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.