Humanities

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.

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.

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

New classics program launched at Washington U. St. Louis

Amid gloom over humanities faculty job market, Washington U. in St. Louis launches doctoral program in classical studies.

Essay on character sketches and a 'typology of scholars'

The Greek philosopher and scientist Theophrastus would probably have remained forever in the shadow of Aristotle, his teacher and benefactor (a very big shadow, admittedly) if not for a little volume of personality sketches called Characters he wrote at the age of 99. At least that’s what he claims in the preface. The first character type he portrays is called “The Ironical Man,” so it’s possible he was just putting everyone on.

After long years of people-watching, Theophrastus says, he resolved to depict “the good and the worthless among men,” although what we actually have from his pen is a rogues’ gallery of shady, annoying, or ridiculous characters – 30 in all – including the Boor, the Garrulous Man, the Superstitious Man, and the Man of Petty Ambition. It could be there was a second volume, depicting virtuous and noble personality types, which has been lost. Or maybe he intended to write one but never got started, or did but quit from boredom. When he focuses on weaknesses and foibles it is with relish. The Offensive Man “will use rancid oil to anoint himself at the bath; and will go forth into the market-place wearing a thick tunic, and a very light cloak, covered with stains.” The Patron of Rascals “will throw himself into the company of those who have lost lawsuits and have been found guilty in criminal causes; conceiving that, if he associates with such persons, he will become more a man of the world, and will inspire the greater awe.” And so forth.

It’s not hilarious, but the humor works, and the types all remain familiar. The adjustments a reader has to make between Theophrastus’s references to clothing and institutions in ancient Greece and everyday life today are pretty slight. It’s not hard to understand why Characters became a fairly popular work in antiquity and then again in the 17th century, when imitations of it became a literary fashion and an influenced early novelists.

The character sketch seems to have died off as a genre some while back, apart from for the occasional homage such as George Eliot’s The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, her last work of fiction. But I recently came across a sort of revival in the form of a series of sketches called “Typology of scholars” by Roland Boer, an associate professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Newcastle, in Australia.

A couple of weeks ago Boer won the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize (sort of an equivalent of the Pulitzer for Marxist scholarship) for Criticism of Heaven and Earth, a study of the ongoing interaction of Marxism with theology and the Bible – the fifth volume of which just appeared from the European scholarly publisher Brill, with previous installment issued in paperback from Haymarket Press. I would be glad to write about it except for being stuck in volume two. The news that volume five brings the series to a close is somewhat encouraging, but in the shorter term it only inspired me to look around at his blog, Stalin’s Moustache. (Anyone attempting to extract ideological significance from that title does so at his or her own peril. Boer himself indicates that it was inspired by General Tito’s remark “Stalin is known the world over for his moustache, but not for his wisdom.”)

In the inaugural post Boer explains that “Typology of scholars” was inspired by a single question: “ ‘What is a university like?’ someone asked me who fortunately had no experience whatsoever with these weird places.” Originally announced as a series that would run for a few days in December 2011, it actually continued for six months, though the last few character sketches are lacking in the piss and vinegar of the first several. 

Like Theophrastus, Boer, too, has assembled a rogue’s gallery. Whatever the particularities of Australian academic culture, “Typology” depicts varieties of Homo academicus probably found everywhere.

So here’s a sampler. (I have imposed American spelling and punctuation norms.)

The Lord: “[T]he high-handed professor distributes funds, hands out favors, relies on a servile court of aspiring scholars to reinforce his own sense of superiority. And the Lord deems that the only people really worth talking to are other lords, visiting them in their domains, perhaps lecturing the local serfs.…

"[N]otice how the lord refers to ‘my’ doctoral students, ‘my’ postdocs, ‘my’ center, or even ‘my’ university. Our worthy lord may treat her or his serfs in many different ways, with benevolence, with disdain, as a source of new ideas that can then be ‘recycled’ as the lord’s own. So the serfs respond accordingly, although usually it is a mix of resentment and slavish subservience. On the one hand, the lord is a tired old hack who is really not so interesting, who may be derided in the earshot of the other serfs, and whose demise cannot come quickly enough. On the other hand, the serfs will come to the defense of their lord should an enemy appear, for they owe their livelihood and future prospects to the Lord.

“Of course, as soon as a serf manages to crawl into a coveted lordship, she acts in exactly the same manner.”

The Overlooked Genius: “The way the star system has developed in academia means that few of us are happy to remain incognito, quietly walking in the mountains and jotting in a small notebook, sending books off to a press and selling maybe four or five – like Nietzsche (although he was also pondering the advanced effects of syphilis).... In order to make it through the long apprenticeship, at the end of which someone who is forty is still regarded as ‘youthful,’ an intellectual needs to develop some survival skills, especially a belief that what he or she is doing is important, so crucial that the future of the human race depends upon it...... Our unnoticed genius spends his or her whole time asserting that everyone around him or her, in whatever context if not the discipline as a whole, is as dumb as an inbred village.”

