Passion, Identity, and the Faculty in the Humanities: Reflections on Anna Neumann

A half a life time ago now, I was living in Amsterdam working on a short term mission in the red light district.  Sunday evenings it was fairly typical for those of us on the staff at The Shelter to attend a gathering at a community run by Youth With a Mission.  The director, Bill Hallam, a converted hippie who had formerly trekked the drug trail between Amsterdam and India, was talking about how to find your direction and purpose in life, something a lot of people drifting through Amsterdam were in need of, myself included.  He asked us what one thing really got us excited, really made us jump out of our skins, so to speak.  After a little hesitation and with some embarrassment, I raised my hand and said that more than anything, I loved discovering new ideas, learning new things, having sudden aha! moments where my thinking and reading came together in to some new insight.  I recounted how, as an undergraduate, I would read in the library and suddenly be seized with excitement at some new illumination, some new connection that I hadn’t thought of before.  I would be so excited, I would be shaking and have to get up and walk around the library, shaking my fists in the air and whispering “Yes! Yes! Yes!” under my breath.

Most people in the meeting laughed.  To his everlasting credit, Bill Hallam did not.  He said, “Well, maybe that is a clue that you are called to read, and to learn, and to think.  And the church should find a way to support you in that.”  I took him up on it.

I thought about this lesson again reading Anna Neumann’s essay in Change, “Protecting the Passion of Scholars in Times of Change.  I’ve been doing some reading about motivation and change as I work on revising an essay originally presented at a conference in Richmond on Humanities and the Professions, as well as trying to do some preparation for a panel at the Lilly Fellows administrators conference.  Broadly speaking, Neumann makes the case that passion for their subject matter is a driving force in faculty motivation and in faculty pursuit of excellence.

“The scholars I interviewed, all one to five years post-tenure, chose the academic career out of a deep desire to understand the subjects of study that beckoned to them through the rigors of graduate training, the challenges and insecurities of the pre-tenure years, the “big test” of the tenure review, and often post-tenure workloads and campus cultures that did not support the scholarly learning that meant a great deal to them intellectually and personally.”

She cites some faculty having the kinds of physical reactions I had and still have to the joy of engaging their work, and how this can be a near-mystical, or at least deeply creative experience.

“I’m not so sure how common this is, but when things are going well, what happens is first of all, it affects me physically, not just intellectually. My body kicks into a higher gear. I shake, and I can’t stop moving. I barely sleep as it is, and I sleep even less.

“Although it might sound like it’s distracting, it’s not. It’s wonderful, it really is. My students say that I’m talking to the muses. I start channeling things. I start spewing forth conjectures or mathematical ideas without really knowing where they’re coming from. Obviously your subconscious is doing the information-processing when you’re in this agitated state, giving you the results of it while hiding the reasoning. And so then you have to go back and reconstruct where it came from and then try to use it. It’s like you’re not creating it—it’s being revealed to you.”

For Neumann, this kind of engagement is deeply threatened by changes in higher education, though she doesn’t precisely go in to why she believes that is the case.  According to Neumann, this passion for discipline is the singular and defining characteristic of higher education and has to be protected, as she puts it “at all costs.”

This is a hard thing to disagree with, and its not that I do.  I think Neumann is intuitively right that impediments to change among faculty are much more complicated and emotionally nuanced than we administrators usually give them credit for.  Faculty resistance to change in higher education is less about recalcitrance or smugness, and more about emotional investment and identity, about honoring a way of being in the world rather than a means of clinging stubbornly to certain ways of doing.  Every faculty member I know of is in some sense a convert, one who chose to become something rather than someone who delivers certain outcomes, a distinction between being and doing that it crucial to remember.

