It's time for professors to stop seeking jobs when the only purpose is getting a raise at their current place of employment, writes Heather Dubrow. And it's time for departments to stop rewarding such tactics.
Earlier this year, I gave an invited talk at a conference sponsored by the University of Caen on the procedures of proof in French medieval law. The conference, held at a medieval château, was open to le grand public — the general public. An audience of about 100 people showed up to hear a dozen academics talk about judicial duels, animal trials in medieval romances, torture, and other topics. A local official opened the proceedings, and during the coffee and lunch breaks, the speakers mingled with the le grand public.
I spoke with a retired corporate executive, a group of young law students, and a novelist who runs a local crêperie, as well as a doctoral student in history who was researching medieval noble courts in the regional archives. In nearly 30 years, I had never attended a conference attracting such a wide range of people. What, I wondered, are we American academics doing wrong? And could our tendency, at least among literature professors, to avoid the general public have anything to do with the widely discussed “crisis” in the humanities?
A few months before my trip to France, I was chatting with a publicist who works for a university in my state. His job is to publicize faculty research within his university and to the general public by pitching news articles or features to media outlets — online, print, radio and TV.
I asked him what he was working on right now. He told me that he was reading — or trying to read — a new book by a literature professor at his university. "What do you mean, trying to read?" I asked. He explained that the book, about a popular British novelist still widely read today, was impenetrable, and he simply could not make heads nor tails of it. The jacket blurbs from other literature professors praised the book as groundbreaking and worthy of a wide readership. But the publicist would read a chapter, a paragraph, even a single sentence over and over again without being able to understand it. The book had now been on his desk for several weeks, and he had no idea how he was going to finish it, let alone recommend or publicize it to others.
Wow, I thought. This is not a problem just for you, or the author. If a smart, dedicated publicist at a major research university cannot make sense of a newly published book about a major novelist still widely taught in English departments, this represents a problem for the whole profession of literature.
The problem, of course, is not new. For several decades now, literature professors have been retreating into a new ivory tower built from bricks of abstruse theory and mortar of impenetrable jargon. As a profession, we have abandoned the warm campfires of story where people once took comfort in meaningful narrative and each other’s company, and we have ascended the frigid heights of a new tower of Babel.
Moreover, in a strange irony, as the profession of literature has opened up by breaking down barriers to many previously excluded groups — including women and underrepresented minorities — an admirable record of progress, we have managed at the same time to close off our profession to much of the general public. Who woulda thunk it?
Higher education is now under fire everywhere, as tuition costs climb, legislators slash university budgets, the public views tenure as inexplicable or unjust, and skepticism grows about the value of the humanities or of a liberal arts education in general. It’s easy for academics to blame budget-cutting politicians, pragmatic university administrators, or a supposedly ignorant public, but we may bear some responsibility ourselves, as pointed out in a recent letter to The New York Times by a professor of Japanese studies at Tufts University:
“In recent decades the tendency has grown among academics to produce jargon-laden articles about obscure subjects that only their mothers and a few colleagues might appreciate. This tendency has helped alienate our core constituents — the intellectually curious public — who might like to read a stimulating academic work but who are too often befuddled and annoyed by baffling academic prose.”
Granted, academics in all fields, including literature, frequently write about topics or use terms that are difficult even for “the intellectually curious public” to understand.
No one expects the scientist to put her research on particle physics, dense with mathematical formulas, into “everyday language.” Or the linguistics scholar to report his findings on Indo-European velar consonants as a readable script for the evening news. But as the famous “Sokal Hoax” suggested nearly two decades ago, using technical language to share unavoidably abstruse research findings is different from the cultivated obscurity of some humanists, especially literature scholars, whose arcane theory and off-putting jargon often seem intended to drive off all but a tiny cohort of colleagues and acolytes who possess the secret code.
True, not all academics are good rhetoricians. Not every biologist can explain her subject in a layperson’s terms, nor can every sociologist turn his research findings into an immediate take-away. But literature professors? Our subject is very popular. People everywhere read novels, stories, poems, and plays — the things we teach and write about. Reading groups all over the country devour books. And we’re supposed to be good with language. So why do so many of us often keep to our own kind?
If a crisis should never be wasted, now would seem to be an especially good time for us to be reaching out to the general public, giving talks to alumni or civic groups, participating in programs at the local library, or just talking to people outside of academe about our teaching and our research and why it’s important. Not that it should take a crisis to pry us out of our offices and classrooms.
