The Future of the Humanities and the (Semi)Public Intellectual

Conversations about the future of humanities tend to follow a predictable recipe: begin with a spoonful of anxiety (see also: fear, despair); add a smattering of nostalgia (for a bygone era when distinguished faculty members landed their first jobs); bring to boil under a fire of realism (kindled by junior faculty); and garnish with pride (enjoyed by all).

Peter Brooks’ seminar at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus was one of the more unpredictable conversations I have attended on the future of the humanities, aided in no small part by Brooks’ superb book, Humanities in Public Life, and an eclectic cadre of graduate students, faculty, deans, administration, and interlocutors from business, law, and the sciences. While the contours of conversation adhered to the aforementioned recipe, we cooked up two ostensibly different dishes: The humanities are an island, in the parlance of one participant, to be preserved; and the humanities are a perch, from which its advocates infiltrate and affect other modes of discourse. I intend to use this post to explore how such goals are not mutually exclusive by placing the future of the humanities in dialogue with the (semi)public intellectual.

No, I’m not going to talk about Nicholas Kristof’s article about why academics are “irrelevant,” Corey Robin’s and Laura Tanenbaum’s rebuttals, or Joshua Rothman’s alternative assessment. You’ve read those pieces already, and if you haven’t, you’ve heard enough about them. Rather, I want to think about how the Brooks’ island/perch divide relates to a particularly generative panel on public intellectualism at the 2014 MLA Convention.

The panel The Semipublic Intellectual? Academia, Criticism, and the Internet Age exemplified MLA’s vibrant DH presence. Attracting a capacity audience, with onlookers spilling into the hallway, this roundtable assembled a diverse panel to discuss the lived experience of scholarship and digital publication. For several panelists in particular, public engagement provides both a reprieve from and complement to their humanities “day jobs.”

As an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Whitman College, Anne Helen Petersen entered the public fray to compensate for the solitude of studying for comps. Her blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, applies historical and theoretical understandings to celebrity culture. Blog posts range from musings on celebrity scandal (with the touchstones of Miley Cirus and Chris Brown) to Beyoncé’s unsettling feminism. Petersen argued that one way that humanities scholars can intervene in the outside world—and to promote humanistic values—is to demonstrate that they have “smart things to say about things we encounter each and every day.”

Hua Hsu, an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, admits that he couldn’t have finished graduate school without writing for public outlets. Contributing to ESPN, Slate, and The Atlantic enables Hsu to embrace new vocabularies and humors, to pursue different research questions, and to make money. For example, Hsu reflects on the sorry state of the NFL as a Grantland staff member, reviews Sianne Ngai as a Slate contributor, and puts The Simpsons in conversation with Ai Weiwei as an Atlantic author. In posts, he brings his humanities work into the public sphere (e.g. Ngai), whereas in other pieces, the two cross-pollinate (Simpsons and Ai Weiwei). Hsu seems to relish the creative tensions between journalists and academics. In his talk, he explained that online writing better connected him with editors and readers than his academic scholarship.

Despite the salubrious effects of public engagement on his academic writing, Hsu admitted that he kept his public work separate, even “secret,” from his institution. Salamishah Tillet, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, has also written publicly, in private. Tillet has written about domestic violence and George Zimmerman for The Nation and black feminism (and Tyler Perry) for The Root, and she’s even visited MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss race relations and abortion politics. Although she’s more comfortable occupying the role of public intellectual today, as a graduate student, Tillet didn’t tell her advisors about her activist writings for fear that she wouldn’t be regarded as a “serious scholar.” If, as Tillet observes, the mandate of a scholar is to act as a cultural worker, institutions ought to embrace semi-public intellectualism because it enables scholars to occupy multiple communities simultaneously and to make humanist arguments to wider audiences.

Each panelist models a both/and approach to straddling the island/perch divide. Certainly, I don’t mean to suggest that semi-public contortions are easy. As evident from the closeted writings of Hsu, Tillet, and Petersen, departments still may not know how to evaluate such engagement. Moreover, writing for a wider public entails subjecting oneself to wider scrutiny, placing texts at greater risk of being read out of context.

Natalia Cecire, a Postdoctoral Fellow of English at Yale University, explained how she began blogging as a means of controlling her online identity (in Cecire’s words, “I have an incredibly Google-able name”). However, when she wrote a skeptical post about statistics wunderkind Nate Silver, she found her online identity—as well as her sex and race—assaulted by young economists who rejected the very notion that the humanities could make knowledge claims. In the words of Cecire, “The audience you’re writing for isn’t necessarily the audience you get.”

