Kate Natishan - Essay

Pondering My Place in the Future of the Academy and My Professional Identity

This class has been an eye-opening, frustrating, but ultimately enlightening part of my semester. Our discussions and engagement with the authors and critics throughout the course has forced me to seriously look at where I am, where I'm going, and what I want to do along the way. Why am I here? What is it about the humanities that engages me so much and why is it so hard to maintain our place in the academy, especially outside of liberal arts-centered schools? What is it that I want to do with myself after I earn my degrees? Is that a question I should even bother asking?

To get an education, you’re probably going to have to fight against the institution that you find yourself in—no matter how prestigious it may be. (In fact, the more prestigious the school, the more you’ll probably have to push.) Mark Edmundson

I felt that I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life, what career I wanted to pursue, as soon as I began my undergraduate degree. I declared my major my freshman year, I didn’t waver once throughout the next four years and finished my undergraduate degree Cum Laude. I was optimistic, I was certain that I wanted to be a professor of literature, that I wanted to spend the rest of my life pursuing knowledge in the humanities. I applied to graduate school, just one at the time, only to have the Masters program I applied to cancelled. Since I hadn't applied anywhere else, it was back to the world of retail for at least a year. This only sharpened my desire to get back in to academia, back into a world in which I could spend my time learning, absorbing, grappling, and digesting theory, philosophy, literature, culture, and language. When I did finally make it back to the academy, I found myself facing challenges I hadn't expected, most of them internal.

What ruins young writers is overproduction; the need for money is what causes overproduction. Cyril Connolly

I find myself siding with Lindsay Waters. While reading his pamphlet manifesto on the state of publish/perish in academia I realized he was voicing all of the fears and concerns I have had since entering graduate school. The “publish or perish” drive gives me a serious amount of anxiety – I am the kind of academic that consumes theory and material, then I take my time digesting it, ruminating over it, letting it all sink in. I feel that approach is necessary with some of the theory I grapple with, especially the postmodern philosophers. The thought of having to publish, publish, publish, present, or be fired is absolutely terrifying. That this mantra exists at most (all?) research one universities is intimidating and anxiety-inducing whenever I consider entering the academic job market.

I worry that the quality of my work suffers whenever I try to answer yet another call for papers, write yet another (hopefully) publishable article, or delve into yet another subject area that I might not actually be interested in for the sake of having something to write about, something to add to my CV. The push for publication and presentation has created a slow decay, perhaps especially in junior faculty members and graduate students. We slave in hopes of one day achieving a byline on a tastefully designed book jacket or in a peer reviewed journal. In my feverish attempt to keep up with standards set by people I have never met (a group I can only imagine as a nefarious cabal of the Old School, shrouded and cloaked in conclave while they devise ways to keep the so-called young upstarts from discovering that they could not meet the standards they now impose) I cannot help but feel a hopeless anger that Waters describes in his pamphlet, "Parents always think the kids don't know what's going on, but the academic juniors can see what's what… Their rage is becoming articulate" (48). My anger comes not necessarily from the push for constant achievement (though I am taunted by the looming Review of Academic Progress form), but from the fact that I have been told since before even accepting my position here at Tech that my interests may need to be cleverly disguised or carefully articulated to get past conservative faculty members and publishers within this university and others.

The main show is not Oedipus killing his dad, but Chronos killing his children. Lindsay Waters (51)

The thought that I might be shut down before even beginning was not something I was prepared to face. I had some sense that my desire to study and even write about comic books and high fantasy novels were somewhat outside the traditional box of literature studies, but the only resistance I had encountered before graduate school (as an undergraduate researcher) was the concern that I wouldn't be able to find enough sources for any paper I would write. It didn't occur to me until recently that being forced to contextualize my work - to draw lines between what I wanted to say and published, studied, and accepted theorists or colleagues - was yet another, subtle form of censorship. Originality is all well and good, as long as it hooks up to a boat that has already tested the waters; as long as it can be legitimized by someone else in the field that has already touched on, or relates to, whatever it is I might wish to talk about. My outrage at this subtle censorship and minding of the status quo was temporarily side-lined when it came time to face a more unfamiliar challenge: the classroom.

Education has one salient enemy in present-day America, and that enemy is education—university education in particular. To almost everyone, university education is a means to an end. Mark Edmundson

In my first semester I was assaulted with courses on how to conduct research in English - something I was pretty sure I had been doing for at least three out of my four undergrad years - and how to use the resources available. On top of that, I was in a theory and practicum course on teaching university writing. The fact that there is a Norton anthology of pedagogical theory dealing specifically with composition blew. my. mind. While I am actually impressed with the way teaching is handled in English departments, and while it might be light years ahead of other departments, I still found myself wanting desperately to rebel against the steady plod of information being pushed on me. Why is this the best way? Because it's been anthologized? (More on the value of The Book later) While I had no idea how I would teach a class, I wasn't sure how I felt about being told that there was generally a right or wrong way to do it. I was actually getting fed up with theory, finding myself wanting to know the practical applications of the theories I was reading in the Bible-thick anthology. Thinking of it as a bible probably didn't help my opinion of the text itself at all: it became the symbol of pedagogical deferment to what some (in my mind arbitrary) committee deemed relevant and important enough to anthologize.

