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Generous Thinking: Introduction

The text below is a revised version of a talk I gave at the University of Richmond this spring. It’s the first bit of writing toward my very much in-process project, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good. I suspect that a modified version of it will wind up serving as an introduction to the larger project, but I’m early enough in this thing that I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong about that entirely.

Responses are not simply welcome but strongly desired.


The argument that this project presents — and I will cop right here up front to the fact that this is an argument, hoping to persuade you of its rightness — begins for me with what has come to feel like an emblematic moment of university life. Some years ago, I gave my graduate seminar a recent article to read. I do not now remember what that article was, or even what it was about, but I do remember clearly that upon opening the discussion by asking for first impressions, three students in a row offered fairly merciless takedowns, pointing out the essay’s critical failures and ideological blindspots, some of which were justified but at least a couple of which seemed, frankly, to have missed the point. After the third such response, I interjected: “Okay, okay, I want to dig into all of that, but let’s back up a bit first. What’s the author’s argument? What’s her goal in the article? What does she want the reader to come away with?”


I won’t rehash all of what ensued, but suffice it to say that it was a difficult moment. I was a lot younger and a fair bit less steady on my feet then, and my initial response to the silence was to start wondering whether I’d asked a stupid question, whether the sudden failure to meet my gaze was a sign that my students were now wondering how I’d ever gotten to this point in my career with such a pedestrian perspective, whether having asked them about the argument was tantamount to asking them what the author’s name was and where they might find it on the page, either so painfully obvious that they were mortified to find themselves being treated like high-school students or so apparently superficial that there must be deeper layers that they were missing. “It’s not a trick question,” I said, asking again for somebody to take a stab at summarizing the argument. It only gradually became clear to me that the question was not stupid or superficial but rather oddly unfamiliar, that everything in their educations to that point had prepared them for interrogating and unpacking, demystifying and subverting, all of the most important critical acts of reading against the grain, but too little emphasis had been placed on the acts of paying attention, of listening, of reading with rather than reading against.

Before this starts to sound like a complaint about the kids these days, let me present another emblematic moment, in the form of the discussion period concluding the vast majority of conference sessions. The frequent academic jokes involving phrases such as “this is less of a question than a comment” and “thank you for sharing your work; let me ask you about my work” might begin to indicate something about our dispositions in the act of engaging with the ideas of others, which is to say too often waiting for the next moment at which we can get our own ideas on the table.

This project is in large part about my desire to see universities and those who work in and around them — faculty members and administrators, in particular, but also staff members, students, parents, trustees, legislators, and the many other people who affect the futures of our institutions of higher education — cultivate a greater disposition toward listening, toward patience, toward engaging with what is actually in front of us rather than continually pressing forward to where we want to go. Most of what follows focuses on the faculty (and even more particularly on the humanities faculty), partially because of my own background and partially because of the extent to which the work done by the faculty is the university: research and teaching are, at least in theory, the primary products of our institutions. But when I say that I hope to inspire a greater disposition toward listening in members of the faculty, I don’t mean that we need to do a better job of listening to one another, though that certainly wouldn’t hurt. Instead, in what follows, I am primarily focused on the ways that we as professors and scholars communicate with a range of broader publics about our work. And some focused thinking about the ways we communicate with those publics is in order, I would suggest, because many of our fields are facing crises that we cannot solve on our own.

These crises, I must acknowledge, are not life-threatening, not world-historical, not approaching the kind or degree of the highly volatile political situation we face both at home and in the world, living as we do at a moment in which the threat of international terrorism is being met with and matched by the renewal of nationalist politics and domestic terror; in which millions of people running for their lives are confused with and held responsible for the thing they’re running from; in which many residents of our communities find themselves in grave danger posed by those sworn to serve and protect; in which the communications network once imagined to create a borderless utopia of rational collectivist actors feeds attacks on those who dare to criticize the manifestations of oppression within that network; in which the planet itself gives every sign not of nearing an ecological tipping point but, instead, of being well past it.

