Last week, the New York Times's “Opinionator” published an essay in which Christy Wampole decried the present state of humanities scholarship by holding up the worst forms of conference behavior to ridicule.
Let’s be honest: all academics have groaned at plenary papers that go over the time limit or senior colleagues who assume their listeners will fully absorb their arguments even when delivered in a monotone with no attention to rhetorical context. These examples of inconsiderate academics are certainly not the norm, however, just as misbehavior or nastiness are not often the norm in any other professional arena.
Wampole herself admits to engaging in the narcissistic habit of answering emails during plenaries and having “listened for the first five minutes of the talk, just long enough to seize upon a word around which [she’ll] construct a pseudoquestion in the Q and A.” She includes herself among those who sometimes give a paper and then spend the rest of the conference at the pool bar.
To suggest as she does, however, that we should judge the quality or the future of the humanities by these unfortunate instances of a professional lack of grace is irresponsible. It is judging a profession by its lowest common denominator, and it obscures the good, important exchange of ideas and generation of knowledge that occurs at academic conferences year in and year out, throughout most academic careers.
It also feeds the worst stereotypes about academics that subsequently become fuel for political agendas across the country seeking to defund education at the great expense of America’s future.
Of late, public critiques of the humanities have taken the explicit form of assertions that the disciplines have no practical value or contemporary relevance in a technological world. Implicitly, such critiques also manifest in persistent funding cuts to arts programs, in calls for exclusively STEM-based initiatives to improve our educational system, in claims about the unemployability of humanities graduates, even in assertions by some defenders of the disciplines that humanities knowledge is primarily good for business, economics or public-policy makers -- which imply that such knowledge and experience has no value if it cannot be turned to moneymaking.
But in the last few years, there has also been what feels like an exponential increase in those willing to engage in national conversations that ask, and attempt to answer, tough questions about these issues. Academics and nonacademics alike have filled the pages of The New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Atlantic and scores of other outlets with meditations on the costs of higher education humanities study, who is served, who is left out and the role of the humanities in shaping young minds or good citizens or brilliant scientists or desirable employees.
We are encouraged by this general willingness to engage in these tough intellectual conversations. At the same time, we are disheartened by the propensity of so many, both within higher education and outside of it, to rely upon the dismissive premise that academics largely exist in a secluded world in which they care only about their own infinitesimal research interests, which are esoteric at best, incomprehensible and a waste of taxpayers’ money at worst.
This is not to suggest we should not all, as professionals, always strive to make our practices better, to keep pace with the times, to question our own assumptions and habits, to identify honestly what is not working, and to change it where we can. However, it is to suggest that perhaps a better model for doing so is one that is based on the notion that academics -- as teachers, researchers, mentors and institutional colleagues -- go into their chosen profession with the desire to advance knowledge through collaborative means.
Contrary to the misrepresentation of academic conferences as attended only by dreary caricatures of the out-of-touch professor rambling on about irrelevant ideas, most conferences we attend are places where we try out ideas among our colleagues, launch collaborations, consider the pedagogical and public import of our findings, mentor graduate students, and participate in the transformations of our fields in ways that make us better teachers and better researchers.
Many of us value conferences for both private and professional reasons, as David M. Perry points out in his May 6 Chronicle of Higher Educationresponse to Wampole’s essay, and as Devoney Looser has recently enumerated in her Chronicle guide to conference etiquette. We, like both of them, encourage thinking about conferences as an important means of entry into our disciplinary communities.
Conferences help to provide what many faculty cannot find at their home institutions: a community of minds focused on a particular issue. For faculty members everywhere but the Ivy League or a very well-funded public university, inviting speakers to campus who can give lectures and seminars on the latest research ideas or programmatic innovations is not a given, nor is access to a world-class research library. These facts are especially true in the context of many states’ perilous hollowing out of the financial support for public colleges and universities.
As faculty numbers continue to shrink, academics often find themselves a party of one in their departments, working as the sole representative of a particular field, without immediate access to colleagues in their fields of expertise. Done well, an academic conference offers a chance for collegial dialogue of the sort that can lead to tangible progress. When faculty members attend conferences, students and their institutions also directly reap the benefits.
Conferences can be particularly important for scholars of color and others who find themselves disenfranchised by administrations and by institutionalized injustices on their own campuses. Although we recognize that unfortunately many conferences have a long way to go to truly support marginalized academic communities, we are encouraged by those we have seen working explicitly to foster this kind of inclusivity.
