A week or so ago, I sat down with a recent graduate, a young woman named Rita, one of the most promising writers and thinkers I’ve encountered in over a decade of teaching. Rita's senior paper was on Bono, his global missionary work, and the culture of celebrity. I thought it was outstanding. We lingered over good coffee, and talked at length about her future. We spoke about the pressing, practical realities of the moment. But we also got excited about the prospect of the open road before her, the prospect of a life with infinite prospects and possibilities. I encouraged her to travel, to write, to think hard, to critique, and to give public voice to her critique. There is a profound richness in everything, I offered – even in the seemingly predictable life of a barista or waitress. No one knows what the future might bring, and no one can predict what sort of skills might be useful. Invest in your mind, I said, for the long term.
This, one might suppose, is old-fashioned advice given by a dying breed: the starry-eyed dreamer-professor who has been rendered increasingly irrelevant by the new matrix of instrumentalist, quasi-vocational, more-easily-assessed training that is ascendant in the universe of higher education. Everyone wants a degree that provides tangible skills for an immediate, $100K-a-year job, and it can be very difficult to draw a bright line between your abstractly analytical coursework in, let’s say, American studies and that shiny G5 airplane parked in front of the house featured on MTV’s "Cribs."
The job numbers are bleak. Our cityscapes are crumbling. The middle class is being erased. Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree? Is it right to ponder the rhythms of Shakespeare, or fritter away a semester thinking about the tones of El Greco, when the information superhighway needs further construction?
Kim Brooks, writing in Salon, seems to think that my student Rita was poorly served by her degree. The civic mission of the liberal arts may be inspiring, but such a mission "doesn’t pay the rent." Why, she wonders, "do even the best colleges fail so often at preparing kids for the world?" Why do we even offer such an antiquated degree structure, rooted in 19th-century certainties about the value of art and literature, and aimed at a more accelerated economy, where even a kid with an English B.A. might be able to get the proverbial job in advertising or in plastics, and get on with the business of life.
Life, of course, is not a business; it is an unpredictable set of experiences. We shouldn’t train our students for Wal-Mart, then, but for the unmapped future. And we should scale back the drama a little; the homeless shelters aren’t filled with comparative literature majors from Swarthmore clutching their Spivak readers in one hand and a tin cup in the other. But Brooks has a point. We’re going through a major structural adjustment. We need to worry about our students.
Of course, this isn’t a recent issue. Brooks is only the latest to pile on. We’ve been pushing off from the humanities for two generations now. Interestingly, though, by just about every statistical measure, the quality of life for all college graduates has simultaneously been ground down – just as it has for most everyone.
At the same time, our relatively recent enthusiasm for business schools and other financially instrumentalist degrees has only produced a nation hell-bent on securing profit for the smallest number of people, no matter the global consequences. That effort, it increasingly seems, has been quite successful. Amidst all the cheerleading for the American business school, few have stopped to ponder why it is that the link between the nation's economy and the hopes of ordinary people has been strongest when we invest in the humanities, and weakest when we don't. That has to stop.
Of course, over this same stretch, the mainstream American public (and their representatives in public office) seems poorly informed about quite a bit. What we used to call basic civics is lost. The Founding Fathers and slavery? Paul Revere and the British? Ronald Reagan and taxes? What we read and hear in the mainstream and new media on these and other topics sounds like a compilation of the very worst hits of our annual Advanced Placement exams. Even the near-complete absence of civil discourse might be traced to our post-humanistic intellectual redirections; it is just downright odd to hear the names of the Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and Adams – champions of polite, deeply informed, dispassionate debate – invoked by red-faced partisans who wouldn’t know Cicero from scissors, shouting angrily on the floor of the House of Representatives.
In short, we need the humanities now more than ever. Indeed, we need more attention to the humanities – more than we currently have, and not merely a preservation of the status quo. And we need to stop blaming the humanities for not preparing students for some idyllic life – filled with afternoon martinis, big property, and gleaming SUVs – that wasn’t for everyone to begin with, and isn't available anymore, except without the dangerous extension of credit.
I'm not the first to make this sort of principled argument. And, to be frank, it doesn’t seem all that persuasive at this moment. University presidents, facing budget shortfalls and a deeply conservative political climate, are understandably shy about trimming science and engineering departments, even if the cost of new lab space and research facilities is prohibitive, and even if the payoff for a $10 million investment is merely a mediocre department.
In contrast, top-drawer humanities departments and smaller interdisciplinary units, often held up as the epitome of the liberal arts, are squeezed for the last drop of spare change, and often lumped together awkwardly, just to save the cost of a single staff position and basic administration. Thus, arguments about the civic virtue of the humanities might well be righteous, but they don’t seem to be generating new support. Indeed, if the current dystopian trends continue, we might well lose the classic small liberal arts college altogether – at least outside of a few elite institutions with brand notoriety and alumni loyalty – and witness a massive reduction in the size, scale, and significance of programs dedicated to the study of the complexities of art, literature and culture.