That, in the face of such a world, I am noodling about the importance of listening for the future of the university may appear self-indulgent and self-marginalizing, a head-in-the-sand retreat into the aesthetic (or worse, the academic) and an escape from the ugliness of the Real World. I hope, by the end of this project, to have made a case for why this is not so — why, in fact, the humanistic fields studied within our institutions of higher education have the potential to help us navigate the present crises, if not to solve them — and, not incidentally, why it would not be a waste of time for those of us who work in those fields to take a good hard look at ourselves and the ways that we engage with one another, in order to ensure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to model the ways of being we’d like to see manifested in the world.

The study of literature, history, art, philosophy, and other forms of culture has been justly lauded by those whose business it is to teach those fields as a key means of providing students with a rich set of interpretive, critical, and ethical skills with which they can engage the world around them. These reading, thinking, and writing skills are increasingly necessary in today’s hypermediated, globalized, conflict-filled world — and yet many of the humanities departments that teach them feel themselves increasingly marginalized within their own institutions. This marginalization is related, if not directly attributable, to the degree to which students, parents, administrators, trustees, politicians, the media, and the public at large have been led in a self-reinforcing cycle to believe that the skills our fields provide are a luxury in the current economic environment: Someone particularly visible makes a publicly disparaging remark about what a student is going to do with that art-history degree; commentators reinforce the sense that humanities majors are worth less than pre-professional degrees with the presumption of clearly defined career paths; parents strongly encourage their students to turn toward fields that seem more pragmatic in such economically uncertain times, fields that seem somehow to describe a job; administrators note a decline in humanities majors and cut budgets and positions; the jobs crisis for humanities PhDs worsens; the media notices; someone particularly visible makes a publicly disparaging remark about what all those adjuncts were planning on doing with that humanities PhD anyhow; and the whole thing intensifies. In many institutions, this draining away of majors and faculty and resources has reduced the humanities to a means of ensuring that students studying to become scientists and bankers are reminded of the human ends of their work. This is not a terrible thing in and of itself — David Silbersweig recently wrote compellingly in the Washington Post about the importance that his undergraduate philosophy major has had for his career as a neuroscientist — but it is not a sufficient ground on which humanities fields can thrive as fields, with their own majors, their own research problems, and their own values and goals.

And it is not, of course, the sort of problem that we hear much about in the sciences. Though conflicts periodically emerge around the need to preserve and protect basic research in an era driven by more applied, capitalizable outcomes, the world at large nonetheless mostly understands that such research, and the kinds of study that support it, are crucial to the general advancement of knowledge. The purposes of basic research in the humanities, however, often feel a bit more hidden from view, as do the purposes of learning in those fields. And so we have seen over the last several years a welter of defenses of the humanities, each of which seems slightly more defensive than the last. Calls to save the humanities issued by public figures often leave scholars dissatisfied, as they frequently begin with an undertheorized and perhaps even somewhat retrograde sense of what we do and why, and thus frequently give the sense of trying to save our fields from us. (I might here gesture toward a recent column published by the former chairman of the NEH, Bruce Cole, entitled “What’s Wrong with the Humanities?”, which begins memorably: “Let’s face it: Too many humanities scholars are alienating students and the public with their opacity, triviality, and irrelevance.”) But perhaps even worse is the degree to which professors themselves — those best positioned to make the case on behalf of the humanities in general, or literary studies in particular — have failed to find traction with their arguments. As the unsuccessful defenses proliferate, the public view of the humanities becomes all the worse, leading Simon During to grumble that “Whatever things the humanities do well, it is beginning to look as if promoting themselves is not among them.” (And maybe we like it that way, on some level; self-promotion is not something to which we aspire, and the pleasures of the obscure are well-known to hipsters everywhere.)