For many faculty members struggling with the isolation of being seen as a “representative” member of an underrepresented group, conference networking can be a crucial path for figuring out how to navigate their own institutions, for dealing with the microaggressions of students, administrators and other faculty, and for coping with the additional and unique responsibilities they often face alone of mentoring minority student populations or administering programs. Conferences also have the potential to be sites for the birth of activism, where communities both formal and informal unite to make changes in how things are done, how people are treated and how certain ideas are valued.
Conferences are, in other words, even more important for those not privileged by mainstream academic cultures than they are for the elites. A researcher at Princeton has regular access to communities of scholarship that would be completely unknown to most attendees of a scholarly conference. Perhaps most depressingly, such intellectual communities are often nonexistent for the contingent faculty who are rarely fully integrated members of their own departments and who, despite being engaged in rigorous research, cannot attend conferences even when they want to because their institutions do not support the professional development of these integral members of their communities.
Wampole submits that “conferences feel necessary, but their purpose is unclear.” While the exact form that conference collaborations take might usefully be retooled, their purpose in supporting innovations in research, teaching, administration or activism could not be more clear. The process of making a productive contribution to research depends upon knowing what people already know, and this is significantly aided by the feedback of other scholars working on similar or related questions. Even as we acknowledge the legitimate problem of the environmental impact of that much travel, we don’t think anything can fully substitute for the intellectual experience of hearing a good plenary talk followed by a vigorous debate that is the catalyst for deeper conversations throughout the conference. Published scholarship is essential, but it takes time to develop, and face-to-face conversations and the accountability conferences provide are a great way to incubate ideas that are just being formed.
Could conferences be better? Of course they could, but they are organized and run by groups of committed faculty members or the staff they have hired to help them, who do their best despite inevitable budget constraints and competing time demands. Instead of focusing on the problem of boredom, how about addressing truly meaningful problems, like the economic barriers to participation for graduate students and less financially privileged researchers, or lessening the impact of mass travel on the environment, or the lack of child care resources, or the way such conferences are misrepresented in the anti-intellectual popular media?
Here is the bottom line: conferences are created by the faculty they serve. They are not merely events where we put ourselves on display or where we criticize from an outside position -- they are collaborative ventures. Faculty researchers do not just attend their conferences; they own them. And so, we offer the following countermanifesto.
A Conference Manifesto for the Rest of Us:
(1) We will consider the quality of the conferences we attend as our own responsibility. If we are unhappy with the structure, we will contact the organizing committee or form a coalition to initiate changes to the obstacles that limit the conference’s success. (We know of one such coalition currently forming in response to a lack of female presenters at a major conference, and this is not an isolated example.)
(2) We will strive to be precise and productive. We will offer meaningful rather than petty critiques, strive not to generalize from extreme examples and, as much as possible, focus on useful alternatives rather than finger pointing.
(3) If we are not in a position of power, or we feel too disaffected to contribute to positive solutions at a structural level, then we will be the change we seek in our individual interactions. If a scholar presents a paper in which the larger purpose is not clear, we will ask him about that purpose during the Q and A. If it is clear that a speaker is having trouble articulating an argument, we will help her see what it is. We will attend as many events as we can, offer real feedback and participate in real discussions. Put more simply, we will continue to be generous.
(4) We will acknowledge academic generosity where we find it, namely:
in the organizers who laboriously put together meeting programs, speakers and events to foster collaborative dialogue and the exchange of ideas;
in the keynote speakers, senior colleagues and established scholars who routinely engage more junior members of the profession in meaningful conversations;
in the conference-goers who ask thoughtful questions;
in the professors who mentor students;
and, institutionally beyond the world of conferences, in the faculty who work to improve conditions on their campuses, in the anonymous reviewers who provide constructive feedback on essays and in the adjuncts who spend endless unremunerated hours facilitating learning.
(5) We will be humble. We will recognize that although humanists are excellent at being critical, we are fortunate to have these communities to help us improve our research.
(6) We will attempt always to get over ourselves. Our presentations may be great, but they aren’t perfect.
