Category Archives: Higher Education

one definition of a “public good”: not just unprofitable, but impossible to profit from . . .

Robert W. McChesney’s Salon piece nails the higher education/journalism analogy, and reveals something that all our talk about “business models” fails to acknowledge:

There is probably no better evidence that journalism is a public good than the fact that none of America’s financial geniuses can figure out how to make money off it. The comparison to education is striking. When manag­ers apply market logic to schools, it fails, because education is a cooperative public service, not a business. Corporatized schools throw underachieving, hard-to-teach kids overboard, discontinue expensive programs, bombard stu­dents with endless tests, and then attack teacher salaries and unions as the main impediment to “success.” No one has ever made profits doing qual­ity education—for-profit education companies seize public funds and make their money by not teaching. In digital news, the same dynamic is producing the same results, and leads to the same conclusion. (h/t Brad DeLong):

This is the extraction economy argument all over again, in which private companies make money by seizing public funds and not performing the now-privatized public serve (e.g., education, public parks, museums, etc.) . It’s a quieter, more plausible-sounding way of denying people the public services they once expected and received, while funneling money towards one’s friends and donors.

In the case of journalism, it has resulted, as McChesney observes, in a relentless attrition of the paid labor force of journalism that once provided the content, even while the quality of the now outsourced product declines to the point where no one would want to spend money on it. The internet’s effect has been to whittle away at the business model that once sustained newspapers (car dealerships and department stores once paid for local news), without leaving anything that could plausibly take their place. We might make a similar observation about all the “disruptive” models of education we’ve been hearing about lately.  How, exactly, does giving away content on the internet lead to the financial health of the institution giving its content away?  Who does end up paying for something that’s supposedly “free”?

It’s also worth noting how much the new online journalism, like the new higher education “business models” rely on massive amounts of “volunteer” labor from underemployed or aspiring laborers, who offer them free content in the hope of “exposure” rather than pay.  (And even if this kind of writing is conceived, like graduate education, as a form of apprenticeship rather than de facto pauperization of the profession, it still suggests the long-term unsustainability of the model).  I’ll leave the last word to writer/editor Teresa Nelson Hayden, who commented in this way on the value of the writing done “for free” in the public sphere:

“The role of journalism in a democracy is a public trust. It is much abused. It is a scandal. Writers aren’t expensive, but they aren’t free. If Atlantic isn’t paying them, someone else is. By not paying its writers, the Atlantic has thrown itself open to manipulation, astroturfing, and other disinformation. The principle you learn in Cinema 101 is that movies don’t film themselves. There’s always someone behind the camera. The same goes for journalism. We thought we knew what it was: this publication hires these writers. Now we know other agendas and relationships were in play, and we don’t know what they were. So yes, we feel betrayed.”


asecs president julie candler hayes on “disrupting disruption”

[When I saw Julie Candler Hayes’s President’s Column (in the winter ASECS news circular (January 2013)), I thought it might spur some response from the readers of the Long 18th.  So, with her permission, I’m posting it here, in the hopes that we can begin a discussion about the future of 18th century studies and the historical literary specialties in the contemporary university.  Julie and I are particularly interested in hearing how ASECS could further this conversation at future meetings. So what are our options in this environment for higher ed?  Thanks, DM]


Disrupting Disruption

In my fall column, I promised that I’d use this space as a chance to discuss some of the recent writing on some of the issues facing higher education. I (finally) read one of the most-discussed higher ed books of recent years—at least among administrators—Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s The Innovative University (2011). Of all the current books, this one has probably filtered the furthest into the national conversation, whether or not people read it, through the proliferation of Christensen’s term “disruptive innovation,” coined in his earlier work on corporate culture. (For a more extended overview, see Christensen’s 2011 white paper, “Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education.

In a nutshell, Christensen’s model distinguishes between “sustaining innovation” that industries implement to improve high-cost products and maintain their market dominance, and “disruptive innovation” that allows a savvy competitor to introduce a low-cost alternative. The low-cost alternative may not have all the desirable qualities of the original, but if effective, it will come to dominate the market, add sustaining innovations of its own, and replace the older product. Translated to higher education, the key disruptor in Christensen’s view has been the advent of for-profit online degree programs. It’s worth noting that The Innovative University underscores the need for other changes, such as curricular reforms that support timely degree completion and career preparedness, improved advising and student support systems, greater interdisciplinary, more undergraduate research, an end to competitive athletics, and an expansion of capacity (through both online learning and year-round operation) to decrease the need for selectivity.

I need hardly point out that there is much to criticize in The Innovative University. Christensen’s claim that the for-profits “fund their own operations” rather than rely on state support or philanthropy ignores the fact that the for-profits receive 25% of federal financial aid moneys while enrolling only 10-13% of fulltime students—and have dramatically higher non-completion and loan default rates; his insistence on the low operating cost of the for-profit sector refers blithely to the “low cost” of online adjunct instructors, something we can hardly take lightly amidst current debates over reimagining graduate education, creating new career pathways for PhDs, and reforming the working conditions of contingent faculty, as advocated by the New Faculty Majority and the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.  Indeed, the recent financial and accreditation troubles of one of the leading for-profits, University of Phoenix, may signal that their peak has passed.

