Humanities

Essay on a long academic job search

A year after Patrick Iber's story of rejection captured so much attention, he offers an update.

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Report offers a mixed picture of state of the humanities in 2015

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Annual report on the disciplines acknowledges cuts and challenges, but also sees signs of hope and growth.

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Anna Deavere Smith delivers NEH's Jefferson Lecture

Anna Deavere Smith, actress and playwright, argues in Jefferson Lecture that humanities are key to a better understanding of what it is to be American.

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Review of Richard H. Davis, "The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography"

Lost among my books, probably in a box somewhere, is a paperback copy of Bhagavad Gita As It Is, offered to me at a reasonable price by a smiling Hare Krishna devotee working the crowd in Union Square. The word “smiling” is probably redundant. What the group advertises is bliss, and it would be a pretty shoddy product if it broke down under the pressure of New Yorkers’ indifference.

I bought it -- the book, anyway -- but hadn’t noticed it going AWOL until reading Richard H. Davis’s The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography, a volume in Princeton University Press’s rewarding Lives of Great Religious Books series. Davis, a professor of religion at Bard College, mentions that A. C. Bhaktivedanta, “a vigorous 70-year-old Bengali,” arrived in the United States in 1965 and in short order was teaching and chanting among the protohippies in Greenwich Village. Swami Prabhupada, as he came to be known, published his own heavily annotated edition of the Gita in 1968 -- the one you can still get from his robed and shaved-headed acolytes now, 50 years after he began proselytizing.

The swami went on to his reward in 1977. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness he founded can now claim, semiplausibly, to have put out more than 20 million copies of Bhagavad Gita As It Is in some 56 languages. It is a sign of Davis’s accomplishment with his “biography” that he leaves the reader aware of how small a blip those missionary efforts are in the context of the Gita’s history -- let alone on the scripture’s own cosmic scale.

As sacred texts go, the Bhagavad Gita (“song of the Lord”) is notable for both its brevity and the relatively straightforward relationship between doctrine and narrative. It has a plot. The setting is ancient India, shortly before a war that will leave more than a million dead. Arjuna, a warrior by birth, surveys the two armies poised for battle and, turning to his charioteer, Krishna, expresses overwhelming despair at the pointlessness of the fratricidal warfare about to begin.

Krishna first counsels a kind of stoic attitude toward the performance of duty: the lot of the warrior is to fight, but without attachment, to fulfill destiny without desire or fear as to its outcome. It is attachment, the corruption of action by the passions, that keeps someone bound to the cycle of rebirth.

Then Krishna reveals that he is not just a god moonlighting as chariot driver but the Supreme Being ne plus ultra, something beyond all human imagination or understanding: “Arjuna sees Krishna’s arms and eyes, bellies and mouths, stretching out in all directions. He sees all the gods contained within Krishna’s vast body.” The vision can only be called mind melting as Krishna speaks the words that Robert Oppenheimer recalled while witnessing the first atomic explosion:

If the radiance of a thousand suns

Were to burst at once into the sky,

That would be like the Splendor

Of the Mighty One…

I am become Death

The shatterer of worlds.

Returning to human form, Krishna makes what is in some ways the most powerful revelation of all. Love and devotion are Krishna’s due, and Arjuna is prepared to give them. But the relationship is not one-way. Krishna expresses his love for Arjuna and promises to be the warrior’s ultimate refuge: “I will liberate you from all sins. Do not grieve.”

With that, Arjuna’s doubts and hesitation are put to rest, and the battle is joined.

The dialogue appears as a philosophical interlude in The Mahabharata, an epic poem of prodigious scale. It is unclear which came first -- the dialogue may have been composed as part of the larger work and then extracted, or it could be a freestanding text that some ancient editor spliced in. “Some observers,” Davis notes, “have pointed to the unlikelihood, or the ‘dramatic absurdity,’ as one noted Indologist put it, of great masses of zealous warriors sitting idly by for ninety minutes while a soldier and his charioteer chat in the no-man’s land.”

