I never planned on making a million dollars as a professor of Iberian literature, but I did plan on getting a job, and I always hoped I would make a difference. Imagine my unease when one of my advisors and the then director of graduate studies in my department at Stanford University sent one of Patricia Cohen’s now-infamous New York Times humanities doomsday articles to all department graduate students in early 2009. In the article, Cohen quotes Catherine Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University who bemoans the state of the job market - a place where “Ph.D.s are stacked up […] like planes hovering over La Guardia." When I asked this advisor what he expected us to do about such an alarming situation he replied: 1) be the best. The best always find work. And 2) do not be in a hurry to graduate. Needless to say, neither of these points of advice did much to calm my increasing anxiety over the state of our profession.
With lowering humanities budgets and enrollments, and institutions like SUNY Albany axing many departments completely, it is painfully obvious that the humanities are at least in some respects in crisis. The questions that follow are firstly: what is the nature of the current crisis in the humanities? And secondly: what can we as scholars and teachers do about it? In this essay I will first discuss how new technologies may lie at the heart of the crisis in the humanities because of the way that they negatively influence reading habits and paradoxically create a disembodied, disconnected society. I will then discuss how some humanities professionals have been able to combat the crisis by engaging readers outside the classroom.
Scott Sprenger, an Associate Dean of the Humanities at Brigham Young University, provides abundant information about the changing face of the humanities field in his blog at www.humanitiesplus.byu.edu. His research has led him to see through much of the current hysteria, and to go beyond the typical hand wringing in order to work out the specific causes for our current predicament. He sums up his findings in the following words: "If I sense a looming crisis in our field, it is not due to enrollments, lost jobs, or even budget cuts. It is due to an emerging mental divide created by a distressing decline in intellectual curiosity, reading skills, and tastes” (“In the Humanities”). Despite numerous calls from private- and public-sector leaders for a more educated, better-read, deeper-thinking citizenry, an alarming number of people in this country suffer from the kind of apathy that recalls Hamlet’s lament, “Man delights not me” (II:II), and as long as they do, the humanities will suffer because of it.
Along with, or perhaps caused by, the lack of intellectual curiosity goes a change in reading habits and tastes. While it is easy to curmudgeonly blame only young technophiles, Nicholas Carr explains in his brilliant essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” that the inability or the unwillingness to read the weightier things of the world affects even a Pulitzer finalist. He states:
This all begs the question: Why are we unable or unwilling to read? While there may be as many answers to this question as there are readers, recent technological trends appear to play a significant role in leading readers to give up on this important habit.
Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. (Carr, 2011)
In his controversial book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), Mark Bauerlein lambasts young Americans - taking special aim at our well-documented and apparently technology-induced bibliophobia, which should interest all humanities professionals not only because of the danger it implies for society but because it is so contradictory. It appears incredible that we can live in a time when we seemingly have the entire world at our fingertips, and yet study after study shows that we are more isolated and ignorant than ever - superciliously focused only on the superficial and the super-local. As Bauerlein puts it: “instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them” (10). He further states: “Each day, the information they receive and the interactions they have must be so local or superficial that the facts of government, foreign and domestic affairs, the historical past, and the fine arts never slip through” (13). A quick glance at a typical Facebook walls should suffice to corroborate this point.
A great example of this kind of mind-numbing mass narcissism is the closing scene of the recent film The Social Network (2010), in which the Mark Zuckerberg character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, sits alone with his laptop - the youngest billionaire in the world, a man with unlimited means and potential - hoping to be “friended” by his ex-girlfriend. As the camera closes in on him he leans back in his chair, a melancholic look on his face, arms folded. As he refreshes the page over and over the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” creeps into the soundtrack. While neither this scene nor the film in general can or ought to be taken as exactly biographical, the rhetorical point is worth noting. Both cause me to examine my own online habits to see if I might have fallen into isolation by focusing too much attention on my own social network at the expense of other, weightier matters.
This self-imposed isolation ought to trouble us as Mormons especially, because the Lord has admonished us to “Study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15). How can we possibly expect to broaden our own horizons and those of our students when we are surrounded by technology-induced apathy? Or, to put it in other terms, what can LDS researchers and teachers do about this crisis?