The Borrower: “The Borrower may seize upon the papers of a colleague who has resigned in disgust and use them, unrevised, in a scintillating paper. Or the Borrower may ask a newly made ‘friend’ for a copy of his latest research paper, only to pump out something on the same topic and publishing it quickly – using established networks. Possibly the best example is a very creative head honcho at an unnamed university. Dreading solitary space, a blank piece of paper, and an empty mind, he would gather a group at his place, ply them with food and grog, and ask, ‘Now what about this question?’ After a couple of hours talk, he would say to Bill: ‘Why don’t you write a draft paper on this and then pass it around?’ Bill would do so, the others would add their revisions and he would ensure his name was on the piece.”

The Politician: “It can truly be said that the politician is one who has never had a thought without reading or hearing it somewhere else. What really sets the juices going, however, is the thought of wielding ‘power.’

“So she or he salivates at the thought of a committee, leaps at the chance for a heavy administrative role in which power can be lorded over others, sleeps with this one or that higher up the rung in order to gain crucial insights that may come in handy, who spends long hours pondering his next move to gain access to the powers that be.

"With their feudal-like structures, universities lend themselves to labyrinthine intrigue, favors done, gaining the ear of a heavyweight, eliminations carried out through humiliation and whispers, the bending of rules in order to edge ever upward.… The Politician is probably one of the saddest of all types, since the power you can accrue in a university is bugger-all.”

The Big Fish in a Slimy Pond: “A great temptation for some of us in that attractive life of academia: this is, obviously, the situation in which one may be a big shot in one’s own little circle. ... [able to] hold forth on any topic with absolute abandon…. “

The moment of truth for the Big Fish comes when faced with “a big conference, or perhaps a new and larger circle of scholars who actually know something, or a situation slightly more than a group of fresh-faced, worshipful students. … [O]n the one visit to the big arena, our knowledgeable scholar opines that no-one knows what they are talking about, since all those hundreds of papers from around the world are worthless, so it’s not worth going again. Or they are too traditional and I’m just too much of a radical for them all, so I’ll give that a miss….

“Instead, the apparently big fish can return to the small, stagnant pond, getting fat on pond slime and the perceived authority that comes from being the person with one eye among the blind.”

(It's worth mentioning that he example of the Big Fish that Boer gives is "the theologian who becomes an expert in, say, feminism, or cultural criticism, or Marxism, but stays purely within theology where she or he is a real 'authority.' God forbid that you should actually spend some time with real gender critics, or Marxists, or psychoanalysts." His character sketch is a self-portrait, or at least piece of a self-satire.)

As noted earlier, imitations of the character sketches of Theophrastus became popular in the 17th century, when (maybe not so coincidentally) the novel was starting to take shape as a distinct literary form. Plot was, in effect, the boiling water into which authors dissolved the little packets of crystallized personal psychology found in Characters and its knock-offs.

It occurs to me that Boer’s “Typologies of the scholar” reverses the process: It’s an academic novel, except in freeze-dried form. That’s not a problem, since plot is rarely an academic novel’s strong point. What the reader enjoys, typically, is character as caricature -- and Boer’s approach is arguably a lot more efficient.

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Essay critiques the role of theory in the humanities

Over the years, as literary studies veered into a dozen political and identitarian versions of theory, traditionalists complained accordingly, but nothing they said altered the trend. Conservatives, libertarians, and, in some cases, liberals produced government reports (William Bennett’s National Endowment for the Humanities study "To Reclaim a Legacy"), wrote best-selling books (Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind), and spoke at legislative hearings (David Horowitz and the Academic Bill of Rights campaign), but the momentum toward political and identity themes proceeded without pause. Sexuality studies are stronger today than they were 20 years ago.

One reason, I think, is that defenders of the new managed to characterize objectors in just the right way to discredit them. Voices opposing deconstruction, postcolonialism, and the rest were cast as ignorant, retrograde, threatened, resentful, out of touch, and hidebound, traits nicely keyed to decertify them for academic recognition.

Paul Jay’s essay here is a fair example. It chides the speakers at a St. John’s College gathering for “recycl[ing] an old and faulty argument that should have been set aside years ago.” Indeed, Jay says, the whole spectacle was unworthy of academic discussion: “it’s depressing to see such a thoroughly discredited argument being made in late 2014.”

The argument he deplores is that the rise of theory has brought about the downfall of English and the humanities. Race-class-gender studies, political criticism, feminism, deconstruction, and other schools of theory have turned students away, it claims, the professors abandoning the experience of beauty and greatness, and thereby killing their own field.

Jay counters with statistics showing that English enrollments have held steady for decades after a precipitous fall in the 70s.  The “plight” of the humanities is real, he acknowledges, but it stems from broader shifts on campus, particularly the adoption of corporate and vocational values.  Traditionalists misconstrue the evidence because they want to “eschew critique” and “return to ‘tradition’” (note the sneerquotes).

