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History department chairs talk challenges at conference

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Department heads discuss hardships facing the discipline and the way ahead during the American Historical Association's annual meeting.

Essay on the importance of understanding the history of the humanities

The first distinguished speaker at the recent forum on "Justifying the Humanities" followed a recent trend by asserting that the humanities were invented in the American university of the 1930s as an organizational convenience. The second distinguished speaker explained that in their current "somewhat dated" form the humanities are a product of the Cold War, developed in the 1950s through courses in the Great Books and Western Civilization. By the time the final distinguished speaker began his remarks I feared that we would be told the humanities were invented yesterday in sudden meta-post-Postmodernist fabrication.

First, the good news. It is true that the familiar triadic American curricular structure of liberal education (natural science, social science and the humanities) is relatively recent. Hence, the form of humanistic studies is not chiseled in ancient marble, but has changed and can and should continue to change in response to new circumstances.   

The bad news is that recent history is only a small part of the story. The foreshortening perspective on the humanities comes at a price. It’s not just that it overlooks a tradition that reaches back to the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, Cicero in ancient Rome, Petrarch and Boccaccio in Italy and the amazing scholars of the Renaissance. Nor is it just that we deprive ourselves of the benefits of breakthroughs in contemporary scholarship. It’s that we risk losing sight of what motivated the great era of humanism.

Renaissance humanists, such as Joseph Justus Scaliger, Marsilio Ficino and Lorenzo Valla, applied immense energy and learning to establishing reliable texts of ancient authors, commenting on them, making them accessible through translations, and teaching them in a way that created an understanding of human beings and moral agency not restricted by the dictates of medieval theology. Philosophy, literature, history and the visual arts were transformed by such humanism. Soon universities were transformed as well.  

When I asked Paul Grendler, a professor of history emeritus at the University of Toronto and an expert on education in the Renaissance, about this transition, he reminded me that this change was revolutionary. "A group of 15th-century Italian scholars decided that the best way to train men (and a few women) to be learned, eloquent, and morally responsible leaders of society was to introduce them to the great authors and texts of ancient Greece and Rome.… They coined the phrase studia humanitatis (humanistic studies) for this new, revolutionary school curriculum." This transformative sense of purpose accounts, I believe, for the energy and enduring excitement of their work.   

At the university level great changes began around 1425 when humanists began teaching in Italian universities such as Bologna, Florence and Padua. They taught rhetoric, poetry and what they sometimes called humanitas, meaning more or less what Cicero had meant by it, "the knowledge of how to live as a cultivated, educated member of society," as Grendler phrase it. In general these humanists connected this goal to the stadium humanitatis – we would say classical studies broadly conceived. That terminology spread from Italy to the British Isles where, for example, the Scotstarvit chair of humanity was established at the University of St. Andrews in 1620.  By 1800 literae humaniores were part of examinations at Oxford. The pattern was revised in the mid-19th century into the famous "Greats" program, which later provided the model for "Modern Greats," that is, Oxford’s degree program Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Humanism, it turns out, is not only adaptable to modern circumstances; it can be infectious.

The term "humanities" did not, then, drop out of the sky into the unknowing laps of American academic bureaucrats. Leaders of colleges and universities in the early 20th century consciously and deliberately evoked the tradition of Renaissance humanism in an effort to develop some equivalent amid mass education in the modern world. We may argue about how successful they were, but they saw the challenge.  

It's still the challenge today, almost a century later. In responding to it, we can still learn from those Renaissance scholars. If we neglect them, we overlook an important part of the background to contemporary humanistic studies, but we also we risk replicating, validating, and promulgating one of the gravest failings of the humanities as currently practiced – "presentism," that is, an exclusionary focus on the most highly modernized societies of the contemporary  world, and the uncritical judging of the past by today’s interests and standards. In so doing one severs contact with what so motivated and energized these great humanist scholars and with the perspective on human life and conduct that they opened up.