(7) And finally, we will be aware. We will continue to think carefully about how we use the resources invested in us as scholars. It appears to us that the humanities are at least beginning to be recognized as having both intrinsic and extrinsic values, and it is up to us to communicate those values to people who doubt both, rather than to reinforce stereotypes through exclusionary rhetoric or condescension. We posit that there is real value in the thoughtful public intellectual, and we will work to be scholars who are willing to ask hard questions about our own work, to engage in thorny debates about priorities, to radically reimagine what higher education might look like in the 21st century and to challenge the parameters or privileges of our own positions. We will make sure that we can clearly show why our work matters, because no matter how frustrating conferences can be, they are places where humanities scholarship does some of its most important work.
Cora Fox, Andrea Kaston Tange and Rebecca Walsh
Cora Fox is an associate professor of English and associate director of the Institute for Humanities Research at Arizona State University. Andrea Kaston Tange is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University and editor of the Journal of Narrative Theory. Rebecca A. Walsh is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University and co-chair of The H. D. International Society.
“If you spend much time in libraries,” the late Northrop Frye wrote at the start of an essay from 1959, “you will probably have seen long rows of dark green books with gold lettering, published by Macmillan and bearing the name of Frazer.” These were the collected works of the Victorian classicist and anthropologist Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough (15 volumes) and a great deal else besides.
Frye’s remarks -- originally delivered as a talk on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio network -- were aimed for a much broader public than would have read his then-recent book Anatomy of Criticism, which made its author the most-cited name in Anglophone literary studies until at least the early 1980s. (Frye was professor emeritus of English at Victoria College, University of Toronto, when he died in 1991.) He told listeners that it would require “a great many months of hard work, without distractions, to read completely through Frazer.”
And the dedicated person making the effort probably wouldn’t be an anthropologist. The discipline’s textbooks “were respectful enough about him as a pioneer,” Frye wrote, “but it would have taken a Geiger counter to find much influence of The Golden Bough in them.”
And yet Frazer’s ideas about myth and ritual and his comparative approach to the analysis of symbolism exercised an abiding fascination for other readers -- in part through the echoes of them audible in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but also thanks to Frazer’s good sense in preparing an abridged edition of The Golden Bough in one stout volume that it was entirely possible to finish reading in no more than a year.
If you spend much time in libraries these days -- wandering the stacks, that is, rather than sitting at a terminal -- you might have seen other long rows of dark green books with gold lettering, published by the University of Toronto Press and bearing the name of Frye.
The resemblance between The Collected Works of Northrop Frye (in 30 volumes) and the Frazerian monolith is almost certainly intentional, though not the questions such a parallel implies: What do we do with a pioneer whose role is acknowledged and honored, but whose work may be several degrees of separation away from where much of the contemporary intellectual action is? Who visits the monument now? And in search of what?
Part of the answer may be found in Essays on Northrop Frye: Word and Spirit, a new collection of studies by Robert D. Denham, professor emeritus of English at Roanoke College. The publisher named on the title page is Iron Mountain Press of Emory, Va., which appears not to have a website; the listing for the book on Amazon indicates that it is available through CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, a print-on-demand service.
Denham has written or edited more than 30 books by or about Frye, including several volumes of notebooks, diaries, letters and works of fiction in the Collected Works, for which he also prepared the definitive edition of Anatomy of Criticism. The second of the three sections in Word and Spirit (as I prefer to call the new book) consists of essays on the Anatomy, examining Frye’s ideas about rhetoric and the imagination and brandishing them in the face of dismissive remarks by Frederick Crews and Tzvetan Todorov.
Frye’s relative decline as a force to be reckoned with in literary theory was already evident toward the end of his life; at this point the defense of Frygian doctrine may seem like a hopelessly arrière-garde action. (“Frygian” is the preferred term, by the way, at least among the Frygians themselves.) But the waning of his influence at the research-university seminar level is only part of the story, and by no means the most interesting part. The continuing pedagogical value of the Anatomy is suggested by how many of Frye’s ideas and taxonomies have made their way into Advanced Placement training materials. Anyone trying to find a way around in William Blake’s poetic universe can still do no better than to start with Frye’s first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947). Before going to see Shakespeare on stage, I’ve found it worthwhile to see what Frye had to say about the play. Bloggers periodically report reading the Anatomy, or Frye’s two books about the Bible and literature, and having their minds blown.
Northrop Frye is the rare case of a literary theorist whose critical prose continues to be read with interest and profit by people who are not engaged in producing more of the stuff. In the talk on Frazer, he noted that The Golden Bough appealed to artists, poets and “students of certain aspects of religion” -- which seems, on the whole, like a fair guess at the makeup of Frye’s own posthumous constituency.