There are plenty of excuses for avoiding the public and staying in our own comfort zone with our fellow academics: People won’t understand my work. I don’t want to dumb it down. It’s a waste of time. I’m too busy. But how long can we remain in our protective tower before the growing pressures around its base — budgets, politics, anger, ignorance — cause it to crack apart and come crashing down?
* * *
A couple of years ago, while I was having a cavity filled, my dentist startled me by asking if I would give a talk to his Rotary Club. He’s a dedicated reader, and we always have a good talk about books, at least when my mouth isn’t full of dental equipment. But now he was asking me if I would give a talk, as he held his drill at the ready.
I quickly said yes.
The Rotary Club meets quite early in the morning — 7:30, to be exact, although they do serve you breakfast.
The meeting was held at a restaurant, and about two dozen local businesspeople and other club members were there, including my dentist. Over breakfast, I chatted with the people sitting near me, and then, as the dishes were being cleared, I was shown to a little lectern set up on one side of the room, as everyone settled down to listen.
The talk was on my recent book about a celebrated duel in medieval France. By now, I had given quite a few talks on this topic — a series of invited lectures around the state for a literary society, some talks at local bookstores, and several more at historical societies or book fairs. I had also done some radio interviews and even appeared in one television documentary, so I not only knew the subject back and forth but also had had some practice talking about it outside the academy.
Still, I had prepared carefully, trimming down an originally much longer talk to just 15 minutes, making it as interesting as I could, and including some informative background about the Middle Ages. I used short, punchy sentences written for a listening audience, and I strenuously avoided confusing academic buzzwords, such as “hegemonic” and or “subaltern.” I provided some history and analysis of the medieval judicial duel, even describing the specific legal conditions required for a duel in late 14th-century France. But mainly I told a story — about characters, and places, and remarkable events — since that’s what seizes people’s attention and helps them follow what you’re saying.
The talk went well and was over in no time. I got some good questions afterwards, and then had a chance to talk with a few more people, some of whom had children or grandchildren at my university and seemed to enjoy hearing from a member of the faculty. My dentist was obviously pleased, too.
As I was getting ready to leave, one of the Rotarians came over and asked if I would do the same talk for the local Optimist Club, to which he also belonged. Sure, I said, a little surprised to be asked again so quickly.
Two weeks later I was back in the same part of town, giving the same talk, to another early-morning and equally enthusiastic group. And once again, I found myself actually enjoying it. After talking to the Rotary Club, and the Optimist Club, I’d gladly talk to the Pessimist Club, too, if there were one.
* * *
One of my friends is a commercial pilot, a lawyer, and an M.B.A. Very smart and accomplished, he also claims to be “very unliterary.” But he can explain with great clarity the most arcane technical, legal, and financial matters.
Whether we’re talking about the global financial crisis, or a legal case in the news, or a recent airline mishap, I’m always amazed by how well he can explain a concept, a problem, or a situation so that I can understand it, and how he can do so in such an interesting and memorable way. Above all, he tells a good story.
Not all experts are good explainers. But every profession needs people who can describe a complicated thing in clear, everyday language to others — to members of the general public. And right now, when the profession of literature has some explaining to do, we could really use some more people like this.
If we in literature departments, and in the humanities generally, are as smart and accomplished as we think we are, and our work is as important as we claim it is, and the public appreciates us as little as we often say, why don’t we get out there more and talk to people about what we know and what we do?
What are we afraid of?
Eric Jager is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. His next book, Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris, will appear from Little, Brown and Company, in 2014.
This course is an intensive introduction to some main themes in social theory. It is required of first-year Ph.D. students in the sociology department. Each week we will focus on something grad students complain about when they are forced to take theory. You are required to attend under protest, write a paper that’s a total waste of your time, and complain constantly. Passive-aggressive silence will not be sufficient for credit.
1. Introduction: This Has Nothing to Do With My Research Interests
2. This is All Just Obfuscatory Bullshit and Empty Jargon
3. It’s Not Like We Can Even Predict Anything
4. Isn’t It More Complicated Than That?
5. Aren’t These Things Mutually Constitutive?
6. But What About Power?
7. We Could Easily Fix This Mess With Some Basic Math
8. This Field Is Sexist and Racist to Its Rotten Core
9. What is Theory Without Praxis?
10. THANKSGIVING BREAK. If You Can Call It a Break
11. Look, If Everything Is Socially Constructed, Then Nothing Is
12. Can You Believe We Didn’t Read Any __________?
13. Conclusion: This Whole Project Was an Exercise in Symbolic Violence
Kieran Healy is associate professor of sociology at Duke University.
