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile in 2015,” which warned that “less than 8 percent of the nation’s top universities require English majors to take even a single course that focuses on Shakespeare.” Warnings about the decline of a traditional literary canon are familiar from conservative academic organizations such as ACTA and the National Association of Scholars. What increasingly strikes me, however, is how frozen in amber these warning are.
In a nation obsessed with career-specific and STEM education, there is scant support for humanities in general. Where are the conservative voices advocating for the place of English and the humanities in the university curriculum? One would think this advocacy natural for such academics and their allies. After all, when Matthew Arnold celebrated the “best that has been thought and known,” he was proposing cultural study not only as an antidote to political radicalism but also to a life reduced, by the people he called philistines, to industrial production and the consumption of goods.
We have our modern philistines. Where are our modern conservative voices to call them out? Instead, on the shrinking support for the liberal arts in American education -- the most significant issue facing the humanities -- organizations such as ACTA and NAS mistake a parochial struggle over particular authors and curricula for the full-throated defense of the humanities.
Worse, these organizations suggest that if one does not study Shakespeare or a small set of other writers in the traditional literary canon (moreover, in only certain ways), then literature and culture are not worth studying -- hardly a way to advocate for literary studies.
The requirements at my own institution suggest how misleading the ACTA position is, and how thin a commitment to the humanities it represents. With no Shakespeare requirement in the George Mason University English department, it is true that some of our majors won’t study Shakespeare. However, because our majors must take a course in a pre-1800 literature -- nearly all the departments ACTA examined have a similar requirement -- that means they’ll study Chaucer, or medieval intellectual history, or Wyatt, Sidney, Donne, Jonson, Milton, etc. (The study of Spenser, however, appears to me somewhat in decline; ACTA, if you want to take up the cause of The Faerie Queene, let me know.)
How can writers as great as these be off ACTA’s map? Is it because ACTA doesn’t really value them? Its Bardolatry is idolatry -- the worship of the playwright as wooden sign rather than living being, a Shakespeare to scold with, but no devotion to the rich literary and cultural worlds of which Shakespeare was a part. Hence, too, the report maintains that a course such as Renaissance Sexualities is no substitute for what it calls the “seminal study of Shakespeare” -- though certainly such a course might feature the Renaissance sonnet tradition, including Shakespeare’s important contribution to it, not to mention characters from Shakespeare’s plays such Romeo and Juliet or Rosalind and Ganymede.
ACTA also warns that rather than Shakespeare, English departments are “often encouraging instead trendy courses on popular culture.” This warning similarly indicates the narrowness of ACTA’s commitment to literary study. As anyone who’s ever taken a Shakespeare course should know, not only were Shakespeare’s plays popular culture in his own day (English plays were scandalous trash, thought Thomas Bodley), but also the very richness of Shakespeare’s literary achievement comes from his own embrace of multiple forms of culture. His sources are not just high-end Latin authors but also translations of pulpy Italian “novels,” English popular writers, folktales, histories and travelogues, among others. The plays remain vibrant today because Shakespeare allows all these sources to live and talk to one another.
Indeed, the literary scholars William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden point out that in this quality Shakespeare was typical of his age, for the vibrancy of the Renaissance derives in part from its hybridity. The classical was a point of departure, but neither Shakespeare nor Renaissance culture was slavishly neoclassical. Modern English departments, in their embrace of multiple literary cultures, in their serious study of our human expression, evince the same spirit.
Conservatives have suggested that the hybridity of the modern English major is responsible for declining interest in the major. That claim cannot be proved. Anecdotes and intuitions are insufficient to do so. Data on trends in the number of majors over time can only show correlation, not causation.