However, it does seem to me that Neumann has a fairly abstract notion of passion in general and scholarly passion in particular, one that exists in a kind of static and romanticized limbo.  On her reading, scholarly passion is somewhat Titanic-like, with the scholar and his/her subject matter stationed at the prow of the ship sailing rapturously into the future, in this case unprotected.  The tragedy in such a view of passion is that it comes to an end, or that it changes.  If Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslett had not hit the literal iceberg they would have had hit others more metaphorical, and their passions would have changed, adjusted to changing circumstances, matured, etcetera.  If it had not so adapted and changed, it would have died.

Passions like everything else have histories and contexts, and are enabled by certain kinds of material grounds.  We like to say love conquers all, but its well know that financial stress and economic hardship are among the leading causes of stress and hardship in relationships.  And our original passions are made possible by circumstances of chance or class or gender, a mixture of social convention, resistance to convention, and the drive for self-making that consumes late adolescents and young adults launching into a vocation.  We should not be surprised if the ardent passions we had as adolescents and young adults are reshaped and changed and have to find new ways to be or must express themselves in new ways in times of change as well.

So I don’t much like the language of “protection” that Neumann employs, at least not to the degree that it seems to imply “preserve”;  a little too much of the whiff of the museum or mausoleum.  If that is the goal, I don’t know if it is reachable, because higher ed has changed dramatically already, and is likely to change even more by almost every report that we can envision that responsibly tries to envision the future.

However, it does seem to me that  we need to recognize that faculty engagement with a subject matter in a discipline, is a very different matter than selling a car.  It is, as Neumann suggest, much more like the personal investment in a work of art.  Faculty identities as human beings are deeply connected to their fields and their historical ways of understanding them;  their passion is not like a passion for chocolate cake or for Ferraris.  Their passions for a subject matter are an expression of the self, a way of being in the world, that is, in fact, like a religious faith, something that has come at great cost, and has been rewarded with a certain kind of being.

It seems to me that as we begin to address the wrenching changes that are upon us in higher education, it is important to keep this fact in mind, and work together with faculty on issues of identity at least as much as we work with them on issues or policy or program.  Especially, administrators need to be engaged with faculty in the process of narrativizing relationships between what higher education has been and what it is or may be becoming.

Change does not mean loss exclusively.  It means transformation, which is the continuation of our disciplinary selves in to new and sometimes strange circumstances.  Often, in the midst of change, the story of higher education is told as if we were last years model, a clunker that has to be cast aside for newer and more adaptive.  This is a fundamentally offensive approach to the good and important human work that colleges and universities and their professors have done for centuries in many different forms since the founding of the first universities.  A story about the humanities–my own area as an administrator–has to engage with and value the ideals of humanistic study as it has been received, and articulate a relationship between those ideals and our changed circumstances, whether those circumstances are focused on closer engagement with career preparation, doing humanistic study in a digital framework, unbundling the degree, pursuing competency based education, or recasting the relationship between the humanities and the sciences.

This story need not be defensive, tragic, or apocalyptic as it is so often cast by both the defenders and the dismissers of the humanities.  It need not be the closing of a book or the dissolution of our scholarly passions.  It can be the next chapter of a book. The meaning and purpose of where we are going next is made clearer by our engagement with where we have been.

Can we create a humanities for the 21st century?: Reflections on Cathy Davidson

I’ve been invited to serve on a panel at the Lilly Fellows Administrators Workshop this fall in New Orleans, so I’ll use the event as an excuse to revive this blog–famous last words– by reflecting on some reading I’m doing in preparation. Broadly speaking, since we’ve done a lot of work in this area at Messiah College I’ve been asked to talk on how humanities can connect to career preparation as part of a conference that focuses on connecting mission and post-baccaluareate success.

Sometimes I admit that I think these kinds of discussions end up being far too narrowly cast for my taste;  humanists concede that we must do something to address our current and never-ending crisis or crises, and so we talk about career preparation as if it is a concession, something that we will do if we have to do it as long as we can keep doing the idealistic things that we have always done.  Or else something that we will do for the moment even as we look nostalgically to the past or longingly for a future in which the economy is better, our budgets are sound, our classrooms are burgeoning.  On this view, humanities faculty engaging with career preparation is a necessary evil or a pragmatic necessity, but it never really gets to the root of or affects a fundamental understanding of what the humanities are about.  As an administrator, I admit that I have become pretty pragmatic and willing to put up with more than my share of necessary evils.  Nevertheless, I confess that I find this view of engagement with student careers as seriously wanting and deficient.

