google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: Curating the Humanities

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Curating the Humanities

As Lindsay Thomas's critique of the American Academy's The Heart of the Matter makes clear, the increasingly conventional effort to justify the humanities in terms of a narrow notion of utility leaves a great deal to be desired.  Instead, people working in the humanities and social sciences will need to resist notions of utility imposed from without and also imagine their own way for developing new, intellectually creative, and expansive agendas for teaching and research.

One approach that is rooted primarily in the digital humanities is to remodel humanistic activity on the model of scientific groups and grants.  I have no problem with learning from the sciences especially from their practices of collaborative groups.  But the fetish for "grand challenges" while understandable from a tactical fundraising perspective ignores important parts of the purpose of the humanities and interpretive social sciences--particularly their relationships to ethics in the process of scholarship.

What I think is a far more interesting and challenging idea was raised by Eileen Joy in a post at the Medieval Studies blog In the Middle

Joy's starting point, to be clear, is a diagnosis of a bleak future.  As she puts it:

The university as a publicly-supported institution [in all of it various forms, from the Ivy League school to the community college] has long served as a critical site for some of the most important humanistic-scientific-technological-etc. innovations in human history, while it has also fostered the value and practice of lifelong learning, of critical thought, of experimentation, of open and perpetually unsettled inquiry, to what might be called the arts of everyday life. And I don't believe this institution is just going to disappear in some sort of cataclysm, although I would place my money on some severe, austere diminishments in the near future.

Joy's account of this likely "severe" and "austere" diminution is familiar:  MOOCs, reduction in public financing, worsening working condition for faculty--especially non-tenure track faculty--loss of control over our work through increasing corporate control of intellectual products, etc.

In response, Joy proposes a greater attention to those spaces outside of the university where intellectually creativity flourishes:

The fact of the matter is -- whether we inhabit student desks, tenure lines, adjunct positions, or post-graduate/never-graduate somewhere-other-than-here positions -- now might be the time to take a bit more seriously alternative spaces [which might never be "permanent" or "institutional"] for learning, for inquiry, and for knowledge-culture production.

But at the same time as she advocates this dispersive set of spaces, she also suggests something that cuts in a different direction. Against the generalized, if true, claim that we develop communicative and analytic skills, Joy calls attention to the specificity of the fields that we engage in:

At the same time, we insist on perversely-hopefully laying claim to specific subject areas -- medieval studies, for example -- as collocations of objects and trajectories of thought that we desire to hold close to us, while also placing them in certain perpetual tensions with everything else [even ourselves]. Forms of thinking matter, and there is no need to discard anything. Every area requires special curators and we should seek to increase the ranks of those, for this is a matter of the care as well as of the increase of knowledge. 

"Curating" is, of course, a complex term.  It harks back to churches and curates; it has an unavoidable ring of the spiritual.  But in this context, and despite Joy's training as a medievalist, I take its reference to be to the curating that takes place in museums and libraries as well as congregations.  Although Joy's post mostly emphasizes the creation of new spaces outside the university (like Punctum Books for instance) it seems to me that curating may be a way to rethink our practices within universities and colleges and also a way to think about the relationships between what we do in our institutions and what we might do outside our institutions.

Two preliminary points are crucial here:  first is the acknowledgment  that we are drawn to particular areas because of the issues or ideas embedded there (and not because it would make us good readers or contextualizers) and the second that the knowledge that we produce is itself worth defending because of the insights it brings to the world.  The humanities cannot survive as a simple set of capacities; it must defend its claims to knowledge and to think through the dimensions of that knowledge and its production.

As Joy notes, we tend--despite whatever commitments to method or theory we have--to take our specific research subjects seriously and personally.  To actually curate our fields today, though, means doing more than simply teaching or writing about them.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the growth of digital capacity, the basic infrastructure of humanistic knowledge is being dissected:  libraries cannot buy enough new books, journals and university presses are under intense financial pressure (and UC's open access policy will not help here), departments are being closed, fewer and fewer faculty are being hired on the tenure track.

All of this is well known of course.

