My main reason for postponing the end of the world is so we’ve always got time for one more story. If we can make time for that, then we’ll be forever putting off the world’s demise.Ailton Krenak, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World
Edited to add: Uh, whoops. Try Trentacinque Anni Fa. I am OLD.
I’m in Florence for a meeting this week. (I know, I feel bad for me too.) I flew out of Detroit yesterday morning, had a four-hour layover at JFK, and landed in Rome this morning at 7:30. Sped through the airport and hopped on a train to Roma Termini1, where I had a coffee and waited a bit over an hour for my train north. Found my way from Santa Maria Novella to my hotel with only minor difficulties presented by my state of delirium. Checked in and was delighted that they had a room ready for me. Collapsed for an hour and a half, and then forced myself up, took a shower, and went out for a walk.
It is a ludicrously gorgeous day, so I decided to wander along the river and see what I ran into.
Here’s the thing:
25 35 years ago, I spent six weeks in Florence as part of a summer study abroad program.2 And I haven’t been back since. Someone asked me last week if I remembered much about the city, and my answer was no. I mean, I remember clearly how it felt being here. I remember things I did, things I saw, things I ate. But I don’t really remember the city, not enough to get around.
As I walked today, everything felt half familiar. Not that I’d necessarily seen any of these particular places or things before, but they all had the same sense of being in Florence that my memory offered up.
But I just let my feet guide the way, in through the small streets near the river, soaking up the general Florenceness of it all.
And then I stopped dead in my tracks.
I remembered this market.
It was partially the vaulted ceiling. Partially the stalls. Mostly the intensity of the smell of leather.
I stopped and looked around, and several pieces came together. The Uffizi are a couple of blocks that way, and the Duomo is about six or so blocks up there. And if I turn here, I’m about a block away from —
— the post office. Not the most picturesque of landmarks, though the galleries are lovely. But during that summer in Florence, I was in the post office weekly placing a call home. Ooh, it was something to navigate: you signed in at a desk and gave them the number you were calling. You were directed to a booth and your call was connected. You didn’t talk long, because you knew you’d have to pay on your way out — and no kidding, a five minute call was on the order of $20.3
Things have changed a bit, needless to say.
Walking back through the galleries, I paused to take this picture:
I don’t know if that restaurant was there
25 35 years ago, but it felt right. The whole area felt right.
I’d tried a few times before I got here to figure out exactly where I stayed when I was here before, but the pensione is long gone, and my fuzzy memory wouldn’t turn anything up. So I turned the corner and started heading back.
And stopped about twenty steps later.
The profumerie wasn’t at all familiar. And I did not stay in the Davanzati Hotel. But the doorway, and the stairs…
I climbed the two flights, as steep as in memory, to the hotel entrance, and asked the incredibly sweet young man behind the desk if he spoke English. There was no way I could formulate this on the fly with the bits and pieces of my terrible Italian.
“I have a very funny question,” I said. “Twenty-five years ago, was this a pensione?”
He smiled and nodded.
“The Pensione Te-Ti?”
It was. I told him the story of my summer there, and he told me that the hotel, a bit remodeled and renamed, was still under the same management. I told him what a great experience I’d had then. And he told me that I would always be welcome.
It wasn’t until I got a few blocks away that I realized I hadn’t taken any pictures inside. No matter, though. I think I’ll remember.
I had the pleasure this morning of being part of an excellent townhall on digital American Studies held by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien. My assignment was to think about the critical concerns that DH has surfaced regarding neoliberalism and the contemporary university, my opening thoughts about which are below.
In recent years, a series of critical and theoretical interventions — perhaps most pointedly the 2016 Los Angeles Review of Books essay by David Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia — connected the perceived technocentrism of the digital humanities to the positivist conservatism of higher education and other related institutions, resulting in the field and its proponents being considered “neoliberal tools.”
I’m not here today to make the case that neoliberalism plays no role in the rise of the digital humanities, or frankly of the rise of anything else on university campuses these days. Honestly, to say that any aspect of our institutions bears some relation to the neoliberal is only to point out the water in which we all swim. All of our work — our programs, our courses, our research — is determined by a set of forces that are today hopelessly beholden to the market, whether that work is digital or not.
