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Modeling the Life of the Mind
October 31, 2010 - 9:45pm

Teaching is at the heart of what I do in the humanities, both in my self-conception as “teacher-scholar” and in my affiliation with my institution—a small regional private university that prides itself on its individualized engagement with student learning. Bringing my research into the classroom where it might supplement the pedagogical experience of my students helps me to model the life of the mind to which I am committed. It allows my students to see that the humanities are a living thing, constantly changing and demanding we confront new challenges to our habits of thought.

This is why recent calls to stunt the teaching and research of the field are so damaging. In their new book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus argue that anything unrelated to the teaching of undergraduates is a perquisite lavished upon a professoriate bloated with privilege. (Of course, they formulated this assessment by focusing on a select group of institutions.) Elsewhere, Frank Donoghue in The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities and Martha Nussbaum in Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities describe the threats facing the humanities. Among these is an impulse to professionalize students, especially first-generation students, students very much like those I teach. I will not rehearse here the arguments for why the humanities are essential. Instead, I claim that commentators miss the point and the potentialities of higher education when they suggest that research is a pointless perquisite, and that time spent widening the field of enquiry around subjects in the humanities is time wasted. Even teacher-scholars who spend their professional lives at teaching institutions should have a space for research should they so choose. Here’s why: students respond to passion. Through our own passion for our work, we can model the life of the mind. The idea that ideas matter, that good questions do not always get answered, that the world of knowledge can be constantly reappraised, can be profoundly powerful.

I recently taught the Thomas Hardy story “A Tragedy of Two Ambitions,” in which two brothers seek a university education in order to enter the clergy, a career move they hope will facilitate their rise in society. Because they lack the funds, the brothers are stuck at a second-rate seminary and will thus never get “the good job.” My students saw deep resonances between their own lives and this story: caught between a myth of prestige and a mountain of debt, they are beginning to wonder if this college thing is all it’s cracked up to be. Our working intellectual lives are not happening at one of Hacker and Dreifus’ “Golden Dozen” schools; some of my students struggle for their seat in my class, many of them are the first in their families to attain such a seat, and they want to make the most of it. But they also see what happens when that struggle has as its only goal “the good job.” In reading, they rejected the ambition of those brothers plodding through their education with no passion, no imagination. They recognize the moments when that is what is being asked of them, and they reject it.

Witnessing the excitement of the life of the mind, sharing deep and sustained enquiry in a collaborative environment, is what gives students the equipment to make that choice. It is the same life of the mind that drew Carolyn Heilbrun to the study of literature—and which then drew her to remake that life through a feminist lens. Providing such an intellectual role model is especially crucial for young women undergraduates. For some of my students, the option has never before been presented as a viable or even an attractive one. Heilbrun describes her own education in When Men Were the Only Models We Had: the intellectual passion and work she saw among her male teachers was tantalizing, but she felt excluded from their world. She had to make her own way, with no strong women teachers or scholars (or both) to guide her. My students live in a different world even from Heilbrun, and they have the advantage of many role models to choose from. I do not want them told by the people charged with their education that the model I might have to offer no longer matters.

Janine Utell is an Associate Professor of English at Widener University in Chester, PA, USA, where she teaches composition and 19th and 20th century British literature. Her research focuses on the representation of intimate life in narrative; she is currently writing a book examining the genre of the couple biography. She can be reached by email at jmutell@widener.edu; follow her on Twitter @janineutell.

 

 

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