That said, Christensen’s account of the challenges facing higher ed is all too accurate, and as the list above suggests, many of his recommendations are important. The “high fee high aid” model that has propelled many institutions both public and private is moving the cost of higher education increasingly beyond the reach of many and is not sustainable in any case. Distance learning has its usefulness, in terms of both revenue and institutional outreach, but if we value the full range of experiences and relationships provided by an immersive residential education, then it’s incumbent on us to be creative in our use of technology, smart in our use of resources, and attentive to the needs of students who trust us to give them the knowledge and skills that they need to go into the world.

At the Vancouver ASECS, a roundtable discussed the question, “Will tomorrow’s university be able to afford the 18th century?” I was optimistic then and I am optimistic now that not only the 18th century, but the full range of humanistic inquiry can thrive in tomorrow’s university, but we need to make that university our project today.

Julie Candler Hayes


[PS: DM here.  If my link to the Markides article in my comment below is not working (my UH library proxy seems to be interfering), here’s a link to the article, which is freely available online. Thanks.]

Robert Scholes’ Rise and Fall of English, take two

I finished Scholes’s Rise and Fall the other day, and when I was done I felt that it was a lucid attempt to grapple with the largest questions surrounding the future of English Studies, as these problems were perceived circa 1998. Some of these issues still seem apposite, like the relation between K-12 and higher ed teaching; some, like his meditations on theory in the classroom, less so.  However, I left it wishing, perhaps a little unreasonably, that it had been written a little more boldly.

One of the problems that I had with the book was that it seemed specifically addressed to an audience of tenured, historically-based literature specialists who seem a lot more marginal now than they did in 1998, without it having much to say to the once-marginalized groups (the rhetoric and composition specialists, the creative writers, the underemployed adjuncts or the ambivalent graduate students) who really do make our departments different than they were in the 80s or 90s.

Even if some of the problems and solutions struck me as dated, though, there are still lots of moments worth pausing over.  This is one of my favorites, from Chapter 5, “A Fortunate Fall,” which I offer to you for consideration:

The idea of academic research as a “contribution to knowledge,” the ideal of “original research,” requires an assumption of progress toward more adequate descriptions of reality. In the sciences, research receives its justification and its support–despite all the lip serve to “pure” knowledge–from the exploitable discoveries or patents to which it may lead.  In the humanities, research receives its justification–despite all the lip service to the advancement of learning–from its applicability to teaching.  In fact, I would say that all important research in the humanities is simply teaching by other means than the lecture or the seminar.  And conversely, published work in English studies that has no use in teaching or makes no contribution to learning is unimportant–trifling stuff.  When Chaucer said of his Oxford Clerk that he would gladly learn and gladly teach, he was implying that the two activities were connected by more than the repeated adverb (172).

I happen to think this is true, and I was happy to see a figure like Scholes saying this as directly as he does.  Having said that, it seems that all the growth areas in literary scholarship are occurring in fields developing a dimension of exploitable discovery in their research, either in the hopes of Digital Humanities scholars to digitize, assemble, and analyze unprecedented amounts of verbal materials from the past and present, or in the continued effort to assemble, collect, and analyze more and more literary and cultural productions in the present from groups previously underrepresented in our cultural record.

So here’s my question: do we need to recognize Scholes’s allusion to Chaucer to conduct such research? And how might this kind of research activity relate to curricula and teaching, if this is where the scholarship of the field is indeed moving?


What Matters in Humanities Education

Since we like to talk about teaching here too, readers might be interested in my report on the Teagle Foundation‘s convening on “What Works and What Matters in Student Learning.” The conference specifically addressed the humanities. This link will take you to the web page for the event; scroll down a bit for reports by me and by Ashley Finley of AAC&U. I welcome comments and feedback on what you think matters.

extraction economy

[aerial image of wastes from Moncks, S.C. coal power plant, 2009, from J. Henry Fair, Industrial Scars; for more info, visit]

As I was reading about the UVA debacle over President Teresa Sullivan’s firing, which apparently involved a “hostile takeover” of the university by its business school, its Board, and Goldman Sachs, I kept thinking that we are reaching (have reached?) the limits of the one-time alliance between financial elites and public universities.

Once upon a time, universities could view (or depict) these relationships as at least an exchange in which the legitimacy of cultural capital was bestowed upon donors for their philanthropic, disinterested, financial support.  And to the extent that boards and their members allowed universities, their administrations and faculty, the independence to pursue their mission, this arrangement could work, in many institutions (including my own).