Perhaps this is a good moment for us to stop and consider what it is that the humanities do do well, what the humanities are for. Let us start with a basic definition of the humanities as a cluster of fields that focus on the careful study and analysis of cultures and their many modes of thought and forms of representation — writing, music, art, media, and so on — as they have developed and moved through time and across geographical boundaries, growing out of and adding to our senses of who we are as individuals, as groups, and as nations. The humanities are interested, then, in the ways that representations work, in the relationships between representations and social structures, in all the ways that human ideas and their expression shape and are shaped by human culture. In this definition we might begin to see the possibility that studying literature or art or film might not be solely about the object itself, but instead about a way of engaging with the world: in the process one develops the ability to read and interpret what one sees and hears, the insight to understand the multiple layers of what is being communicated and why, and the capacity to put together for oneself an appropriate, thoughtful contribution.

Now, the first thing to note about this definition is that I am certain that some of the humanities scholars who read it are going to disagree with it — they will have nuances and correctives to offer — and it is important to understand that this disagreement does not necessarily mean that my definition is wrong. Nor do I mean to suggest that the nuances and correctives presented would be wrong. Rather, that disagreement is what we do: we hear one another’s interpretations (of texts, of performances, of historical events) and we push back against them. We advance the work in our field through disagreement and revision. And this agonistic approach, I want to argue today, is both the greatest strength of the humanities—and of the university in general—and its Achilles’ heel. I’ll unpack this thought further as I proceed.

For the moment, though, back to Simon During and his sense that the humanities are terrible at self-promotion. During’s complaint, levied at the essays included in Peter Brooks and Hilary Jewitt’s volume, The Humanities and Public Life, is largely that, in the act of self-defense, humanities scholars leave behind doing what they do and instead “sermonize” (his word) about the value of what they do. His conclusion seems to be that the turn outward is part of the problem, that it is simply the nature of things that the humanities “form a world more than they provide a social good,” and that making the case for ourselves and our fields in “more modest terms” may help us direct that case to “those who matter most in this context.” In part, During’s interest in asking the humanities to stop defending themselves is tied to his sense of the field — or at least what he refers to as the “core humanities,” which I take to mean the study of the canon within the long-established fields of English, history, philosophy, and the like — as intimately implicated in maintaining rather than disrupting social hierarchies. His argument appears in the end to be that we need to make it possible for students who do not already occupy a position of financial comfort to study the humanities — to keep our fields from being relegated to the position of luxury goods — but somehow to do so without arguing for public support, or for the public significance that might engender such support.

This resistance to a serious consideration of the university’s relationship to the public — both the public purposes that it might serve and the public support that it desperately requires — has something to do with a lingering bit of discomfort that even practitioners of those fields have with the notion of the humanities and its relationship to humanism, a discomfort that creates grave difficulties in making a publicly appreciable case for ourselves and our work. That discomfort stems from the degree to which humanism’s triumphant belief in the power of human reason and the humanities’ study of what Matthew Arnold so blithely but searingly referred to as “the best that has been thought and said” have together long been used as a means of solidifying and perpetuating the social order, with all its hierarchies and exclusions. Those of us whose work focuses on During’s “core humanities” are often understandably queasy about our fields’ development out of the projects of nationalism and cultural dominance, and are left leery about stating clearly and passionately the values and goals that we bring to our work. And our preferred strategy for contending with such ambivalence is to complicate; to demonstrate from a rigorously theorized position the ways that we are engaged in a progressive, if not radical, project; to read, as they say, against the grain.