I think that the halcyon days of yore are not returning, and even if they did it might not actually be all that great a thing.  Rather, I want to believe we are about at Messiah College–when we do curricular revision to include more attention to career concerns, or when we have more training of faculty advisors to address vocational issues,when we work to connect internships, service learning, and other forms of experiential learning directly to our liberal arts course work, or when we begin new projects in the digital humanities–What I want to believe we are about is creating a humanities for the 21st century.

In this, I resonate sympathetically when I read Cathy Davidson, or hear her speak as I did last year at the CIC conference in Pittsburgh.  Davidson’s ruling metaphor, it seems to me, is that our current forms of education, even humanities education, are appropriate to an industrial era, but that we have yet to develop an education appropriate to our own era.

I read again this afternoon her essay on these issues from Academe a few years back, Strangers on a Train.  A passage that particularly stuck out:

If you look at the curriculum in most humanities departments, you would barely notice that there is a crisis and there has been one for decades. At most colleges and universities, humanities departments continue to have a hierarchy of requirements and teaching assignments that imply that the department’s chief mission is to train students for professional careers in the humanities. Most humanities departments do not seem designed to prepare students for any and all careers, including in the sciences, even though all careers require reading, writing, critical thinking, theoretical analysis, historical perspective, and cross-cultural knowledge.

Davidson rightly points out that one consequence of mass education as we have come to know it is that liberal arts programs  have tended to become pre-professional in their orientation, but in a bad or deleterious sense.  That is, we think mostly that we are preparing future graduate students in the humanities, or we organize our curricula as if we are doing that.  Davidson’s essay is a clarion call, if a somewhat unspecific one, to get beyond this form of the humanities for a broader-based approach to the vocational needs of the contemporary students.  Ironically, it seems to me, this might ultimately make our humanities programs more genuinely liberal arts programs, designed broadly rather than for discipline specific expertise.

The one issue that I think Davidson doesn’t address here is one that I think leaves humanities programs resistant to change along the lines Davidson seems to be envisioning.  That is, so long as we argue that humanities programs are the best preparation for a flexible career in the future, that we give students superior skills in communication and analysis, that statistics show our students do relatively well in the job market overall, it becomes unclear why the pre-graduate-school model needs to change.  I have heard this argument stated eloquently.  “Yes, we prepare you so you can go to graduate school;  but if you don’t you’ve been prepared for everything else as well because of all the great communication skills we’ve given you.”

I don’t actually agree with this argument, but it is a genuine argument.  Where it falls short, I think, is in an overconfidence that our students know how to translate knowledge between fields of practice.  This is, I think, a false assumption.  Conversations with business and career development professionals over the past four or five years have convinced me that humanities students regularly and commonly struggle to be able to articulate the relationship between what they have done with their education and the needs of employers.  As I have put it in the past, we broaden our students’ horizons admirably, but we resist teaching them how to walk in to those horizons, or don’t even think to do so.  Indeed, in the worst case, where professors or departments give students only non-instrumental arguments for their fields–“this is inherently worth studying”–we implicitly teach students that they positively should not make connections between their academic fields and some other pathway or endeavor.  Students then not only do not receive practice in applying their knowledge,  they not only are left inarticulate about other career directions, they can come to feel unconsciously that it is inappropriate for them to do so.  I have had students–STUDENTS!–say to me, “I know we aren’t supposed to worry about whether humanities major X connects to a job, but….”

Fortunately, this kind of statement is becoming increasingly rare at Messiah College.  Whatever a humanities program for the 21st century should look like, outcomes ought to include that students have had practice applying their program of study to non-academic work environments, and that students can effectively and shamelessly articulate the value of their program of study in the humanities to future employers.