In the wake of continued state and federal disinvestment in public higher ed, however, the smiles and handshakes have faded away at certain schools, and it now seems that at least some of these boards, and some portion of the bankers and businessmen and -women who populate them– consider our public universities their property, or better yet, another group of businesses for them to take over, extract the value, and discard. (And we should not neglect the role of state governors in promoting this kind of cronyism between university boards and the corporate community)

An exasperated UVA professor attempts to spell out the consequences of this university-as-business metaphor:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

One of the details that has slipped out from the post-mortems for Sullivan was that she was unwilling to make certain changes related to online education.  My suspicion, which is echoed by a historian and alumna who has done her own investigations, is that the distance ed issue is not just about eliminating tenure and the normative classroom-based, face to face model for instruction, though those clearly align nicely with other right-wing prescriptions for higher ed.

No, the management jargon of “strategic dynamism” may very well simply describe how private companies (perhaps even Goldman Sachs’ own Education Management Corporation) plan to capture public instructional funds that otherwise would have gone to teachers and students and face to face instruction.  It is just another form of asset-stripping.  This is the beauty of the instructional outsourcing model that many lower-tier schools have already adopted, and which flagship schools like UVA, Berkeley are now getting pressured to adopt.  And this is the Extraction Economy as it works in the field of public higher education.

I’ll leave the final word to blogger Atrios, who introduced me (far too late, I admit) to the very useful concept of the extraction economy a few months ago:

We’re basically in an extraction economy right now, where the real money is in finding points to siphon off all of the income that people generate. Unregulated utility monopolies, rapacious health insurance companies and the medical industry generally, and of course Big Finance, are all devoted to increasing the slice of your life that they can steal from you, fair and square.

So here we are.  What shall we do about it?


[thanks to RS for the links]

UPDATE: The WaPo has published an anonymously sourced piece that explains the rationale used by Rector Dragas to fire Sullivan, which focuses solely on Sullivan’s refusal to eliminate departments like German and the Classics.  This seems farfetched to me, but no matter.  No one who thought this might be a bad idea, or a violation of existing governance or state law, was quoted.

michael quinn patton unknowingly addresses the assessment debates in higher education, and tells us why accountability data is (almost) never used:

I’m having enormous fun with this classic argument about the hows and whys of program evaluation, which has lots of implications for higher education’s experience of “accountability”:

[Patton, Utilization-focused Evaluation, p. 88]

I’m impressed by the fact that Patton in 1978 is chiding fellow-evaluators for ignoring political and personal factors that help determine the shape, direction, and use of their studies. He argues that because evaluators would rather imagine themselves as “scientific researchers” rather than participants in a political process, they engage in a process that wastes the time of all involved, and ensures that no one uses the information gathered.  Even if the present generation of evaluators has escaped this kind of scientism,  however, it seems that many pundits, administrators, and especially politicians persist in this naive view of the role of “data” in “decision-making.”


Why do students hate groupwork? Part 2

[X-posted on Assessment for Learning 101]

One of the most-read posts on this blog is David Mazella’s classic, “Why do students hate groupwork?”  The original post prompted a lively discussion, including comments by students themselves telling us why, in fact, they hate groupwork.

I was thinking about this discussion yesterday at my MLA panel, “Academically Adrift,” which featured Josipa Roksa, one of the authors of the book after which the panel took its name.  Offering a brief overview of her findings (with co-author Richard Arum), Josipa introduced the section on study groups by saying, “This is the one that always gets me in trouble.”  And indeed, part of the discussion that followed concerned this issue.

In short, Arum and Roksa found that students who worked in study groups showed significantly lower learning than those who studied on their own.  What does this mean for collaboration?

To me, the most interesting point that came out of the conversation was that the problem might not be group work itself, but the way it is done.  Roksa speculated that there is a tendency for the professor to assign group work without enough structure and also without providing any training for students in collaboration itself.  We tend to come up with a project, give it to a group of students, and say “go collaborate,” which turns out to be ineffective.  She briefly discussed a colleague of hers who teaches a semester-long course specifically on collaboration.  So perhaps her answer to the question posed by Dave’s original post might be that students hate it because they don’t know how to do it and as a result they don’t learn much.

What I found particularly interesting was Roksa’s emphasis on collaboration as a skill that needs to be learned.  As someone raised on theory that taught me how gender, race, and all kinds of identity formations are constructed, I had never given much thought to collaboration as “constructed” as well.  Perhaps for too many of us, it seems like something that students should just know how to do.  But apparently they don’t (and in fairness, we often don’t either).  I wonder, then, if we should be thinking about ways to get collaboration skills into the curriculum—not just in the form of collaborative assignments but as a learning outcome goal in itself.


Kathryn Temple, “The Ends of Cultural Studies in Curriculum”

 In the summer of 2010, I was asked to participate in a panel at our annual eighteenth-century studies conference called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.” The panel responded to the 2008 essay in Profession entitled “Stopping Cultural Studies” by William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin. Little did I know that the panel would come at the very moment the issue of the relationship between literary history and cultural studies would surface in our Department.