As an aesthetic objection that seems fair enough. The situation doesn’t work as a realistic segment in a chronicle of war. (I can’t say, having never read The Mahabharata, or even met anyone who has.) But its “dramatic absurdity” nonetheless works in expressing the mood of terrible existential pain, the moment of facing life or death and feeling overwhelmed by the reality right in front of you. That quality makes the Gita a powerful work even for readers incapable of regarding surrender to Krishna as what William James called “a live option.”

For medieval Indian poets, artists and sages, the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna resonated with ideas and debates of long standing; they read it as a work concentrating and clarifying doctrines expressed rather more obliquely in the Vedas, a much older set of scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita’s depiction of Krishna also put pressure on the devotees of other gods to produce revelatory works of their own. “These gitas,” Davis writes, “always involve discourses conveyed from deities to listeners that constitute authoritative instruction on the fundamental nature of the world along with guidance for effective human conduct leading to worldly benefits and ultimately liberation.”

Infomercials of the gods! Still, it was Krishna’s gita that became the Gita -- a text widely, if dubiously, regarded as “the Hindu bible.” Its ascension was no sure thing. In two absorbing chapters, Davis traces a series of stages leading from the first English translation in 1785 (a byproduct of British imperial interests) to widespread fascination among the literati (Thoreau took it to Walden pond, Whitman died with it under his pillow) to a kind of rebirth as an element of Indian national identity, in part through Gandhi’s reading of Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial, which put the Gita into English, and iambic pentameter to boot.

Davis notes that only a very small share of early iconography of Krishna shows him in scenes from the Bhagavad Gita. More commonly depicted were legends of his mischievous childhood or his role as combative young prince. Treating the Gita as the Hindu equivalent of the Judeo-Christian scriptures probably revealed more about British Protestant sensibilities than it did about Indian religion.

But it proved to be a productive sort of confusion: with so many questions about the Bible they knew troubling the minds of Westerners, the new scripture from the East proved timely. Davis says just a little about the broad similarity between Krishna and Christ (each understood as a human incarnation of the divine, with a message of love) but clearly it was on the minds of some enthusiasts even before gurus started making trips to Europe and America.

There’s so much else to say about The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography -- but my karma depends upon meeting a deadline, so not today. Princeton’s Lives of the Great Religious Books continues to offer interesting titles (up soon: The Book of Revelation) and is the rare instance of a series with a concept that really works.

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Essay on why academics should be compensated for help they provide businesses

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Humanities professors shouldn't give away their nonwork time without compensation, and they shouldn't feel guilty about charging for their time, writes Nate Kreuter.

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Essay on 10 years of Intellectual Affairs

As of this week, Intellectual Affairs has been running for 10 years, which is nearly as long as Inside Higher Ed itself has been around. My title when it all began was Essayist at Large, as in fact it still is: I can’t imagine a nicer euphemism for being, in effect, a perpetual student -- and somehow making a job of it to boot.

Few publications would offer such a position to a writer; fewer still, if any, would give a columnist such a long tether for such a long time. Inside Higher Ed’s exact launch date is not clear. The beta version went live during the Modern Languages Association’s annual conference at the very end of 2004, which the founding editors covered as it happened. But a placeholder page (the gamma version?) was online even before that. In any event, Intellectual Affairs made its debut on Feb. 1, 2005 -- a short time after IHE hit the ground running as a fully functioning (if, for a time, woefully understaffed) news organization, reporting on academe and publishing throughout the workweek.

As it happens, the column premiered almost exactly 19 years after my first article for the late, lamented magazine Lingua Franca. Being so alert to the passing of anniversaries is undoubtedly a tic of consciousness, but in this case it underscores something that’s informed the column from the start: an effort to carry forward into the digital era as much of the tradition of the journalism of ideas and haute vulgarization as possible. The models I had in mind included the sort of review-essay that Francis Jeffrey fostered in The Edinburgh Review in the early 19th century, the more casual and sprightly genres of the feuilleton and the causerie, and the mode of confessional criticism practiced by Seymour Krim, one of this column’s patron saints.