In the particular case of the digital humanities, however, it’s important to distinguish between, on the one hand, what an institution’s administrations and governing bodies might assume that the digital can do for the humanities, and the digital humanities might do for the institution, and on the other hand, what the digital humanities actually does, and is for. A university’s administration might see DH as a way of increasing the “marketable skills” delivered as part of humanities degrees, in order to ensure that the credential provided appears to be worth paying for. Or a university’s administration might see the grant programs that support many digital humanities projects and assume that DH is a way to increase external funding for an area on campus that doesn’t bring in the dollars in the way that STEM fields do. Or a university’s administration might see the capacity for digital technologies to produce more quantified metrics about scholarship and its impact and assume that digital humanities will foster uptake of such measurement.
All of these assumptions have some basis in truth. Learning how to manipulate a computer is a valuable skill in today’s economy. In the US context, at least, there are more sizable grants available for large-scale digital projects than there are for writing books. And the impact of work in DH is often more readily quantified than is the impact of work in book-based fields. But all of these assumptions hinge on a critical misunderstanding: that DH is about the technology. This is one of the sources of the critique of DH and its neoliberal tools, after all; as Brian Greenspan has noted, “the very taint of technology is enough to convince some conventional humanists that DH must somehow smack of neoliberal tendencies” (Greenspan). The associations of technology with the technocratic, the managerial, and the kinds of “disruptive innovation” that have overtaken our culture are enough to make any good scholar leery about what those technologies are doing in our literature departments.
But DH is not primarily about tool-building, or even archive-building, even though the technologies we use and produce often draw the lion’s share of attention. In my own institution, Michigan State University, where digital humanities is both an academic program and a research unit, we understand DH as a kind of Venn diagram, bringing together both uses of technology to study the questions and materials that are explored within the humanities, and uses of humanities-based modes of inquiry to technology and its uses. But even here, those two parts of the Venn diagram should not be understood as putting technology on one side and theory on the other, and only bringing them together in the overlap. Every choice we make about our uses of technology in DH brings with it — or should bring with it — a reckoning with the social, communal, and ethical issues the technology surfaces.
What I want to ask at this point is whether the work of humanities fields that don’t explicitly focus on digital technologies have engaged to the same extent in critical considerations of their own systems and methods. Because, honestly, all work in the academy is technological, whether those technologies are foregrounded, as in the digital, or not. It’s in part for this reason that Brian Greenspan argues that, “if anything, DH is guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill.” That machine may not be driven by industrially-produced code, but it is industrial all the same: the scholarly machine grinds along whenever our tenure and promotion standards demand the production of a published monograph, or whenever we rank some journals as more prestigious than others. Greenspan continues:
DH doesn’t so much pander to the system (at least not more than any other field) as it scandalously reveals the system’s components, while focusing critical attention on the mechanisms needed to maintain them. And that’s precisely its unique and urgent potential: by providing the possibility of apprehending these mechanisms fully, DH takes the first steps toward a genuinely materialist and radical critique of scholarship in the 21st century.
In fact, much of the “disruption” that DH has sought to create in recent years has had little to do with technology per se, and far more to do with this radical critique of the ways that scholars work, their relationships to their institutions, and more. In this vein, we might explore:
- The Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, which developed a set of ethical principles for crediting the work done on complex projects;
- The Colored Conventions Project, which defies assumptions about ways that humanities scholars work by always speaking from the point of view of the collective;
- Mukurtu, which foregrounds Indigenous data sovereignty in the structures of the projects it supports, in keeping with the principles of CARE;
- Humanities Commons, which seeks to transform the economics and politics not just of research-sharing, but of research community facilitation; and
- HuMetricsHSS, which is using thinking derived from digital scholarship to insist upon new values-enacted principles for assessing and evaluating scholarly work.
- and any number of other digital projects that focus on process rather than product, recognizing that they will in some sense never be “done.”
In all of these ways, these projects and others present possibilities for ways of working that not only evade but actively seek to counter the neoliberal university’s tendencies toward the use of quantified metrics for productivity, toward competitive individualism, toward data extraction, and toward market-based notions of research impact. Through projects like these the digital humanities broadly conceived has the potential become not a source of neoliberal tools, but rather a transformative force within the university.
I’ve had two ridiculously awesome work events in the last two days, and want to share them with you, because in some ways the excitement I have about them is a bit unexpected, a bit counter-intuitive. And it’s got me rethinking my approach to remote work and team building.