Public intellectualism can hurt, but if scholars are serious about charting a path forward for the humanities, these panelists model the courage and entrepreneurship necessary to preserve the island and to expand its terrain.

Upcoming Meeting: Can DH Get You A Job? A Presentation and Discussion of DH Job Descriptions

Mark your calendars! The next FGSDH meeting is in only a few days!

Can DH Get You A Job?
A Presentation and Discussion of DH Job Descriptions
February 26th, 12:30pm
Dealy Hall 115

Come discuss Digital Humanities job postings. Bring one you’ve seen recently, or come to hear more about them and what they want. We’ll discuss what skills DH jobs want, how to read the job postings, and how to make them less intimidating and/or mystifying. We’ll also discuss ways to acquire the skills they want, and how to go about doing so at Fordham and in NYC.

As a reminder: never let “not having done the homework” prevent you from coming to a FGSDH meeting! We’re delighted to see you, and more voices in discussion are always valuable.
–Alisa and Patrick

Can DH Get You A Job? Reading DH Job Postings

Have you encountered job descriptions with requirements like these?
Experience with a technical area of digital humanities such as data visualization, text mining, digital pedagogy, spatial humanities, data curation, network analysis, and scholarly communication

What does a Digital Humanities Coordinator at CUNY do, anyway?

Don’t assume that just because you aren’t a computer scientist, you can’t be eligible for these jobs!

Can Digital Humanities Get You A Job?
A Presentation and Discussion of DH Job Descriptions
Thursday, February 20, 12:30pm. Dealy 203

Bring a job description to the meeting.  We’ll discuss how to read these documents, what the skills involve mean and are, and how to go about gaining some of these skills while a student at Fordham University.

PS: As always, never let “not having done the homework” prevent you from coming to a meeting — can’t find a job description?  We know you’re all busy.  We’ll have extras to discuss!  Please show up anyway: we’ll be delighted to see you and to have another perspective in the discussion.

POSTPONED: HTML Resume Workshop

The HTML Resume Workshop has been postponed: it will not happen tomorrow, Tuesday, February 18th.

Watch this space for updates on when it will take place.  We will be asking for RSVPs for this event so that we can reserve the most appropriate room, and have enough food for everyone at this upcoming lunch-time meeting.

We thank you all for your patience as we deal with snow-day- and Presidents’ Day-related scheduling.

Debates in the Digital Humanities

After a snow day last week, we met for the first time yesterday and discussed two articles from the book Debates in the Digital Humanities.

Debates in DH Book Cover
Debates in the Digital Humanities

The articles were “This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities by Lisa Spiro, and Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term by Matthew Kirschenbaum.

The two articles provide quite a contrast: Spiro’s is optimistic and all-embracing, and discusses the usefulness and larger possibilities provided by the process of articulating a values statement for the DH as a field; Kirschenbaum’s article is more pragmatic, and discusses the history of DH and how thinking tactically about the field’s uses, goals, and funding can be not only helpful for getting it implemented, but also for expanding and defining the field.

One criticism the group came up with was that while Spiro’s article does a good job of articulating goals, it is not very ‘digitally’ specific — almost all of her goals and values could be applied to the process of making academia in general, or humanities in general, a friendlier, more inclusive space. And while one attendee pointed out that this may be the goal of DH in the long term (to become the norm for humanities scholarship) in the present, it seems like a little more focus on the digital aspects of DH may be necessary.  Kirschenbaum’s more pragmatic approach seemed to have made our readers slightly more comfortable with his points and his overview of the history of the field provided talking points for discussion about the development of the field.

The variety of viewpoints of our attendees, from those who are relatively new to DH to those who have a more library-centric or more academically-centered focus, made for an excellent discussion. We were only sorry not to see more people there!

We look forward to seeing you at our next meeting:

HTML Resume Workshop
Tuesday February 18th
LL 802 (Lincoln Center) 1:30pm

Learn how to use HTML to make your resume more striking online: in the process you will not only learn how to make your resume look better on sites such as WordPress or other blogging platforms, you will also learn the basics of HTML markup language, which has a wide variety of applications, and is the basis of a number of other markup languages used widely in the digital humanities.