excerpts from my Sent folder: myth

I still think my analysis in that essay is useful, but I wrote it before what happened in Charlottesville, and long before Roy Moore’s Senate campaign, and if I were writing it now I’d write something rather different. I’d want to reckon with the counter-myths of covert or overt racism — in some cases plain old white supremacy — that affect life on campus even when the people involved don’t have any investment in university life and can, like Spencer, walk away after they’ve lit a few fires. My friend Chad Wellmon not only teaches at UVA but lives with his family on the Lawn, and when the neo-Klansmen stomped in with their tiki torches chanting their threats, you can imagine how his small children felt. But those people had no business on the grounds in the first place — they were supposed to be protesting the city of Charlottesville’s actions — they just wanted to intimidate, and since a public university is a public place, they could move freely into its space even when their only goal was to frighten.

Similarly, as I observed the Alabama Senate campaign I was struck by how completely Roy Moore’s supporters operated from within their own mythical core, how completely impervious they were to argument or debate (this is true of some of his opponents too, of course). My point is simply that these contests of competing myths happen throughout our society and the university can’t be isolated or protected from them. That is, we can’t fix the university-specific problems I pointed to without addressing some of the larger social issues. That people associated with a university would invite a hateful mythmonger like Richard Spencer to campus is a tragedy; but it’s a greater tragedy that someone like Spencer is a public figure at all. That’s not something that even the best university administration can fix.

I might add that when people say that they want conservative ideas to be represented on campus and then invite Ann Coulter or Milo or Richard Spencer to speak, they have zero interest in ideas. They just want to spit in their neighbor’s soup.

free speech for me …

This is a really good evisceration by Jesse Singal of some recent leftist takes on free speech on campus — it is accurate, incisive, and (to me) compelling. But I don’t think it will be compelling to people who hold the views it criticizes. Here’s a passage, critiquing an article by Angus Johnston, that helps me to explain why:

Johnston is apparently uninterested in answering questions pertaining to this actual incident [At William & Mary] and how the law would view it from a free-speech perspective, so instead he swaps out a different, easier question: “Setting aside, you know, the well-defined legal aspects of this, what do I, Angus Johnston, think about it?” (For those who want to know more about the heckler’s veto, which as it turns out is a very interesting subject, Ken White has a very good explainer on his legal blog Popehat.)

And yet again, this sort of meandering shruggery leads us to a dark place: Johnston very much seems to be endorsing the view that on a given campus, whoever can muster the muscle to shut down an event gets to determine the bounds of acceptable speech. This is a pretty bad opinion. Not to beat up too much on the South, but there are many southern campuses that would benefit greatly from more pro-choice speakers and events, and in Johnston’s model, it’s fine for the Campus Crusade for Christ to march in and protest these events until they get shut down.

Here is where Singal is wrong: Johnston’s view is not that “on a given campus, whoever can muster the muscle to shut down an event gets to determine the bounds of acceptable speech”; his view is that when people whose views he endorses can muster the muscle to shut down an event, then that’s acceptable and even commendable. If a pro-life group were to use precisely the same tactics to shut down a pro-choice speaker, then Johnston would decry it as fascism and demand that the cops haul the offenders off to the hoosegow.

Remember: Error has no rights; righteousness has no boundaries.


This is a terrific post by Matt Thomas on living by the seasons: “when you think of things in terms of seasons instead of a single day, the entire year becomes your canvas.” Matt makes me want to be governed more by the seasons, but my thoughts and moods are linked much more tightly to the rhythms of the academic year. Which are of course not unrelated to the seasons: the practice of dismissing children from school for the summer is a throwback to an agricultural world in which, during the growing season, all hands were needed on the farm. But the academic rhythms are their own thing now, and last year, when I had a sabbatical, I was genuinely disoriented when August came around and I had no classes to prepare for, no syllabuses to write, no instructor’s copies of books to pick up. I certainly enjoyed my time to write, but I have to say that it felt good this August to feel those old patterns reassert their old claim on me. Because the academic seasons have been my seasons for more than half-a-century now.

bad academic writing? Inconceivable!

This very essay gets published, with only slight variations, every year. I always wonder whether the people who publish them know how long precisely the same complaints have been appearing, or whether they think they’re the first to notice the phenomenon. Yes, we know, such writing is awkward, ugly, and opaque. But it is meant to be so — these are essential features of the speech act. If such traits bother you, then that particular variety of academic prose isn’t for you: you should therefore go on your way comforted that you don’t have to read it. That’s what I do.

“an expression of what we are”

“The pseudo-Gothic was much ridiculed, and nobody builds like that anymore. It is not authentic, not an expression of what we are, so it was said. To me it was and remains an expression of what we are. One wonders whether the culture critics had as good an instinct about our spiritual needs as the vulgar rich who paid for the buildings.” — Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. Reading the book again after so many years I find it deeply wrong-headed, and yet also full of wonderful passages, as for example this one about how as a fifteen-year-old freshman he fell in love with the University of Chicago. 

free speech ≠ chronic stress

The articles Barrett links to are mostly about chronic stress — the stress elicited by, for example, spending one’s childhood in an impoverished environment of serious neglect and violence. Growing up in a dangerous neighborhood with a poor single mother who has to work so much she doesn’t have time to nurture you is not the same as being a college student at a campus where [Milo] Yiannopoulos is coming to speak, and where you are free to ignore him or to protest his presence there. One situation involves a level of chronic stress that is inflicted on you against your will and which really could harm you in the long run; the other doesn’t. Nowhere does Barrett fully explain how the presence on campus of a speaker like Yiannopoulos for a couple of hours is going to lead to students being afflicted with the sort of serious, chronic stress correlated with health difficulties. It’s simply disingenuous to compare the two types of situations — in a way, it’s an insult both to people who do deal with chronic stress and to student activists.