So let me try to make a different argument here, one that places additional stress on the greater need for the humanities. They are what we do best in this country. Oh, we love to celebrate our ingenuity in science and manufacturing, but in this epoch of the flat world, our dominance in those fields is no longer assured. What we do best – despite the near total absence of public support – is paint, and sing, and compose, and write, and read, and watch. And then argue and debate over all of it.
We are singularly great at this. We are a nation of movie watchers, water-cooler chit-chat about T.V., Facebook, and book clubs. We make and consume more media than any place in the world. And we do it so well that we need new technologies – the table computers, e-readers, smartphones – to make it easier to do even more of it. Your top-of-the-line Parisian bookstore is the size of the coffee shop in my local Barnes and Noble. My tiny town has two multiplexes with well over 20 screens between them, though every visitor thinks of it as backward and provincial. We also have a half dozen theater companies, and all manner of venues for music, from front porch clubs to bars to the grand stage. Our lives are filled with all manner of public performances and spontaneous acts of creation.
When I tell Rita – representing the new best and brightest – that she should just take that big brain of hers and go out into the world and focus on her experiences, I am encouraging her to become a part of the productive capacity of civil society. And, to be totally frank, I think we’ve prepared her very well for this. What she makes will become a part of our symbolic surround, a part of what makes us "us." More important, I think Rita gets it, too. And I think that she, like many of our students, is excited by the challenge of turning the everyday into something magical, inspiring, and serious. Langston Hughes, she knows, was a waiter once. And, as hard as it is to imagine a United States without the auto industry, it should be even harder to think of this place without future versions of "I, Too, Sing America."
This, then, is a message for those who worry about American dominance: we are doing one thing very well right now. We are making and remaking cultural forms, often in new and exciting ways. If you are older, or more conservative, you might think these forms are strange. But you should recognize that such sentiments are a predictable reaction, like the fear of the awesome and the new. That fear is a good thing. It marks revolutionary thinking. If you want a son or daughter trained for life in the unpredictable future, and if they want to get a college or university degree, know that a genuine and durable knack for innovation comes from the humanities, and not from a degree in Marketing. Rita is our future. We should hitch our wagon to her.
Matthew Pratt Guterl is the Rudy Professor of American Studies and History, and chair of American Studies, at Indiana University at Bloomington.
It’s that time of year -- when I can barely force myself to read another student paper. Holiday garlands dazzle and lights blink on and off at the corner of my eye as I drag myself to classes. Some people garner the spirit and energy to wear colorful scarves and festive jewelry while I favor drab, jumbo sweaters and a slush-colored coat. Some even pencil in social events while I can barely muster the energy to take a nap and momentarily forget the flurry of grading that awaits me. Such a strategy of deferment might work for barely an hour -- at which point I will wake up and resume my worrying.
It is as if the entire world reflects one shimmering exclamation point, but the top line (of mine) has fallen off.
And yes, it’s that time of year when I will procrastinate in any way possible, such as meditating on the role of punctuation in society (the type of big picture question we relish in universities) instead of attending to pressing matters close at hand. These include the 100+ final papers, some filled with punctuation glitches and glorious ideas, chillin’ -- literally -- on the passenger seat in the car.
In writing this section alone, I have indulged in sundry dashes and hyphens, commas and periods, apostrophes and parentheses, each releasing a spurt of dopamine in my brain as I type. I just might be addicted to writing, but I have never met anyone addicted to grading. Each mark of punctuation tumbles forth, wayward or deliberate.
Yes, I know the punctuation rules, thanks to memorizing a grammar book in the halcyon days of graduate school (pedagogy not yet refined, pre-composition and rhetoric era). We live in enlightened, rushed times. Punctuation rules? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Let the follies begin
Like many adjunct faculty members, I seek ways to intertwine teaching and learning. I rankle at ongoing debates and announcements of studies questioning whether adjuncts “keep up” or even (?) damage the learning of students. I do my part to stage a protest. As “digital literacy” is a buzzword, and I read an article just this past week attacking venerable, authoritarian strategies such as asking for Times Roman 12 pt. type and one-inch margins for student papers, I put myself to the test. No slouch, I know that I should engage with the rich linguistic environment around me.
As much time as punctuation demands from a writing teacher, the world at large seems to get by largely without it. I make a mental note of its absence on street signs and business signs. Even respected institutions have nary a punctuation mark.
I push harder to enhance my visual acuity and insight. I see that a discount store has lost its apostrophe. I wonder if anyone has reported it missing. Was it a casualty of a recent hailstorm? The omission adds to the power of the pun if I read the store’s name backwards. After a long day of teaching, subsisting on coffee and carbohydrates, it can be hard to keep my eyes in focus. Reading backwards feels quite natural, and we all have heard that tired adage that it can be a good way to proofread.
The store’s name is Marcs. The apostrophe’s demise is long overdue; whats mine is yours. Scram.
I stop at a drive-thru for more sugar and caffeine to fuel this rant, only to find that the cost of a cookie is posted as $ .45 c. Alas, the cent sign doesn’t even appear on my modern keyboard anymore, perhaps because nothing is that cheap. I strive to decipher the feuding symbols on the sign. If indeed the dollar sign is not extraneous, that means I can get two cookies for under a penny, ten for less than a nickel, and 200 (more than enough for my students in the final week) for just one dollar. That could definitely sweeten the deal as students fill out their course evaluations.
