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AAUP debate centers on whether U Illinois has done enough to atone for the Steven Salaita case and prevent another

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AAUP, with some dissent, lifts censure of Illinois over Salaita case. Spalding U and Community College of Aurora are added for what association sees as violations of academic freedom.

Provost with an unconventional background describes her graduate school experience (essay)

Terri E. Givens describes the joys and satisfactions of her first year of graduate school.

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Truths Be Told: Entering Graduate School

How individual faculty members as well as their institutions should mentor students (essay)

Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist recommend effective practices that individual faculty members, as well as institutions and departments, can adopt.

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Dispute about sociology quiz question on slave families ends in lecturer's termination

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A dispute about a sociology test question on slave families ended in a lecturer's termination this spring at the University of Tennessee.

Closing the divide between faculty and administrators (essay)

We need to stop emphasizing the things that divide the administration from the faculty and vice versa, argues Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017
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Stop Calling It the Dark Side

Scholars' unconvincing case about the value of the humanities (essay)

In our new book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities, we argue that the best of the humanities can help transform the field of economics, making economic models more realistic, predictions more reliable and policies more effective and just.

But what do we mean by the “best” of the humanities? Is it what is often taught in colleges and high schools? If not, might that explain why so many have said the humanities are in “crisis”?

Go to Inside Higher Ed, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, or read reports from Harvard University and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and you will discover that the humanities are in decline. Enrollments and majors continue to plummet.

But humanities professors themselves, like a delicatessen owner selling spoiled meat and blaming business failure on the vulgarization of consumer taste, fault their students. “All they care about is money,” they complain. “Twitter has reduced their attention span to that of a pithed frog.”

We tell a different story. For decades, literature professors have argued that there is no such thing as “great literature” but only things called great literature because hegemonic forces of oppression have mystified us into believing in objective greatness. One of the commonly taught anthologies among literature professors, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, paraphrases a key tenet of cultural studies: “Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.” (Editor's Note: This paragraph has been updated to correct a statement about the anthology.)

But if Shakespeare and Milton are no more important than any other “cultural artifact or practice,” and if they are to be studied only “insofar as” they connect with other social factors and not because of “some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values,” then why invest the considerable effort to read them at all? Perhaps students who don’t take literature courses are responding rationally to their professors’ precepts?

The language about “how cultural meanings are produced, circulated and consumed” gropes for the prestige of something hard, unsentimental and materialistic -- in short, for economics, as a literature professor might imagine it. It appears that humanists’ key strategy for saving their disciplines has been to dehumanize them.

And so we have a host of new movements, announced with the breathless enthusiasm appropriate for discovering the double helix. Sociobiological criticism has shown us how emotions and behaviors described in literature arose to serve an evolutionary purpose. Neuroaesthetics can explain why you love Dante (or Danielle Steele). Find something to count, and you can do digital humanities. In this spirit, we hereby claim to found the nano-humanities. We are not sure what it is, but we are sure that, like these other new disciplines, it will not involve real appreciation of masterpieces. Each of these dehumanities offers something of value, but they matter only if we already have deep appreciation of literature, which you can’t get by deaestheticizing, deliterizing or dehumanizing it.

Many humanists have difficulty in presenting their case because they are used to speaking one way among themselves and another way to outsiders. To the public at large, they still make statements about the value of great books, of the noblest things said by the most brilliant minds and of the need to know the Western heritage. Among themselves, such talk is, at best, hopelessly dated. Perhaps one reason literary scholars make an unconvincing case to outsiders is that they do not believe it themselves.

Students often come to college without having any grasp of what reading great works entails. Their AP and other exams test knowledge of facts about literature, not actually understanding it. Classes teach them to hunt for symbols, to judge writers according to current values, or to treat masterpieces as mere documents of their times. The first method makes reading into a form of puzzle solving, the second allows us to compliment ourselves on our advanced views, and the third misses the point that great literature speaks outside the context of its origin. Tolstoy is not great because he tells us about czarist Russia or the Napoleonic wars.

Each of those common approaches says true things, but none gives any reason to think that reading masterpieces is worth the effort. And that effort is considerable: Paradise Lost is difficult; War and Peace is long. And so the payoff would have to be large. Students would be fools to think otherwise.

