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.

Passion, Politics, and English Studies; Or, What Hillary’s Tears Can Teach English Departments.

The New York Times today gives a serious turn to all the random speculation that Hillary’s tears—or more precisely, near tears—may have played a role in her victory in New Hampshire.

“Short, emotionally charged narratives — story fragments, of a certain kind — can travel through a population faster than any virus and alter behavior on a dime, they say. Under certain conditions, this behavior is especially infectious, research suggests, and anyone eager to play Monday morning quarterback on the New Hampshire vote should take them into account.

“’Any story that is short and powerful and throws into relief exactly the sort of issues people are thinking about at the moment they’re making a decision can have enormous impact,’ said Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine who analyzed the effect of personal stories on the civil rights movement in her book It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics.

“Mrs. Clinton’s emotional reaction to a question about how she was holding up under the pressure was not only genuine, many voters apparently decided, but it formed a powerful response to an incident during the most recent debate, when her rival John Edwards sided with Mr. Obama in a pointed exchange to one of her questions. A mininarrative was born.”

The story goes on to show statistically that more undecided women voters lurched toward Hillary in the immediate aftermath of the debate. I hate to say “I told you so,” but in the aftermath I said that I thought the tears would give an immediate 5% bump to Hillary’s poll numbers, this despite seeing all the discussion among women and having a couple of personal conversations with others who were appalled and felt that Hillary had shown an unacceptable weakness that “put women back.”

You don’t need to have a degree in social pscyhology to understand this. You just need to have an elementary grasp of gender narratives in Western culture, and perhaps to pay attention to your immediate emotional instincts before worrying about what people might think if they knew you were feeling. I felt the pull of those tears. (And I’m not even a woman. Imagine.) Leaning toward Obama, and still leaning I must say, I felt that moment pull me back, and to some degree still pulling me back at least to the degree that I’m still willing to listen to what Hillary has to say.

I still think there’s a double standard in play here, and not the one typically assigned to political divisions between men and women. The sympathy vote for Hillary goes to her because, apparently, people thought Edwards and Obama were ganging up on her. I want to say, “Oh, Boo Hoo.” Edwards’s decision to gang up on Clinton was a political calculation that she had all the money, she had a lot of the establishment power, and if he were to have a chance she would have to go. In other words he treated her like he would treat any other man in the race. But many, mostly women, read it as two men ganging up unfairly on a woman. No doubt this could have been in play. But Republicans were ganging up on Romney because he had all the money, a lot of the establishment power, and he seemed vulnerable and open to attack because of the Mormon factor (a calculation for Huckabee at least) and the flip-flop factor (a calculation for everyone). Now if, as he sat down for coffee with potential voters, Mitt had let his voice quaver the next day about how difficult it all was, do we imagine he would be getting a sympathy vote. Somehow I doubt it, but not from women, and certainly not from men. Perhaps from Mormons and those with money. Or those given to changing their minds.

The reaction provoked by Hillary’s tears spoke to very deep gender stereotypes. I just got done performing the role of Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata. At one point late in the opera Alfredo publicly berates and shames the diva Violetta—basically calling her a wanton whore (important difference from the cultured courtesan she actually is). In our staging, during this moment Violetta breaks down in tears. All the men and all the women rush or lean in the direction of Violetta even as they shout Alfredo down.

[Hey, isn’t this a fabulous rendition of me singing one of the most difficult pieces in the repetoire (heh, heh).]

Anyway, it seems to me that something similar happened with at least some significant percentage of the undecided vote in New Hampshire. The combination of Obama and Edwards tag teaming and Hillary’s next day tears provoked a rush of female sisterhood and, probably to some degree, male instinct to protect the endangered female. I don’t know if it was planned or not, but the masterstroke of the Clinton campaign was to turn a feminine stereotype in to a political strength.

Still, all that aside, I am actually really interested in the important role of emotion in this election, and in our lives generally. I actually think it was fine that Clinton teared up, and that Obama gets the citizenry’s adrenaline flowing, if not their hormones. In dismissing Barack as a kid who is purveying fairy tales Bill Clinton misses—and bizarrely so, given his history as a politician—that human beings don’t live by reason alone, or by bread.  (Besides outraging the black community–read the blogs, Hillary, the black community doesn’t need Barack to fan anything in to flames)

It’s not just the economy stupid. It’s not just the most rational man or woman for the job. [If this were so, surely Gore would have won in a runaway, the rationalist in me says]. Human beings need to be inspired, they need to be moved, they need to transcend the instrumentalism that dominates their lives day to day and see that such day-to-dayness can be connected to something bigger than themselves. Obama does this seemingly by breathing. Hillary’s tears connected undecided women to some sense of transcendent sisterhood—and, of course, it helped tremendously that the Clinton folks had superior organization in the end.