No, wait. If it’s really 45 cents, two cookies times 100 students equals $45. I’d better pass.
When I even begin to entertain the thought that housecleaning looks preferable to grading, it’s definitely time for winter break. I have grown attached to a cardboard box that brought me desk copies early in the semester proclaiming HANDLE WITH CARE on the outside. Clearly, the printer could have softened this harsh message with parentheses. No frills, though, in the cut-throat world of textbook publishing.
The box, incidentally, is filled with fluffy, white beads that resemble popcorn -- or a stockpile of apostrophes and commas. Note to self: Explore the possibility of edible punctuation as a teaching tool in basic writing class. In the meantime, the disputes between the underscore and italics may rage on even as things remain staidly predictable for brackets. They remain a necessity to stiffly interject what the writer didn’t say but the scholar can interpolate. Or what the humor writer hastily taped [sic] that needs immediate clarification.
And as for those curly, curvy brackets, just call them the Rorschach on your keyboard. Students will only use them by mistake, and no one really knows what they’re for. To me, they resemble the profiles of figure skaters or, perhaps, recent contestants on Dancing with the Stars.
Don’t humor her
My own dance (or orchestrated stumble) with punctuation has a long history. As a continuing education instructor for several years, I gently roused professionals frozen with fear of English with jokes about grammar and punctuation in an effort to make a dry subject come to life and to reassure them that such arcane knowledge was indeed attainable. Among my low-tech teaching tools at the time was a set of poster boards filled with oversized punctuation marks. I crafted them lovingly with standard markers. I once left this set of cards on campus – and they were never returned. I took this as confirmation that their value, even brilliance, as unique works of art may be cherished for future generations. Unless, of course, they ended up in a landfill.
At one seminar for mental health professionals, I reviewed the oft-misused semicolon as a troubled entity. It might be thought of as a period with an inferiority complex or a comma with delusions of grandeur. I spoke their language; they spoke mine.
And turning the clock back further (keeping with the spirit of the season), as a youngster I once spent the better part of a day typing slashes and parens on a manual typewriter, creating what I thought was a stunning holiday card. My mother looked at it wearily and said: “Someone got up at 6 a.m. today and thought of that already.”
Moral: Get up earlier before your punctuation tricks are stolen.
Now u Turn
This just in: the planets are now properly aligned to usher in the brave new world of texting. This has profound implication for the future of punctuation, perhaps even heralding its oblivion. How do I know? In two student papers this term (double the number of last year at this time), the word “u” was boldly uttered, perfect in its insignificance … “u” in its aching loneliness, describing precisely the state of my soul. It is like an infant’s gaping mouth, with no pacifier. A scholar of E.E. Cummings at least through my master’s, whose little “i” was admittedly ahead of its time, I now can ponder the ungainly second person.
Thinking of this, I note while driving that a very important sign to my right could be easily corrupted with a scrawled in “w,” thus becoming: “Now U Turn” -- and thus creating chaos. I am not the person to perform such a prank; I am at times hesitant to even breathe on student papers (lest my presence squelch a genius), let alone mark on them.
To sticklers who might point out that I have digressed from my thesis on punctuation follies, I concur. However, I compare punctuation marks with traffic signals in some classes, a sentiment echoed by Pico Iyer in his classic, “In Praise of the Humble Comma.”
Dash -- the untold story -- and other seasonal follies
Mr. Willard, my ninth-grade English teacher, is responsible for turning me on to the dash at an impressionable age. Whereas another teacher would have just x-ed them out, he fostered my lifelong habit. It’s a staple of my writing, in case anyone is still with me now. In Mr. Willard’s honor, do use the dash liberally if you do take the pains to send cards.
Thinking of you –
has that beautiful openness to suggest that the relationship, however superficial, may mature in the future.
As busy teachers transition from grading to greeting, some might also consider the possibilities of the asterisk, well-established as a snowflake look-alike. Check the font size that works best; to liven up holiday greetings, sprinkle them liberally. Each one is the same if you type, so protest against the tyranny of individuality while saving time and expense on cards. ***Winter greetings.***
From our house to yours…
As a writer and teacher, I know that I should not play favorites among punctuation marks; the others may rebel. But – truth be told – the ellipsis is my favorite. Three little dots . . . and the reader must do all the work. That’s masterful. Turn them sidewise, and you have the beginning of a little snowman, one that will never melt. Use it to save time. Or for that matter, employ the colon: it’s like a little pair of eyes, turned sidewise. Either mark can be appropriate if you are uncertain of someone’s faith tradition and do not want to err. Happy: Or, alternatively, Merry . . . Let the recipient decide.
If I could give each reader a small gift, it would be a little box, neatly wrapped, with 100 exclamation points inside. Remember, that is your entire allotment for a lifetime. Use them sparingly. In one of the last student presentations of the semester, I learned that Hemingway reportedly compared the exclamation point with laughing at your own jokes. Don’t do that. And don’t waste sixteen on the announcement for the faculty potluck or party. You’ll only have 84 left!
Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.