The first of these events was a Zoom Q&A session that formed part of the review being done for my potential reappointment as Director of DH@MSU. This session was stressful to prepare for, in part because of its interview-like structure. The committee overseeing this review asked me to provide a current CV and to prepare a range of statements and reflections, both looking back on the last five years and developing a vision for the next five. Under normal circumstances, we’d have scheduled a time during which I’d give a brief talk hitting the highlights from those documents and then would field questions from attendees. Given all things COVID, they instead asked me to record the brief talk part, which was made available with the written materials, and then we scheduled an hour on Zoom for Q&A.
A huge number of colleagues from across DH@MSU, as well as from my research unit, MESH, were invited to read/watch the materials and then come participate in the Q&A. I had no idea who would come and what they’d want to ask, whether it would be a grilling about my failures or a questioning about my vision. It could have been anything. In fact, I joked with the committee chair before the event that we’d missed an opportunity to call it an AMA. It turned out — not surprisingly, given the general levels of over scheduling and burnout on campus — to be a smaller group than it could have been, but those colleagues who came had fantastic, generative questions that wound up turning what could have been a test for me into a highly collegial conversation in which we thought together about our collective future. It was enormous fun, and I came away with some great ideas for work that we might do together in the year ahead.
The second of these events, which took place the next day, was a meeting of sorts of the MESH team. We’ve been wrestling with some issues, including that team members working on one of our projects often don’t have the opportunity to learn about what’s going on with other projects. Some of these issues are just typical growing pains, as a new unit expands and matures. Others of them derive from the challenges of remote work, and our inability to have some of those informal hallway chats that would be part of a more standard co-located working arrangement. And our typical response to these communication issues of late has been to apply MOAR ZOOM, but it’s become less and less clear over time what exactly all our meetings were for.
As a result, we agreed to meet up in our team channel in Teams for several hours on a Thursday afternoon to have a semi-asynchronous text-based chat about team culture and how we want to think about our work together. The team channels in Teams (sigh) are both conducive to this kind of conversation and not; the fact that a top-level post is called a “conversation” and that one “replies” to that initial post lends itself to a multi-threaded discussion. On the other hand, new replies change the order of conversations and notifications can bounce you out of a window you’re typing in, and keeping up with what you’ve seen and what you haven’t is uneven. The interface, in other words, is a little chaotic.
In fact, our experience was utterly, utterly chaotic, and yet the most energizing experience I’ve had in some time. New questions and replies flew so fast that it was a bit dizzying, but I found myself more focused and engaged than I’ve been in a meeting in the longest time. Even more importantly, we got far more input from far more voices than we do in a standard video-based meeting, and we’ve come away with a record of a ton of new ideas for things we might try.
Together, these experiences have me thinking about the ways my colleagues and I connect with one another, and in particular the reasons that we default to meetings as means of communication (and the reasons we then dread those meetings), and the times when other channels of communication — written documents, real-time chat, etc — might be better ways to go. I’m also pondering — with the help of GitLab’s crazy extensive guide to all-remote work — new ways to ensure that our increasingly dispersed team can keep the collaborative energy that I felt this week going.
I don’t have any brilliant conclusions as yet. This post is mostly a placeholder for my own very much in-process thinking, which I’m looking forward to continuing to explore in the weeks ahead.
Over the last several months, I’ve regularly bugged folks on the Twitters for suggestions for a new class I’ve been putting together for this semester, called “Peculiar Genres of Academic Writing.”
This is a course I’ve wanted to teach for eons, both because it fills a gaping need that I felt in my own graduate education, and because I’ve longed to get back to teaching writing.
Putting this course together has been a joy, not least in getting to read through so many great examples of those peculiar genres as folks shared them with me.
I’m enormously grateful for all the suggestions everyone made, as well as for the excitement that I heard out there every time I mentioned the class. I promised repeatedly that I’d share the syllabus once it was done (or at least “done”).
Today I finally got the course site published, so the syllabus is now available to all. (Some of the readings are not, alas. But I’ll be happy to share what I can.)
Thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts to my planning. Problems in the syllabus are all my responsibility, of course. I’ll look forward to updating as things evolve.
For the last several years, I’ve had a daily planning routine. While I’d begun that routine in the Moleskine that was always nearby, I moved it onto my computer about a year ago, taking advantage of Obsidian‘s daily notes capabilities. I set up a template for those notes that allowed me to capture a few morning thoughts, a sense of the day’s schedule, a few key priorities, and then any later notes from meetings or events during the rest of the day.
