‘Generous Thinking’

A leader in digital humanities outlines ideas in her new book about how higher education can engage with the public in a sometimes hostile world.

February 20, 2019
 

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has been a leader in promoting the digital humanities and digital transformations of disciplines and universities. In 2011, she was appointed to lead a new division of the Modern Language Association about scholarly communication in the digital age. In 2017, she moved to Michigan State University to become director of digital humanities and a professor of English.

Her new book, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (Johns Hopkins University Press), goes well beyond the digital humanities. She argues that it's time for the humanities and academe in general to try new ways to engage with a public that has shown hostility to higher education.

Via email, she responded to questions about her new book.

Q: You note the rampant anti-intellectualism in American life today. Do you believe that it's worse than it has been in the past?

A: I’m always a little leery of suggesting that things are worse now, but I will say that today’s strain of anti-intellectualism is capable of doing far more damage than ever before, if for no other reason than because of the technologies and networks through which it is being fomented. Much of the population in the United States has long been resentful of the intrusions of “experts” into their lived experience, but now all of us are connected through systems and platforms that are designed not just to make expertise unnecessary but in fact to replace it with personal opinion.

There’s still something potentially democratizing in the internet’s decentralization of authority, but as we increasingly see in relation to issues like vaccination and climate change, the demotion of scientific consensus to just another opinion equal to any other is having real, devastating consequences. And I fear that one of those consequences may be that we are nearing a tipping point with respect to the future of the university, which is increasingly the target of public resentment. The primary reason most people look to the university today is for credentialing, but as the cost of that credentialing increasingly falls on individual students and families, the resentment only grows. Students are still coming to us … but that public resentment will be taken out on us, unless we can find ways to change the tenor of our relationship.

Q: Some academics respond to the current trends in public life by retreating and trying to create what they view as a sane world on campus. Why do you advocate for active engagement instead?

A: For several reasons, not least among them that there are people off campus who desperately want to be part of that sane world as well, and with their involvement and energy, the world that we can create together may have a better chance of making real, substantive change in public life. But our mandate stretches beyond those who might already be inclined to work with us.

This is especially so for those of us at public institutions, which were established to serve all of the people of the state or region or community. We need to make a real effort to rebuild relationships of trust with those publics, to find ways to better support them and their concerns. If we demonstrate our willingness to stand in solidarity with them, we might together build the foundation on which they’ll be willing to stand in solidarity with us, too.

Q: Some groups outside academe mock or question important commitments in academe -- equity, inclusiveness, etc. Could your approach change this?

A: I certainly hope so! Don’t get me wrong -- I recognize that there are groups whom we may never reach, whose minds we may never change. But allowing the mockery or even outright attacks of those groups to deter us from building equitable, inclusive relationships both within the campus community and with the communities around us would be an enormous mistake. We need to model openness if we want to foster openness, and we need to build connections to others who share that mission. Those connections might help us demonstrate the real potential of the university as a social space.

Q: What do you consider the flaw in the current approach to teaching and research in the humanities? How would you shift humanities?

A: We seem in many ways to have accepted the popular notion that the purpose of a university education is some form of personal enrichment, even where we might insist that enrichment has valences beyond the economic. This mind-set is part and parcel of the privatization that Chris Newfield has described as the university’s political unconscious, the certainty that the benefits of higher education are and ought to be individual. By accepting this -- by underplaying the social good that higher education provides -- we end up undermining our own best work. This is a problem across the university, but perhaps especially in the humanities, where the relationships between our fields and the market-based economy within which we operate seem to be the most tenuous.

We defensively insist either that our fields foster critical and creative skills that are in fact highly in demand among employers today or that our fields’ real benefits play out in terms of personal forms of satisfaction. Both of which are true, of course, but neither of which gets what I believe to be the far more important forms of connection and community that the humanities can and should foster. If we are to turn our teaching and research toward those more properly social goods, we need to give some serious thought to our institutional reward structures, which are at every level today focused on individual achievement. What might the work we do in our classes look like if educating for community were our primary goal? What might our research look like if we really valued connection over and above personal accomplishment? Among other things, we might find that our work, and the work of our students, becomes more collaborative, more open and more publicly engaged.

Q: What is "generous thinking" and how can academics promote it?

A: Generous thinking is for me a grounding in these modes of connection and community. Generous thinking isn’t meant to be opposed to critical thinking, but it rather provides a foundation for the critical. It asks us to start our work from a position of receptivity, of listening, that creates the possibility of genuinely understanding the ideas of others. This is not to say that we agree with all of those ideas, or that we don’t have ideas of our own, but that we approach the development of our work not just with a critical audacity but also with a kind of critical humility, recognizing the possibility that our own ideas might just be wrong.

Generous thinking also asks us to think with others -- other authors, other texts, other ideas -- rather than against them, in order to see what we might build together. And it asks us, among other things, to build the institutional and social structures that can support and encourage such thinking. We desperately need to develop more generous thinking across our culture right now -- turning on any news channel for more than a minute might help indicate why -- and the best way for academics to promote that generosity is by modeling it. In so doing, we create the best possible chances not only for building the public support that might help our institutions of higher education survive, but also for creating institutions that we genuinely want to be part of, institutions that are structurally capable of living out the values that we espouse.

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