As new chair in 2009, the third in five years, I had walked into a cluster of problems known to most chairs in these years of economic crisis.  We’d lost faculty, lost budget, lost space. Thus I guess I can be excused for leaving curricular reform largely in the hands of the curriculum committee over the opening year of my chairship. But in December 2010, a coalition of senior faculty made curriculum my business by taking their concerns to the dean. Not present, I could only reconstruct this conversation from after-the-fact reports, but it seems that these colleagues were concerned about our department’s failure to teach literary history. What the dean took away was that our Department no longer taught literature or literary history, but had been “taken over” by cultural studies. My dean was understandably concerned. He responded by calling me in for an emergency meeting to discuss splitting the Department into three smaller departments: one for literary history “as it is traditionally taught,” one for cultural studies, one for writing. I explained to him that this would result in the death of traditional literary studies as only three or four of our remaining faculty would define themselves as doing “literary history in a traditional way.” (Ironically, of the three faculty who had met with him, not all were in that category.)  I predicted that the rest of the ordinary faculty were very likely to migrate to what he was calling “cultural studies” whether or not they really had that training, meanwhile leaving “writing” almost entirely to adjunct faculty. “Stopping cultural studies” as Bill Warner and Cliff Siskin call it, at least in my department, would not have led to a revival of literary studies under new terms but rather to a kind of fragmentation that (given the way small departments are being eliminated these days) could quite possibly spell the death of literary history (“as it is traditionally taught”) at Georgetown.

In response, I brought this issue to the Department at our next meeting. Other faculty were concerned: unused to such administrative scrutiny, they worried about our larger presence on the campus and about academic freedom. They pointed out that most of our course titles were indicative of literary history rather than cultural studies orientations and wondered what the dean’s intervention might mean. The issue of our lack of collegiality was raised: what had made our colleagues feel so unheard, so marginalized in the Department, that they now felt going to the administration their only option? Resulting discussions in the department addressed all of these issues. We opened up the curricular reform process through holding numerous focus group meetings, inviting each member of the faculty in for discussion. We invited the dean to a larger department meeting and then held more department meetings to discuss our findings and move forward with curricular reform. Meanwhile, in our hiring in seventeenth-century British literature and culture and twentieth-century American literature and culture we were especially alert to issues involving the teaching of literary history.

Our curricular work and hiring were eventually shaped by our discussions, by awareness of the issues raised in the provocative Profession essay, but also by an important essay by Jennifer Summit, “Literary History and the Curriculum,” published in the ADE Bulletin in 2010. There Summit discusses the problem of the literary history/cultural studies divide given that, as she says, “our students were asking for something that we no longer believed in: the arc of literary history no longer holds sway as a dominant mode” (49).  After cultural studies, Summit argues, there is no coherence to literary study, no accepted set of great works, no accepted periodization. The admonishment to “go beyond the literary!” that Warner and Siskin discuss and reject in their Profession essay has served its purpose: it has, in fact, destabilized the canon and accepted notions of literary history; agreement on what texts should be taught cannot be reached except in the very broadest terms while agreement on how texts should be taught is even less likely.

Our faculty did agree on one thing: we needed to bring coherence to a curriculum that had long been a hodgepodge of courses, courses generated by our faculty research interests rather than by any effort to develop an overview of our field. Like Summit’s curriculum at Stanford, our curriculum offered no clear direction to our students. We had no literary survey courses, no introductions to the major, and no sets of courses meant to offer a sequential experience to our students. The conclusion was that our curriculum must cohere around something or at least must appear to cohere to students and parents and deans. The question became how to do this with a diversely trained and much diminished faculty in a departmental culture that has long valued as a sign of intellectual integrity the teaching of research interests rather than a set curriculum.

Although I supported the development of critical methods courses and literary history survey courses that held the promise of “coherence,” on another level talk of coherence worried me. The risk, as Warner and Siskin suggest, following Latour, is that explanations of complex systems that reduce them to one or two representative moves like “coherence” empty out complex chaotic reality. Historical coherence could result in a comforting lockstep progress through the literary periods as taught in the 1960s; theoretical coherence could result in an intro to methods course of the “teach three methods” variety. In seeking coherence, we could replace the rich but chaotic complexity of the English Department’s approach to culture with (as Latour has it) “some stuff” like historical coherence, presenting in the end something that looks nothing like the not always coherent world of intellectual possibilities that we wish to pursue in our scholarship or to teach our students.