This form of complication is utterly necessary, not just to our methodologies but to our sense of ourselves in the act of our work: it is clear that the disciplinary force wielded by our fields has too often been put to dangerous use, and it is necessary to account for the subtleties of our positions. Our work thus repeatedly explores, as Rita Felski describes it, our suspicious “conviction” that not only the texts that we study but also the ways that we have been led to study them are “up to no good” (58). This is where my graduate students began their engagement with that article. The problem is not just that they were then unable to articulate in any positive sense what the article was actually trying to accomplish, but that the critical position they assumed was the only position they had available to them. And however much this internally-focused mode of critique has done to advance the field and its social commitments — and I will stipulate that it has done a lot — this form of engagement is too often illegible to the many readers around us, including students, parents, administrators, and policymakers. What they see looks like discomfort with the field in which we work, ambivalence about the materials we study, resistance to the culture in which we live, and a seemingly endless series of internal arguments, all of which might well lead them to ask what is to be gained from supporting a field that seems intent on self-dismantling.

Worse, perhaps, it has provided an inroad into higher education for some forces that are hastening that dismantling. Bill Readings, in The University in Ruins, powerfully traces the transition of the purposes of higher education from the propagation of the culture of the nation-state and the inculcation of its citizens therein, through an important period of resistance and protest, to its current role, which seems to be the production of value (both intellectual and human) for global capital. This is to say, again, that many of our suspicions about the goals of our institutions of higher learning as they were established are correct: they were developed in order to cultivate a particular model of citizenship based on exclusion and oppression and focused on the reproduction of state power. The problem is that without those goals, the purpose of higher education has drifted, and not in the ways we would have hoped: as in so many other areas of the contemporary public world, where the state has lost centrality and certainty, corporate interests have interceded; we may no longer promote exclusion and oppression in training state citizens, but we reinstantiate it in a new guise when we turn, however inadvertently, to training corporate citizens. Even worse, rejecting or critiquing that purpose is simply not working: capital is extraordinarily able to absorb that critique and to marginalize those who make it. Perhaps we might have reached, as Felski’s title suggests, the limits of critique; perhaps we might need to adopt a new mode of approach in order to make a dent in the systems that hem us in.

Of course, the critical approach is at the heart of what we scholars do, and we would be justified in bristling against any suggestion that we abandon it (or abandon the social commitments that underwrite it), particularly in favor of an approach that might be more, as the kids would say, “relatable.” Why is it, we might reasonably ask, that no one feels any qualms about suggesting that literary studies be conducted in an easily comprehensible, jargon-free, friendly and appreciable fashion, but no one suggests this about high-energy physics? We take this resistance to difficulty in the humanities, whether of language or of argument, as a sign of dismissal, of a refusal to take us and our work seriously. I want to suggest, however, that though such dismissal may very well be behind the calls for comprehensibility in our field — see again Bruce Cole — it is not the only thing back there. These calls may be at least in part a sign of the degree to which people care about our subject matter, or might be led to care, the degree to which they feel the cultures we study to be their own, leading them to want (on whatever conscious or unconscious level) to understand what it is that we’re up to. And I also want to suggest that we have the opportunity, if we take that care seriously, to create a kind of dialogue that might help further rather than stymie the work we want to do.

Some of my thinking about ways that attention to such care might encourage scholars to approach the work that we do from a slightly different perspective has developed out of a talk I heard a couple of years ago by David Scobey, then the dean of the New School for Public Engagement. His suggestion was that scholarly work in the humanities is in a kind of imbalance, that critical thinking has dominated at the expense of a more socially-directed mode of what he called “generous thinking,” and that a recalibration of the balance between the two might enable us to make possible a greater public commitment in our work, which in turn might inspire a greater public commitment to our work. I want, humanities scholar that I am, to revise this model slightly, by nudging us away from the notion that critical thinking and generous thinking are somehow opposed categories, in tension with one another, pulling us in different directions and requiring us to walk the tightrope between. Instead, I want to think about how these two modes of thought might be more fruitfully intertwined. What kinds of discussions might be possible — discussions among ourselves, discussions with our students, but also discussions with a much broader series of publics, with those whose support we require in order to keep doing the work we do — what such discussions might be possible if we understood the very foundation of our critical thinking practices to be generosity?