I don’t mean to oversimplify the issues at hand, or to pretend that by somehow waving a magic wand everything will get better, students will flock back into classrooms, and administrations will shower professors with lavish fellowships, but I would like to suggest that one way of infusing life back into our field, to push against the tide of narcissism and apathy is by inserting ourselves, our bodies and the emotions they house, back into the equation. Elder David A. Bednar states:
Our physical bodies make possible a breadth, a depth, and an intensity of experience that simply could not be obtained in our premortal estate. [...] Thus, our relationships with other people, our capacity to recognize and act in accordance with truth, and our ability to obey the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ are amplified through our physical bodies. (Bednar, 2011)
I suggest that in a world suffering from hyper-connectivity, we humanities scholars must connect ourselves - not just with the books we cherish, but face-to-face with members of the communities we hope will read and appreciate them.
William Deresiewicz, in a 2011 article about the “Disadvantages of an Elite Education” relates the experience of a friend who prior to receiving an Ivy League education had attended a “typically mediocre” public high school. She claimed that one of the values of such an experience “is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people. Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them.” Deresiewicz goes on to point out that “elite institutions are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terence’s: ‘nothing human is alien to me.’ The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.” The humanities are not in crisis because humanities instruction fails to produce jobs for students; they are in crisis because humanities instruction frequently fails to help those students understand their own humanity.
I suggest that one way we can use literature and the humanities to make familiar the humanity that has become alien to our students (and all too often to ourselves), is by engaging readers outside the classroom. A scholar who can talk about the Quixote to a group of colleagues may be a great scholar, but one who can help fire curiosity in those who may never walk the halls of a great university might provide our profession - and society - at least an equally important service.
In the space that remains I would like to cite just three examples of how some scholars around the country have engaged communities outside the university, and the successes that they have had.
My first experience engaging with literature outside the classroom was with Drs. Dale Pratt and Valerie Hegstrom who for nearly a decade have taught a Spanish Golden Age Theater Production class at Brigham Young University. In this class students complete rigorous research about theater from the Spanish Golden Age and then participate in the production of a play from that period. As Hegstrom and Pratt state: “We believe that the best way to teach theater is through performance” (Hegstrom and Pratt, 2006:198). They feel that by supplementing performance with “carefully designed (but not rigid) mentoring experiences, including a substantial writing component, exposure to current critical discourse in the field, and service to the greater community, the performance of a Golden Age play can become a transformative event in the lives of the students and the department” (198). I participated in the 2006 production of Lope de Vega’s Las cortes de la muerte, and the following year in Guillén de Castro’s El narciso en su opinión. The combination of rigorous scholastic work and community service proved a truly life-changing experience for me and for many of my fellow-students.
In the class, Pratt and Hegstrom expect students to engage in all aspects of the work including acting, set production, costume design, and the preparation of a study guide for the text complete with historical background and definition of difficult terms from the play. This work is grueling for students and teachers, but research for and the production of the play is only part of the project. The other half is a service-learning program in which students go out into the community to teach k-12 students about the Golden Age theater in outreach assemblies. In each assembly we would first give a presentation about Golden Age theater, followed by one or two five to ten minute scenes from one or more Golden Age plays - in Spanish. Finally, we would invite students from the audience to come and present their own Golden Age scene.
The educational benefits of such a project are indisputable. One researcher found that on a test of Golden Age knowledge, students who participated in the production class performed nearly twice as well as students who participated in a traditional Golden Age theater class - even one taught by Dr. Hegstrom (Barton, 2007:58). The project’s educational efficacy is further proved by grant support from the National Park Service and Spain's Ministry of Culture, along with BYU's Mentoring Environments Grants. But because of the mentoring aspect, the real benefit of the production class is the way it impacts the lives of university and k-12 students and the professors who teach the course. One of my fellow students in the production, Jared White, claims that “outreach is much more than simply ‘teaching’ the comedia. It brings to life forgotten stages, connects with a modern audience, and, maybe most importantly, reminds Heritage speakers of their deep Spanish literary inheritance.” Dr. Pratt states: “My teaching is my work is my mentoring. While some may hew to the adage ‘publish or perish’ and configure their time commitments accordingly, I believe that my scholarship is invigorated by the energy I devote to these mentoring projects.” I would highlight here the significant physical energy required to do the work that Drs. Pratt and Hegstrom and their students put into the project. In a YouTube video highlighting the outreach program the fatigue caused by the stresses of travel and performance is clear on the haggard faces of Dr. Pratt and the other students that are interviewed (VanessaSwenson). In spite of that physical effort, Dr. Pratt expresses gratitude for the project because of the way it invigorates his scholarly work:
I return to Galdós or to literature and science studies with gusto; I read and write better because I have left my ivory tower for a while to share wonderful theater with audiences from kindergarten-age and up. I also participate in the creative genius of the group’s work. Cast and crew, editors, director and production manager–they have all taught me things and helped me think. So when I climb the stairs of my ivory tower once again, I know that I have done some meaningful 'work' out in the world of teaching and mentoring. I glow with a sense of fulfillment approaching the spiritual. And, I rejoice in the deep mentoring relationships and friendships I have made. (Pratt, n.d.)