While the rise of e-publishing may be irresistible, it seems that reports of the death of the traditional book are somewhat exaggerated. But the shape of the public-intellectual sphere has been forever changed by the past decade. It may amuse younger people to know that in 2005 the idea that scholars would blog was controversial. Just try to stop them, I remember thinking. (For a taste of what went on, search “Ivan Tribble.”) Both digital boosterism and neo-Luddism have always struck me as dead ends. Each evades the task of paying attention to the world and checking how well one’s stock of ideas and attitudes holds up in the flux of experience.

Writing in the preface to the American edition of his essay collection Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco said something that left a huge impression on me and set the course leading to this column: “I believe that an intellectual should use newspapers the way private diaries and personal letters were once used. At white heat, in the rush of an emotion, stimulated by an event, you write your reflections, hoping that someone will read them, and then [you] forget about them.” It would seem that I took this even more to heart than I realized: by the time something is published, I don't want to spend another minute thinking about it. Sharp-eyed readers will occasionally point out a blunder or, more often, a garbled passage. (There is a very efficient gremlin who occasionally removes something important from a sentence, such as its verb, or the word "not.") Repairs are made, but otherwise my habit after filing a column and responding to edits is to go to work immediately on the next piece without looking back.

But here's a selection of columns that seem to have held up reasonably well, assembled with the help of friends with better memories than mine.

A handful of pieces elicited discussion far beyond the ivory tower, such as the early one on the 19th-century American novelist Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, considering how and when her work had ever been called back from its richly deserved neglect. Another column from that period was among the very first articles about Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" when Princeton University issued it as a hardback booklet. The review had little or nothing to do with On Bullshit's subsequent best-seller status, but it was surely the only mass-media response taking into account the secondary literature. A column on the postpublication peer review of Robert Service's biography of Leon Trotsky seems to have made its way around the world and, if memory serves, into French translation. But the most notorious column, it seems, expressed my dismay at the as-told-to autobiography of Cornel West, a good man undone by mere celebrity. 

The closest runner-up would probably be the piece discussing a publisher's effort to whitewash the abundant and well-documented scholarly transgressions of Michael Bellesiles. While distasteful to write, doing so was a basic obligation of intellectual hygiene. Much more agreeable was writing the profile of George Scialabba, an important cultural critic who now has the wider audience he deserves. It's also been gratifying to be able to alert readers (academic and otherwise) to university-press books shortly after they've appeared, such as a French historian's memoir on working in the archives, or a fascinating monograph on Santa Muerte, "the skeleton saint," who hears the prayers of spurned lovers, gangsters and entrepreneurs. And likewise to share the news that a fellow C. L. R. James scholar had discovered the long-lost script for a play about Toussaint Louverture in which Paul Robeson played the lead. And the column's readers heard about The New Inquiry (here and here, for example) a year or two before The New York Times got to it. 

Publication of Zizek's Jokes by MIT Press provided the opportunity to confess my secret shame at having dubbed the Slovenian thinker "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- an endlessly repeated phrase that will surely outlive me, despite it being, on the whole, fairly idiotic. Among the earlier Intellectual Affairs columns was a literature review on the field of Oprah studies, followed in due course by an interview with the organizer of the first academic conference on a reality TV show called Jersey Shore. More interesting and rewarding was a book that established how career criminals signal their competence to each other (despite the lack of an established credentialization process) and applied its findings to the world of incompetent-but-powerful senior faculty in Italian universities. The column explored such 21st-century questions as the sociology of trolling and the value of a comprehensive and professionally curated archive of Twitter.

The troubling developments at Miskatonic University were a challenge to report on, and I still regret covering part one of the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy, which gave the expression "train wreck" a whole new meaning. Reviewers have said that the budget and quality declined sharply with each new installment. I find that impossible to imagine but am glad to take their word for it.