A podcast of Cathy Davidson’s talk to the CIC, “Educating Students for Their Future, Not Our Past,” is available here.

The Slide show from her presentation is available here.

What is a liberal art: Elizabeth Stone on the vocation vs. vocational in higher education

This summer I’m working sporadically on what I hope will turn in to a paper on Critical Vocationalism for the NEMLA session that I hope will be draw some substantial proposals for next year’s conference in Harrisburg. Trying to get my brain around exactly what Gerald Graff and Paul Jay might mean by Critical Vocationalism since they leave the term underdefined in their own advocacy for the idea as a new defense for the humanities and the liberal art. To that end I read Elizabeth Stone’s essay on the conflict between vocation and vocationalism published a few years back in the Chronicle. I’m struck by the fact of how we seem to be stuck in a holding pattern, with nothing really advancing or changing in our discourse about the liberal arts in general and the humanities specifically, with the possible exception that we must now lament that the rate of debt our students are carrying has more than doubled in a decade.

Stone’s essay does point out some dimensions of the problem that I do think are important to keep trying to talk about. For instance, she points out that we are not just having an enrollment crisis in the liberal arts, we are having a crisis of definition. What are the liberal arts and why are they that instead of something else. For Stone:

<blockquote>So, platonically speaking, I don’t really know what a liberal art is (although I know it’s not auto mechanics), because there seems to be no single characteristic — old, new, theoretical, vocational, quantitative, qualitative, a matter of content, a matter of perspective — common to all liberal arts.

In practice, then, a liberal art is a little like obscenity. We faculty members know it when we see it, even if we can’t quite define it. But there isn’t anything approaching consensus. Because I’m a parent — of one son with a new B.A. and another who’s now a freshman at a liberal-arts college — I’ve seen more than my share of college catalogs over the past half-dozen years. All of them assert the value of the liberal arts, but at some colleges that includes computer science, industrial design, physical education, and even engineering.

If you are a pragmatist, as I tend to be in my weaker moments, this could strike you as merely a self-serving argumentative move. Since “liberal arts” tends to be defined differently in different periods of history and even in different institutional contexts, they must not really be anything at all. In my own College the Humanities–traditional and sometimes sole remaining bastion of the liberal arts–are defined to include not only Philosophy, History, and English (uncontroversial), but also Religion (unconventional but still uncontroversial), Biblical studies and Film production ( a number of raised eyebrows) and programs like Public Relations, Christian Ministries, and Chinese Business and Spanish Business (pandemonium). The Platonist suggests that if there is no essence that unites these disparate fields then there is no there there, no thing that we can call the liberal arts as opposed to any other thing.

I’m not really interested in answering this question, though I will say I am more interested in Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances than in Plato’s forms. What Stone makes clear is that in the absence of any defining essence, the liberal arts largely define themselves by what they are against or what they are not–a version of Aquinas’s theological via negativa for defining God only by saying what God is not, just as most of us build our identities by aversion to our evil others. That evil other for the liberal arts is usually vocationalism. Over and against our money grubbing brethren interested in mere vocationalism we posit the higher order values of vocation, of calling, of transcendent value, or at least of critical thinking.

The problem with this according to Stone is that we don’t have to probe very deeply beneath the skin of what we call the liberal arts to discover an always already fallen vocationalism in who we are and what we do.

<blockquote>Since it’s people like me who are often seen fretting that the liberal arts are being waylaid by the thugs of Mammon, I think it’s time that people like me acknowledged our own dirty little secret. I’ll go first and admit that I, for one, have an unseemly number of vocational courses in my undergraduate past, and the reason is that those courses were directly related to a job I had my eye on: I was a teenage English major, in training to be an English professor.

