In reaction to the growing schism between scholarly and nonacademic writing, Evan Kindley asserts that we may be able to learn a thing or two from the tradition of little magazines. Offering a platform for both academics and journalists to reach a wider public, publications such as Public Books and the Los Angeles Review of Books create a productive inter-professional competition that impels writers to rethink their craft. This intermediary space may just be the future of two or more fields.
I recently spent a sunny Sunday afternoon shifting through uncomfortable positions on my couch for three hours, my eyes glued to “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Giyatri Spivak’s seminal work on marginalization in the postcolonial context. It was among the most unpleasant experiences I have had in graduate school up to this point, and at times the article made my blood boil. “How could someone devote their life to writing something this inane?!” Once I had waded through the fifty-odd page article, I completed a worksheet on the article and promptly shoved in a drawer, hoping to never see it again. The article was a parade of buzzwords and a lengthy deconstruction of Marxist terminology in translation. Each line became an active fight for meaning in the midst of buzzwords.
Perhaps the most famous example of the importance of buzzwords in academia is the article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Alan Sokal’s 1994 publishing experiment. His suspicion was that publication was based primarily on playing to editors’ notions and utilizing trending academic buzzwords. His article suggests, among other ludicrous things, that the material reality we interact with is ultimately a linguistic construct. However, between layer after layer of buzzwords and heavy handed references to numerous scientists and scholars, the meaning (or rather, lack of meaning) was lost on the editors: the article was published. Similar experiments have tried and had mixed success, but Sokal’s article stands as an indelible mark on the academic publishing racket. Why publish if not for meaning?
What’s scariest isn’t the fact that this article got published. It’s the fact that this article was published before I (now a graduate student staring academic publishing in its joyless face) was born 21 years ago. Over two decades later, the academic publishing field seems like it would welcome another Sokal article (albeit with updated, trendy buzzwords). Why has the academic publishing field eschewed well-written articles with clarity and favored complicated and often boring structure?
Joshua Rothman in “Why is Academic Writing so Academic?” suggests that, “the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal.” He goes on to explain that academics, “have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark, and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.” The academic career is becoming increasingly niche focused and therefore the writing becomes more ingrained in its own terminology and community—leading it further from breaching the public sphere.
So, is there a balance to be found here? Can (and should) we reverse the trend towards niche writing? Would that decrease the importance of specialization for faculty? Is there value in the ivory tower or should academics make more of an effort to connect what they are doing to the public sphere, to speak out on public issues? These questions will likely always be an ongoing battle in academia, but unless we strive for some form of debate on them, we may see academic writing retreat further and further into arcane and inaccessible realms.
Rothman, Joshua. “Why is Academic Writing So Academic?” The New Yorker. February 20th, 2014. Online.
Is it necessary to consider Digital Humanities on an international scale? Do certain facts or claims about the Digital Humanities only apply to the US or European educational systems? If emphasis on humanities education and research is becoming more popular in Asia, should literature professors simply move where they will be appreciated?
I was recently speaking to a good friend of mine who now works in Singapore creating curriculum for an international high school. His job is to help students be more creative, with a focus on design philosophy and fine arts projects. What struck me most about his experience was the fact that creativity, critical thinking, and aesthetics were deemed essential to the student learning experience. In many instances, the sciences seemed to take a backseat to the humanities. One question that occurred to me while talking to him was: are the Digital Humanities less promising in other countries and/or cultures?
In Teaching and Learning English Literature, Ellie Chambers and Marshall Gregory discuss the importance of literary pedagogy as a framing system. Pedagogy not only encourages learning and growth, but it can also affect and frame course content to invite different types of understanding (14). The teaching of literature needs to better adapt to the modern world, addressing issues like postcritical thought, different student experiences, the corporatization of education, and the potential for personal transformations.
Reading and writing go together, right? The general expectation in a literature class is that students will read, and then write about it. Generally, this is geared toward a literary analysis in which the student finds something smart to say about what they have read. Of course, this is the way it has always been structured. It makes sense.
Sheridan D. Blau contends that the problem with writing in the literature classroom is that “students don’t always cooperate by having the kind of intellectual experience we want for them” (152). This apparent lack of cooperation from the students often results in, to use Sheridan’s words, “warmed over versions of somebody else’s cooking” (153). Perhaps, we need a new recipe.
One compelling idea that Blau presents is an active and engaging journaling exercise which the professor devotes an hour a week to read aloud selected journal entries. This genre choice, one which the understood audience is the student’s own self, turned public is particularly interesting to me. It is more traditional with its materials, the pen and paper as opposed to the keys and a screen often employed in the digitally engaged class. However, it provides a productive means for students to generate their own thinking, or make their own sense.
I am a huge fan of handwritten work. I would argue it slows down the mind enough for the thoughts to really come through. Additionally, Blau recognizes that it is actively engaged with the literary tradition, as those of us in literary studies know those who produce literature often keep their own journals.
As scholars contemplate the shifts in the humanities not only through the digital age, but also the nature of criticism, and the act writing in the literature classroom—how are we meant to best balance these shifts in order to engage the students, but also ensure that they are actually making sense out of what they read?
Blau, Sheridan D. “Writing Assignments in Literature Classrooms: The Problem.” The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003. 151-63. Print.
In his essay titled “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Bruno Latour seeks to retest constructivism, to show the ways deconstruction may not be as relevant as it once was. For Latour, “the question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism” (231). Cultivating a stubbornly realist attitude, literary critics and theorists can distance themselves from one-size-fits-all approaches in order to better understand their own biases. Moving away from critiques of ideology, Latour’s essay gives new meaning to digital humanities approaches that focus on building, playing, and screwing around.
One fascinating element of Digital Humanities are that they constantly strive to reinvent the way humanists work, often by using visual, aural, and other nontraditional methods and approaches. In doing so, DHers often push the boundaries of long-established fields, including literary studies.
An idea I have been mulling over lately is: can you teach a literature course without books? Yes, this includes eBooks, tablets, computers, etc. Say for example you showed movies, went to plays, and talked about books without actually reading them (something many people already do in literature courses). Could you theoretically teach without reading? Without speaking?
Literature is one of the few areas where no one in the field can precisely define what they study. The above questions, much like DH and multi-media projects, ask instructors and critics to really think about what literature is, what a “text” is, and what is essential to the classroom.
In their introduction to a 2009 issue of Representations, titled “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus assert that the way we read “now” resists the symptomatic readings of a previous generation of scholars. While this previous generation searched for “hidden” meanings, many scholars have now begun to look more closely at the surfaces, the non-hidden or apparent aspects, of texts. In doing so, Best and Marcus, perhaps inadvertently, demonstrate the importance of studying the history of thought.