What’s been lacking is the single-volume, one-stop survey of the Frygian landscape. The Collected Works have complicated things -- not just by being vast and intimidating (and too expensive for most of individuals to afford) but by adding thousands of pages of unpublished material to the already imposing mass of Frye’s work.
Denham is as responsible for adding new turns to the labyrinth as anyone. He is the scholar dedicated enough to have solved the riddle of the great man’s handwriting. Most of the lectures and papers in Essays on Northrop Frye: Word and Spirit draw on the private papers, which are of considerably more than biographical interest. Frye used his notebooks to think out loud and to explain himself to himself, working out the links among the work he’d published and things he wanted to write.
They reveal elements of his inner life that remained unstated, or at most implicit, in Frye’s public writings -- for example, his studies in Buddhist and Hindu thought. He also explored the whole gamut of esoteric and mystical writings from the Corpus Hermeticum and Nicolas of Cusa (respectable) to Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley (shady but undeniably fascinating) to titles such as The Aquarian Conspiracy and Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati (“kook books,” as Frye called them). Connections existed between this material and his scholarship (you can’t study Blake or Yeats for long without picking up some Gnosticism and theosophy) but Frye also needed to understand his own religious beliefs and occasional experiences of the ineffable. He was interested in the cosmological side of the literary imagination, but also compelled to figure out his own place in the cosmos.
The drives were mutually reinforcing. But references to these interests in his published work were few and far between, and often enough too oblique to notice. With Denham’s close knowledge of Frye’s writings (scholarly and subterranean alike) Word and Spirit seems like the book that’s been necessary for some while -- the thread that can take readers into the depths of the Frygian labyrinth. So on those grounds, I can recommend it -- without guaranteeing you’ll find the way back out again.
A colleague from another department passed me on campus the other day, a week before the end of classes. “Hi,” I said as we approached one another.
“Glad the semester is almost over!” she exclaimed in response and walked on.
“Glad the semester is almost over”? What kind of greeting is “Glad the semester is almost over”?
Is this how people acknowledge each other’s presence in a fleeting moment of recognition -- with a declaration regarding the semester’s demise? I’m familiar with common phatic addresses of greeting: hello, how are you, what’s up, how’s it going, hey, nice day, looking good, nice weather we’re having and many others. But why would a nod to the semester’s conclusion be treated as a greeting?
“Glad the semester is almost over” is unique among all phatic exchanges in that it is not actually a greeting at all. “Glad the semester is almost over” is specific to one type of encounter, the academic exchange.
Greetings are phatic. That is, greetings serve no real rhetorical purpose other than to perform a social task or ritual that recognizes the encounter taking place among at least two individuals. Greetings are like small talk. They make the social moment easier to deal with. There is no reference point for the repeated phatic greeting other than its communal recognition (we all know what “hello” is supposed to do when two people meet). There is no real meaning in the greeting.
“Hello” conveys no information in and of itself. One does not walk away from the greeting with new information, only the greeting. In the moment of social encounter, two individuals coming into proximity with one another search for a way to -- even in passing -- acknowledge the other without conveying any information other than the expression itself. Hello. How are you? What’s up? How are things? Glad the semester is almost over!
“Glad the semester is almost over” would not be a greeting in any profession other than academia. “Glad the semester is almost over” marks the academic anxiety and apprehension about work (we work in semester blocks) and about not working (whew, the semester is finally over and I can go on with my life). Besides this interest in a semester’s length, academics excel at phatic expressions and greetings.
In hallways, at conferences and in the grocery store in town, when two academics come together -- and I am usually one of the two -- we greet each other in phatic expressions. Some traditional, professional phatic greetings found in many places of work include “Thank God it’s Friday” or “Hump day!” Academic phatic greetings, however, center on the supposedly rigid occupation of reading books for a living and working with students on a daily basis. This labor tension creates such a level of exasperation one can only exclaim upon seeing a colleague, “Glad the semester is almost over!”
Semesters begin and end. In the fall, we work with X number of students, and in the spring, we work with another X students. We likely go to some departmental meetings along the way, and maybe we are conducting some research during the semester when we have time. The important point about semesters is that they do not really end. Each one replaces the other. My only response -- when I have the chance -- to “Glad the semester is almost over” is “Yes, but another one will begin right afterward.” Is “Glad the semester is almost over” really an expression of joy that these 16 weeks have concluded and another 16 weeks will begin again?