It’s been great having this reliable space for thoughts and notes, but it hasn’t been so great for planning at the level of the day. For one thing, my actual calendar is elsewhere — in Outlook, where it needs to remain so that my colleagues can find times to meet with me as needed. For another, my actual task lists and projects are elsewhere, too — in Things, which works extremely well for me. Beyond that, though, the daily notes version of my schedule and goals more or less records a plan already made, rather than allowing me the necessary distance and vision to build that plan.
I did some poking around looking for a planner app that might allow me to bring together my calendar, my task list, and my notes in more flexible ways. Ideally, I’d want to be able to assign tasks to available time on the calendar, to take notes on events, and to keep tabs on progress toward whatever goals I might have. Unfortunately, I haven’t found an app whose developers’ brains work the ways that mine does. (Yet. I could still imaging finding the right thing.)
Finally, a tweet from Nyasha Junior made me reconsider my approach.
I read through the piles of excellent responses she received, and explored a lot of great-looking paper planners. And in the process it hit me that what I was looking for was something with the flexibility of paper and the convenience of the digital — which made me start thinking about my reMarkable.
I originally bought the reMarkable in order to have a focused, paper-like environment for PDF reading. Since then, the release of the Zotero beta for iOS has taken over most of that space; the workflows for extracting highlights and notes into Obsidian are just too good to ignore. But the reMarkable remains unbeatable for both pen-on-paper feel and for single-tasking focus: whatever document you’re in is where you are, with no apps or notifications to distract you.
So I started searching for, and found, a reMarkable-based planner. In some ways — technological ways — it’s super simple: it’s a giant PDF. But that simplicity disguises enormous flexibility. Careful linking allows you to move from pages representing calendar months to pages for weekly and daily planning, as well as additional pages for goal setting, project planning, habit tracking, and more.
It doesn’t connect to anything, except my brain and my hand. So each day’s plan requires me to copy my calendar events and my tasks — but at least so far, the act of doing so seems to open up possibilities for the rest of the day, allowing me to think about how the pieces fit together. It’s a bit reflective, and it allows me to doodle in ways that planning apps don’t.
I’m literally one day in with this new system, so it remains to be seen how it works over the long haul, and how I might maintain the connectedness of my Obsidian notes while having this separate space for planning. But so far I’m encouraged, and thinking about how a small return to longhand exploration might shape the days ahead.
I’m in the early pages of Jenn Shapland’s gorgeous My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, which brings the methods and subjects of literary criticism and biography and memoir together in lyrical and deeply personal ways. At one point, Shapland comments on McCullers’s loving relationships with women:
There are so many crushes in a lifetime, so many friendships that mix desiring-to-have with wanting-to-be. It’s the combination of wants that makes these longings confusing, dangerous, and queer.Shapland 20
This took my breath away, not least for the way its description dragged me back to the days of my MFA program, and to the boy I spent those three years desperately in love with, a love that was only partially and never sufficiently requited, that left me simultaneously heartbroken and ashamed of that heartbreak.
It took years after it all ended for me to figure out that on some level I didn’t want to be with him, I wanted to be him. I wanted the boarding school and the Ivy League education, the rakish grin, the scruffy rejection-but-not-really of style. I wanted the ridiculous vocabulary, the encyclopedic knowledge of his favorite writers, all of whom were so much better than my faves. I wanted the ability he had to insist on taking his time rather than rushing into forced production, the compulsion and the patience to hold himself to aesthetic standards that I found both impressive and impossible.
I’m not sure I would have recognized that longing as queer, even once I figured it out, but I do now see a kind of queerness in it. And I definitely see danger. It took a very long time for me to recognize that not only would being near him never make me into him, but that it would inevitably make being me seem a source of disappointment. It took even longer, far too long, to shed that disappointment.
Are there skills you developed as an adult that you enjoy enough that you wish you’d picked them up when you were younger?
Mine, which has come on with a vengeance in the last month, is swimming. Lap after lap after lap.
The swimming lessons I had as a kid were 100% aimed at making sure I didn’t drown. I was never given any instruction on swimming well. And certainly never given any sense that I could potentially be good at it, or of how to go about getting good at it.