Stone’s suggestion here strikes me as having two different meanings. First many of our liberal arts disciplines have had vocational ends in some sense, even if that sense was never fully articulated and endlessly deferred. Aquinas’s notion that the liberal arts are things studied for their own sake nevertheless raises the question of why something studied for its own sake should be a required course of study in a society or a seminary. We must admit that the study of most disciplines of the liberal arts have been and were specifically conceived of as appropriate training for young men in order to prepare them for positions of leadership. To be sure, the “higher order” issues of character and spiritual formation have always been around, but young men were explicitly required to pursue studies in these fields in order to prepare for something, specifically to occupy adult roles of leadership as the elites of particular Western Societies. Moreover, some liberal arts as we now conceive of them were not even designed for Elites. My own discipline of English was understood and came in to the academy in England first and foremost as an appropriate course of study in what would have been the equivalent of British community colleges, educational schools for the working classes and for women, even while English was looked down upon by the more cultured classes. So we turn our face away from vocationalism almost like those afraid to recognize their kinship with the adulterated masses.

Also, it seems to me that Stone is suggesting that we ought to recognize that we have increasingly organized our liberal arts curricula around professional (and so vocational) ideals. We have tended for the past few decades to imagine undergraduate education at its best as preparing students for potential graduate study, and have valued most those students who looked just like us, could talk just like us, and wanted to prepare to be just like us. We have accepted a vocational model of education common to the research universities and the professional schools and baptized it in the name of the liberal arts. This fact is why so much of the discussion of a crisis in the humanities is preoccupied with a crisis of graduate students not getting jobs. That is actually a symptom of a much larger crisis that we cannot fully imagine a larger social purpose that doesn’t rely on our self-replication.

What, I wonder, would an education in the liberal arts look like that took it as its explicit task to better prepare students for participation as informed citizens AND as informed workers outside the world of academe. In other words, an education that took as its explicit purpose to produce workers who were not like and do not aspire to be like us. This might be a baseline for critical vocationalism

Humanities For Humanities Sake?

In a recent Inside Higher Ed post, Scott Jasick discussed Going Global, and international higher education conference in Dubai.  According to Jasick, whose post is title “Humanities Besieged, Worldwide,”  the plight of the humanities is not that much different anywhere else in the world than it is in the United States.  Indeed it may possibly be worse elsewhere since in the United States the importance of the humanities is sustained in some fashion through its predominant place in core liberal arts curricula, a tradition not common to other forms of education in the world but de rigueur in the United States. Jasick quotes Jo Beall from the British Council.

Beall described going to university websites in Britain and finding the humanities “positioned in very functional or utilitarian terms.” She found many references to how students gain from taking humanities courses “because it will help them do well in science and technology.” In other cases, departments describe how much employers value the “transferable skills” that one picks up in humanities courses.

While not disagreeing that the humanities can help in those ways, Beall noted that many scholars are “very uncomfortable with this marketing of the humanities” and lament that it is no longer possible to argue for the value of “art for art’s sake.” Instead, the humanities end up “as co-dependent” to other programs, she said.

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/03/07/educators-consider-struggles-humanities-worldwide#ixzz2N3bmjfg1
Inside Higher Ed

I do think this gets an important conundrum that Humanities scholars face.  Rooted in a tradition that emphasizes learning for its own sake, we have never grown comfortable with a discourse of usefulness.  But is this a legacy of the liberal arts, or is it a legacy of romanticism in its idealistic but finally inadequate protest against the economic systems in which it was embedded and by which it was sustained.  The liberal arts were never envisioned in antiquity as being anti-utilitarian in a ontological sense.  Study was always to some purpose and their functions were quite explicit in giving the “free” or “liberal” person equipment for living appropriate to his (usually his) station in life.  Similarly, in later periods what has come to be known as the humanities served similar useful purposes as usefulness was determined by the various cultures in which they were existing;  useful for growing closer to God, for instance, or preparing for ministry, or for some other functioning with in the clerisy

It seems fruitless to me to continue a romantic protest against economic systems and economic gain per se from within the systems that sustain us since the humanities as an institutional entity will simply disappear if that is all we can say about them.  We act in bad faith with our students if we ask them to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and then rule out the question of whether they will be able to pay off their loans once they graduate.