In my struggle to negotiate “coherence,” I’ve been thinking hard about what our work means, both our scholarly work and our pedagogical work. I’ve been returning to the past, trying to recall (and to call up) what first excited me about literature and what first excited me about eighteenth-century studies. That excitement came not from any historical or theoretical coherence, but from complexity and a seemingly open-ended approach to problems of meaning. Indeed, what had frustrated me in literary study as an undergraduate was the efforts my professors made to maintain coherence. In the 70s, there were many who oversimplified the New Criticism, adhering to the coherence of a method of close reading that pretended to know only the literary work and, of course, only the literary works that counted as canonical. Others taught what I thought of as “clump and dump” courses, knowledge downloads of canned historical “truths” that students memorized and reproduced on exams. It was with a huge sense of relief that I encountered various approaches loosely reflective of cultural studies when I went back to school in the late 80s. Though I skated on the surface of understanding and it was years before I began to see the implications for my own work, I took full advantage of the liberty “cultural studies”–very broadly construed–afforded for reading outside the narrow confines of the canon and for interpreting outside the bounds of New Criticism. For me it opened up literary study to the world and the world to literary study. That said, because my graduate career coincided with a moment when cultural studies was already beginning to feel a little used up, I never had to embrace any particular version of it, never became a deconstructionist or a Marxist critic or even a feminist critic in the sense that many were. I had all the freedom and none of the responsibility.

To pursue a career based on this incoherent and under-theorized approach to theory may seem hopelessly naïve, and yet I have spent twenty years drawing on hybrid approaches from many different methodologies. Always a lumper, never a splitter, I would hate to see us turn away from cultural studies, from something that has offered so many rich ways of thinking about what we do. I would hate just as much to see us turn away from close reading and careful analysis or from nuanced understandings of literary history. But above all, I reject the narrow ideological biases that so often seem to drive English Department discussions. The risk of issuing a universal call to “Stop Cultural Studies” lies in its binary approach to what we do and in the possibility that various power groups will attempt to force one or the other of these binary poles (cultural studies OR literary history; close reading OR survey courses) on their peers. When “presentists” bash historicist approaches without having read the historical tradition and literary historians denounce theory without reading it, I feel that wonderful wide world of new ideas, approaches, texts shrinking.  So let’s not “stop” cultural studies, but rather embrace it, precisely for the reasons Siskin and Warner want to end it, precisely because it’s too broad, because it doesn’t focus on literature, because no one can really define it. Cultural studies perhaps more than any other change in the past thirty years has given us the freedom to craft careers that take us in new directions and allow us to reinvent ourselves.

What’s next, I believe, is the very period of questioning, rethinking, and remapping that we’re experiencing now. If, as Siskin and Warner say, the function of English Departments from their beginnings has been to mediate society’s relation to technologies of knowledge, then let’s explore the possibilities offered by what they call a retooling. This retooling need not mean that we toss out the old toolbox (indeed, the new toolbox wouldn’t have been possible without the old one), so much as add to it. I see exciting new directions indicated by new technologies but not confined by them: neuroscience offers us new ways of thinking about how our brains process text; affect theory allows us to re-examine what used to be called the age of reason; the overabundance of our current access to archives places ever greater importance not on what we know but on how we manage the knowledge in those archives. If this results in incoherence, if one thing seems to blur into another, then the task becomes the making of distinctions and the foregrounding, I believe, of why we make particular distinctions at particular times, not the truth value of those distinctions. In the end, if pressed to find some sort of curricular coherence, I’d ask us to focus on this foregrounding, to add to the call to “always historicize” the admonition to “always articulate,” to articulate what we are doing and why it matters, to our students and to ourselves. This, rather than some a manufactured “coherence” that shuts down possibilities, is our responsibility as teachers, as interpreters and transmitters of a literary and cultural history that is always, at every moment, being newly created.

Works Cited

Summit, Jennifer. “Literary History and the Curriculum: How, What and Why.” ADE Bulletin No. 149, 2010. 46-52.

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession. 2008. 94-107.

Kathryn Temple, J.D., Ph.D.

Chair and Associate Professor

Department of English

Georgetown University

Cynthia Richards: Walking the Line at a Liberal Arts College

      I would like to tell three stories.  Two are set in a small liberal arts college and the third in an even more parochial setting, my daughter’s high school. I draw attention to these settings in part to draw attention to the limits of what I have to say about Cultural Studies. My interaction with Cultural Studies happens primarily at the level of its transmission to undergraduates. Yet I also draw attention to these settings because I think these settings, in turn, draw attention to the limits of Cultural Studies.

      For example, this essay considers “Stopping Cultural Studies,” as William Warner and Clifford Siskin argue we should, when I could argue that at a liberal arts college of limited means where I chair the English Department, Cultural Studies never really got started. I should clarify: in my department, Cultural Studies has shaped our curriculum, our preparation, our scholarly research, our syllabi, and even our sense of mission. It has also shaped our service: we are Directors of Women’s Studies, Africana Studies, American Studies, and leaders in Film Studies. Yet in terms of student work—the types of tasks instructors can assign and then assume successful completion of—Cultural Studies has been of limited applicability. When Cultural Studies has been read as simply another way of saying the study of pop culture, our students have been quite willing to take on these tasks—although still the caveat about successful completion remains. But when Cultural Studies is defined more properly, as Warner and Siskin do, as requiring its practitioner to “Historicize!“ (97) and “Go Beyond the Literary!,” (98) successful completion cannot be assumed.  With a small library, limited access to databases, and absolutely no travel funds for student research, small “c” culture has proved a more precious commodity than its large “C” counterpart. Thus, in the setting of my liberal arts college, the hothouse politics of close reading proves a more egalitarian practice than the socially-expansive one of Cultural Studies: without equal access to the objects of study—even if those objects are themselves less rarefied —new hierarchies emerge. In other words, what and how we teach in my department is radically changed, but what we ask our students to do with that material is shockingly less so. So, I am both deeply appreciative of the questions raised by Warner and Siskin, particularly regarding the ends of Cultural Studies, and also a little nervous that just as digital archives are becoming more accessible and even our weakest undergraduates “hyper” sensitive to the catholic reading practices so integral to Cultural Studies that its usefulness and viability is being questioned.