And in terms of correlation, here are four more likely drivers of the decline in the percentage of students majoring in English: students are worried about finding jobs and are being told (wrongly, according to the actual statistics) that the English major is not a path to one; students now have many new majors to choose from, many no longer in the liberal arts; English has traditionally had more female than male majors, and women now pursue majors, such as in business or STEM fields, from which they used to be discouraged (a good change); political leaders have abandoned the liberal arts in favor of STEM and career-specific education and are advising students to do the same (even President Obama jumped on this bandwagon, though he later apologized).
Regarding this last cause, the voices of organizations such as ACTA and NAS could particularly help, since many of these politicians are conservatives, and leaders of these academic organizations have ties to conservative political circles. In doing so, conservatives could help reclaim a legacy. In 1982, William Bennett, as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, urged colleges to support the humanities against “more career-oriented things.” By 1995, Bennett had become disgusted with what he saw as an overly progressive agenda in the humanities. Picking up his marbles and going home, Bennett urged Congress to defund the NEH. More recently, Bennett agreed with North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory that the goal of publicly funded education should be to get students jobs. “How many Ph.D.s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?” Bennett asked.
Shakespeare was generous in his reading and thinking. We can be, too. Literary scholars may disagree on many things -- on the values to be derived from a particular literary work, on the ways it ought to be framed, on which literary works are most worthy of classroom reading. But such disagreements are just part of the study of the humanities in a democratic society. When we support the humanities, we support an important public space to have these disagreements. We also support Shakespeare -- who really isn’t going away from the English curriculum -- and the study of literature more generally.
The ACTA study, as far as I can tell, was mainly met with silence. That’s because the study is a rehash of an earlier one from 2007, itself a rehash of the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. No one cared, because most people have moved on from the culture wars, and for many of our political leaders, culture itself doesn’t much matter anymore. Culture wars have become a war on culture. In that battle, all lovers of literature should be on the same side. Advocating for the humanities, even as we argue about them, is walking and chewing gum. We should be able to do both at the same time. I appeal to conservative academic organizations that we need to. The one-sided emphasis on majors that lead directly to careers and the blanket advocacy of STEM fields are far greater threats to the humanities than sustainability studies. And without the humanities, there is no institutionalized study of Toni Morrison. Or pulp fiction. Or Sidney. Or Shakespeare.
Robert Matz is professor of English, with a focus on English Renaissance literature, at George Mason University. He currently serves as senior associate dean for George Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
A New York State labor board has ruled that part-time faculty members at Cayuga Community College have the right to bargain collectively as their own unit, The Auburn Citizen reported. College officials had argued that the part-timers could unionize only as part of the union of full-time faculty members, but the part-timers wanted their own unit.
In today's Academic Minute, Marina D’Angelo, professor of biomedical sciences at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, discusses her work to treat canine osteoarthritis. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
While there has been no official announcement, President Obama has selected the University of Chicago as the host of his presidential library, The Chicago Tribune and USA Today reported. Their reports followed other news reports that President Obama has picked a location in Chicago, but not necessarily one of those proposed by the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago has been the favorite from the start of the competition -- the Obamas lived in its neighborhood before he was elected president and both the president and first lady once worked at the university. But zoning disputes for a time appeared to be a major obstacle, leading to speculation that the library could end up at Columbia University.
Rudolph Giuliani remains the planned graduation speaker at St. John Fisher College, despite faculty opposition to the invitation, The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported. Dozens of faculty members signed a letter saying that the invitation was inappropriate. "Given the college's mission, which places education in the service of 'intellectual inquiry, professional integrity and civic responsibility,' those of us delivering on these goals in our classrooms are struggling to understand how the board could offer this great honor to a political figure who has recently shown himself to be inflammatory and divisive in his commentary. His recent public arguments do not unite, inspire or challenge us to be our best community. Despite his past leadership record, in the last decade Mr. Giuliani has unfortunately shrunk to become a highly controversial, divisive ideologue."
Donald Bain, the college's president, said that the former New York City mayor would remain as the speaker. "Mr. Giuliani is expected to speak about his role in the Sept. 11 recovery. I believe this will be of interest and value to our students," Bain wrote.