Celebrating the liberal arts in the marketplace (cautiously)

A new survey of 225 employers just out emphasizes the continuing value of the liberal arts in the employment market.

More interesting, at least for those of us who got some parental grief over our college choice, was the apparent love being shown for liberal arts majors. Thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors. Trailing were finance and accounting majors, as only 18 percent of employers said they were recruiting targets.

“The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking,” said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and an expert on Generation Y. “They need to become good communicators in order to graduate with a liberal arts degree. Companies are looking for soft skills over hard skills now because hard skills can be learned, while soft skills need to be developed.”

via Survey On Millennial Hiring Highlights Power Of Liberal Arts – Daily Brief – Portfolio.com.

I don’t particularly like the soft skills/hard skills dichotomy.  However, this fits my general sense, blogged on before, that the hysteria over liberal arts majors lack of employability is, well, hysteria.  Something manufactured by reporters needing something to talk about.

At the same time, I think the somewhat glib and easy tone of this particular article calls for some caution.  Digging in to the statistics provided even in the summary suggests that liberal arts majors need to be supplementing their education with concrete experiences and coursework that will provide a broad panoply of skills and abilities.  50% of employers, for instance, say they are looking for students who held leadership positions on campus, a stat before which even engineers and computer scientist but kneel in obeisance.  Similarly, nearly 69% say they are looking for coursework relevant to the position you are pursuing.  My general sense is you can sell you Shakespeare course to a lot of employers, but it might be helpful if you sold Shakespeare along side the website you built for the course or alongside the three courses you took in computer programming.

Generally speaking, then, I think these statistics confirm the ideas propounded by the Rethinking Success conference in suggesting that students really need to be developing themselves as T-shaped candidates for positions, broad and deep, with a variety of skills and experiences to draw on and some level of expertise that has been, preferably, demonstrated through experiences like internships or project-based creativity.

Speaking of Rethinking Success, the entire website is now up with all the relevant videos.  The session with Philip Gardner from Michigan State is embedded below.  It was Gardner who impressed me by his emphasis that students need to realize that they either need to be liberal arts students with technical skills or technical students with liberal arts skills if they are going to have a chance in the current job market.

Assessment, Knowledge, and Magic in the Humanities

I do not recommend becoming chair of the accreditation team at your college if you value your mental health.  I do, however, recommend it if you want to understand the multitude of cultures that make up your own institution and to think through how they all fit together, or not, in the common educational enterprise.  Like all academics living it seems, we are grappling with various levels of success with the assessment tsunami that has hit higher education in the past decade or so.  One feature that’s very evident is that different parts of campus have different attitudes toward assessment and its virtues or evils.  Among we humanists, there’s still a large contingent that believes that what we do is unassessable, that our value can’t be assessed but that at the same time it should be obvious to everyone.

I think this approach is mostly self-defeating;  it seems to me that it mostly invokes a mystification that, if taken literally, means that we can’t even know ourselves what we mean when we say the humanities have a value that should be recognized by the institutions in which they live and move and have their being.  I do think there is a truth to which this mystification speaks.  Some of the most important moments in learning, perhaps the most crucial moments in learning, in the humanities are unreplicable and so unmeasurable. The fact that reading Soren Kierkegaard changed my life in some fundamental sense and filled me with a love for the life of the mind that has never since been expended is not a fact that means Kierkegaard should be required reading for everyone, as if reading SK were like learning an algebraic equation.

On the other hand, the fact of these transformative experiences, and most academics have such liminal experience or they wouldn’t be academics, shouldn’t lead us to say that no thing is measurable in what we do, or that because the things that we can measure are not the liminal experiences that made us who we are they are therefore not worth assessing at all.  This would be like saying that because the really crucial things in music are things like Verdi’s Othello or Handel’s Messiah, we shouldn’t bother to see if a music teacher’s methods are helping students to learn to play Bach two-part inventions effectively. It’s less sexy, but if students can’t do analogous things reasonably well, they won’t ever be in a position to have the kinds of transformative experiences with humanistic work that we ourselves value and recognize as fundamental to who we are and who we hope our students will become.