   But that is only an example and this essay promises three stories. The first I am going to call “The Darkness Without,” partly for dramatic effect, partly because it opposes nicely the title of the course I will discuss shortly, and mostly because nothing so inspires thoughts of encroaching darkness and the comforts of one’s disciplinary home than a self-study and external review conducted during a time of economic crisis and under an administration resolved to cut costs. For all the drama of that introduction, this story is also the most predictable. For when I sat down to make my case, I found I had no home to protect. Despite our strong numbers in the major, administrators assumed that English was on its way out, soon to be made obsolete by digital delivery systems, the short attention spans of the students in our entering classes, and our own interdisciplinary proselytizing. Cultural Studies had allowed my department to expand its coverage and re-configure in creative ways its institutional responsibilities, but from an administrator’s point of view, it had also made us seem more permeable and open for realignment in ways that threatened our core values of teaching students to read, write, and think critically while introducing them to both high and low “L” literature.[1] It also meant that quick fixes to the college’s economic woes could be easily grafted onto our diminishing base. More specifically, a position in Medieval Literature and Shakespeare could become one in Journalism and Film Studies, two areas of interest that consistently showed up on prospective students’ checklists as desirable majors. Moreover, the expansiveness of our interests made it more difficult for us to argue for any one area of expertise as essential.  They were all important, and hence none were.  Happily, after our reviewers’ visit, we have assurances that administrators will be reminded of our core contributions toward reading, writing, and critical thinking and that interdisciplinarity, in the current state of academia and the world, is a strength rather than a weakness.  Of course, what we don’t know yet is how all of this will end.

     More interesting was my department’s local response not only to these administrative pressures, but also to a perceived neediness on the part of our students. With so much to be covered in English, our students felt knowledge was eluding them, and they wanted something concrete they could point to, like a list, for example. So we created a list, actually we called it “The List”, and asked each member of the department to offer five entries. We avoided the word “canon”, openly acknowledged the list’s idiosyncratic nature, and adopted a mechanism for social change. Anyone who completes all 70 books gets to add one to the list and future students will have to read that book to complete the list. The response was enthusiastic, to put it mildly.  It has inspired an annual colloquium series, quite a few aspirants, and a geology major nearly to complete it. We suspect his entry to the list will be truly interdisciplinary.

    The second story relates to a general education honors course I teach entitled “The Darkness Within.” The course begins with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and ends with Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. These Irish bookends notwithstanding, the course is comprehensive in its range, but singular in its purpose: it is my evangelical course where I sell our best and brightest on the value of readings that theorize, historicize, look beyond the literary, and even lead to personal and societal change.[2] Of course, what I encounter in that classroom is a lot more prosaic: a room full of biology, chemistry, physics, and geology majors who have invested their capital in the temples of science—mixed metaphor intended—and see little value in literature. For a while I took a defensive posture, but more lately, I have taken another tack. I have found that by letting go even more, by letting one of my assignments be fully interdisciplinary, I have regained some of that space. In an assignment that functions as the centerpiece of the course, I allow my students to apply the methods of their chosen majors to diagnose the so-called “darkness” within a literary text. Hence, they have applied chemical equations to the incendiary plot of Wieland, and run computer programs in order to finally pin down the true monster in Frankenstein. And remarkably, rather than the value of the literary being diluted through this process, it has been multiplied. In seeing the text transform as read through different cultural and disciplinary frameworks, they have been persuaded by the core value of the text in question. In other words, what they can do with the text makes it contents all the more impressive. In some ways, this tactic reminds me of what Warner and Siskin identify as the “Literature and … “approach(103),  necessarily requiring the policing of literary borders to work.  In this case, however, I have found that by not policing the borders of literature, I have become more secure in my classroom. 