The humanities and social sciences have received more attention in the column than mathematics or the natural sciences, and by an enormous margin. I regret this, and have made it a point at least to try, particularly with mathematics (see this and that). A few pieces have taken up topics such as the geology of the (literal) underworld, the world of subatomic particles and advances in cryptozoology.

Finally: I've written a number of commentaries and tributes following the deaths of various people, including the historian Philip Rieff and pomo prophet Jean Baudrillard. Thanks to the Google, I see that references to each of them have turned up in later years, including a description of J. B. as being, "in his day, [a] major brand-name cash cow in the world of academic publishing," which still seems apt. So does the obit that says, "Lou Reed’s lyrics were quite unwholesome, like a Baudelaire sonnet," especially given Reed's place as a student of the poet Delmore Schwartz. A couple of the tributes were hard to write because the subjects were friends. Over the first few years of the column, I always kept in mind that the novelist and critic John Leonard was out there in the audience reading it. He said as much, which was inspiring and intimidating at the same time, and I miss him.

By contrast, the suicide of Aaron Swartz -- who, when we met, didn't look old enough to shave -- still seems difficult to believe. Yesterday I saw his photo while going through the spring catalog for The New Press, which is bringing out The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz in May. A worthy effort, but it's hard to feel anything but numb at the prospect of the posthumous collected works of an author who died at 26.

Ben Goldacre writes something in the preface to I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That which left me slightly dreading today's column: "Reading your own work from 10 years ago is a bit like being tied down, with your eyelids glued open, and forced to watch ten-foot videos of yourself saying stupid things with bad hair." Indeed! It's been a week of careful, strategic combing, that's for sure. It has been an interesting decade -- and while the work seems never to get easier, in a sense the effort is its own reward. (I wouldn't want the editors to take that too literally, because I'm counting on the paycheck.) And as the guy in a medieval shtetl is supposed to have said about his job keeping watch for the Messiah so he could blow a horn to tell everyone else: "Well, at least it's steady work."

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Web site mixes quotes of star feminist theorist with 1990s sitcom

Web site links the work of a prominent writer on gender, race and class with a 1990s sitcom.

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Data show steady growth in humanities and liberal arts education at community colleges

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While advocates for the humanities and some social sciences worry about enrollment patterns at many colleges, they may have missed good news from two-year institutions.

National Endowment for the Humanities chief looks to focus humanities toward public good, national challenges

NEH launches initiative to promote research focused on the public good. The effort comes before what may be a contentious budget battle with the new Congress.

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Essay calling for a new ideal, modeled on James Joyce, for the humanities

Departures are stressful affairs. In 1904, James Joyce, an Irish Modernist writer, and Nora Barnacle, his girlfriend, began their lifelong pilgrimage through Europe. They had just met, a few months before — she a hotel maid from Galway, he a Jesuit-educated young man with poor eyesight and an ambition to become a famous writer. Joyce didn’t deceive Nora when he predicted the discomfort of their upcoming elopement and their life in exile. He confessed that he could not “enter the social order except as a vagabond.” Propelled by the desire to encounter the new, they both left the familiar constrains of home behind.

And in the midst of the debate about the so-called crisis of the humanities, I want my entire academic field to draw inspiration from authors like Joyce. Without dismissing the very real financial crisis in humanities departments, I want to address another kind of crisis — not entirely unrelated to funding — the widely professed crisis of identity.

Can Joyce’s life and writing give us some direction to re-envision the humanities as a field? A sense of personal crisis and disillusionment compelled him and many other expat Modernists away from home. Joyce rejected formalized religion and the insular culture of turn-of-the-century Dublin. Yet he remained saturated with both religion and Dublin and explored them in his writing until he died.