Over at Digital Digs, Alex Reid has a very good blog on assessment and the humanities  where he points to the need to develop forms of knowledge that help us get at things that will lead to useful change, and points out that doing this well is related to our oft-professed desire to be pursuing work that makes a difference in the world:

This is why, when it comes to assessment, I always ask “What kind of knowledge would we require in order to make a substantive change?” That question asks not only about the specific knowledge statement but the process by which the knowledge is constructed. Anecdotes are not strong enough. And my concern for the humanities is that it doesn’t believe that any knowledge is strong enough to make such decisions. This, of course, does not mean that curriculum doesn’t happen or that changes don’t occur. It simply means that we deny ourselves the opportunity to produce knowledge that is strong enough to inform decision-making. Instead we are left with individual feelings, opinions, and beliefs and whatever they amount to. A skeptic might say that this is all that humanistic knowledge has ever been. 

But I can’t believe that. I can’t afford to believe that. If we believe that as humanists we cannot produce knowledge of real value with the strength to make changes in the world, then what would we be doing as teachers or scholars? We would be engaged in some kind of self-pleasuring activity, perhaps with the idea that our performances might instill in others (through some quasi-magical, sympathetic incantation) a similar practice of finding self-pleasure (or aesthetic appreciation) through a purely subjective/cultural/discursive encounter with the objects we study. No doubt there is a strong strand of such thinking in the humanities, especially in English, that goes back at least to Matthew Arnold (though in his case the self-pleasure was imbuded with a chaste religiosity rather than the psycho-sexual implications one probably sees here). However, no one would imagine self-pleasure as the sole goal of humanistic study. We must be able to produce knowledge that has the strength to make changes. And that requires an understanding of how knowledge is constructed and operates in a world that isn’t divided into natural, social, and discursive realms. And this is as true for our research and teaching as it is for assessment.

via digital digs: constructing academic knowledge.

Reid points out that over and against this, we are usually driven by classroom lore, anecdotes about our students that seems to identify problems and lead to certain forms of common knowledge, but that never actually rise to the level of knowledge that can make a difference.  This is what we ought to be seeking in the humanities.  Knowledge that will make a difference in our students lives.  Because we clearly can’t replicate those magical moments that all of us have had with books and culture, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be attending to those more mundane items that are the ground through which that magic happens.  And so we need to figure out basic questions like the following:

  • Have our students established a fundamental level of disciplinary literacy such that they are able to make connections across the discipline and find connections for their work in other disciplines?
  • Do our students understand how to enter in to a disciplinary conversation through effective research, the development of an argument with a point of view and a broad grasp (appropriate to an undergraduate) of the issues that are at stake for the argument in the discipline or in the culture at large.
  • Do our students understand logical fallacies, the appropriate use of evidence, and the nature of different rhetorical situations?
  • Can our students effectively discuss the application of their humanistic knowledge to non-academic areas of life, and can they effectively articulate the relationship of the skills and abilities they’ve developed to the world of work and careers following college?  (An outcome I realize not everyone may embrace, but which I have come to think of as fundamental following the Rethinking Success conference of a few weeks ago).

There are probably others, maybe many others that are more important, but these would be a start, and we ought to be willing to work to find the tools that will effectively measure such things even though none of these speak to the magical moments we and our students have when we are seized anew by an idea.

Annotating Kierkegaard; an intellectual’s appreciation

I am largely an intellectual because of Soren Kierkegaard.  I mean this primarily in terms of intellectual biography rather than genealogy.  A few days ago I noted briefly my own vocational journey into English at the hands of T.S. Eliot.  That is a true tale. However, at Eliot’s hands and through English alone as an undergraduate I largely wanted to be the next great poet or novelist.  Kierkegaard taught me to think, or at least taught me that thinking was something a Christian could do, ought to do, with whatever capacity God had given him.  Through Kierkegaard I came to Walker Percy, subject of my undergraduate thesis, and then John Updike, subject of my first scholarly essay, and probably too to literary and cultural theory which became a field of my doctoral studies and has remained a passion.   His writerly creativity, his playfulness with language image and authorial personae, never let me believe that critical writing was the inherent inferior to fiction, even if it is often practiced poorly.