    My final story will be brief.  I would like to say it is called “the light bit of light at the end of all that darkness,” but that would be stretching it. I do think it is an interesting story, but that may be for personal reasons—as will soon become apparent. My daughter attends a high school where disciplinary excellence—and its borders—are heavily monitored. There is honors biology, honors algebra, honors chemistry, each course requiring an exam for entry—except of course, in English where there are no honors courses, and also no exceptions to viewing English as an egalitarian enterprise. We will not all be chemists, but we will all read and write. I get this philosophy—it follows from the radical roots of Cultural Studies—but my daughter didn’t.[3] She studied a little harder, she loved language just a little more, and in a weekly vocabulary game where no one is ever supposed to win, she won.  Now, even a proud mother knows that is not an interesting story, but what happens next could be. She won the game, and as a result, the school stopped playing it all together. Once she won, there was no longer room for the give and take of a game predicated on the assumption that excellence in English will always be elusive and determined by the social moment. Put in these terms, it is easy to see how this story can point to the limits of Cultural Studies: it is troubling that at my daughter’s high school, English emerges as a discipline reluctant to set value, or establish functional borders. My daughter needed an honors English class. But I also think this story points to the limits of stopping cultural studies. The game being played in my daughter’s high school English class—and in many undergraduate institutions like my own—is a good one. It is engaging to students, flexible in assigning merit, inclusive in scope, and attentive to its social and historical moment, and I doubt over time my daughter would have remained the only winner. The benefits of the game are many:  it should not have been stopped.

    Social change comes in lots of forms, mostly unexpected ones—geology majors being the first to complete literary lists, chemistry providing a surprisingly coherent framework for reading Wieland, the expansive move toward interdisciplinarity eroding the territory of an English department at a liberal arts college. When we consider the beginnings and ends of a field, we can’t predict what will change, only name what shouldn’t: that what matters is what our students can do with what we teach them.









[1] Warner and Siskin  make this distinction between small “l” and large “L” literature in “Stopping Cultural Studies,“ pointing to a historical shift in the definition of literature as meaning “all kinds of writing” (104) to meaning “only certain texts within certain genres” (104.).  I am also indebted to Warner and Siskin’s essay for the title of my essay, both of which play off the Johnny Cash song “I Walk the Line.”

[2] Warner and Siskin identify these moves are three of the pillars of Cultural Studies. The fourth is the “power of” culture;” in my text, this move is translated as “personal and societal change.”

[3] See Michael Bérubé’s “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies? for an excellent discussion of those radical roots as well as a poignant farewell to his more idealistic aspirations for the field.


Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael, ‘What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?” The Chronicle of Higher Education

       56.4 (2009): 9-11.Print.  

Brown, Charles Brocken. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Ed. Jan

     Fliegelman.NewYork: Penguin, 1991.Print.

McDonagh, Martin. The Pillowman. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.Print.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert de Maria. New York: Penguin, 2001, 2003. Print.

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession. New York:

      MLA, 2008. 94-107. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. 2nd ed. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New

       York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.


omitting culture

Ever since I saw Nicholas Dames’s excellent n+1 essay about defending the humanities, I’ve been trying to think of a response that went beyond, “What Dames said.”  And Dames’s essay, a review of Nussbaum’s, Menand’s, and Castle’s latest books, was so good on the habitual embarrassment of the literature scholar (e.g., “becoming an academic in the humanities means becoming humiliatingly prosaic about the things one loves”), that I was tempted to leave it at that, especially since I’ve already written a few pieces about the dual crises in higher education and literary studies myself.  (In the meantime, those interested in this topic should seek out Aaron Bady’s big-screen (i.e., economic) treatment of these issues over at zunguzungu.)

Rather than try to mount yet another full-scale defense, I’d like to focus on one of the recurrent challenges faced by would-be defenders of the humanities, which is how to justify these activities in terms that are persuasive to a more general public, but still recognizable to their practitioners and audiences.  In other words, how to retain something of the appeal and distinctiveness of the humanities while addressing those who don’t already live and work there?

So, the humanities (pl.).* What are they good for?  We can name lots of different reasons for reading, studying, or promoting them, and these tend to be very familiar, but they also turn out not to have much relation to one another, if not cancel one another out.

Dames notes, for example, how Martha Nussbaum’s latest book vacillates between an assumption of their fostering “useful intellectual qualities” or in other words, “skills,” and advocating them for their “critique of the instrumentality of skills-as such.”  The contradiction, or at least the gap, between these two views is left unaddressed and remains unbridged in her or most other arguments like it. So decide: do we want the humanities to be useful, or do we want them, and ourselves, to be anti-useful, or use-less, or to actively militate against all the ways in which we and others have been used?  Or do we want all of these options all at the same time?  (If you answered “yes” to the final question, you are truly a devotee of the humanities . . . . )

By tactically emphasizing a partial but important strain of the humanities as a Deweyan philosophy of “freedom and education,” Nussbaum leaves to one side her former praise of literary studies.  More damagingly, I think, she has also left undefended the anti-humanist strains of humanities scholarship and literature from the past century (e.g., Marx, Nietzsche, Wilde, Adorno, Brecht, Genet, Fanon, Foucault, Butler, Anzaldua, etc. etc.) that seems crucial to its conflicted status in the present.

Should we treat them as the enemy of moral uplift and conventional values (which has itself become a conventional value) or as a resource for intellectual or moral reflection (which can also be transformed into an unreflective attitude)? Can we feel with certainty this is all they are?