Voluntary exile furnished him with inspiration and necessary distance from the familiar, a detachment that many creative writers consider invaluable in capturing the complexities of fictional settings. But Joyce wrote about his homeland with a great deal of warmth, not just criticism. In his fiction, he goes back to Dublin streets again and again, and he goes back to the West of Ireland, where his beloved Nora came from. The last paragraph of “The Dead” is the most touching description of a native land by a self-exiled writer.

James Joyce — a voluntary exile, a wanderer, a seeker — always came home. This master of experimental writing and irreverent violator of tradition returns home whenever he alludes to Odysseus’s wandering and whenever he lets us encounter his Irish equivalent of Odysseus, Leopold Bloom — an Irishman, a Jew, and a cuckold, an alienated character, an “ancient mariner.” As we plow through Ulysses, we read about Stephen Dedalus’s snot, Leopold Bloom’s erections and bowel movements, and Molly Bloom’s menstruation, and we’re not quite sure where we’re heading. Yet, in all this apparent directionlessness, we learn a great deal about suffering, betrayal, desire, and compassion. We know the characters intimately, and we want to reach out and touch them, cry with them, walk with them. We sympathize with Bloom, who responds to violence by proposing that the answer to “force, hatred, history, all that” is “Love.”

Exile and nomadism, those unsettling symptoms of Modernist physical and spiritual displacement, can furnish us with love — love for discovery, love for learning, love for the other. It is through leaving the comfort of home and encountering alien people and ideas that the humanities classroom thrives. We expect our students to enter the world of the unknown with courage, but we are often hesitant to do it ourselves. We should have the courage to face the new — collectively as a discipline.

Let’s look at the “crisis of the humanities” as an opportunity to re-envision the field, to send it off on a great adventure away from home. Let’s not treat the humanities as a field with a calcified identity, entrenched in the past. Lest you misunderstand me: This is not a call to forget about the past, to abandon Confucius and Aristotle, Beowulf and Dante, Voltaire and Tolstoy.

I want the humanities to remember home, but to be comfortable with change, to embrace new opportunities, to feel the excitement of letting their identity be molded by movement, not to be threatened by changing or porous boundaries. If we do not initiate new adventures and if we do not embrace an itinerant mode of exploration as potentially educational and formative, we will be forced to change anyway.

And the difference between choosing exile and being forced into a refugee status is profound. Joyce, for example, was never barred from returning to Dublin. He maintained his ties with Ireland and, if he chose to, he could always return home — through his experimental fiction and political essays or by visiting Ireland himself. Refugees facing real violence have no luxury of returning home.

Underfunded and disrespected humanities are the refugees of academe. In the last decade alone, whole departments have fallen victim to the corporate takeover of learning. So without dismissing the value of staying home, I want to suggest that we explore new ways of scholarship and that we travel to other disciplines — yes, including computer science and STEM — to enrich our thinking about our disciplines. Being homesick without being homeless, conversing with the past while imagining new beginnings — all this is potentially generative and exciting.

The writers we study in literature classrooms and the teachers who assign their texts put “home” in conversation with the tradition in order to other it. These writers often speak with each other across the boundaries of time and space. They leave home to drop in on distant relatives or total strangers. Colm Tóibín’s Testament of Mary responds to the New Testament and allows Mary to voice her dismay over the idol-worship surrounding her son and, eventually, her anguish over his death. Carol Ann Duffy revisits Greek and Roman mythologies to give voice to the women rendered mute by the original storytellers.

This is the essence of the humanities: embracing the nomadic state of not knowing and not belonging and, at the same time, living in the text and conversing with it freely; being rooted in tradition and challenging it; respecting the canon and revising it as we begin to understand who has been silenced; retaining our reverence for the printed book and letting ourselves feel excited about new modes of writing, publishing, and discussing literature.

Our disciplines are grounded in printed text or painted canvas, but they should also explore the new technologies that democratize people’s access to knowledge and allow the difficult conversation with tradition to happen instead of hiding behind a paywall. We should use these technologies with excitement and criticize them where they fail to deliver.