No Shortcut

A good sign something has gone astray is that a work is reduced to a simple message. Only mediocre literature can be read that way. Otherwise, why not just memorize messages: love your neighbor (A Tale of Two Cities). Help the unfortunate (Les Misérables). Child abuse is wrong (Jane Eyre and David Copperfield). Do not kill old ladies, even really mean ones (Crime and Punishment). First impressions can be misleading (Pride and Prejudice). Don’t give in to jealousy (Othello). Obsessions can be dangerous (Moby Dick). Stop moping and do something! (Hamlet). There’s no fool like an old fool (King Lear).

If one cannot provide a convincing reason why any brief summaries will not do, then one has not really taught literature. The student needs to know why the book is worth reading, not just knowing about.

There’s no shortcut. One needs not just to analyze “the text” but to experience the work. People are always looking for some way around all that philistine human stuff, but with a novel, one has to identify with the major characters and coexperience their inner lives. Equating the work with the text is like equating music with its score, or expecting a blueprint of a house to keep out the rain. The humanities, especially literature, are about the human.

Here’s an alternative approach: Why not approach great literature as a source of wisdom that cannot be obtained, or obtained so well, elsewhere? There is an obvious proof that the great novelists understand people better than any social scientist who has ever lived. If social scientists understood people as well as Leo Tolstoy or George Eliot, they would have been able to describe people as believable as Anna Karenina or Dorothea Brooke. But not even Freud’s case studies come close. Surely the writers must know something! And great writers present ethical questions with a richness and depth that make other treatments look schematic and simplistic.

Moreover, great literature, experienced and taught the right way, involves practice in empathy. When we read a great novel, we identify with the heroine. We put ourselves in her place, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become our bad choices. Even when we do not like her, we may wince, suffer, put the book down for a while. The process of identification, feeling and examination of feeling may happen not just once but, in the course of a long novel, thousands of times. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as this constant practice in ethical thought or that direct sensation, felt over and over again, of being in the other person’s place.

The most important lesson novels teach is not a fact or a message but the skill of empathy and of seeing the world from other points of view. Practiced often enough, that skill can become a habit. One cannot get that lesson by reading a summary of “what the author is saying” or “analyzing the text.” One has to experience the work. What could be more important, for ethical and social understanding, than the ability to grasp what it is like to be someone from a different culture, period, social class, gender, religion or personality type? And one learns why even those broad categories won’t do, because one senses what it is like to be a particular other person. And that, too, is an important lesson: no one experiences the world in quite the same way as anyone else.

If we could more easily put ourselves in the position of others and put on a set of glasses to see the world in their way, we might very well, when those glasses are off, still not share their beliefs. But we will at least understand people better, negotiate with them more effectively, or guess what measures are likely to work. Just as important, we will have enlarged our sense of what it is to be human. No longer imprisoned in our own culture and moment, or mistaking our local and current values for only possible ones, we will recognize our beliefs as one of many possibilities -- not as something inevitable, but as a choice.

In short, the humanities, if humanists will only believe in them, have a crucial role to play in education. They have access to truths about human beings that other disciplines have not attained. And while other disciplines may recommend empathy, the humanities allow us to practice it. Their cultivation of diverse points of view offers a model for liberal arts education generally to follow. Properly taught, the humanities offer an escape from the prison house of self. We live on an island in a vast sea of cultures, past and present. The humanities allow us to leave that island and return to it enriched with the wisdom of elsewhere.

If you really want to save the humanities, make sure it is a version worth saving. Who knows, they might then just save themselves.

Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. Morton Schapiro is a professor of economics and the president of Northwestern University. This piece is based on their newly published book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2017).

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Teaching a class of students from myriad countries and backgrounds (essay)

Teaching Today

Which histories matter? Which literatures? Who gets to decide? These questions are particularly complex with an international student body, writes Deborah L. Williams
 

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Advice for gracefully leaving your current job for a new one (essay)

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As you embark on your next career steps, how do you manage a graceful and less stressful departure from your current job? Michael A. Matrone provides advice.

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You Need an Exit Plan

Instructor who says she brought adjunct union to Barnard no longer employed there

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Barnard English instructor of 17 years, who helped bring a union to campus, no longer has a job there, and she blames the contract for allowing it.