Jesse Singal

Claremont-McKenna statement

In the aftermath of the blockade on April 6, the College learned important lessons that must further strengthen our resolve. Our Athenaeum must continue to invite the broadest array of speakers on the most pressing issues of the day. Our faculty must help us understand how to mitigate the forces that divide our society. Our students must master the skills of respectful dialogue across all barriers. Our community must protect the right to learn from others, especially those with whom we strongly disagree. And Claremont McKenna College must take every step necessary to uphold these vital commitments.


a scholar “under attack”

[Nancy MacLean] has continued this narrative of being “under attack” in various interviews, and most recently in a story in Inside Higher Ed, where fellow progressives echo this language.

This notion of being “attacked” is particularly fascinating to me. Let’s be clear what she means: people who know a lot about Buchanan, public choice theory, and libertarianism have taken issue with her scholarship and have patiently and carefully documented the places where she has made errors of fact or interpretation, or mangled and misused source materials and quotes. That is all that they have done.

None of this was coordinated nor was it part of a conspiracy from the Koch brothers. It was scholars doing what scholars do when they are confronted with bad scholarly work, especially when it touches on issues we know well.

None of these critics, and I am among them, have called for physical violence against her. None have contacted her employer. None have called her publisher or Amazon to have the book taken down. Contrary to her claim, the only silence in this whole episode is her own refusal to respond to legitimate scholarly criticism. We don’t want to silence her – we eagerly await her response.

Steven Horwitz. The whole post gives some good recommendations for how to engage healthily in intellectual disputation.

Steven Pinker on Harvard’s proposed club ban

1. A university is an institution with circumscribed responsibilities which engages in a contract with its students. Its main responsibility is to provide them with an education. It is not an arbiter over their lives, 24/7. What they do on their own time is none of the university’s business.

2. One of the essential values in higher education is that people can differ in their values, and that these differences can be constructively discussed. Harvard has a right to value mixed-sex venues everywhere, all the time, with no exceptions. If some of its students find value in private, single-sex associations, some of the time, a university is free to argue against, discourage, or even ridicule those choices. But it is not a part of the mandate of a university to impose these values on its students over their objections.

3. Universities ought to be places where issues are analyzed, distinctions are made, evidence is evaluated, and policies crafted to attain clearly stated goals. This recommendation is a sledgehammer which doesn’t distinguish between single-sex and other private clubs. It doesn’t target illegal or objectionable behavior such as drunkenness or public disturbances. Nor by any stretch of the imagination could it be seen as an effective, rationally justified, evidence-based policy tailored to reduce sexual assault.

4. This illiberal policy can only contribute to the impression in the country at large that elite universities are not dispassionate forums for clarifying values, analyzing problems, and proposing evidence-based solutions, but are institutions determined to impose their ideology and values on a diverse population by brute force.

Steven Pinker: Harvard club ban ‘a terrible recommendation’

blaming the media

Now, more than half of Republicans think that colleges and universities have a negative effect on our culture…. Why? Certainly in part because conservative media focused its attention on the idea of “safe spaces” on college campuses, places where students would be sheltered from controversial or upsetting information or viewpoints. This idea quickly spread into a broader critique of left-wing culture, but anecdotal examples from individual universities, such as objections to scheduled speakers and warnings in classrooms, became a focal point.

The new culture war targeting American universities appears to be working – The Washington Post. I remember when blaming the media for reporting on bad behavior, rather than blaming the people behaving badly, was a Republican thing.

universities under threat?

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.

the mass defunding of higher education that’s yet to come – the ANOVA. I think Freddie is clearly right about this, and it’s interesting to think about why so many in the academic left are so oblivious to the disaster they’re courting, so convinced that a right-wing smackdown of public (and, as Freddie explains, also private) universities can’t happen. To some extent this is a sunk-costs phenomenon: people who have invested their careers in a particular narrative, and in a particular set of rhetorical strategies associated with that narrative, have a great deal of difficulty accepting the failure of that narrative. In this sense leftish academics are just like the True Believers in free enterprise who simply can’t accept that climate change is both real and dangerous: after all, such acceptance would require them to change their ways! Dramatically!

But I think the left has an additional trait that makes adjusting to reality even harder for them: the belief, deeply embedded in the whole progressive Weltanschauung, that social and moral progress is inevitable and irresistible. Every defeat, then, is a mere blip on the screen, or a bit of static  that momentarily disrupts the elegant music of enlightenment. The whole national government in the hands of Republicans? The great majority of state governments also in the hands of Republicans? No worries! This too will pass, and soon.

Well, we’ll see.

At one time, the University of Chicago might have been thought to be the one place above all others that was capable of preparing its students to acquit themselves well in difficult, valuable conversations about race, class, and violence. As my experience in seminars attests, though, Chicago is no longer fully committed to humanizing its students the old-fashioned way, through books and discussion. The left’s attacks on free speech may endanger the academic project, but the greater threat to the free exchange of ideas comes from academic corporatization. As long as that process continues unchecked, the university’s bold rhetorical defense of an art that it no longer teaches us how to practice will be nothing better than posturing.

— What U. of Chicago Activists Are Complaining About | The American Conservative. This, from a current U of C student, provides some extremely useful context for the university’s recent reaffirmation of its commitment to free speech on campus.

once more on the academic-freedom merry-go-round

My former colleague Tracy McKenzie has posted a fine reflection on academic freedom and Christian colleges and universities, a topic that I have written about before and along very similar lines.

What I want to address here is a comment on Tracy’s post, which I’ll go through point by point, because it represents some commonly held views:

Thanks for your post on this topic, which is very important for Christian academics. You make some good points, and it appears that Wheaton is a very good fit for you. However, it’s not just non-Christians that might find the concept problematic. Not all Christians believe the same way, and this diversity of thought is likely even more pronounced among Christian academics. For Christians who may not hold to the orthodox line of the institution, this truly is a violation of academic freedom.

Let’s remember that a Christian college is a private voluntary association to which no one is obliged to belong. People choose to teach at them. So if “the orthodox line of the institution” is not one that you can affirm, it makes sense to go elsewhere.

As a disclaimer, I’ve taught at two Christian colleges, as well as four secular colleges and universities. I value all I found in all of these places, but have not had a problem with secular institutions being “hollow”, nor have I found teaching at Christian institutions to be particularly liberating. I found items in the statements of faith of those schools with which I had issues, but had to choose to keep my views “in the closet,” as it were.

I don’t know what institutions the commenter taught at, but schools in the Christian College Coalition tend to have — I think they all have — statements of faith that they ask all faculty to affirm. So if a school asks whether you affirm a particular set of propositions and you untruthfully say that you do, which seems to have been this commenter’s practice … well, then, of course you won’t find the experience “liberating.” Participating in a community under false pretenses can never be liberating.

The conclusion I have come to is that a statement of faith to which all faculty must adhere is incompatible with academic freedom. Basically, it is telling faculty to start with the conclusions about the most important questions in life, and make sure the facts they uncover back that up, or else the facts themselves are deemed invalid.

No, it doesn’t say anything of the kind. Faculty at Christian colleges aren’t newborn infants: they are adults, who instead of starting with “conclusions about the most important questions in life” have reached certain conclusions about what they believe, and want to try to live out those beliefs. And what’s at stake in the formation of the community are not “facts” but rather beliefs: if the facts that a scholar discovers seem to be incompatible with, or to challenge, certain beliefs, then we think out and work through those apparent conflicts as a community. Sometimes we discover that the conflict was merely apparent; sometimes the beliefs of the community are altered in response to the newly discovered truths; sometimes the scholar and the community part ways, one hopes amicably. (But alas, not always.)

And secular universities operate in exactly the same way. Imagine a tenured professor of history at a public university who announces, “After much study and reflection I have come to believe that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ holds the full meaning of historical experience, and henceforth I will teach all my classes from that point of view.” Would the university’s declared commitment to academic freedom allow him to keep his job? No, because he will be said to have violated one of the core principles of that particular academic community, which is to bracket questions of religious belief rather than advocate for a particular religious view. (Of course, atheists tend not to be held to the same standard, but that’s a story for another day.)

This is the polar opposite of academic inquiry or rational thought. Faith does and always will have the prominent place in my life and thought, but I cannot agree with any institution that tells me what I must believe if the facts lead me elsewhere.

No such institution “tells me what I must believe” — any more than a chess club tells me that I must play chess. Just as a chess club is for people who already like to play chess, a Christian college is for people who already hold certain beliefs. It says, Let’s gather together people who share these core convictions and see what the world looks like if we study it from within that structure of belief and practice. And if you do share those core convictions, as Tracy McKenzie does, then the experience of teaching in such an institution can be immensely liberating. If you don’t, then it won’t be, and it’s best to go elsewhere. But nobody at any point is telling you that you must believe anything — any more than the chess club is telling you that you must like playing chess. If you have become disillusioned with chess, then you can go somewhere else and do something else. But it would be rather absurd to walk away muttering that the chess club has infringed on your freedom.

excerpts from my Sent folder (2)

… I’ve written a couple of angry things in defense of Wheaton, since I left, but I think my having left made it possible for me to get away with the anger. It’s harder to make that work from the inside.

Moreover, what’s really needed here is not anything that could be construed as a defense of particular administrative actions — and even if you deny that you’re doing that, in the residual heat of last week’s news that’s how such a piece will be perceived — but rather an explanation of why places like Wheaton deserve to exist within the widely varied landscape of American higher education. And by “deserve to exist,” I mean on an equal footing with other institutions. You say that Wheaton isn’t going anywhere, and that’s probably true, but a great many other Christian colleges may well, in the coming decade or two, have to close their doors because they lack the financial resources and reputational stature to respond effectively to legal challenges, denial of federal student-loan funding, and de-accreditation. At the very least, religious schools will be threatened with constant demands that they bow to Caesar; even if they can get legal verdicts in their favor that will only be after great expense; and I find it impossible to imagine a future in which religious institutions won’t always be dealing with discrimination suits.

If we who teach at religiously-based institutions have any chance of maintaining the status quo, we’ll need to articulate that more general account of what schools like Wheaton do and why even those who have no religious belief, or even sympathy with religious belief, should value that work.

in which I sum up my posts on the recent controversies in academia

I have been trying for a while now, and in multiple locations, to articulate an argument about recent modes of student disaffection in American universities. I think there is a bright, strong thread linking the “trigger warning” debates of last year with the student protests of this year. In an ideal world I’d turn these thoughts into a short book, or at least a very long article, but for now I’m just going to have to link the posts together into a virtual unity.

I began by discussing the way the upbringing of today’s students may have encouraged them to think that the core function of adults, including their teachers and university administrators, is to protect them from discomfort.

I then argued that when these expectations are thwarted, or seem to be thwarted, students can become frustrated very quickly if they do not have good reason to trust their teachers; this is a primary cause of the demand for trigger warnings.

And that mistrust is exacerbated by the fact that, in general, American universities do not present themselves as places where one goes to seek wisdom, but as places where one goes to get credentials for future career success — a message students have received very clearly.

So when the universities seem not to be living up to their neoliberal promises, angry students don’t think of this as a situation that calls for political protests of the Sixties variety; rather, they are consumers upset about the product they have purchased, so they bypass the lower-level staff and complain to the managers.

And the managers (i.e. administrators) respond the way managers always respond when the customers complain.

But this is not an adequate response. Administrators and professors alike need to recall that one of their key tasks is to organize the university as a kind of mediating or transitional space between the Home and the Wide World that encourages students to develop a genuine public individuality.

This developmental process is not and cannot be perfectly safe: many of students’ core beliefs about self and world will come under challenge. But it can be done in a healthy way, as long as fears are properly acknowledged and dealt with; however, to return to an earlier theme, fear of harm can only be overcome when students have good reason to trust those who teach them.

As long as fear is greater than trust, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to convince students that disagreement about foundational social and moral issues is not only acceptable, it is invaluable to individual and society alike. But to insist on this truth is the sine qua non of the current academic moment.

For this task, this insistence that there is something more and better than policing disagreement and building walls of separation between us and those who don’t see things our way, the humanities are invaluable: but they must recover some of their old moral robustness and commitment to the sovereign virtue of compassion.

If we want to get past this impasse of hostility and suspicion, we must remind ourselves, and then teach our students, that together we can travel better paths than that of neoliberal contractualism, which leads inevitably to code fetishism. We need not be such Baconian rationalists, such Weberian bureaucrats; and if we insist on living like that, if we forget that “there’s got to be a better way for people to live,” then all we have to look forward to is the academic equivalent of the shootout at the end of High Noon. But here in the real world there’s no way to tell who might win — if anyone does.

But persistent or not, the myth of the unemployed humanities major is just that: a myth, and an easily disproven one at that. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has been tracking differences in the employment of graduates from various disciplines for years, demonstrating that all graduates see spikes and troughs in their employment prospects with the changing economy. And AAC&U’s employer surveys confirm, year after year, that the skills employers value most in the new graduates they hire are not technical, job-specific skills, but written and oral communication, problem solving, and critical thinking—exactly the sort of “soft skills” humanities majors tend to excel in.

Page 15 of the new student handbook of Cedarville University tells students to obey “the laws of the land.” However, there’s at least one law the Ohio evangelical college doesn’t support: the recent Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.

Evangelical Colleges Still Discriminate Against LGBT Students Despite the Supreme Court’s Gay-Marriage Ruling. This is only scraping the surface: for instance, it’s legal in all 50 states to have extramarital sex, yet the behavioral codes of such colleges typically prohibit such acts. Lying, gossip, and general lack of charity are also forbidden, despite there being no legal prohibitions against such behavior, except in rare cases.

Moreover, American law clearly allows anyone who wishes to be an atheist, yet Christian colleges clearly do not support the legal system in that matter either, since they forbid atheists to enroll. Moreover, non-Christian theists — whose status under the law is clearly protected — are also often blocked from attending Christian colleges.

Indeed, the list of acts and beliefs explicitly allowed by the law and yet excluded from Chritian college campuses is very, very long. How has such blatant discrimination been allowed to continue for so long — in fact, only questioned in the past few months? This is a scandal of the first order.

Pax Scientia: Thanks, But I’ll Pass

Armand Marie Leroi is an evolutionary biologist — and also a scientific imperialist. No, that’s not an insult: it’s his own account of the matter.

Now, to be sure, Leroi says that in the conflict between science and the humanities “Hard words such as ‘imperialism,’ ‘scientism,’ and ‘vaulting ambition’ will be flung about,” because such words belong to “the vocabulary of anti-science.” But in the very same paragraph he claims that the only choices for the humanities are to pursue “a new kulturkampf” that they cannot win — because they are “weakened” by internal conflicts — or to “gratefully accept the peace imposed by science.” The really interesting word there is “imposed”: science is not offering peace, it is imposing it. Looks like for us humanists it’s Hobson’s choice.

And lest we think that that talk of “imposing” was an infelicitous turn of phrase, Leroi immediately extends it: “Under the Pax Scientia criticism will continue, but be tamed.” The imperium of science, or perhaps I should write Science, is today’s successor to that of Rome.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero Aeneas descends into the underworld and meets the ghost of his father, who prophesies to him about the future of Rome. The “arts” of the Romans will be pacisque imponere morem, parcere subiectis, et debellare superbos — as Allen Mandelbaum renders it, “to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, / to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.” The language of taming in Leroi’s essay seems scarcely accidental.

So imperialism it is, then. I suppose I am supposed to be thankful that Leroi, in his great magnanimity, allows a barbarian, or perhaps a slave, like me to continue to do my work under the minatory tutelage of Science — especially since the alternative, I guess, is to end up like Spartacus and his fellow rebels. (That anti-Roman kulturkampf wasn’t such a great idea, guys.) After all, to offer any resistance whatsoever to the new imperium is to be “anti-science.”


the last humanist

Now, to Leroi’s credit, he understands, at least in a rudimentary way, that the kind of criticism often practiced by humanists differs pretty strongly from what can be revealed by running the numbers: “When Edmund Wilson tells us that Sophocles’s ‘Philoctetes’ is a parable on the association between deformity and genius; or when Arthur Danto says that Mark Rothko’s ‘Untitled (1960)’ is simply about beauty, then we are, it seems, in a realm of understanding where numbers, and the algorithms that produce them, have no dominion.” (Though even here he seems to forget that algorithms don’t emerge ex nihilo but are written by people.)

But Leroi doesn’t seem to grasp that much criticism — and much of the criticism that has mattered the most — isn’t concerned with assigning a one-phrase summary of the “meaning” of an entire work of art, but is rather intensely focused on the details that are too small and too distinctive for algorithmic attention. When Keats writes, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” what does “rich” connote? Might it be ironic? (After all, the ironic use of “rich” — “Oh, that’s rich” — goes back to the seventeenth century.) No algorithm can ever tell, because algorithms aggregate, and the question here is about a single unrepeatable instance of a word. Nor can any aggregated information tell us anything about the torn cloth at the elbow of the disciple in Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, or the bizarre alternations of the madly driven rhythms and ethereal voices in the Confutatis of Mozart’s Requiem.

All this is not to say that “distant reading” isn’t valuable — it is, and I have defended the work of digital humanists who work algorithmically against know-nothing critiques — but rather that it’s not the only kind of humanistic work that’s valuable, and that critics who attend to the specific and unrepeatable are doing, and will continue to do, intellectually serious work.

Maybe they’ll be paid for that work in the future; maybe not. People who care about such things will still continue to attend to it, whether their overlords like it or not. An essay like Leroi’s is written by people who have access to money that humanists can’t dream or, who expect to have access to that money forever, and who think it gives them imperial powers.

In a famous essay George Orwell wrote about the headmaster of his old prep school who would say to charity students like Orwell, “You are living on my bounty!” — that seems to be Leroi’s attitude toward humanists. But sorry, I’m not accepting the terms of peace Leroi would dictate — and I don’t think he can impose them after all. The war between Apollo and Hermes will continue.

And one more thing: that Roman imperium, that Pax Romana? They thought that would last forever too.

The University of Chicago Press is pleased to announce the launch of History of Humanities, a new journal devoted to the historical and comparative study of the humanities. The first issue will be published in the spring of 2016.

History of Humanities, along with the newly formed Society for the History of the Humanities, takes as its subject the evolution of a wide variety of disciplines including archaeology, art history, historiography, linguistics, literary studies, musicology, philology, and media studies, tracing these fields from their earliest developments, through their formalization into university disciplines, and to the modern day. By exploring these subjects across time and civilizations and along with their socio-political and epistemic implications, the journal takes a critical look at the concept of humanities itself.

Chicago to Publish New Journal: History of Humanities. I’m quite interested in this journal and look forward to reading it, but NB: of the 49 (!) Editors and Associate Editors, there is only one scholar of religion — a professor of Islamic Intellectual History — and no one in biblical studies or theology. And yet those disciplines have had some role to play in the history of the humanities, I dare say.

Statute Forbidding Any One to Annoy or Unduly Injure the Freshmen. Each and every one attached to this university is forbidden to offend with insult, torment, harass, drench with water or urine, throw on or defile with dust or any filth, mock by whistling, cry at them with a terrifying voice, or dare to molest in any way whatsoever physically or severely, any, who are called freshmen, in the market, streets, courts, colleges and living houses, or any place whatsoever, and particularly in the present college, when they have entered in order to matriculate or are leaving after matriculation.

— Leipzig University statute, 1495. Via Ethan Wattrall on Twitter.

Blessed are they that inanimate all their knowledge, consummate all in Christ Jesus. The university is a paradise, rivers of knowledge are there, arts and sciences flow from thence. Council tables are Horti conclusi, (as it is said in the Canticles) Gardens that are walled in, and they are fontes signati, wells that are sealed up; bottomless depths of unsearchable counsels there. But those Aquae quietudinum, which the prophet speaks of, The waters of rest, they flow from this good master, and flow into him again; all knowledge that begins not, and ends not with his glory, is but a giddy, but a vertiginous circle, but an elaborate and exquisite ignorance.

— John Donne, sermon preached at Whitehall, March 1624

You ask me for my thoughts on the Cuban question. I regret they are at present unformed as I have spent the past month wrestling with the seating plan for the All Souls Dinner. Freddie will not be happy unless he is at high table. I know I ought to be able to find a way of making this happen, but sometimes the Kantian “ought implies can” is fallible. I have also not had time to commit my apercus on the construction of the Berlin Wall to print; it is, of course, a great honour to have such a landmark named in recognition of one’s achievements, but I am not sure I have done quite enough yet to be worthy of such a legacy.

MOOCs are a kind of entertainment media. We are living in an age of para-educationalism: TED Talks, “big idea” books, and the professional lecture circuit have reconfigured the place of ideas (of a certain kind) in the media mainstream. Flattery, attention, the appeal of celebrity, the aspiration to become a member of a certain community, and other triumphs of personality have become the currency of thinking, even as anti-intellectualism remains ascendant. MOOCs buttress this situation, one in which the professor is meant to become an entertainer more than an educator or a researcher. The fact that MOOC proponents have even toyed with the idea of hiring actors to present video lectures only underscores the degree to which MOOCs aspire to reinvent education as entertainment.

Dinner parties and cocktail parties dominated every Ann Arbor weekend. Women wore girdles; the jacket pockets of men’s gray suits showed the fangs of handkerchiefs. Among the smooth-faced crowds of Chesterfield smokers, I enjoyed cigars, which added to the singularity of my beard and rendered living rooms uninhabitable. When I lectured to students I walked up and down with my cigar, dropping ashes in a tin wastebasket. The girls in the front row smoked cigarettes pulled from soft, blue leather pouches stamped with golden fleurs-de-lis. As the sixties began, if I was sluggish beginning my lecture—maybe I had stayed up all night with a visiting poet—I paused by the front row and asked if anyone had some of those diet things. Immediately, female hands held forth little ceramic boxes full of spansules or round, pink pills. After I ingested Dexedrine, my lecture speeded up and rose in pitch until only dogs could hear it.

— Three Beards : The New Yorker. Donald Hall on living and teaching in the Fifties.

a publishing story

This may be of no interest to anyone, but it involves a key moment in my own career, and I’ve never mentioned it in print before, so… .

Like many academics, I had a hard time finding a publisher for my first book, which was on W. H. Auden. (It was not my dissertation, by the way; my dissertation was too weird ever to be published.) I probably sent it to twenty-five or thirty academic presses before finding a taker: The University of Arkansas Press. Not the most prestigious venue in the world, but they had done some good books on modern poetry, and seemed genuinely interested in the project, so I happily signed the contract. We went through the copy-editing process, and I got typeset galleys — which I liked the look of very much — and all seemed ready to go. And then I got a call from my editor, Brian King, saying that funding for the Press had just been cut off: it was going to be closed down, and the book wouldn’t be published after all. All they could do was to send me a floppy disk with the Quark Xpress file of the typeset text and wish me the best.

Well, that news knocked the breath out of me. Unexpectedly, my book was back on the open market again, and I had to resume my circuit of the presses. I recalled that perhaps the nicest and gentlest of my many rejections had come from Oxford University Press, and thought it might be worth my time to let them know that the book was available once more — but this time already copy-edited and typeset. Might that make a difference?

Indeed it might. The editor checked with her superiors, and got the okay to take the book, and I was suddenly lifted up from the pits to the heights. Talk about a fortunate fall! I celebrated immoderately.

And then Brian King from Arkansas called back. He had some strange news: hearing about the forthcoming closure of the press, the good people at Tyson Chicken (one of the largest employers in Arkansas) had come through with a grant to keep the press afloat. My book could be published after all. Though the press had formally released me from my contract, they asked me to sign a new one and come back.

So, to sum up:

  • I had no publisher for my book,
  • then I had one publisher,
  • then I had no publisher again,
  • then I had one publisher again,
  • then I had two publishers.

I was in agony. Obviously an OUP publication would mean a good deal more to my professorial prospects than a UAP publication. I had the opportunity to jump-start my whole career, to expand perhaps dramatically my future options. To pull the book back from Oxford seemed like sheer foolishness. And yet the Arkansas people had wanted the book when no one else did; and they had done the work of copy-editing and typesetting. Moreover, publishing the book would simply mean more to them than to Oxford, which was (is) a huge press with many, many titles.

So I took a deep breath and wrote to Oxford and explained that I was taking my book back. Arkansas published it and has kept it in print all these years. My decision wasn’t, in the usual sense of the word, the smart one, but I feel sure it was the right one. And I don’t think it has hurt me all that much.

a few thoughts on academic time management

Having received some interesting feedback on my previous post about academic life, I’m going to say a few more things about academic time-management, in a things-I-have-learned-in-a-long-life sort of way:

1) I know this is obvious, but I have to say it: you’re never going to write much if you don’t insulate yourself from distractions. I have enough self-discipline now that I don’t have to get off the internet or shut down my Twitter and email clients, but I set those clients so that they don’t give me any notifications. That gives me a chance to get absorbed in my writing enough that I forget that they’re open. YMMV, but do what you have to do to write without interruption. Also, remember that it’s really hard for most people to write for more than about four hours a day: if during those four hours you’re really focused, you’ll have made significant progress, and then can do other ancillary work in a more leisurely way. Thomas Mann, one of the most prolific of great writers, wrote one page a day. But he did it every day.

2) In writing, it helps to have more than one project: one that’s your chief occupation, and one to turn to when Project 1 grinds to a halt, as it sometimes, inevitably, will do. The longer you work as a writer, the better you’ll get at knowing when you’re just not able to make progress on a particular task and need to turn to others in order to give your mind a change of pace. This works especially well if your secondary project uses different parts of your brain than your main one. In writing more than in anything else I know, a change is as good as a rest.

3) Take the time to experiment with different workflows and different software until you find a combination of tools that rhyme with the way your mind works. If using Word constantly frustrates you, don’t continue to use it just because you’ve always used it and think you don’t have the time to learn something else. That’s a false economy. About ten years ago I started writing in a text editor (BBEdit) instead of a word processor, and then more recently learned LaTeX. The elegance, precision, and feature-appropriateness of those apps have rewarded me more than amply for the time it took me to learn to use them well.

4) Many academics are control freaks, and one of the most common ways that freakery manifests itself is in over-preparation for classes. That’s bad in a couple of ways. First, you spend more time than you can really afford, and second, once you’ve spent all that time you want to make sure that you squeeze it all in to your class time. So you end up talking more than you should, talking too fast, and shutting down potentially interesting conversations because you’re afraid that you won’t be able to cover everything you’ve prepared for. Over-preparation is thus not only time-consuming but has many bad pedagogical side-effects. You’ll do real damage to the classroom environment if you think getting through your outline is more important that allowing the students to pursue an issue that really fascinates them and gets them involved. Invest less time in traditional course prep and more time in thinking about how to manage the time in the classroom that increases student involvement.

5) Many academics, in the humanities anyway, also over-comment on their students’ essays, and end up giving far more feedback than the students can absorb, even when they want to, which is not that often. If you write dozens of marginal comments and a page or more of summary comments, students will rarely be able to differentiate between the major issues and the minor ones. You need to make comments only about major things, and let the little ones go. In that way you’ll give your students feedback that they can actually use.

6) Also: I ask my students to give me, by email, a proposal two weeks before the essay is due. I tell them what I think is good about their idea and what they need to watch out for; more often than not I advise them to take only a part of their topic and focus on that. Then, a week later, I have them send me, again by email, a rough draft. Once more I comment briefly with encouragements, warnings, and indications of where they should invest their major energies. This process would be valuable to them even if I gave no comments at all, because it makes them think about their work well in advance of the due date, which gives them the chance to turn ideas over. By the time they turn in a final version, I don’t have to make many comments at all: those who put in the work will have improved significantly, and the others will already know what their problems are. I spend less time that I would have spent in writing extensive comments; I spread that labor out over a longer period, thus making it feel less onerous; and I get better results.

Just a few recommendations, I know, but you’d be surprised — or at least, I have been surprised — by how much of a difference they make in the use of my time.

academics and families

For the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about this post from my buddy Rod Dreher’s blog, quoting an essay claiming that academic life is a bad choice for someone who wants a family. There’s general agreement on that point in the comments. I think we need some distinctions here.

Being a contingent faculty member — an adjunct, working at multiple institutions for what amounts to less than minimum wage — is terrible for anyone who has to do it, but it takes an especially great toll on people with families. That is certain. I would also say that academic life, even in high-status and stable jobs, can interfere with family life if you’re a person who’s not good at disciplining your time: academic work is gaseous, in the sense that it inevitably expands to fill the available volume, and those who aren’t good at keeping it in reasonable-sized containers can find that it takes over their lives. I know academics who spend way too many nights and weekends away from their families, in their offices, prepping for class or working on conference papers.

But I would argue that this is not a problem intrinsic to academic life: it’s a problem for people who are lousy at time management. I decided long ago that the one absolutely key commitment one must make in order to survive as an academic is: During work time, work; during play time, play. It’s far too easy for academics — and most other knowledge workers as well — to allow work and play to blur together, so that, yeah, you’re writing that conference paper, but you’re also stopping every five minutes to check your email, tweet, IM with other friends who are similarly procrastinating, follow a rabbit-trail of links on the internet. It’s the habit of succumbing to these temptations that leads to evenings at the office when you ought to be having a glass of wine with your spouse or reading to your children.

But if you can be a good discipliner of your time, a tenure-track academic job (that increasingly rare thing) is great for family life, because you have so much freedom to structure your time. Even during term, there are only a few hours a week when you absolutely have to be in a given place, which means that you get to decide when and where to do your work. When our son Wesley was born, my wife Teri cut back from full-time work at World Relief, where she was the public information manager, to 25 hours a week. I asked my department chair if it would be possible for me to have all of my classes and office hours before 1pm, so I could get home in time for Teri to go to work, and he agreed. That was our schedule for several years, which means that from my son’s birth until he started school, I got to spend almost every afternoon with him. (Once a week or so I had to come in for meetings.) I put him down for his nap, I woke him up and watched Thomas the Tank engine videos with him as he sat on my lap, I took him and our dog Zoe to the park. On days when I had no classes we could take the train into Chicago and visit museums or hang out at the lakefront. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything in the universe. And it was made possible by the flexibility of an academic schedule — and, to some extent, by my own determination to discipline my time so that when I was with Wes I could be fully present and not have half my mind on work.

I have been blessed with an unusually good academic job that has had some unusual perks: we have an outstanding dining hall on Wheaton’s campus and the college subsidizes faculty meals, so we can eat cheaply and very, very well there when we want; the college has also made it possible for my family to come with me on several summer study tours of England. These opportunities have allowed Wes to hang out with cool college students all his life, and to see parts of the world that we would never have been able to visit on our own. As I say, that’s not the norm. But the greatest rewards have come from my having a job that has allowed me to put a priority on time with my family. That’s something that many academics have, and that more could have, if they were to be more intentional about how they use their time.

Only when the humanities can earn their own keep will they be respected in modern America. And that will only happen when you convince the majority of people to be interested, of their own volition, rather than begging or guilting them into giving you that money to translate your obscure French poem on vague grounds of “caring about culture.” So either figure something out, or shut up and accept that the humanities are an inherently elite activity that will rely on feudal patronage. Just like they always have. (If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy, it’s obvious why the leisure class, which generally has money, sex, food, and security taken care of, has been in charge of learning.)

You have no idea how much it pains me to say this, but speaking from experience I now believe that private industry is doing a better job of communicating, persuading, innovating, of everything the university has stopped doing. I do not take this as indicator of how well capitalism works, I take it as an indicator of how badly universities have failed, while still somehow aping the worst aspects of corporate capitalism.

The American corporate model looks a little battered at the moment, while American universities have become paragons of learning to which all the world aspires. Does it really make sense to refashion Harvard in the image of GM or BP? For all the problems tenure causes, it has proved its value over time—and not only, or mainly, as a way of protecting free speech. Sometimes, basic research in humanities, social science and natural science pays off quickly in real-world results. More often, though, it takes a generation or so for practical implications to become clear. That’s how long it took, for example, for new research (most of it done in universities) which showed how central slavery was to both the life of the South and the outbreak of the Civil War, to transform the way public historians present the American past at historical sites. That’s how long it will probably take for the genomic research that is currently exploding to have a practical impact on medical treatment. Basic research doesn’t immediately fatten the bottom line, even in the fiscal quarter when results are announced. Many corporations have cut or withdrawn their support for it, on strictly economic grounds. In earlier decades, AT&T (later Lucent Technologies), RCA, Xerox and other industrial companies did a vast amount of basic research. AT&T’s Bell Labs, for one, created the transistor and the photovoltaic cell, and mounted the first TV and fax transmissions. But funding fell and corporate priorities changed—and they have shrunk in every sense ever since. Just one thousand employees walk the darkened corridors of Bell Labs, down from a staff of thirty thousand in 2001. We need universities, and tenured professors, to carry on the basic research that most corporations have abandoned. What we don’t need is for universities to adopt the style of management that wrecked the corporate research centers.

As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I’ll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world’s number 1 health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the USA and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs. My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern Studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern Studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn’t – well, I’m sure you get the picture.

The rigid scripting of childhood and adolescence has made young Americans risk- and failure-averse. Shying away from endeavors at which they might not do well, they consider pointless anything without a clear application or defined goal. Consequently, growing numbers of college students focus on higher education’s vocational value at the expense of meaningful personal, experiential, and intellectual exploration. Too many students arrive at college committed to a pre-professional program or a major that they believe will lead directly to employment after graduation; often they are reluctant to investigate the unfamiliar or the “impractical”, a pejorative typically used to refer to the liberal arts. National education statistics reflect this trend. Only 137 of the 212 liberal arts colleges identified by economist David Breneman in his 1990 article “Are we losing our liberal arts colleges?” remain, and an American Academy of Arts and Sciences study reported that between 1966 and 2004, the number of college graduates majoring in the humanities had dwindled from 18 percent to 8 percent.

Ironically, in the rush to study fields with clear career applications, students may be shortchanging themselves. Change now occurs more rapidly than ever before and the boundaries separating professional and academic disciplines constantly shift, making the flexibility and creativity of thought that a liberal arts education fosters a tremendous asset. More importantly, liberal arts classes encourage students to investigate life’s most important questions before responsibilities intervene and make such exploration unfeasible. More time spent in college learning about the self and personal values means less floundering after graduation. Despite the financial or, in some cases, immigration-status reasons for acquiring undergraduate vocational training, college still should be a time for students to broaden themselves, to examine unfamiliar ideas and interests, and to take intellectual risks. Otherwise, students graduate with (now dubious) career qualifications but little idea of who they are or who they want to be.

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