My own sentiments echo those of Dr. Pratt. No higher-education experience contributed more to my own personal formation as a scholar and humanist than the time I spent presenting great Spanish theater to elementary and secondary education students throughout the country and in Mexico. Our message to those kids, most of them heritage speakers of Spanish, many of whom had probably never considered college, was - in the words of one of my fellow-students: “that these kids, they can themselves go to college, and they can do what we are doing. They can have these opportunities to study what they want” (VanessaSwenson, 2011). One grateful administrator from one of the schools we visited stated: “Knowledge is not worth anything if you do not share it” (VanessaSwenson, 2011).
The second example I would like to point to, “Literature Behind Bars,” a program run by Andrew Kaufman at the University of Virginia, sends pairs of University of Virginia students to conduct weekly discussions of Russian short stories with residents at juvenile detention centers. Kaufman describes his experience and that of his students in a 2011 essay called “Humans and the Humanities.” He highlights the strangeness of the experience in the opening lines of the essay: “From the moment the guard at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center escorted my students and me into the multi-purpose room, where a group of incarcerated adolescents, aged 16-20, in maroon jumpsuits awaited us, we knew that this was not going to be Russian literature class as usual.”
One of the keys of this service-learning experiment is that, like Hegstrom and Pratt and their troupe, these UV literature students have been physically removed from the academy, and placed in proximity with “regular” readers. The exercise forces both the student-teachers and their new pupils to think about literature in sometimes radically new ways, as Kaufman points out:
Smart English majors familiar with the latest critical lingo quickly discover that incarcerated adolescents are not so interested in Derrida’s theories about identity, meaning, and power. These are youth, after all, with long histories of economic disadvantage, social delinquency, mental illness, and dysfunctional or nonexistent families, and they live in a secure facility. In such an environment discussions about freedom and moral responsibility, nature versus nurture, and social alienation, become very concrete very quickly. (Kaufman, 2011)
Unfortunately, this kind of humanities-driven connectivity has become increasingly absent in many academies. It requires careful planning, lots of dogged hard work, great communication, and significant risk both for Kaufman and his students who must learn to make themselves emotionally vulnerable. As one of Kaufman’s students points out: “I saw that I wouldn’t be allowed any insight into their thoughts if I didn’t make myself vulnerable, as well, which was difficult for me at first because real, personal relevance and human connection had often been discouraged in my other classes. Yet without that authenticity discussions would have gone nowhere.”
The cost is high, but the rewards are what I think any college professor would hope to hear from his or her students: "For once, I was actually able to take literature and apply it to a situation [...] I had almost forgotten that was possible." Another affirmed: "I do think literature can change people and that words hold a tremendous, awe-inspiring power. Perhaps this is the most serious and intense transformation I’ve experienced in this class." Other students described the class as "powerful," "transformative," "eye-opening," "humbling" and "profound."
As Elder Neil A. Maxwell once humbly said, today “my immediate audience is myself.” That is why the last example of literary scholarship that I would like to share with you is my own. I am currently neck-deep in my doctoral thesis project, which is tentatively titled: "Novels of War, Repression, and Memory in Four Contemporary Rural Spanish Communities." As I prepared the project I felt driven to understand how some contemporary novels of memory about the Spanish Civil War and the post-Franco dictatorship have affected readers in the rural communities they describe - people whose own lives or the lives of their parents and grandparents are portrayed in the novels. So last summer I went alone to Spain to track down and interview those readers about their experiences with these novels. I spent six weeks criss-crossing northern Spain between Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia hunting down anyone who had read and might identify with the novels Les veus del Pamano (2004) by the Catalan Jaume Cabré, Soinujolearen semea (2003) by the Basque Bernardo Atxaga, and O lapis do carpinteiro (1998) by the Galician Manuel Rivas. I concluded my research during a three week trip to the town of Zafra, in Extremadura, where I studied readership of Cielos de barro (2000) by Dulce Chacón. This experience changed the way that I think about literature. Intellectually, it paid off as I came to understand these novels better than I ever could have without in-depth personal knowledge of their local contexts. I also gained a much better understanding of local processes of collective and individual transmission of historical memory and the role literature plays in those processes. I now believe that no better way exists to comprehend what pluri-regionalism in Spain means than to actually visit the different regions and converse with locals of all kinds: politicians and professors, taxi-drivers and hotel workers, school teachers and journalists.