Wednesday started as a fairly normal day. I got out of bed bleary-eyed, stumbled down the stairs, and walked outside to get The Bloomington Herald-Times. As my eyes scanned the front page, an Associated Press story headline grabbed my attention: "Daniels Targeted 'Propaganda,' Critic." Frankly, I wasn’t too surprised to see that, given the multiple recent revelations of government spying. Nor was I shocked, as I started reading, to learn that Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor, was virulently opposed to the writings of the late left-wing historian Howard Zinn. But as I read further in the article — based on e-mails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act — something else stopped me in my tracks: one of those opponents was me.
Let me explain.
In the summer of 2010, I taught a one-week module on the history of the labor movement as part of a three-week institute for high school teachers at Indiana University in Bloomington, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was called "Social Movements in Modern America: Labor, Civil Rights, and Feminism." Along with Professors Jeffrey Ogbar (University of Connecticut) and Jennifer Maher (Indiana), and supervised by Professors John Bodnar and Ted Carmines at Indiana, I worked with a highly motivated, talented and diverse group of high school and middle school teachers from around the United States.
In my section of the course, I focused on the history of labor organizing in the meat-packing industry. The week culminated with a field trip to a unionized slaughterhouse in Louisville. It was an intense week — with five hours of instruction per day — but also one of the most rewarding of my career. These were ideal "students" and they really appreciated the opportunity to expand their horizons. At the end of the week, they handed me a card with notes of gratitude from all participants.
Three years later, I still look back fondly on that experience. But I will never think of it in quite the same way, now that I know that Big Brother, aka (then) Governor Daniels, was watching.
It was February 9, 2010, a few weeks after Howard Zinn had passed away. Governor Daniels had just sent his staff an e-mail denouncing Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, and asking staff if they could assure him that "it is not in use anywhere in Indiana." In short order, Scott Jenkins, the governor’s education adviser, e-mailed his boss with the URL to our institute website, prefaced by the comment: "Oh, and this is why my children will not go to IU." He added, "Zinn along with other anti American leftist readings are prominently featured." He also quoted from our site, which contained a detailed schedule of readings, and which informed teachers that they could earn professional development credit for attending.
Three minutes later, Daniels fired back the following: "This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be any better taught because someone sat through this session." It's unfortunate, to say the least, that Daniels viewed our curriculum about three social movements that transformed the lives of millions of Americans for the better to be "crap."
But in a sense, it was precisely to combat such attitudes that we offered the institute in the first place. Despite the changes that have taken place in the teaching of U.S. history — most obviously exemplified by Black History Month — most American students still get the message that the real movers and shakers in history are the wealthy and powerful; or if they learn about grassroots activists — such as Rosa Parks — they learn about them as heroic individuals, not part of a movement.
Now, it is true that there was an excerpt from Zinn’s People’s History included in the readings for our opening session, a roundtable on the theory and history of social movements. It was a chapter on the civil rights movement entitled, "Or Does It Explode?"
But the reason I put it there illustrates just how misguided and harmful it would be to try to censor Zinn’s ideas. In designing that session, my aim was to help teachers appreciate the challenge of explaining how and why social movements develop. In addition to reading Zinn, the teachers were assigned a wide range of pieces based on social movement theories, some of which actually challenged aspects of Zinn’s account as romantic and misleading. (I found Zinn inspiring when I first read him, but now, for my money, Zinn is actually not left-wing enough.) So, by including Zinn, my aim was not to shove his views down teachers’ throats — precisely the opposite. Which is also why I included both pro-union and anti-union websites on the syllabus. After all, the purpose of education is to help people think for themselves. That is why censorship strikes at the heart of the educational mission.
Finally, in regard to Daniels’s claim that no student would benefit from their teachers having sat through our institute, I can’t prove that we had a positive effect on the "end-users" in cities all over the country. But I can let the teachers speak for themselves. Here’s what some of them said on my thank-you card:
“What an amazing informative week.”
“You have turned one of the ‘boring’ chapters into a relevant & interesting theme in U.S. history.”
“I have learned so much and been truly inspired.”
“You successfully ‘changed’ me and the way I see the world.”
“Your enthusiasm is contagious.”
“I learned a ton. This will be very useful for me in my teaching.”
So, despite his disparagement of the value of what my colleagues and I taught, I want to thank Governor Daniels and his associates for reminding me of how much I enjoyed that summer institute and why I love teaching.
Carl R. Weinberg is senior lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences and adjunct associate professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington.