intellectual community

Graduate Students: Semiprofessional Intellectuals

Evan Kindley’s article “Growing Up in Public: Academia, Journalism, and the New Public Intellectual” wrestles with the debate between relevance and accessibility that is contingent on the separation between “‘the public’ and ‘the academy’” and how a shift in the discourse, for Kindley, “provides an opportunity to help more people understand our activities as scholars and why they’re important” (468). I, myself, have recently found myself in a sort of internal struggle with this very problem. When I asked one of my mentors, “Does what we do matter?” with a genuine feeling of concern in my mind, and on my face. In turn, she shrugged and smiled. The short answer is this, it matters to us. But if we cannot share it with others, we run the risk of being obsolete. There is no real need to compete or argue over who might be better equipped to be a public intellectual, or even to redefine it. As Kindley notes, “[i]n the best case scenario, both sides are challenged to produce better work by adjusting to norms not native in their professions, thus raising the level of discourse of cultural criticism as a whole” (469). But is this just an intellectual utopian fantasy that we might never be able to actualize?

Of course, the space the public intellectual occupies is different than where the academic rests. The conventions of the academy challenge the academics ability to enter the public sphere reputably, and without stepping on anybody’s proverbial toes. More pressing for the academic in training, where, as Kindley notes, “public writing [is] not discouraged, but delayed: it [is] seen as a valuable activity, but one that ought to be pursued once one’s disciplinary bona fides were in order” (471). This is indeed a problem that us graduate students seem to face. When is the right time to bridge this gap? Are graduate students allowed to exist in both these spheres? More importantly, do they have the time and the means to do so? If the humanities academics want a more public presence, then shouldn’t that be incorporated alongside the traditional professionalization of academics in their graduate programs? We are the producers of the knowledge, the future of the disciplines, why would we hold our voices back?


I chose the humanities because this space made sense for me. This academic life that feels as though it is constantly shifting where there always new knowledge to be gained, and a general buzzing excitement for lofty ideas taking shape in our minds. These are my people. As I gathered more knowledge, and began to apply it to my writing, I began to excitedly accept the closing of my audience base. I would say things like, “All I really want out of life is to write things that, like, twelve people understand and want to respond to.” This must mean that I have found my niche. This means I have achieved something, unlocked a new life level, and am ready for the steady ascent up in the world of academia. But it sure feels awfully isolated, pretentious, and lonely.

Recently, humanities scholars have noticed that this way of situating the academic voice is, in fact, problematic. As humanists, we should be the most human in the academic world. That is to say, the people most concerned with what it means to be human. Maybe we are, or we think we are, but in practice we have all become isolated, pretentious, and lonely; as Ian Bogost puts it, “Humanism does not deserve to carry the standard for humans, for frankly it despises them.”

Bogost continues, stating that  “We don’t make reform our mission because we secretly hate the idea of partaking of and in the greater world, even as we purport to give it voice, to speak of its ills through critical esoterics no public ear could ever grasp.” That is to say, the very disciplines with which we align ourselves keeps us out of a constructive dialogue with the world around us. While I do not purport that academics and activism go hand in hand, it seems that what Bogost is pushing toward which is a position with which I tend to agree, it seems that there is a dividing wall placed between academics and the rest of the world that needs to break down. If all the knowledge that we have and produce as humanities scholars has been made largely incomprehensible to humanity, what then are we actually doing?

“Drawing Words. Speaking Pictures”: Taking Instructions from a Near-Sighted Monkey


Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor is rich with texture and image. The text itself takes shape from Barry’s experience teaching an interdisciplinary course-an amalgamation of Art, English, and Science at UW-Madison. What I find most compelling about Barry’s methods has little to do with this book, or how it presents itself as a specific kind of methodology. No, what is most compelling to me, is the way Barry envisions herself and her students, and how the class dynamic takes shape.

The thing is- Barry renames all of her students. Not only does she rename them, she renames them as PARTS OF THE BRAIN. By doing this, she is sending a message that the cluster of students in the room are the brain-the central processing unit of the classroom space. But when we compare this to her recurring self-portaits in her drawings of herself as this “Near-Sighted Monkey” the whole energy of the class shifts. This shifting dynamic destabilizes the authority in the classroom. The brain parts must find the best way to work independently as they take instructions from a monkey.

This is an act of pedagogical genius. Everybody’s identities are suspended and re-shaped. The brain, thus, becomes the essential tool in the classroom-it physically populates it. This is the space that one might draw words and speak pictures. And when Barry asks the question “If the thing we call ‘THE ARTS’ had a biological function-what would it be? And where would it be?” (15)-one might locate it in her classroom space. That is a lesson any educator can take away from Barry’s Syllabus– No matter how strange the question might be, no matter how difficult it might be to answer, we can all trust the playful monkey inside to bring us toward creating a playful space that encourages intellectual development. Even if that means the way a monkey’s ideas might influence each part of the brain.


Barry, Lynda. Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor. Canada: Drawn and Quarterly, 2014. Print.





Digital Humanities: Un-Splitting Science and Art

The end of the 19th century is when “the study of literature, philosophy, and classics was split off from the natural and physical sciences” when before they each “had their own licenses on knowledge, as well as professional rituals, meetings, and publications” (Burdick et al. 6). She further contends that “[d]igital work challenges many of these separations, promoting dialogue not only across established disciplinary lines but also across the pure/applied, qualitative/quantitative, and theoretical/practical divides” (Burdick et al. 7). That is to say, the veil of separation between the disciplines is rapidly thinning. It might seem obvious that each department within the academy has its own set of tools set aside to perform their own specialized work-the sciences their measuring sticks and computer coding systems, and the humanities with their paint brushes and daily journals.What happens when we take notice that cultural production as mediated through creative texts might have actual data that can be taken and used to reveal new truths, or old truths in new ways? What happens when humanists borrow the tools that scientists use? Sure, the humanities as a discipline shifts into a space that is more adept at navigating the scientific advances that keep our world moving forward. But what about the sciences? What might we humanists give back to them?

Digital humanities is a natural adaptation to a change in environment. This new discourse, or dialogue, that Burdick posits opens because of the work being done in digital humanities is bridging a gap that was only quite recently formed. As we adapt to our more technologically advanced world landscapes, the humanists can continue creating histories, philosophies, and literatures to help mediate the world, but also to provide more data to be digitized. The digital humanities creates a healthy space for knowledge production and an exchange of information across and among the disciplines, it bridges the gap, and it pushes us all a little closer to knowing what we can’t yet know.

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