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Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good

I have been working — painfully slowly, but nonetheless working — on a new project for something that is showing every sign of turning into a book. I’m still in the phase in which the thing is a bit hard to discuss, as I’m really figuring out what it’s all about on a day-to-day basis. But it finally occurred to me (another one of those “light dawns over Marblehead” moments that have characterized so much of my career thus far) that given the extent to which my last book argued for new scholarly practices including a willingness to show our process, blemishes and all, and given the extent to which the new project is all about the possibilities that might open up for scholars not just in doing more of their work in public but in doing more of that work in conversation with the public, well, I might take a bit of my own advice and open the thing up a bit.

Consider this the start of a conversation, a call in hope of response.

I’m beginning today with the project overview, below the fold. Later this week, I’ll post the first chunk of the project itself, derived from a talk I gave this spring at the University of Richmond. And I hope that more pieces will follow as I dig further into the guts of this thing. Those pieces are likely to be fragmentary, more question than answer — but then, that’s how some of the best conversations begin.

Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good

The university stands in a peculiar relationship to twenty-first-century American culture. On the one hand, that culture imagines institutions of higher education to be providers of vitally important credentials for those seeking an engaging career and a secure economic future. On the other, that culture routinely depicts the university and its denizens as being out of touch with the real needs of their communities, producing and transmitting useless, abstract knowledge and standing in the way of real economic and technological progress. Perhaps no part of the university has suffered this criticism more than has the humanities. These fields, which focus on the study of language, literature, history, philosophy, religion, art, and other aspects of human culture, are routinely pointed to by public officials and other highly visible commentators as evidence of waste, of uselessness, of self-indulgence, of elitist frippery. And as a result of these twinned messages, students, educators, administrators, and funders are increasingly nudged into utilitarian approaches to higher education: students gravitate toward apparently “useful” pre-professional majors, encouraged in many cases by their understandably nervous parents who want only to ensure their students’ fully-credentialed future success; educators are required to spend more time describing and justifying their courses’ learning outcomes and less time actually helping students learn; administrators are pressed into adopting more and more quantitative metrics in order to demonstrate the success of their programs and the competitiveness of their institutions; funders are pushed to reserve support for projects and programs and institutions that provide demonstrable, and often directly economic, value.

As a result of these conditions, proponents of the humanities — many of them faculty members who have dedicated their lives to the study of these fields — have launched numerous sallies in defense of their work. These defenses typically take one of two forms. Some focus on countering the hierarchies that have been created amongst fields on campus by providing data showing that the career outcomes of humanities majors are at least as good as if not better than, for instance, those of business majors. These arguments are far too easily dismissed, however, given the deeply ingrained belief in what Robert Matz has called “the myth of the English major barista,” a bit of intertwined anecdote and ideology that appears undeterred by evidence. Worse, these arguments run the risk of inadvertently confirming the utilitarian thinking of the university’s critics, ingraining ever more deeply the notion that the goals of higher education should be directly tied to economic outcomes. The other path, which seeks to disrupt this focus on the marketplace, instead emphasizes the interpretive, critical, and ethical skills that the study of the humanities develops, skills that are increasingly necessary as students engage in today’s hypermediated, globalized, conflict-filled world. Despite these stirring encomia, however, the humanities remain marginalized, as the belief that such skills are a luxury in the current economic environment persists. Worse, the unsuccessful defenses are themselves dismissed as evidence of the degree to which professors fail to engage with the “real world,” resulting in a continued decline in the public view of the role that the humanities might play in that world.

Generous Thinking proposes to intervene in this situation in two ways: first, by demonstrating the importance of the humanities to the continued success of the twenty-first-century university; and second, by encouraging scholars in the humanities to consider the ways they communicate with the publics by which they are surrounded. It does so by reconsidering the primary mode within which the humanities have long operated: as a cluster of disciplines based in, and propelled by, critique. This is not to say scholars should abandon critical thinking; far from it. But if Bruno Latour is correct in suggesting that critique has begun to run out of steam as a means of effecting change in the world, or if Rita Felski is correct in arguing that critique’s dominance has limited the kinds of work that scholars can do — well, then what? Latour asks whether we might instantiate a new mode of scholarly work grounded in concern and care; Felski hints at the possibilities for work stemming from a much broader array of affective states. Neither, however, digs into what might be required in order for scholars to do so, or what the resulting work might look like.