What Orwell says to us about America today (essay)

It’s not every day that an almost 70-year-old book catapults up the best-seller charts. George Orwell’s 1984 has topped various Amazon best-seller lists several times since mid-January, on the heels of the U.S. presidential inauguration. It’s also been featured at brick-and-mortar stores. For instance, in my neighborhood in Pittsburgh, the owner of an independent store has an Orwell display in his window and reports he’s sold a stack of copies akin to a new Harry Potter.

Who knew that Donald Trump would be good for the book trade?

Assigned in most American high schools, 1984 has sold continuously since its publication in 1949, but now, at a time when one of the president’s press officers declares that there are “alternative facts,” it has struck a renewed chord. It seems as if we have gone through the looking glass and entered a world where, in the words of 1984, “War is peace” and history is rewritten each day.

Still, the analogy can be a bit too easy. How does 1984 fit our world, and how not?

No doubt 1984 captures some sense of living in the modern era, with extensive government, military, technology and media. But in Orwell’s imagined Oceania, the state is monolithic, overseeing all activity with total control. It provides all goods and supervises all work. It sees what you do, tells you what to do, monitors what you think and punishes any variance.

A chilling vision, but that misses perhaps the most distinctive sense of our contemporary world: consumer capitalism provided by a phalanx of corporate sponsors. Conservatives might complain that government extends too far, but if one looks around one’s home, one can immediately see the reach of Apple, Google, Starbucks, Verizon, Amazon, General Foods, Exxon, Citibank and on and on. There are no corporations in Orwell’s world, and very few goods. There is only state-distributed watery coffee and foul-tasting gin -- a far cry from the soy-foam, half-decaf macchiato and the artisanal cocktail.

Orwell’s state exists for the sake of its own power, in a kind of sadomasochistic relationship that grinds down its citizens to perpetuate its power. In our society, it is easy to denigrate government because it provides a single symbol for the control we experience, but our government is more like a referee to make the market and its juggernaut of enterprises function.

Thus, a more apt vision for our day might foreground those businesses, extending across national borders and delivering pleasure, entertainment and ever newer goods. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World captures that better, with mood-improving drugs and sex at the touch of a screen. (In a small-world coincidence, Huxley was one of Orwell’s schoolteachers.) Or William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer -- a book that, though a bit clunky in its sci-fi narrative, seems spot-on in depicting an internet that permeates our lives, as well as the companies that control it and deliver our products.

Orwell wrote in a time when totalitarian governments controlled a good part of Europe, notably Germany, Italy and Spain. And even in Great Britain and the United States, society had united in a concerted war effort. It was a time of total government, so in many ways 1984 reflects that moment. Instead, it seems as if we now live in a time of the total market, when major political figures aim to use business as a model for government.

Perhaps the chief thing that Orwell divined, before the advent of television, is media running through our lives. If you’ll recall from 1984, video screens are in every room at home and at work, and they are on all the time. They wake you up, tell you when to exercise and give you news about the state.

Still, there is only one channel, and it is entirely a state apparatus. In our time, so my Xfinity bill keeps telling me, we have hundreds of channels to choose from. My TV is not controlled by Big Brother; it’s spurred by the cornucopia of advertisers and products.

Orwell’s view of media followed World War II, a time of active propaganda, and Orwell knew the workings of propaganda firsthand. He worked in the Eastern Service of the BBC during the war, parlaying British news to India. But more so than propaganda, we live in a time of ads -- accumulating thousands of hours by the time one is 10 years old.

One of the creepier details in 1984 is that the screens can also watch the inhabitants. The social theorist Michel Foucault held that a central feature of modern society is the soft control of surveillance. It informs our sensibility, disciplining us without overt force and compelling us to adhere to normative behavior. Now, with the National Security Agency perusing our phones (hi!), Google combing through our search engines, and our high-tech TVs able to watch us, Orwell was all too prescient.

Still, the surveillance predominantly aims to capture us for a market. If you are reading this on a screen, then you are probably ignoring the ads in a sidebar. How did they know that you are a single 40-something? Or a woman who wants running shoes? Or a man who might wear Brooks Brothers?

In imagining a society of political lockstep, Orwell’s satiric target is usually assumed to be communism. Indeed, Orwell is a hero of the right for being an anti-Communist, as well as of the liberal left. That is why 1984 became an iconic book in the 1950s and ’60s, offering a confirmation of the ills of the Soviets.