These anti-conventional, “immoralist” dimensions are the elements that Nussbaum identifies as part of the humanities’ mission of fostering “alterity and sympathy,” though perhaps in a way that is less literal and mimetic than what Nussbaum had in mind.  This is because the reflective and unreflective versions of the humanities coexist so visibly, perhaps even building upon and reinforcing one another. (Both Edith Hamilton and Anne Carson can be regarded as representative readers and writers working within the scholarly traditions of the humanities.)

In my view, Nussbaums’s omission, though tactical, concedes too much to her opponents, and leaves us with a version of the humanities that would puzzle the creators of Timon of Athens or the History of the Pelopennesian Wars (not that they understood what they were doing as “humanities”).  In my view, we cannot omit these anti-social, anti-mimetic dimensions of the humanities without also losing the most valuable and distinctive aspects of its thought, its dual emphasis on historicization and moral complexity, which are just two more routes towards “alterity and sympathy.”

What my laundry list of problematic figures (Marx through Anzaldua . . . .)  reveals is a shared interest in “culture” that nonetheless leads us away from any notions of a unitary, unantagonistic “culture” that could be experienced equally by all its members, or transmitted unproblematically across time.  This new view of “culture” as plural, contested, or conflictual helped to produce “cultural studies,” but it also effectively dismantled much of the language that literary critics once used to justify literature.

The past now seems too plural, the present too conflicted, for literary studies to be valued and taught in such terms, and this shift represents the triumph of both Theory and the Canon Wars in our now plural conceptions of literature and culture.

So this entire part of the argument is omitted.  By some sort of unspoken agreement, both Nussbaum and the anti-humanist wing of the humanities have detached the humanities from their once-dominant social function, but whereas the earlier movements devised their own alternative narratives of cultural transmission, Nussbaum’s defense of the humanities no longer relies on this dimension.

Instead, we have Nussbaum’s rather bland but accurate observation quoted by Dames: “Innovation . . . requires minds that are flexible, open, and creative; literature and the arts cultivate these capacities.”  No argument there.  But does “innovation” really describe the deepest, most fundamental values embodied by these forms of writing or experience?

Dames writes,

Active cultivation of useful intellectual qualities — not, it should be noted, instruction in that all-too-troubling cognate, culture. This argument of Nussbaum’s steers entirely and successfully clear of the implied elitism of “culture”; anyone who calls the book elitist simply hasn’t read it. The problem is that this business-friendly argument sits uneasily next to her broader argument about alterity and sympathy. And in the gap between the two arguments lies the humanistic dilemma. Do the humanities teach “skills,” or do they lead us to critique the instrumentality of skills-as-such? Do they trouble our relation to economic activity, or do they equip us to be ideal technocratic employees?

My suspicion is that “culture” names the aspect of the humanities that encourages people to experience the alterity of other times and places, which represents something we already possess but perhaps also want to possess more fully, in a more conscious and reflective form.  Culture, in other words, represents not merely identity but desire, a desire for something we don’t securely possess but need to learn how to acquire.  For this reason,  we need not shy away from the term “skills,” either.

One of the oddities of most of these discussions is their silence about the classroom, which is after all where most of us experience the humanities, whether as students or as scholars and teachers.  That is where the humanities live, and where they have historically lived: as a pedagogical program experienced by people as they move through an educational system and to whatever lies beyond.

So why not detach the notion of “skills” from a reductive, instrumental notion of education as vocational training, and think about it instead as part of a student’s open-ended pursuit of mastery and autonomy, whatever her eventual employer or situation might be?  This opens up the notion of “culture” as “transmission” again, but not in a mimetic fashion.  Instead, “culture” represents a form of reinvention or summoning-forth on the part of the student, a drama in which a student’s drive to mastery is at least as important as what she is attempting to learn.

And “skills,” in the sense of the mastery of the scholar who knows her sources, knows the arguments surrounding her sources, knows the debates that have organized her field, and knows how to combine and direct these for her own rhetorical purposes, are not what scholars leave behind at an early stage of their training, but represent the essence of scholarship.  And why not announce that learning these forms of thoughtful reading, systematic investigation, and reflective writing are potentially valuable not just for professional scholars, but for anyone who would want to understand their own time and place, or contribute to the understanding of others?  This kind of argument might satisfy practitioners of the humanities, and give better insight to those who may or may not enter into their study.



*While I write this, I am mindful of Greg Afinogenov ‘s warning in an earlier discussion not to conflate literature with the whole of the humanities, which after all can include modern and classical languages, philosophy, history, the visual and performing arts, and so forth. It’s just that the elite academics who have the prestige to publish these kinds of defenses (e.g., Dames, Nussbaum, Menand, and Garber) often do so with the aim of preserving a liberal arts curriculum that stresses its relation to some notion of the past, its most valued artifacts and its traditions.  Hence the need to align the literary scholar, at least rhetorically, with the (love of the) Past.  These are all obviously unstable alliances, but for the moment I need to engage with these writers in their own terms.