If this root of the humanities is severed by ignorance, neglect or hostility, it will not be surprising if humane learning begins to look a little withered, and if students find what they have learned soon wilts and leaves them without the perspective and depth of understanding that a rigorous and wide-ranging education in the humanities should provide.  
 

W. Robert Connor is senior advisor at the Teagle Foundation.

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Gerda Lerner Dies at 92

Gerda Lerner, considered one of the pioneers of women's history, died Wednesday at the age of 92. An obituary in The New York Times detailed her career, much of which was spent at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She focused on the history of women in the United States when such a focus was highly unusual among historians. In 1972, when Lerner was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, she created a master's degree in women's history -- the first graduate degree in the field.

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Essay on need for boundaries in job interviews and departmental discussions

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Tyro Tracts

Academics ask all kinds of questions and make all kinds of judgments about parts of colleagues' or potential colleagues' lives that are irrelevant to their jobs, writes Nate Kreuter. He says it's time to stop.

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Academic Minute: Guilt and Moral Character

In today’s Academic Minute, Taya Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University reveals why our moral nature may depend on our response to guilt. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Academic Minute: Simple Organism and Evolutionary Security

In today’s Academic Minute, Charles Mitchell of the State University of New York at Buffalo explores the evolutionary advantage of keeping things simple. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

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Professor's tirade against students who skip class draws attention

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Historian in Britain tries to remind students why they shouldn't skip his classes.

Essay on scholarly 'social editions' of texts in the humanities

A scholar committed to the digital humanities once summed up his long-term strategy for winning their acceptance with a terse, sardonic comment. “We will advance,” he said, “funeral by funeral.” It's the kind of sentiment that's often felt, but seldom so well expressed -- or so brutally.

But assuming that time is on digital culture’s side also tempts fate. The humanities include bodies of knowledge that have developed over periods ranging from a decade to a couple of millennia and more. Digital technologies can emerge and eclipse one another in the time it takes to write a single monograph. The wisdom of reorganizing one around the other is at least questionable.

A paper in the December issue of Literary & Linguistic Computing called “Toward Modeling the Social Edition: An Approach to Understanding the Electronic Scholarly Edition in the Context of New and Emerging Social Media” manages to be forward-looking but not triumphalistic. It also poses the interesting question of whether the turnover in the stock of digital tools might actually have a productive relationship with long-established ways that scholarly communities engage with their primary sources.

The list of its authors is headed up by Ray Siemens and Meagan Timney, both of the Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia. It includes, as appendices, a couple of substantial bibliographical essays that were posted online a couple of months before the paper itself was published. Siemens et al. have been venturing the concept of the “social edition” for at least a couple of years. At this point, it still refers to something potential or emergent, rather than fully realized: a speculation more than a blueprint.

But the paper offers a logical extrapolation from existing trends -- a plausible glimpse of the shape of things to come. Siemens and his colleagues point out that there is a gap between how electronic editions of texts are prepared, on the one hand, and how scholars use the available technology, on the other. “The types of electronic scholarly editions we see prominently today,” they write, “were largely developed before the ubiquity of the web that we now enjoy and do not accurately reflect the full range of useful possibilities present for academic engagement and interaction around the textual materials that are our focus.”

The lag is inevitable, for at least a couple of reasons. Some of the most prominent electronic editions of primary texts were conceived at the dawn of digital-humanistic history. This year will mark the 20th anniversaries of the beginning of work on "The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War" and “The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Hypermedia Archive,” both hosted at the University of Virginia – projects that were completed only in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Being a pioneer involves a long learning curve, among other challenges.

At the same time, gaining legitimacy for electronic editions has for a long time meant adhering fairly closely to established formats for definitive editions of texts. Siemens and his coauthors sketch a typology that begins with material prepared more or less along the lines of a scholarly edition in print, with its features made available in slightly different form. The reader of such a “dynamic text” could click around to find annotations, variant readings, cross-references, and so on.