In grad school, a friend tried to get me to swim with him, and I discovered that while I had a strong breaststroke I couldn’t swim a length of freestyle without wanting to die. Later, at Pomona, I tried again, but hadn’t magically gotten any better.
But two years ago, I got in the pool at our gym here just to do some laps of breaststroke, and threw in a length or two of freestyle. And it wasn’t good, but I didn’t think I was going to die, which seemed like a positive sign.
So I started reading things online about how to swim and discovered one obvious thing I was doing wrong: kicking too hard. It sounded completely counterintuitive but I figured I’d give the advice I was reading a shot.
And it worked? It actually started to feel… good?
But then it got cold and I stopped swimming. And then there was COVID and the gym closed down and that seemed like the end of my progress. Except when we rejoined the gym this summer and I got back in the pool for the first time, it turned out that I was able to pick up where I’d left off.
I’ve been swimming like crazy for the last three weeks, and the progress I’ve made is amazing. As in, today I swam a mile of freestyle, without pause, in a time that seems to me pretty respectable for a slow old lady.
Part of me wishes I could go back and give my childhood self a few hints — well, a few hints and access to a pool and a swim team and a family able to support such luxuries — to see if I might have gotten any good.
But it’s amazing to have this now. To get good at something after 50 feels like a victory of its own.
A few days ago, I had the honor of keynoting the annual meeting of the APLU’s Commission on Economic and Community Engagement. The text of my talk is below.
Last week, an independent economic group released a report indicating that the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University together boosted the state economy by $19.3 billion in 2019 — a figure that they went on to note is more than 20 times the funding provided to them by the state.
This is an extraordinary report, which confirms what we all know: public research universities are crucial contributors to the economic well-being of their communities. Our universities not only conduct the research and development that leads to new business opportunities in the state, but also build an educated workforce ready to take on the challenges our communities face now and into the future.
It’s great news, and it’s particularly great to have numbers that can be used in arguments about the value of public investment in institutions of higher education, especially at a moment when relationships between legislatures and universities are strained. But I want to spend a bit of time today talking about why reports like this make me nervous. It may sound odd, but frankly it’s because they do too good a job of tying the public vision of the value of the university to its economic impact, and in the process they inadvertently run the risk of undermining the other equally important areas and modes in which the public research university contributes to the well-being of the publics that it serves.
That is to say, the danger of a report like this one, as positive as its results are, is that it speaks to a particular mindset in American culture that is primed to hear it, with the result that it completely overshadows all of the good that the university does in areas other than the economic. That focus on economic impact may be fine in good times, when taxpayers and legislators feel like they can afford to invest in a broad range of kinds of exploration and education on campus. But in bad times, when budgets are tight and jobs are scarce, many begin to look at those kinds of exploration that don’t have obvious or direct economic benefits as “luxuries,” as frivolous, as extraneous to the institution’s mission — precisely because the institution’s mission, and the public good that it serves, have come to be wholly associated with the economic.
There is, in other words, a deeply ingrained mindset in American culture that lends itself to the assumption that economic development is the primary good that the university can and should serve. This is a mindset that I would love to see us work on changing. It has its underpinnings in our faith in the extraordinary creative potential generated by capitalism, but it leads to the assumption that all of the problems in the contemporary world can and should be approached through market-based solutions.
This tight focus on the market as the telos of contemporary life is often discussed under the umbrella of “neoliberalism” on campus. “Neoliberalism” is admittedly one of those terms that has been so relentlessly misunderstood and misused that it’s become a kind of caricature, an empty critique with all the force that “bourgeois” had in the early 1970s, or “postmodern” in the early 2000s, or, from the other side of the aisle today, “critical race theory.” It’s the kind of term that causes a lot of us just to stop listening, because we know that what’s coming is (a) profoundly ideological, and (b) likely not to mean exactly what its speaker thinks it means.
But neoliberalism is nonetheless an important concept, and one that can tell us a lot about what’s happened within American culture since the early 1980s — the forces that have encouraged the public to question the value of institutions of higher education, as well as the other forms of public investment in the public good. In fact, it’s part of what’s surfaced the question of whether there even is such a thing as the public good. Just as Margaret Thatcher argued in the 1980s that there was no such thing as “society,” but instead only individuals and families that needed to look out for themselves, so we find today a predominant political perspective in this country that holds that all goods are and should be private rather than public, individual rather than social.