Once again, traditionalists are backward and uninformed. We have the same set-up, one that denies them any affirming values and frames the position in terms of intellectual deficiency. It’s unfair, but it has worked.

Rather than protest this bilious characterization, then, let’s go with it and flesh it out, and emphasize a different attribute in the profile. It isn’t wrong to highlight personal factors in the traditionalist response, and in this case they certainly fueled the outcry and enmity against theory and politicization. But if we’re going to do so, let’s include a fuller range of them, not just insularity and defensiveness. 

I have in mind another condition. It applies to critics of the theory/politics/identity turn who were, in fact, quite knowledgeable of the intricacies of theory, its philosophical and historical backgrounds. Their response even derived, at times, from admiration of Discipline and Punish, A Map of Misreading, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation,” and other canonical 70s and 80s texts.

I mean the feeling of embarrassment. Not embarrassment for themselves, but for their discipline. It sounds ego-based and irrelevant, but it derived from a scholarly posture, not a personal state, and it happened again and again.  As they went about their professional work, teaching and speaking, reviewing manuscripts and candidates, reading new books and essays, they witnessed persistent lapses in learning, research, and evaluation, a series of poor performances that nonetheless passed muster. Enough of them piled up for traditionalists to count it a generalized condition — and they mourned. Decades of immersion in the field presented one breakdown after another, and they cared so much for the integrity of the discipline that it affected them as a humiliation.

We were embarrassed ...

  • When we attended lectures by professors who cited Jacques Derrida but in the follow-up Q&A couldn’t handle basic questions about Derrida’s sources.
  • By the cliques that formed around Derrida, Paul de Man, Foucault, and other masters, complete with sibling rivalries, fawning acknowledgements, and sectarian hostilities.
  • By graduate students skipping seminars in order to deliver theory-saturated conference papers, even though they needed three years of silent reading in a library carrel before stepping forward.
  • When departments dropped bibliography, foreign language, and philology requirements, but added a theory survey.
  • When Jesse Jackson & Co. pulled the “Western civ has got to go!” stunt at Stanford and English colleagues reacted with a pathetic “O.K.”
  • When Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball penned their annual report on the Modern Language Association in The New Criterion, and the world guffawed.
  • By the Sokal Hoax, which made us a laughingstock among our science colleagues.
  • By the Bad Writing Award and cutesy titles stocked with parentheses, scare quotes, and diacritical marks.
  • When we came across reader’s reports and found them nothing more than puff pieces by cronies.
  • By Academically Adrift, which demonstrated how little reading and writing undergraduates do.

Yes, we stumbled from one chagrin to another. When Jay effuses about “the innovative role that theory has had in deepening, enriching, and challenging our understanding of the human,” we can only reply, “That’s not what we saw and heard with our own eyes and ears.” Jay treats it as transformative progress, but it impressed us as hack philosophizing, amateur social science, superficial learning, or just plain gamesmanship. Our first response wasn’t hostility or insecurity. It was dismay. 

This is why we blamed theory, and still do. We didn’t deny the genius of eminent theorists, but we found the practices they inspired dispiriting. Not Derrida’s “Differance,” a serious ontological statement, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, an eccentric but hefty study, and other achievements, but their thousands of phony imitations and platitudinous implementations, and theory had to accept responsibility for those results. 

First of all, theory called into question epistemological standards. “Objectivity,” “method,” the distinction of “primary” and “secondary” texts, and other disciplinary concepts fell prey to its critique.

Second, theory was unfamiliar, and so you could get by with half-baked expressions of it. If you referred in a gathering to a passage in Jacques Lacan’s “Rome Discourse,” chances are that few others in the room had the knowledge to assess your usage.

Third, theory (starting in the '80s) was aligned with political trends bearing a moral authority, encouraging people to think more about “doing good” than “doing well.” We didn’t criticize that young professor for his disorganized teaching, because he enacted a social good: introducing undergraduates to marginalized authors of color and outlining theories of their marginalization.

Finally, theory had a smaller corpus and broader application than existing historical fields. It saved younger people months and years of reading time.

It didn’t have to happen that way (who loved the archive more than Foucault?), but it did. Every profession has greater and lesser talents, of course, but it seemed to us that inferior knowledge, skills, and standards had become routine practice, and theory stood as an alibi for them.

So, when traditionalists speak up and the Establishment knocks them down, keep in mind the other attribute, not the stupidity that marks their failure to meet scholarly ideals. Consider, instead, their embarrassment over the decades, which originates precisely in their enduring devotion to those ideals.

 

Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.

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Jacques Derrida

New book on changes in American higher education and the role of the intellectual

Author of new essay collection discusses the intellectual's role in the era of the "post-welfare state university."

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