In honor of Kierkegaard’s birthday yesterday, I took down some of my old SK from the shelf and blew the dust off.  The old Walter Lowrie paperback editions that were 3.95 back in the day.  The rapturous and pious annotations that fill the margins are now cringe-inducing, but I am reminded of the passions an intellectual engagement deeply felt can arouse.  A lot of the passages are marked over in four or five different colors of highlights and underlining, a way of trying to keep track, I suspect, of the many different readings I gave those book back in the day, a way of tracking the different person I was becoming.  And if I now have moved a long way from those Kierkegaardian roots in to other hipper modes of thinking, I’m also of an age where I’ve started realizing that the newest thing is not necessarily a mark of the best thing, maybe only showing you what you already knew without realizing it rather than what you need to know.

I still think The Great Dane wears well.  His comments on sectarianism, as well as his more general clarity about easy piety, say something to our own age as equally as his.  And, I still wonder sometimes, deep down, whether my first love was not the best.

From Fear and Trembling:

The true knight of faith is always absolute isolation, the false knight is sectarian. This sectarianism is an attempt to leap away from the narrow path of the paradox and become a tragic hero at a cheap price. The tragic hero expresses the universal and sacrifices himself for it. The sectarian punchinello, instead of that, has a private theatre, i.e. several good friends and comrades who represent the universal just about as well as the beadles in The Golden Snuffbox represent justice. The knight of faith, on the contrary, is the paradox, is the individual, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections or pretensions. This is the terrible thing which the sectarian manikin cannot endure. For instead of learning from this terror that he is not capable of performing the great deed and then plainly admitting it (an act which I cannot but approve, because it is what I do) the manikin thinks that by uniting with several other manikins he will be able to do it. But that is quite out of the question. In the world of spirit no swindling is tolerated. A dozen sectaries join arms with one another, they know nothing whatever of the lonely temptations which await the knight of faith and which he dares not shun precisely because it would be still more dreadful if he were to press forward presumptuously. The sectaries deafen one another by their noise and racket, hold the dread off by their shrieks, and such a hallooing company of sportsmen think they are storming heaven and think they are on the same path as the knight of faith who in the solitude of the universe never hears any human voice but walks alone with his dreadful responsibility.

The knight of faith is obliged to rely upon himself alone, he feels the pain of not being able to make himself intelligible to others, but he feels no vain desire to guide others. The pain is his assurance that he is in the right way, this vain desire he does not know, he is too serious for that. The false knight of faith readily betrays himself by this proficiency in guiding which he has acquired in an instant. He does not comprehend what it is all about, that if another individual is to take the same path, he must become entirely in the same way the individual and have no need of any man’s guidance, least of all the guidance of a man who would obtrude himself. At this point men leap aside, they cannot bear the martyrdom of being uncomprehended, and instead of this they choose conveniently enough the worldly admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and therein lies his deep humanity, which is worth a good deal more than this silly participation in others’ weal and woe which is honored by the name of sympathy, whereas in fact it is nothing but vanity. He who would only be a witness thereby avows that no man, not even the lowliest, needs another man’s sympathy or should be abased that another may be exalted. But since he did not win what he won at a cheap price, neither does he sell it out at a cheap price, he is not petty enough to take men’s admiration and give them in return his silent contempt, he knows that what is truly great is equally accessible to all.

Either there is an absolute duty toward God, and if so it is the paradox here described, that the individual as the individual is higher than the universal and as the individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute / or else faith never existed, because it has always existed, or, to put it differently, Abraham is lost.