What is it I mean when I talk about generosity in this context? I don’t mean the term to refer to “giving” in any material sense, or even in any simple metaphorical sense. It doesn’t necessarily indicate that we should all be doing more volunteer work, or that we need to be more willing to overlook the flaws in reasoning of those with whom we disagree. Instead, what I’m hoping to develop, in myself most of all, is a kind of generosity of mind, by which I mean to indicate an openness to possibility. That openness begins for me by cultivating a listening presence, which is to say a conversational disposition that is not merely waiting for my next opportunity to speak but instead genuinely hearing and processing what is being said to me, underwritten by the conviction that in any given exchange I likely have less to teach than I have to learn. It also means working to think with rather than against, whether the objects of those prepositions are texts or people. It means, as Lisa Rhody has explored in a brilliant blog post on the applicability of improvisational comedy’s “rule of agreement” to academic life, adopting a mode of exchange that begins with yes rather than no: as she describes it, among colleagues, the rule of agreement functions as “a momentary staving off of the impulse to assume that someone else’s scholarship is fashioned out of ignorance or apathy or even ill will or that the conversation was initiated in bad faith. Agreement doesn’t have to be about value: it’s not even about accuracy or support. The Rule of Agreement is a social contract to respect the intellectual work of your peers.” That yes creates the possibility for genuine dialogue, not only with our colleagues but with our objects of study, our predecessors, and the many potential publics that surround us. Yes is the beginning of yes, and, or the capacity to work together to build something entirely new.

This mode of generous thinking is clearly instantiated, as Scobey’s talk suggests, in many projects that focus on fostering public engagement in and through the work done within the university, including that of groups like Imagining America, which serves to connect academics, artists, and community organizations in ways that can surface and support their mutual goals for change. And yes, public projects like these are already taking place on many campuses around the country and in many fields across the curriculum. But one key aspect of understanding generosity as the ground from which scholarly work can and should grow is the requirement that we take such public projects just as seriously as the more traditional forms of critical work that circulate amongst ourselves. Scholars working in public history, just as one example, are likely to have some important stories to tell about the difficulties they have faced in getting work in that field appropriately evaluated and credited as work. And a few years ago, after a talk in which a well-respected scholar discussed the broadening possibilities that should be made available for humanities PhDs to have productive and fulfilling careers outside the classroom, including in the public humanities, I overheard a senior academic say with some bemusement, “I take the point, but I don’t think it works in all fields. There’s long been a ‘public history.’ But can you imagine a ‘public literary criticism’?” His interlocutor chortled bemusedly: the very idea. But why not public literary criticism? What of the many public reading projects and literary publications that reach out to non-specialist audiences and engage them in the kinds of interpretation and analysis that we profess?

Our resistance to taking such public projects as seriously as we do the work we do for one another speaks to one of two things: first, our anxieties (and very real anxieties) about deprofessionalization, about association with the amateur, to which I’ll return in a bit; and second, to our continued (and I would argue profoundly misguided) division and ordering of the various categories to which our labor as academics is committed, with a completely distinct category called “service” almost inevitably coming in a distant third behind research and teaching. Grounding our work in a spirit of generosity might lead us to erase some of the boundaries between the work that we do to support the engagements of readers and instructors both inside and outside the academy, and the work that we consider to be genuinely “scholarly,” to consider ways that all of our work might have a spirit of service as its foundation. A proper valuation of public engagement in scholarly life, however, will require a systemic rethinking of the role that prestige plays in the academic reward system — and this, as I’ll discuss later in the project, is no small task. It is, however, crucial to a renewed understanding of the relationship between the university and the common good.

Similarly, grounding our work in generous thinking might not only encourage us to adopt a position of greater dialogic openness, and might not only foster projects that are more publicly engaged, but it might also lead us to place a greater emphasis on — and to attribute a greater value to — collaboration in academic life. It might encourage us to support and value various means of working in the open, of sharing our writing at more and earlier stages in the process of its development, and of making the results of our research more readily accessible to and usable by more readers. Critical thinking often presupposes a deep knowledge of a subject, not just on the part of the speaker but of the listener as well. Generous, generative modes of thinking invite non-experts into the discussion, bringing them along in the process of discovery.