The effects of this conviction on our culture today have been corrosive. We have experienced over the last four decades a dramatic increase in inequality, both economic and social, as those who already have benefit from an environment in which rewards accrue to the individuals who are already most equipped to pursue them. We have also seen a radical decline in our cultural sense of shared obligations to or even basic care and respect for others. Broadly speaking, we’ve lost our collective grip on the notions that our individual actions affect others, that we should act with those others in mind, that we share common concerns, and that we are collectively responsible for ensuring that we provide a viable future for all of us. Without those understandings, without a recognition that the global crises we face today require responsible social engagement and collective action, poverty will continue to increase, structural racism will continue to grow, and the very prospect of a livable planet is thrown into serious question.
(A little aside: at this point in the presentation, I somehow triggered Siri on my watch, and she piped up and said “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” I burst out laughing, told the audience what had happened in case they hadn’t heard, and let them know how appropriate a moment for that interjection it was.)
So. I want to pause here and acknowledge that this all no doubt sounds alarmist, that I’ve managed to get in a very few minutes from a highly encouraging report on the economic impact of public research universities to the question of whether the future will be a livable one, and that there are several links along the way that I haven’t yet fully explored — not to mention all kinds of alternative paths that we have available to consider. So let’s backtrack a bit. If, as I am arguing here, our overdetermined focus on the economic good that universities provide has the potential to undermine the other kinds of goods that our institutions serve, what are those goods, how are they undermined, what do we lose if we lose them, and how might we begin to ensure that they remain a crucial part of the public vision of what the university is for?
In order to explore the university’s purpose in serving the public good, and the ways that the neoliberal understanding of the university’s function have weakened it almost beyond recognition, we might begin by thinking through the distinctions drawn in economics among the four primary types of goods, and the ways they are defined, first, through their “excludability” — or whether non-paying customers can be prevented from using them — and second, through their “rivalrousness” — or whether their use uses them up. Public goods are nonexcludable and nonrivalrous, meaning that no one can be excluded from their use and no one’s use uses them up for others. Private goods are typically both excludable and rivalrous, and are typically market-based as a result. Goods that are non-excludable but rivalrous are thought of as common-pool resources, which were assumed for a long time to be subject to the “tragedy of the commons” until the work of Elinor Ostrom demonstrated the potential for shared governance in ensuring their sustainability (a set of ideas that I unfortunately don’t have time to dig into today, but that have deep implications for our understanding of how we can create a sense of shared responsibility for shared resources like the public university). Finally, club goods are those that are excludable but non-rivalrous — goods that are not diminished through use, but that people can be prevented from using unless they pay for them.
The question, then, is what kind of goods higher education and the knowledge that it provides and creates are and should be. Knowledge is certainly nonrivalrous; if I have it, and I share it with you, I do not have less of it as a result. The question lies in excludability: where once knowledge and the higher education that fosters it might have been seen as striving to be nonexcludable, making itself available to anyone desiring it, it has since the 1960s increasingly become excludable, restricted to those who can pay. Access to knowledge is today a club good, in other words, rather than the public good that was once imagined to best serve our society: supported by all for the benefit of all.
Those ideals regarding public education were always flawed, even at their most promising moments: our system of land-grant universities was founded on the appropriation of land from indigenous nations, and the GI Bill supported rather than undermined racial inequities. But their underlying ideals were based in an understanding that the university’s purpose is the broad education of the public. And that broad education has always been understood to have benefits beyond the directly economic. The Morrill Act of 1862, which established the system of land-grant colleges and universities, designated funds to the states for
the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.7 U.S. Code §304
Liberal and practical. Pursuits and professions. There are clearly economic goals embedded in this sense of what it is to improve the lot of the industrial classes, but there is also clearly expressed here a desire to create a world that is not just more prosperous but better in a much deeper sense.
The wide array of research done on our campuses in pursuit of that better has a range of important social impacts that may not be directly economic. This includes basic research in the bench sciences, as well as a panoply of projects in the social sciences, humanities, and arts. These projects help further our shared understanding of how the world works, how it should work, and how it could work. They examine the material world and our interactions with it, as well as the world of ideas and institutions and cultures, enabling us to know more about who we are, about the forces that structure our lives, and about the potential for creating something new. When we focus too narrowly on economic impact, research into gene regulation in fruit flies, or ethics in food distribution and consumption, or migration patterns in the African diaspora, or the history of patronage in early eighteenth-century music, all run the risk of being seen as extraneous, and therefore unworthy of funding, when in fact they extend our understandings of who we are and how we relate to one another in crucial ways. Even more, these projects are not ends in themselves, but the basis for future work in their fields, and that ability to develop and share knowledge in service to a larger project of collective understanding is at the heart of the academic mission.
