Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Beef with Academia #1: “Who Is Our Public?”

Not long ago I attended a lecture here at Wake Forest University called, “The Humanities and Their Publics: Four Futures.” I was really excited about attending this talk, because for one, I’m a classic nerdy graduate student who not-so-secretly loves rubbing elbows with the academic elite, and also because I’m coming into a crisis in my perception of this field I’ve chosen. I initially began to pursue a career in academia because I wanted to learn how to make a difference in the world. However, since my arrival at graduate school, I’ve been left wondering: to what part of the world does this field of study grant me access, and is it an effective means of evoking change?

Because of these questions, I was instantly drawn to this talk I understood to be an exploration of the future of the study of the humanities, asking questions about who our “public” should be, and if we are reaching it in the right ways. After all, as the speaker highlighted, the humanities are becoming more and more interdisciplinary: History, English, and the Classics all intersect with a variety of disciplines including the sciences and the social sciences (issues of gender, sexuality, etc.). The humanities have therefore transformed into a voice for human rights issues, and I hoped this would be mentioned in the conversation, helping me to mediate some questions I have about my future in this field.

However, Ian Baucom’s talk was not what I anticipated, and left me with more questions than answers about what I understand to be the future of the study of the humanities. In a presentation entrenched in esoteric language, Baucom presented what he believes to be the four “publics” of humanities discourse: the disciplines of the humanities themselves (and discussions by faculty therein), college and university administrators (Deans, Provosts) and faculty in the sciences and social sciences, the national civic/public sphere, and the university as a transnational institution.

As I was listening to Baucom speak, and observing the question and answer session that directly followed, I became more and more concerned about the tone of this discussion, and the direction it was headed.
First, there was no mention of students, in the classroom or online, when considering the “publics” of humanities discourse. I found this to be extremely troubling, despite the fact that for many professors, teaching functions as a somewhat necessary evil in the greater scheme of producing one’s own academic scholarship. This should not be the case. It should be a privilege to share one’s knowledge with young minds and inspire them to grow and pursue their own interests and passions. This is one of the fundamental reasons I initially thought I would pursue a Ph.D and teach on the university level, for I wanted to fill this inspirational role many professors had filled for me over the years.

Secondly, I was bothered by the way in which online options were addressed in the lecture, however not necessarily surprised, as this section of the presentation functioned as a rather adept image of the way academia functions in relation to the outside world. Baucom highlighted the efforts being made through online options to create international relations between universities, sharing resources and expertise with the goal of reaching as many students as possible. That all sounds great. However, Baucom went on to question whether a student unable to pay the 50,000 dollars it takes to get in the door of a school like Wake Forest should have access to that classroom, and further if the teaching methods would even reach a “public” outside of carefully trained, Liberal Arts majors.

These questions underscore a central problem I have with my discipline in its given moment, and allude to the greater set of reasons I have been rendered disillusioned a year into my Masters. As writers, should not our discourse be open to public eyes? Should it not be phrased in language people can understand? Why do we spend so much time deconstructing essentialist identity if we ourselves are creating another form of caste system that keeps those of "lower" intelligence or means out?

As I said above, I became an English major because I wanted to make a difference in the world, and I thought there was no better way to accomplish this goal than by studying those who, through words, had made such a profound impact on the past. I took on a focus in Victorian Literature, not necessarily because Nineteenth Century British Fiction keeps me up at night (though Wuthering Heights will always be my favorite book). I chose this moment in history because a society with the most rigidly policed rules and norms creates the most possibilities for disruption, and I spent four years of undergraduate experience writing about every representation of expansive gender spectrums, non-normative gender and sexuality, and constructed racial hierarchies evidenced in any Victorian novel I could get my hands on. I believed I was fighting for human rights, and that arguing for greater social justice through a vehicle of education and literature legitimized my words.

I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to emulate professors like the ones I had in the English department at Furman University, individuals who challenged the small-minded, conservative ideology I toted with me from my hometown, encouraging me instead to think for myself and construct my own worldview.

It is for these reasons I believe that academia is valuable. The study of the humanities provides an incredible mirror for the world in which we live, and if done well, this can be used as a tool to help prevent history from repeating itself, working towards a more expansive, open world.  
However, this is not the picture of academia created by Baucom in his discussion of the University and its “publics”. His talk revealed a world of intellectual work that was anything but open to the public: phrased in language a select few understand, accessible only to the upper class elites who have the social and economic status to reach it, and kept out of the hands of the masses by a refusal to make resources available to lower brackets. Students were forgotten in favor of highlighting one’s own intellectual achievements. At the end of the day, the essential premise that academia is in some sort of transitional state was proven false, as this is the same, self-consumed world that has always existed.

This conclusion is a hard one to swallow, and I fully believe one can love something and still have deep problems with the ways that it’s executed. I love academia, and I think the study of the humanities is deeply valuable to our continuous growth as a society. I’m grateful for the resources it has given me in the pursuit of my passions. However, I cannot imagine myself in six years in stuffy auditorium, discussing a public for my words that will never hear what I have to say. Just as it is not the healthy that need a doctor, I want my words to be read and understood by those for which they matter. I want the things I say to make the world a better place for them, and not just function as another way I assure the world of my own brilliance.

I hope we can one day penetrate the bubble that sections off the elite university from the world outside, uniting the most brilliant minds of today in a quest for a better world. Who knows, maybe I’ll start the revolution.

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