I don’t want to hijack the still-emerging discussion of Cynthia Richards’s excellent post on the limits of teaching cultural studies in a small liberal arts college, but I did want to call people’s attention to the historian Tim Burke’s cogent response to Warner and Siskin over at his blog, Easily Distracted.
(For those who don’t know his work, Burke is a specialist in modern African history at Swarthmore, but his long-running blog is far more wide-ranging)
Burke raises an interesting question: does the process of disciplinary change really follow our legitimating narratives of change?
What’s interesting in these moments is that they reveal how disciplines are not really markets, nor are they composed of a series of persuasive speech acts, though we sometimes act as if or claim that either or both are true. E.g., we sometimes argue that disciplines change because their practicioners have new interests, priorities or techniques, that they have a supple if slow-paced response to a kind of intellectual market. You write what you think is important, and the field either “buys” it or it doesn’t. And we sometimes say that the priorities of a discipline are determined by persuasion: that scholars do work and then argue for its importance or necessity. If they argue well, ta-da! knowledge.
As you might suspect, the actual development of disciplines, as debates like this show, is not so simple. And these accounts, he argues, have important implications for the discussions a number of literary scholars have been having lately about justifying the humanities in the contemporary university. Take a look, and tell us what you think.