In the nomadic future of the humanities, scholars of sub-Saharan literature collaborate freely with visual artists and computer science experts on projects that would attract students and the general public. In the nomadic future of the humanities, business owners, nurses, and local artists join college students in poetry slams and book clubs. Our brilliant philosophers of gender, race, and class leave the campus regularly to engage middle-schoolers and high-schoolers in the life of the mind, leading discussions about the issues that affect them. In the nomadic future of the humanities, we prove that literature is not only for the elite few, that the beauty of the written and spoken word can move everyone, and everyone can try to articulate why.

To accomplish all this, the humanities will have to open up and venture out without the fear that we’re undermining some primeval principle of what it is we should be doing as scholars and teachers. Pretentious, intentionally obscure, and insular humanities will soon face decline. I do not dismiss the beauty and importance of navigating the world of ideas without any stated utilitarian purpose. But the humanities should be in flux, inviting others to join in their nomadism, open to other disciplines, learning from them and teaching them, too.

Like James Joyce and other Modernists who left home in both literal and metaphorical ways when they abandoned the comfort of established modalities of expression, the humanities — as well as their teachers and students — should be encouraged to redefine themselves as they cross borders and encounter alien worlds. If the humanities could repeat Stephen Dedalus’s call “Away! Away!,” with equal enthusiasm but with less arrogance, perhaps we wouldn’t be talking about their “crisis.”

If we acknowledge the importance of the formative origins of the field and continue exploring them unapologetically and with passion but in a way that would be inclusive of those unfamiliar with the prohibitive jargon of most academic papers, we could capture the interest in ancient philosophy, Medieval morality plays, or postmodern theater among people who are not affiliated with academe but who enjoy the life of the mind. We could avoid the charge of being locked up in the Ivory Tower, waiting for our slow death as the masses outside rage against us. If we admit that revamping and energizing the field will take resources, creativity, and courage, and if we reward the courage to leave “home” in search of discovery, the humanities classrooms will again be filled with students.

We’re already doing a lot of great work on campuses across the nations: tweeting about philosophy, transforming theories of public engagement into practice in local communities, or sending students to professional conferences, writers’ workshops, and exhibitions. But it would take a more systemic shift to make all this possible on a larger scale.

First, a lot of these creative ways of approaching the humanities are time-consuming and costly, and grants for the humanities scholars and teachers, always unimpressive, are becoming even more rare as the National Endowment for the Humanities and Fulbright funds are being drastically cut. Second, we should start rewarding public engagement with the humanities in tangible ways. A series of compelling and clear blogs about an obscure 17th-century poet should count toward tenure and promotion, together with required well-researched papers published in specialized, peer-reviewed journals. Both forms of engagement with our subjects are important and valid, and they should be complementary as well as rewarded.

Publishing in traditional academic journals tests new ideas on the forum of narrowly specialized scholars and adds new knowledge to the field. Explaining our research to the general public in clear, accessible prose could make it possible for us to continue testing new ideas in a narrowly specialized forum. If popularizing the humanities, the hard work of bringing them out in the open, is derided as a job of a traveling salesman, the humanities will lose public support, and along with it, the resources necessary to thrive.

So let us together see the humanities take a stroll into uncharted territories but always remember home, like Leopold Bloom who — after walking through Dublin for many hours — returns in a chapter called “Ithaca” to his unfaithful wife’s bed and kisses “the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump.” Voluntary exile from Ithaca, from the Blooms’ jingling bed, from Ireland, from Aristotle and Shakespeare, from a printed book and a lecture hall, will help us look at home upon our return in a new way, influenced by encountering the alien.

The humanities that boldly leave home — and yet always remember home—the humanities that are not afraid to take a risky detour, the humanities that are not too aloof to leave the campus and engage pressing issues with clarity and empathy — this is a field that will survive any crisis of confidence.

 

Agata Szczeszak-Brewer is associate professor and chair of English at Wabash College

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James Joyce in Paris

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