Knowing that we will do the semester all over again after a short break, what does it matter that the semester is almost over, and why should I be glad? Or is “Glad the semester is almost over” a statement about how little academics -- who should have so much to talk about with each other given their political, disciplinary and social interests and concerns -- have to say to one another in any real fashion?
“How’s your semester going?” “Can’t wait for spring break!” “I am so busy!” “What are you teaching this semester?” “What are your summer plans?” “Busy, busy, busy!” “I have so much grading to do.” “Grading! Grading! Grading!” “Can’t wait for summer!” “What are you teaching next semester?” “Glad the semester is almost over!”
At conferences, phatic greetings including the endless discussion of the weather where one lives. “Does it get hot there in the summer?” “I bet the winters are cold.” With each new job I have been offered, friends who learn of the news respond by asking me about the weather in the new city I will live in. Such greetings do not actually express interest in weather or lack of knowledge over seasonal change (winter and summer are regular occurrences in most locations, after all), but signify the lack of interest in the topic (“Who cares, you have a new job!”) or lack of ability to respond with any real content (“You have a job/I have a job/I have nothing else to add”).
In Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega stop talking for a brief moment while having dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. “Don’t you hate that?” Mia asks Vincent about the lull in conversation that has occurred.
“What?” Vincent responds.
“Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?”
We do, however, feel that it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in academe. The uncomfortable academic -- always hyperbolic in his/her semesterlong anxiety of teaching -- does not know what to say when passing a colleague on campus or chatting in a book exhibit at a conference or spending a minute in the elevator as it proceeds to one’s floor. There’s an uncomfortable silence. What to do? Express something phatic. “How’s your semester going?” “Busy, busy, busy!”
Phatic academics do not only occur on campus or at events. Via the status update, we greet each other online phatically as well. Disaster and social unrest turn us into phatic machines: Ferguson, celebrity RIPs, Nepal, Baltimore. On a daily basis, there is no shortage of phatic posting. It’s not that such events do not deserve commentary (they do). It’s not that the events don’t move us to emotions (they do). It’s that the update is not a moment of commentary or discussion but rather a ritual or social gesture of digital greeting where content is not emphasized. The update is meant to greet the follower or friend, not engage them, since engagement typically can lead to blocking or unfriending. The update says phatically: “Something terrible has happened in the world; look at me.” The update is not content based, but is a social ritual of online posturing as greeting, the way “Hello” can be in the physical world or even “Glad the semester is almost over” can be among academics passing each other on campus.
Do you care what happened in Baltimore or that Joni Mitchell is in a coma? Probably. But the update does not convey any meaning regarding either event beyond the headline. The shared headline is the repeated phatic greeting that avoids content by only focusing on address. A phatic address such as “hello” or “what’s up” avoids content by focusing attention on the empty greeting and not the actual encounter. I say “Glad the semester almost is over” because I do not know what else to say. I repost Baltimore headlines because I do not know what else to say. I want to avoid the uncomfortable silence that should accompany some of the world’s worst moments.
This ritual is the social media equivalent of “Glad the semester is almost over!” I really do not know if my colleague is glad the semester is almost over. I know she has heard this statement repeated for what is likely many years as an address from one academic to another when neither knows what else to say. “Spring break is almost here!” “What are you teaching this semester?” “Things are really crazy this time of year.” Is she glad the summer is over? Is she outraged suddenly by the socioeconomic and racist situation in Baltimore that has led to a senseless death and consequent rioting? Does she actually care what I’m teaching this semester or any other? Are things really that crazy? As academics, we are supposed to, after all, meet a few times in the semester as a department and assess student work toward semester’s end. Then we plan for the next semester.
Phatic addresses are comforting. They allow us to pass over that awkward silence that arises among academics who spend their days with so much to discuss (their own work, classroom lectures, theory, administrative issues, politics, race, gender), but when confronted with the casual moment know only the at-hand phatic comment. “Glad the semester is almost over” comforts both sides of the conversation. Thank God I don’t have to actually inquire into your life; thank God I don’t have to respond. Thank God I don’t have to know what really caused certain things to occur in a certain city in America. Thank God I don’t have to deal with any yak or bullshit.
Jeff Rice is professor of writing, rhetoric and digital studies at the University of Kentucky.