[Insert huge unjustified conceptual leap of associational logic here]

Ok, well, what does this have to do with English studies? Probably absolutely nothing, I guess. But I’ve been reading a lot lately about the crisis in the discipline, the decline of English majors, the lost sense of purpose, etcetera ad nauseum. There are various things going on here, multiple forms of causation and so forth. Still, I sense a very big disconnect between the normative passions of the profession and the passions and desires of the electorate…er, rather, student body and prospective student body.

Indeed, the idea of talking about the passions of the profession seems to be almost an oxymoron. Isn’t passion the opposite of professionalism? I remember a meeting early in my graduate career at Duke where Stanley Fish said something on the order of “If you think you are pursuing a graduate degree in English because you love literature, you are in the wrong profession.” Well, there is a certain sense in which, as with so many things, Fish is precisely right in this formulation—but perhaps disastrously so.

The professionalism of the discipline functions at odds with the very things that brought people to the discipline in the first place. The profession, seeking the dignity of professionalism and the seriousness accorded academic subjects, necessarily negates the passions associated with literature. Think, for instance, of how readily we talk about having a passion for teaching, and how rare it would be to hear someone at the MLA conference talk about their passion for literature. Good reason for this. We in the academy generally think teaching is for amateurs, and thus something that you can love and be passionate about. Besides the fact that it wins you points with search committees–at least at some schools–whereas being passionate about literature gains you nothing. (“You’re Passionate about literature??? That’s sooo 1950s.”)

Students, however, and prospective students especially in this context, consider our majors not because it will make them better lawyers or middle-level managers, or because they want to be sophisticated cultural critics. In 7 years of running sessions for prospective students I regularly ask them why they are there, why they are even bothering to think about studying literature. In 7 years I have never had a student say even once that they are going to study literature because they want to be a literary critic or literary theorist, I have never once had a student say they are going to study literature because they want to have a dispassionate and philosophical grasp of the semiotic status of nose hair in Jane Austen, and I have never once had a student say they are going to study literature because they hope to study the conflicts in interpretation represented by contemporary cultural theory. Never once. Imagine.

They all say they want to study literature because they love it. Asked why they love it they say because it changed some part of their lives, because it helped them understand others, because it helped them understand themselves, and on and on. All the reasons that we, in our dispassionate dismissing of youthful idealism, have learned to sneer at secretly in our faculty lounges. By some miraculous and unimaginable twist of fate, such 17 and 18 years old had learned to read and get something out of literature and to somehow think it would make a difference to the world if they read more of it. Young people want to be inspired and to be moved, and at our peril I think we’ve dismissed that desire as beneath importance in our quest for professional status.

A couple of examples. As an undergraduate I was a history major and bored to tears by my history profs. Then I had Joe McClatchey, an unknown to almost anyone who didn’t have him as a student or who didn’t work with him at Wheaton College, but the person to whom I dedicated my first book.

Out of Western World Lit I, I remember almost nothing about the books we read (more at some later date on Pierre Bayard’s take on whether books we’ve forgotten can actually be counted as having been read). What I do remember is the day Joe McClatchey showed slides of various satyrs and other vaguely evil beings from Roman mythology. He suddenly shuddered visibly, turned away from the screen, and whispered “Unnatural!” He wasn’t acting. Now, all this is laughable to sophisticates in the current academy. But I was profoundly moved that there was something important to care about in books.

Another day McClatchey was reading Milton describing the fall of Adam in Paradise Lost. In the middle of the passage, Joe McClatchey teared up like Hillary Clinton and said, “I can’t go on.” He closed his book and leaving papers and books behind, fled the room. Again, incredulous laughter from the contemporary sophisticate, but we were all in awe. What it said to me as an undergraduate was, “Wow, there’s something more important going on here than getting a grade, and something more important than taking a class so I can get in to law school.”

Assess that, o ye provosts of the world.

At this stage of the game, of course, we’ve become so sophisticated that we’ve about decided that there is no such thing as “literature” and we have lost an object of critical investigation. May be. But I think we would do better, even in these late days of the English crisis, to recover our first love. To figure out why these things that we can only call “literature” with quotation marks to sanitize our embarrassment, somehow nevertheless move us and change us and teach us, all without and well beyond the teaching that comes from the latest theoretical or critical fad. We need more teachers with a passion for literature, a passion for reading that will match their passion for teaching.

It will, of course, take a great deal more than tears and shuddering to repair the condition of the humanities in the world. But by rediscovering that first love we might discover that our passion leads to conviction, which leads to action and changes in ourselves and in others. We might even discover that students can think that literature rather than our theories about it is relevant to the world.