Subsequent formats for scholarly e-texts incorporated links to pertinent primary and secondary sources -- whether as part of the edition itself or elsewhere online. This meant, in effect, grafting a good research library onto the text. The edition would reflect the state of the existing scholarship – or the state of the editors’ scholarship while preparing it, in any event.

Just when the later species of “hypertextual” and “dynamic” scholarly e-editions arrived on the scene is not indicated, but probably not much later than the early ’00s, to go by the authors’ descriptions. In the meantime we’ve had the arrival, for good and for ill, of social media, which have insinuated themselves into academic communication so extensively that it’s easy to overlook their ubiquity.

Hence the emerging potential for the “social edition” -- which, if I’m following the argument correctly, is not some newfangled travesty of established protocols for preparing important texts. It doesn’t mean tweeting Being and Time, though someone is bound to do so, sooner or later.

Rather, the social edition would offer the same features available from earlier scholarly editions of e-texts (glosses, links to appropriate material, etc.) while also acknowledging the ongoing nature of serious engagement with the material so preserved and annotated. The participants in preparing a social edition would generate commentary and analysis; help compile and update the bibliography; and create “folksonomic” tags (as when you use Delicious to store and categorize the link for an article you want to cite later).

“The initial, primary editor,” Siemens and company write, would serve “as facilitator, rather than progenitor, of textual knowledge creation…. Relying on dynamic knowledge building and privileging process over end result, [the social edition’s] expansive structure offers new scholarly workflows and hermeneutical methods that build, well, on what we already do.”

That last point is particularly significant. For one thing, scholars are already using social media – group bookmarks, blogs, etc. -- to share references and ideas. (The paper and its appendices identify an enormous array of them.) But more importantly, such tools are increasingly experienced by those using them “as natural extensions of the way in which they had always carried out their work.”

Novelty, then, is not the issue. “The core of activities traditionally involved in humanities scholarship,” the authors say, “have altered very little since the professionalization of academic study during the nineteenth century.” And those basic activities (finding texts, comparing and analyzing them, circulating them, etc.) are finally collaborative, or at least dialogical. A social edition will presumably foreground that reality, assuming one wriggles up on shore sometime soon, breathing air and able to find funding.

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Gains in history job market may mask serious challenges for those seeking positions

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Openings are up 18 percent, but other data suggest that finding tenure-track positions will remain challenging. And while applications to grad programs are falling, enrollments are not.

AAUP, U. of Northern Iowa Spar Over Governance Issues

The University of Northern Iowa is contesting a recently released American Association of University Professors report on affronts to shared governance and tenure policies last academic year in the midst of a budget crisis. The AAUP criticized university administrators for eliminating 20 percent of academic programs and the K-12 laboratory school without full engagement of the faculty -- who are primary curricular decision-makers, according to association recommendations -- and for making some professors involved in those programs feel forced to accept separation packages or risk being laid off.

In a statement, President Benjamin J. Allen said the institution disagrees with the findings of the report, and that “university leadership is obligated to not only consider the best interests of the faculty, but also the taxpayers, staff, alumni, and most importantly our students. The program changes were made up with all those stakeholders in mind.” Allen called the AAUP report mere “opinion," without punitive teeth at this point, and said it mischaracterizes university policies and agreements.

Dan Power, president of the UNI-United Faculty union, called the events of the past year “unprecedented,” and said that collegial, shared governance is in the interest of everyone in the university community going forward.  “My hope is that we will resolve the outstanding issues identified in the AAUP Committee A investigation," he said in an email. "We need to work [together] to continue to meet the needs of our students and the people of Iowa.”

The AAUP report followed a May 2012 investigation prompted by faculty complaints, said Michael Bérubé, investigation chair and professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, as well as president of the Modern Language Association. "In the future, we would hope and expect that the UNI administration will involve [the union] and the Faculty Senate at every level of decision making with regard to program closures and/or reductions, because UNI's own handbook gives the faculty primary responsibility over the curriculum," he said in an e-mail.
 

 

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