Monday, October 17, 2011

Meme Revisited: I want My PhD in the Humanities

Last year a pesky little meme made its way around the Internet.* First it circulated through the Facebook pages of my friends, then my acquaintances, and then those people whom I've befriended because they know me and I don't know them but feel guilty that I can't place them and thus haven't deleted them. Then it came up in conversation with colleagues in the hallway. A mentor of mine texted me from across the country to make sure I'd seen it (don't forget, I'm still a bit of a luddite). Finally I heard my students talking about it. I'd laugh about different things depending on who I was chatting with. Colleagues? We'd laugh about the inanity of having 'deep and meaningful things to say about death and literature.' Fellow contract workers? We'd laugh about the fact that we're fighting tooth and nail to gain access to a profession that depicts a (note: female) Dean in impossibly tiny shared office. But when it came time to laughing with my students I started to feel a little uneasy. Did I really want to laugh--and by laughing acknowledge--and by acknowledging condone such a bleak representation of studying the humanities? Not really, but readers, I'll admit: I laughed anyway.


In the last year I've found myself returning to those moments of uncomfortable laughter again and again, especially since the beginning of this fall. Perhaps it is the ailing economy, the onslaught (decades old, really) of dire news, or me projecting my own conflicted desire to be honest about traditionally conceived tenure-track job prospects while encouraging my students to follow their interests but I've sensed a heaviness in these hallowed halls, and it has me thinking that it is time to reevaluate my discourse in the classroom and in this blog. Put simply I'm worried that we're at risk of devaluing study of the humanities by spending too much time and energy on negative discourses.** Sure, times are tough, but they will be much much tougher if we educate a generation of students to see the humanities as a lovely but ineffectual discipline. Sure the system needs to be fixed/reimagined/retooled.  But me? I'd do it again. 


I think, in short, it is time to re-up hope.  


To a certain extent I'm taking my cue from the Occupy/DecolonizeWS movements. I really believe that positive momentum can create lasting positive change. So while I wont hide the fact that like so many others I occupy a tenuous and decidedly un-tenured position I will be encouraging anyone who will listen to engage with, and yes study the humanities. This semester I am teaching a course that asks an age-old question: can cultural production create moments of genuine civic engagement? Put another way my students and I are asking whether poetry can change the world. Lofty questions? Sure, but this is the fall for lofty idealism to morph into collective action and maybe, just maybe, make a little change in this world.


We have just finished working out way through Erin Mouré's fine collection O Cidadán. In a section that my students and I have come to call the preface Mouré states that she will inhabit gendered language through a move in discourse. We spent a great deal of time discussing what it might mean to deterritorialize language through a move in language, in discourse. They offered brilliant interpretation, grappled with unfamiliar language and form, got frustrated, and kept talking. By the end of a week's worth of discussion we hadn't come to a finite conclusion or changed the world in massive and perceptible ways, but we had talked about visible and invisible borders, the (im)possibilities of gender and genre, the gross human rights violations that occur right at the level of language. I don't know about you, but I find that pretty darn hopeful. 

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* I know we're not all in the Humanities, dear Readers, but I am, and I make my feminist and pedagogical stands most often in this context. 
**Diana Brydon has a wonderful essay called "Do the Humanities Need a New Humanism" which you can read in Retooling the Humanities: The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities edited by Smaro Kamboureli and Daniel Coleman.

5 comments:

  1. I'd agree with you on not giving up on the humanities. Yes, its a dire job market but you're right that we're at risk of devaluing all the benefits and pros of studying the humanities. Yes, times are tough but as you say they could be much worse if we denigrated humanities to the point that no-one would consider doing any work in the disciplines. They aren't, as you say, a lovely but ineffectual discipline. Yes as you say, its the larger system that needs to be fixed/reimagined/retooled. The humanities force you to challenge your perspective, push your mental boundaries etc...Would I do a humanities PhD again? Oh most definitely! I think that we have to be hopeful...and the Occupy/DecolonizeWS movements make feel that not every one has given up...but we just have stop and to radically rethink and restructure. Change has to happen soon.

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  2. Erin, that's so spot on. Incidentally, at least one of my colleagues has taught the video to undergrads who are contemplating grad school. Since being hired into the t-t world, I've vowed (as you know already) to be honest with students and beyond about the profession -- but not, I hope, at the expense of the profession itself.

    P.s. I got an "A" on my Emerson paper.

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  3. @ anthea: well said! We need to maintain (re-up! I love saying re-up. What's wrong with me?) hope while radically rethinking the process and the aims. Today my yoga teacher encouraged me to think about why I practice. I think that we need to think about 'why humanities' in the same way. We need to think--and talk--not just about why, but about how we do this, and we need to teach those outside the academy (ahem, hello government) how to value this kind of training. That's hard work, but positive work, and happily we have a great number of academics in Canada who have been doing this work for some time now.

    @ Kit: wow! Using the meme as a pedagogical tool is a great idea! Thanks for passing it on. Moreover, though yes, I know, I want to thank you for your continual--and visible--commitment to honesty + hopefulness + strategies + action. Oh, and about that Emerson paper? Fantastic. You can write about him in your dissertation. And Death.

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  4. A friend of mine who was, for a time, chair of a Department of Humanities* considered adopting as a departmental motto "Truth and beauty matter, dammit." I still think it makes a good rallying cry.


    *Not a fancy-shmancy Harold Bloom-type Department of Humanities, but a most-of-the-humanities-disciplines-are-too-small-to-be-departments-on-their-own sort of Department of Humanities.

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  5. @ D.C. Hall. I love that motto! Bears repeating: "Truth and beauty matter, dammit."

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