But if faculty in the humanities and social sciences do not take more collective responsibility for the institutions that make our scholarship and teaching possible and work in solidarity with institutions or other departments then our students will find themselves without a sustainable field to work in.  We need to acknowledge the centrality of the sustainability of the humanities infrastructure and of the crucial task of the university as a place for conserving knowledge as well as producing it.  At the same time we need to recognize the importance of the traditions of thought and practice in our various areas.  Joy's notion of "trajectories of thought that we desire to hold close to us" is important here: we cannot succeed by turning away from what drew us to the humanities or interpretive social sciences in the first place.  And we need to articulate the meanings of those trajectories in their "untimeliness" today.

We can probably all agree on the importance of protecting resources for humanities research.  But the question of curating people is more complicated.  But I think that implicit in Joy's formulation is the notion that faculty will need to intensify their relationship with teaching, training, and developing students and not because our employers want a speed-up.  Faculty in many fields in the humanities and social sciences (and probably in the sciences as well although I am less sure) have benefited in many ways from the lack of system in programs.  But if we are going to find new ways to manifest the importance of humanities and social science knowledge we need to move beyond the consumerist model of course choice and begin to think about how to design programs.  Moreover, faculty at many research universities will need to assume more responsibility for advising.

To be sure, a great deal of faculty advising does take place.  At liberal arts colleges faculty are deeply involved with advising undergraduates and at research universities they are involved in advising graduate students.  But there is a large lacuna there: undergraduates at large research institutions.  In these situations students are left to overworked staff advisers.  In those settings (like UC) faculty will need to take more responsibility for the intellectual development of their students both undergraduate and graduate.  Disciplines in the humanities and social sciences often claim that their teaching and knowledge is designed for transformation; but without figuring out ways to make that part of the intellectual process of education it rings false.

If we are going to curate both objects and subjects we need to also recognize the personal dimension of our commitments.  We teach and write about them because we think that it is important that they be preserved and extended in some way.  But we do so because we find them personally engaging and challenging.  But insofar as we claim that our knowledge can be transforming, we might give more thought to how, and if, it is transforming ourselves.  One way, as I already suggested, is in taking greater responsibility for the conduct of our programs as they relate to students.  But another is taking greater responsibility for our conduct as it relates to the larger project that the humanities and social sciences engage in.  But that means, I think, making a collective project that links our commitments to our own specific subjects (and our commitment to curate them) to a larger project within universities to protect the wider range of humanities and social science scholarship.

The structure of the university and college now is such as to pit department against department and division against division.  But it is not hard to see that the struggle between departments, or the willingness of some to place their own self-interest against a more collective project will, no matter how successful in the short run end up weakening the entire range of scholarship.  And in a scholarly world where disciplines and subjects depend more and more on the knowledge of others this end will benefit no one.   

Finally I think we might take some lessons from museums and libraries because it is in those latter spaces that curators and librarians aim to develop public knowledge.  For in curating you not only preserve but you present. Let me give one example of the interplay between curating, knowledge, universities, and museums.  It is not singular (scholars work with museums all the time).  But it does offer an alternative to the now obligatory emphasis on the digital as the way to touch the wider world.  This fall, the New York Historical Society opened an exhibit honoring the centennial of New York's Armory Show of 1913.  The exhibit took up the issue of the relationship between art, society, and politics.  Central to the success of the show was the work of a historian (Casey Blake of Columbia) in tandem with art scholars, museum curators, planners, artists and the Historical Society leadership.  These sorts of exhibits raise dual challenges.  The first was actually producing the knowledge needed to help stage the exhibition and the second was figuring out how to convey that knowledge in ways that would engage the audience.  Now I understand that curators are faced with this all the time.  Indeed, in our classrooms so are we.  But these were designed to bring the work of university research to bear on an issue of public memory and interest.  And there is no shortage of people who are interested in these issues.

Just as important though, is the fact that exhibits like this are self-consciously about both producing knowledge and preserving subjects and objects.  Any effective defense of the Humanities will have to begin with the same self-consciousness and the same ends.

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