But I want to acknowledge that adopting a mode of generous thinking is a task that is simultaneously extremely difficult and easily dismissible. We are accustomed to a mode of thought that rebuts, that questions, that complicates, and the kinds of listening and openness for which I am here advocating may well be taken as acceding to a form of cultural naïveté at best, or worse, a politically regressive knuckling-under to the pressures of neoliberal ideologies and institutions. This is the sense in which Rita Felski suggests that scholars have internalized “the assumption that whatever is not critical must therefore be uncritical” (9). Felski posits, in contrast to the most common assumptions within the field today, that the critical is not a project but instead a mood, a mode of self-performance, an affect — and one to which we have limited ourselves at great cost. What might be possible if we were to retain the social commitment that motivates our criticism while nonetheless opening ourselves and our work to its many potential moods and modes, including curiosity, appreciation, and perhaps even the difficult modes of empathy and love?

Such an opening would require us to place ourselves in a new relationship to our objects of study and their many audiences; we would need to be prepared to listen to what they have to tell us, to ask questions that are designed to elicit more about their interests than about ours. That is to say, we would need to open ourselves to the possibility that our ideas might turn out to be wrong. This, it may not surprise you to hear, is an alarming possibility not just for most scholars but, as Kathryn Schulz has explored, for most human beings in general to countenance, and one that we will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid facing. But given the ways in which arguments in our fields proceed, and given what Schulz has called the “Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything,” it is all but certain that at some future moment our own blind spots, biases, and points of general ignorance will have been uncovered. Refusing to countenance the possibility of this wrongness makes it all but inevitable, but perhaps keeping it in view might open us to some new possibilities. If everything we write today already bears within it a future anterior in which it will have been demonstrated to be wrong-headed, there opens up the opportunity to explore a new path, one along which we develop not just a form of critical audacity but also a kind of critical humility.

The use of this critical humility, in which we acknowledge the possibility that we might not always be right, is in no small part the space it creates for genuinely listening to the ideas that others present, really considering their possibilities even when they contradict our own thoughts on the matter. But critical humility, as you might guess, is neither selected for nor encouraged in the profession, and it is certainly not cultivated in grad school. Quite the opposite, at least in my experience: everything in the environment of, for example, the seminar room makes flirting with being wrong unthinkable. And the only way to ensure one’s own fundamental rightness seems to be to demonstrate the flaws in all the alternatives. This is the method in which my grad students were trained, a mode of reading that encourages a leap from encountering an idea to countering it, without taking the time in between to really explore it. It’s that exploration that a real critical humility can open up: the time to discover what we might learn if we are allowed to let go, just a tiny bit, of our investment in being right.

This is not the only area of discomfort that foregrounding generosity in our thinking might create for us, however. Opening ourselves to the many potential moods that our work can manifest requires being willing to admit the sphere of the emotions into that work, not just from a position of critical or analytical distance but in an up close, affective manner. We worry, and with good reason, about the degree to which our emotions can be manipulated by the culture we study, obscuring what’s really happening — the emotional, after all, is the primary terrain on which advertising operates, undermining and persuading and appealing and then erasing its traces as it goes. I want to suggest that it might be good for us as scholars to reclaim and recover the emotions for our more socially committed purposes, but I have to acknowledge the difficulties involved in doing so. Empathy, for instance, too easily slides into a self-congratulatory appropriation of the experience and feelings of the other. As I hope that many of us have learned from movements like Black Lives Matter and from the protests taking place on our campuses, what many have long known: the most difficult work of the ally may well be in adopting a position of listening in a mode that does not presume to know but that seeks instead to put the self aside in the hope of possible understanding. Genuine empathy, that is to say, is not a feel-good emotion, but an often painful, failure-filled process of what Dominick LaCapra has referred to as “empathic unsettlement,” in which we are continually called not just to feel for but to simultaneously acknowledge the irreconcilable otherness of the other, seeking to fully apprehend difference without tamping it down into bland “understanding.” This kind of ethical engagement, which can be enacted with texts as well as with communities, can be a hallmark of the humanities, if we open ourselves to permit a thorough consideration of affect and of the role that complex forms of identification might play in the work that we do.