Just a semester later I was struggling to remember both theory and practice as I stood in front of a room of semi-cynical and institutionalized second semester freshmen, all of them quite prepared (and willing) to judge whatever I had to offer them as unnecessary, pointless, and just one more thing standing between them and the 4.0 GPA that most of them were after.

By omitting them (the humanities), the report strongly suggested that it would be perfectly all right if these abilities were allowed to wither away in favor of more useful disciplines. Martha Nussbaum

This is a thought that I struggle with almost constantly as I continue my career as a student. While applying for PhD programs I find myself wondering, do I really want to do this? What am I going to do with this degree once I have it? Anything? Am I really going to be able to stay in academia? Nussbaum's comment makes me think of Stanley Fish's response to a earlier (2007) report on higher education in New York state: "If there is to be a brave new world in New York higher education, it doesn’t look as if the humanities and the arts will be a significant part of it." The report focused primarily on the scientific fields and social sciences, and apparently the humanities were not thought to be important enough to review. I haven't looked into the report itself, which promises to be grueling, long-winded, and impossible to read (as most things of a bureaucratic nature seem to be on principle), but I cannot help but believe this is further proof of the slipping importance and general uncertainty regarding the humanities. I feel that most R1 institutions don't know how to handle these departments, or are unsure as to what role they play in the increasingly science-centered state universities.

Since coming to Tech, I can't help but wonder how exactly the humanities are being done at R1 schools. From what I can tell, we have some presence but we're not exactly noticeable, or even often mentioned. Tech can boast about it's MFA program, but does it? What about history, philosophy, religion? I know this particular university began as a certain kind of institution, but since adding "& State University" to it's lengthy moniker, you'd think there would be more of an attempt to show how well rounded the university is. Not so much.

And yet when I step back and look at our collective departments, I find myself wondering the same thing: what are we doing here? Sure, there's this general thought that we provide some culture to the cadets, farmers, and forensic scientists… But honestly. What's the point of us at these institutions? I feel that the defenders of the humanities have failed to provide any clear or satisfactory answer. In the wake of that awkward silence, we are being rearranged to suit the needs of increasingly bureaucratic universities while attempting to redefine ourselves to avoid seeming obsolete and useless. "Look here!" we seem to say. "Look what we're doing in classes like Digital Humanities! This is relevant, right?" Meanwhile this attention seeking behavior, much as what might be expected from an overlooked child in a large family, seems to garner little more that a cursory nod and a pat on the head. "Well done, humanities," the university says. "Way to join this century. Now why can't you be like the bio-medical school and bring in some grant money?"

We sigh, kick the floor, and resume attempting to redefine ourselves in a constantly changing, increasingly interconnected culture.

“How does one justify funding the arts and humanities? It is clear which justifications are not available. You can’t argue that the arts and humanities are able to support themselves through grants and private donations. You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). Stanley Fish

I don't really like Stanley Fish - at least, in general, not what he has to say about the humanities in the modern world. Now and then I find some agreement, but it's arguments like this that make me want to rage on behalf of my department and my on-going research into mythology, folklore, medieval literature and modern fantasy. Fie, I say! My B.A. was very appealing to employers! Despite having absolutely no real clerical experience, I was offered a job with a government contractor that would have paid me $42,500 a year, plus benefits! Not bad as a starting salary for someone who spent four years writing about comic books, right? Granted, the job was that of an administrative assistant (see: secretary). While I have absolutely no qualms with the job title, description, salary, or benefits package, I did wonder what exactly it was about my B.A. that made me so different from other, more experienced applicants. Apparently it means that I am teachable, according to one of my friends. Someone else suggested that maybe it just looks good if the captain's secretary (this was a Naval job) has a higher ed degree. Honestly, I almost took the job because it looked good, sounded good, and if graduate school hadn't come through for me when it did, I would be working there now.

Fish brings up a good point, though, in that we still can't really justify ourselves or why we should be a major part of larger universities that are so dependent on state funding and outside grants. No, my ability to deconstruct (theoretically) or add a feminist twist to anything you put in front of me will likely never benefit a state's economy, provide a real world solution for global warming, or genuinely be attractive to most employers outside the academy. But that isn't the point, is it? I didn't get into this field because I thought it would make me a lot of money, or because I thought I would find the cure to something. I do this because, despite the frustration and weekly existential crises, I love it. And it's not just my own research I enjoy - I genuinely love teaching, even though I have not yet had a real opportunity to teach within my field. Freshman Composition, while an enlightening experience, doesn't exactly come close to my end of the English spectrum. None the less, I enjoy working with my students, I like making them think.

Oh. There it is.

I like making them think.