However, it is a mistake to see it as a confirmation of the politics of the United States. From the mid-1930s onward, Orwell was an avowed anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. If you read Animal Farm (1945) in junior high, his literary effort immediately preceding 1984, you will recall that the story parodies the U.S.S.R. under Stalin, as the main pig, Comrade Napoleon, takes control, rewrites history and finally declares that some pigs “are more equal than others.”

But remember that the farmers expelled at the beginning of the book were capitalists who had grossly exploited and abused the animals. They are not the good guys, and the revolution is justified. The problem with the Communists is not Communism; it is that they become corrupted. During a brief moment after the takeover of the farm, things are good, led by a Lenin figure, with a fairer distribution of work and more plentiful food than under the capitalists.

Rather than Communism per se, Orwell’s general target is what he saw as the rise of “managerial society.” That is a term that James Burnham, a prominent social commentator in midcentury, promoted -- seeing it as a sign of progress toward a more rational society. (In some ways, he was the Thomas Friedman of his day.) Although he declared himself a socialist after 1937, Orwell was not a party man and bristled against bureaucracy.

Orwell reviewed several of Burnham’s books and blanched at Burnham’s vision. While attuned to the politics of his time, Orwell retained nostalgia for the bucolic pleasures of the countryside, of the fields, fishing ponds and village pubs before the mechanistic effects of modern society. In 1984, one of the few pleasant moments is when the protagonist and his lover take a day trip outside London.

My bet is that Orwell would detest our day of big box stores and truly mass media. At one time he set up a small shop in a village north of London. It turned out that he was a much better writer than shopkeeper -- he shut it down after a fairly short period -- but on one of his travel visas, he identified himself as a grocer.

One aspect of 1984 that is rarely commented on is its appreciation for work. In his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell declared that he focused on politics from the late 1930s on, but he might be at his most instructive when describing work.

The grind of work is usually glossed over in fiction or film. If a protagonist has a job, their tasks are in the background or summarized in a quick scene. To be truly realistic, if work takes up nearly half of most people’s waking hours, one might expect more description of it, whereas narratives usually focus on a protagonist’s relationships, out-of-the-ordinary events or personal turmoil.

Unlike the majority of writers of his generation, such as the poets Stephen Spender or W. H. Auden, who traveled a fairly direct path from Cambridge or Oxford to London and higher cultural circles, Orwell had held a number of hardscrabble jobs as a British imperial police officer, dishwasher, schoolteacher and bookstore clerk. All of them found their way into his writing, particularly his early novels.

In 1984, the protagonist Winston works in a cubicle, handling memos and other paperwork in the Ministry of Information. However bleak otherwise, he finds some satisfaction in doing his daily tasks. Animal Farm also spends a good bit of time recounting the acceleration on the farm after the Stalin stand-in takes over, with the most honorable character, a horse, finally dying of overwork. Work is a good thing; the problem is not a day of work but overwork, or the exploitation of work.

One of the more poignant facts of Orwell’s life is that, after himself working relentlessly through the 1930s and early ’40s with little money and poor health, he gained financial comfort only in the late 1940s, after the publication of Animal Farm. It was his fifth novel and 10th book in a dozen years, and for the first time in his career, he had the luxury of writing without taking on other jobs. It afforded him time to draft 1984, but he was ill, troubled with the lung problems that would soon take him.

He had also lost his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, with whom he had gone to fight in Spain and who helped run the grocery, to a presumably safe surgery gone wrong. (The anesthesia caused heart failure.) One could see 1984 as a response to his personal despair as well as the state of the world, after a decade of full-blown fascism and massive destruction, followed by the rubble and squalor of the immediate postwar years.

Our time has a much different character, one of overflowing plenty, ubiquitous images on screen and shopping 24-7. Rather than the gray, pinched air of 1984, we live in an era of cultural ADD, and rather than suppression, we have the rampant personal expression of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. In this moment, President Trump is a much more fitting figure than Big Brother, more a distinctly American promoter like P. T. Barnum than a Grand Inquisitor. Big Brother, after all, stays focused and runs things with an implacable force, whereas Barnum promises to give people what they want, even if appealing to their less cerebral instincts. It’s gonna be amazing.

Jeffrey J. Williams’s most recent book is How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture and the University. He is a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and co-editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (third edition, 2018).

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