As challenging as empathy, if in a different register, is love: love for our work, love for our subject matter, love for one another in the act of sharing what we have learned. That challenge is typified, perhaps, in our adviserly reactions to the graduate school admissions essay draft in which our student recalls with heartfelt sincerity the love of reading they have carried with them since childhood. We steer them away from such naïveté and toward more serious, future-oriented, critical purposes, and with good reason: we know how such an essay would be read. But what might be opened up for us as a field if that position of loving the materials with which we work did not have to be submerged or discarded? To ask us to open ourselves to the possibilities that love might present if it were to ground our work is not to take us back to some belletristic moment in which our energies are spent acting out our aesthetic appreciation or, worse, emoting over the text; there is still serious analytical work to be done, even if we allow ourselves to express the passion that our subject matter inspires. But we must also encounter in so doing that some of our anxieties about stepping back from the critical mood arise out of a worry that what we do will be perceived as purely affective or inspirational, unworthy of being supported as a serious form of research. We worry, as Deidre Lynch has explored, that genuinely loving something turns one into an amateur in the literal sense of the word: one so devoted to a practice that one ought to be willing to do it for free. We have good cause to fear deprofessionalization in the current higher education climate: in early 2016, as just one example, the governor of Kentucky rolled out a state budget that included significant cuts for higher education in the state, but announced that those cuts would be differentially distributed. According to the governor, “there will be more incentives to electrical engineers than to French literature majors…. All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer like engineers.” This is the danger of the vocation: feeling called to a way of life, and particularly to a way of life in service to the public good, one had best be self-supporting. (Ask public school teachers.)

But is it possible — and the flurry that follows should be taken as a series of genuinely open rather than rhetorical questions — is it possible for us, or at least that diminishing percentage of us who are fully-employed scholars with tenure, to create space not just for our fields but for others who work at the nexus of the cultural and the social, to argue persuasively on behalf of the value of a caring engagement with community, of a sense of service to that community, while refusing to allow our institutions, our administrations, and our governments to lose sight of the fact that such service is work? What kinds of public support for our institutions might we be able to generate if we were to argue that public projects that promote the love of reading (or the love of art, or the love of history) exist in consonance with the work that we do in the classroom, or in the writing we do for one another, and that we should therefore take participation in such projects seriously? What might we be able to gain for our work if we were to approach those projects and the many kinds of readers they engage from a position of listening, really trying to hear their sense of what the materials we study offer them and how they are put to use in their lives? What would it mean to ask ourselves to begin by reading with them, rather than by correcting or instructing? What new purposes for the university might we imagine if we understand our role in it to be not inculcating state citizens, nor training corporate citizens, but instead facilitating the development of a diverse, open, community—both inside the classroom and outside it—encouraged to think together, to be involved in the ongoing project of how we understand and shape our cultures?

All of these possibilities that we open up — engaging perspectives other than our own, valuing and evaluating the productions and manifestations of our multiplicitous culture, encountering the other in all its irreducible otherness — are the best of what the humanities offer to the university, and the university to the world, and we must allow them to teach us just as much as we teach others. And all of these possibilities begin with cultivating the ability to think generously, to listen — to the text, to our communities, to ourselves — without attaching or rejecting. I have much more to say, obviously — there are chapters of it ahead — but this listening presence, in which I am willing to countenance without judgment or shame the possibility that I just might be wrong, is where I will hope to leave myself in the end, ready to listen to you.


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