In spite of these intellectual rewards, the most important thing I gained from the experience was a deep emotional connection with local readers of the novels - people who see these books as somehow their own. I will never forget Agustí Lopez, the mayor of the town of Sort in the high Pyrenees close to Andorra and the French border, thanking me with tears in his eyes for caring enough about him and his people to come and talk to them about the literature that they hold so close to their hearts. Or when Eduardo, an old Marxist school teacher in Zizurkil in the Basque Country told me that I had messed up (to avoid a more literal translation) his life because according to him I had forced him to re-read the novel in just one or two days while his son was lying sick in the hospital. When I asked him why he did not just come and do things off-the-cuff like most people, he said that he appreciated what I was doing for him and his people, and he wanted to show me the same kind of respect, in reading the novel and coming prepared with it fresh on his mind, that I had shown him by making the effort to go there and talk to him.
These experiences, and countless others that I have had in the community, with people who have been touched by literature in life-changing ways, give me hope that as scholars we can fight the crisis in the humanities by finding better ways to engage readers - inside and out of the classroom. We might consider leaving the comfort of the ivory tower in order to participate in community outreach or other service-learning programs. We might listen as attentively to what our neighbors have to say about literature as we do to what we find in scholarly publications. We will probably have to risk greater emotional vulnerability as we share with all kinds of readers how literature has affected our own lives. As we do this we will get a stronger sense of the vital connections to people and communities that are so central to the humanities, and we will open readers’ eyes to those same connections.
This essay is at best a modest introduction to the ideas I have set forth, and important institutions have already recognized the significance of connecting humanities scholarship with real-world communities. These places include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the Comparative Media Studies program is hard at work teaching “students to both make and reflect upon media and in the process, to acquire important skills in team work, leadership, problem solving, collaboration, brainstorming, communications, and project completion, which will prepare them for a broad range of academic and professional careers” (MIT). The BiblioTech project at Stanford University likewise focuses on combining the “nuanced understanding of the complex cultural, linguistic, geo-political, economic, and artistic influences that shape today’s world” gained through rigorous study of the humanities, with Silicon Valley innovation (Stanford). Both of these programs recognize the vital role that the humanities play in preparing students to become leaders in a variety of fields. The study of art and literature ought to lead to deeper understanding of the human condition.
The examples I have put forth here are not meant to serve as strict models to follow, nor as a complete exposition on the benefits of service-learning or applied humanities, but as catalysts that will arouse the imaginations of other scholars interested in finding the humanity in the humanities, who wish to more effectively fire the dormant curiosity in those human beings that surround us - both inside and outside the classroom. Then we might say, like Jerome Bruner: "I do not think that my interest in theater has made me more abstract. Instead, it has joined me to the possible worlds that provide the landscape for thinking about the human condition, the human condition as it exists in the culture in which I live" (1986: 128). This enterprise is not easy, and it will require of us more physical and emotional engagement than we have hitherto demonstrated, but then again, as Don Quixote so aptly stated: “It is a general and established maxim, that every thing ought to be esteemed in proportion to what it costs: now, to become eminent in letters, costs the student much time, watching, hunger, nakedness, vertigoes, indigestion, and their consequences” (1:38). It is vital that those of us working in the humanities be willing to pay such a price, to leave the comfort of the ivory tower in order to engage face-to-face with a variety of readers, finding new ways to connect with society. As we do we will combat the current crisis in our field as we invigorate our own work and light a spark of curiosity not only in our students, but in the humanity that surrounds us. That spark will break us from our collective punching of the refresh button and lead us all to experiences that are deeper, broader, more exciting, and more real than anything we can get online.
***Todd Mack is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford University. His research focuses on the reception of contemporary novels about the Spanish Civil War in the rural communities they represent. He enjoys traveling, running and spending time with his three children and his wife, Betty.
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Full Citation for this Article: Mack, Todd (2011) "Leaving the Ivory Tower," SquareTwo, Vol. 4 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMackHumanities.html , accessed [give access date].
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