Let's replay that, slow it down for effect:

Make. Them. Think.

Spock, I think we've found our purpose. Maybe there are signs of life left in these departments after all.

But even as we as a nation have embraced education as critical to economic growth and opportunity, we should remember that colleges and universities are about a great deal more than measurable utility. Unlike perhaps any other institutions in the world, they embrace the long view and nurture the kind of critical perspectives that look far beyond the present. Drew G. Faust

Faust makes a good point (several, in fact, throughout that particular article) in suggesting that the point of the humanities - the purpose, if you will - is to help foster that critical perspective by forcing students to engage with their society and culture beyond labs, equations, and civil engineering projects. I will not suggest, as Nussbaum did a handful of times in Not For Profit that those STEM field exercises are the source of all evil befalling the humanities. I feel that is another problem facing us: the increasingly incessant need to categorize and pigeonhole our ways of thinking and learning and doing. I feel that too often fields of study are firmly compartmentalized and students, sometimes even professors and professionals, are told that what they do has nothing to do with x or y, and therefore these things should not interact. By separating the humanities from the rest of the university, supporters are only weakening their claims of importance and necessity.

Interdisciplinary, while a big buzzword, is far from a true reality - I don't mean the kind that we see when chemists and biologists work together, or when historians and linguists team up. I know that there are courses that handle science and philosophy, but there should be more, especially if it is true that "such courses [in the humanities], through both content and pedagogy, will stimulate students to think and argue for themselves, rather than defer to tradition and authority" (Nussbaum 48). Let's see that applied more when students challenge old models, whether it's offering a Nietzsche-esque criticism of a long-accepted Western standard or questioning whether or not a new mathematical model can be applied in reality rather than just in theory. Let's urge our scientists to participate in the same thought experiments we use so often in other fields: what's wrong with talking about something? With letting the conversation wander? With bringing up theoretical, maybe currently impossible applications of what we already know? I feel that too often our students are encouraged to stop thinking outside the box, learn the fundamentals, and apply, apply, apply. But only if you already know the right answer. If we are to truly urge them to question tradition and authority, then we must give them the appropriate tools. It's hard to do so when they are told, often and from an increasingly young age, that they should not speak without the right answer.

I turn back to Faust's article with whole-hearted agreement: "Higher education… has the responsibility to serve not just as a source of economic growth, but as society’s critic and conscience." I feel that without the humanities, we truly can be neither critic nor conscious, and worse than that, I feel that the humanities are increasingly trying to step back from that role for the sake of comfort and the status quo.

To the question “of what use are the humanities?” the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. Stanley Fish

Back to my friend, and some attempt to grasp at a conclusion.

This essay has become a kind of exploration of both the situation in which I find myself, my hopes for a career, and the place of the humanities in the university at large. Fish says that the humanities are their own good, that we don't need to serve some larger purpose, that we do not need to be anything more than what we are. While the rebel in me wants to say "YEAH! TAKE THAT, SOCIETY!" the idealistic part of me wants very much to believe that we do have some larger purpose - that we do matter beyond our own ivory towers of inquiry. Perhaps we shouldn't struggle to define ourselves the way we have been in the last decade or so, but I also don't see a problem with redefining ourselves to engage better with our society.

I disagree with the commoditization of knowledge and teaching - I am more than just a service provided 150 minutes a week for 15 weeks. I am more than just a glorified babysitter with a lesson plan and a grade book. I want very much to give my students the tools they need to actively engage with their chosen fields, with their colleagues and the society they'll eventually reenter as professionals or academics. It isn't just teaching that has been commodified, but learning as well. Our students have been turned into yet another measure of success: how many are graduating? From what fields? How much are they learning? How heavy is their course load? These quantitative questions say nothing to the quality of work they produce or the quality of teaching. Knowledge for its own sake, I feel, is still the perceived hallmark of the university, especially in the humanities. But this does not mean that we serve no purpose or use beyond ourselves.

So where does this leave me, my professional future, and my academic identity?

Even after all this, I still want to teach, and I still want to finish out a PhD degree. And I think, still, that I'd like to get a teaching job at a smaller liberal arts college. Despite the resources available at major universities, I really want to be involved with my students and I feel that, even in smaller departments, this isn't exactly encouraged at institutions this size. I understand this may make job hunting more difficult, but if nothing else I know that's where I'll feel the most comfortable.

Keep the kids thinking, keep them questioning, keep them from putting up walls where there don't need to be. I think this is an admirable goal, even if I have to go about it just a few classrooms at a time.

Work Cited
Edmundson, Mark. “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” The Oxford American. 22 Aug 2011. Web.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. "The University’s Crisis of Purpose." The New York Times. 01 September 2009. Web. 04 Nov. 2011.Web.

Fish, Stanley. “Bound for Academic Glory?” The New York Times. 23 December 2007. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. Web.

—. “Will the Humanities Save Us?” The New York Times//. 01 January 2008. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. Web.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.

Waters, Lindsay. Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004. Print.

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