The challenge, of course, is that our communities off-campus often aren’t privy to the reasons why we work on the projects we’ve selected, or what the importance of those projects might be, and so it winds up appearing that researchers on campus are engaged in the contemporary equivalent of investigations into the numbers of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, wrapping ourselves up in issues that don’t matter — or worse, that aren’t real — rather than those that will have a direct, material impact on the world. On campus, we know that what we do matters enormously, but we too often fail to communicate that significance in ways that connect with the publics around us. And this divide points to a significant structural problem with the ways that scholarly work on campus gets done: ensuring the visibility and the viability of our fields requires us to communicate our work in public-facing ways — and yet what we’re individually rewarded for, both on campus and within our broader fields, is overwhelmingly our inward-facing communication: the articles and books we write with other experts as our imagined audience. Which raises a key question: how can we begin to shift our reward structures on campus such that faculty are encouraged to communicate not just with one another but with the broader world?
Of course, one of the most important ways that we communicate with the broader world is through our students. Unfortunately, our students have increasingly been raised in a culture that tells them that the purpose of a college degree is developing the skill set that will lead directly to a lucrative career — and given how much they and their families are paying, and indeed going into debt, for that degree, it’s understandable that they gravitate (or are pushed) toward practical, pre-professional majors. Preparing students to enter the workforce is not a bad thing, and I’m not arguing at all that we should wave that aside. But the goal of the university should be producing graduates who are not just successful economic actors, but who are well-rounded humans, who are able to think creatively about the complex conditions in which we live today, and who are willing to contribute not just materially but socially, ethically, even morally to the improvement of the world around them, not just for themselves but for others.
This is generous thinking: finding ways to use our collective knowledge for the public good, demonstrating our deep connections to — indeed, our responsibility for — the world around us. The university’s educational mission — one we need to claim ferociously, loudly, publicly — is cultivating that generous thinking, preparing our students not just for the professions that might lead to wealth production but for the “several pursuits” in life. We are educating the “leaders of tomorrow” not just in the conventionally understood political and business realms, but in the kinds of engagement that will help their communities grow from the grassroots up. And that mission demands that we focus on what is required to make a better world, both on campus and off. It requires that we think about our institutions’ often unspoken structural biases, including that toward “economic impact”; it requires us to focus not just on making it possible for more kinds of people to achieve conventionally coded success, but on examining what constitutes success, how it is measured, and why. And that requires a values-first approach to higher education, and an ongoing examination of the ways that those values are instantiated in institutional structures and processes.
So: what if we understood the well-being of communities to lie not just in the individual economic prosperity that can result but in terms of individuals’ ability to work together — to engage in collective action — toward a wide range of common goals? What areas of the university might we find value in if the kinds of leadership we educate for were focused less on individual professional success and more on connection and collaboration?
We’d probably want to start by ensuring that every student on campus receives a deep education in ethics, in creative thinking, and in individual and collaborative expression. These are, as it turns out, the skills and qualities that many employers are looking for today, and that too many of our pre-professional graduates don’t have the opportunity to develop, as they’ve been led to understand the liberal pursuits — the study of literature, of art, of philosophy, of history — as extraneous to their goal of beginning a remunerative career.
We’d also want to think about the kinds of studies and stories that we would use to highlight the contribution of universities to a more richly understood social good. Those studies and stories may not have the dramatic numbers that we can point to as evidence of the university’s economic impact, but they can play a key role in surfacing the significance of a broad range of work on campus for the publics whom we serve. Producing those stories will require deep faculty involvement, and will thus ask the university to think about how such public-facing work can be understood to “count” in the structures of faculty evaluation and reward. And that public-facing, community engaged work must count, precisely because it can help us communicate the impact of everything that the university does — not just its economic impact, and not just the benefits that it provides for individuals, but our deeper social and cultural impact, and the benefits we provide for communities and for society as a whole.
I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to talk about Generous Thinking with Kai Wortman for the New Books Network.