That is where Generous Thinking will begin: by proposing that rooting the humanities in generosity, and in particular in the practices of thinking with rather than reflexively against both the people and the materials with which we work, might invite more productive relationships and conversations not just among scholars but between scholars and the surrounding community. Again, this is not to suggest that scholars must abandon critique or the social commitments that underwrite it, particularly in favor of an approach that might be more, as our students have it, “relatable.” After all, one might reasonably ask why the suggestions that literary studies be conducted in an easily comprehensible, jargon-free, friendly and appreciable fashion are never levied against high-energy physics. Scholars in the humanities take this resistance to difficulty in our fields as a sign of dismissal, of a refusal to take us and our work seriously. Certainly such dismissal lies behind many arguments about our field; one might see, for instance, the pointed claim of the former chairman of the NEH, Bruce Cole, who opens his assessment of what’s wrong with the humanities thusly: “Let’s face it: Too many humanities scholars are alienating students and the public with their opacity, triviality, and irrelevance.” However, in Generous Thinking, I will argue that dismissal 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, the degree to which they feel the cultures we study to be their own, leading them to want (even if unconsciously) to understand what it is that we’re up to. 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 — and that might not simply improve the standing of the humanities in the popular imagination, but dramatically transform the relationship between the university and the broader public.

Generous Thinking will begin with an introduction that surveys the state of the humanities today and its relationship both to the university in crisis and to wider public discourse. In the chapters that follow, I will use a wide range of literary, journalistic, critical, and philosophical sources to explore several specific areas in which instantiating generosity as a primary academic value might have demonstrable effects on our institutions and on our culture. The first chapter will call upon scholars to begin developing their relationships with their communities, and with one another, not by replacing critique with affective states such as empathy or optimism, each of which serves (if inadvertently) to reinscribe status-quo power relations, but rather by engaging in practices of listening. Listening has frequently been evoked in recent months as a key starting point for developing a just, inclusive society, but the philosophical and ethical significance of listening has not yet been fully explored in its application to critical scholarly work. By reframing our work as both scholars and instructors from the perspective of listeners rather than speakers, I will argue, we may create the possibility of more open, trusting, effective exchange with the communities we hope to engage.

From listening as the root of engaged critical practice, I will turn my attention to the act of reading and the ways it might be reframed through the lens of generosity. In particular, in this chapter, I will explore the possibility that we as scholars might reimagine some of the too easily discredited or dismissed modes of “popular” reading — reading for pleasure, reading for identification — as the starting point for a set of collective reading practices that focus on building community through textual engagement. Such community, extending across the boundaries of the campus, can provide scholars with richer insight into the ways that the broader audience for literature (as well as the broader audience for writing about literature) produces meaning and experiences pleasure in the act of reading. Moreover, inviting a range of readers into our work by reading with them and including them in our processes of discovery may assist in dispelling the assumption that scholarly modes of reading are irrelevant in everyday life.

Publicly engaged reading practices are one step toward the potential development of a publicly engaged humanities criticism, and so my next chapter will turn to writing as another element in scholarly practice that might benefit from being conducted in generous, open dialogue with a wider public. This is not to say that everything scholars write should be written for the public; in fact, there is good reason for scholars to direct much of their work to one another. But developing what might be thought of in relation to code-switching skills — the ability to speak comfortably both with specialists and with broader publics — is crucial, not just for individual scholars today but for the academy writ large. By working in public, by inviting general readers into our arguments, we do not simply demonstrate our relevance to the broader culture but create the potential for effecting the kinds of change our criticism wishes to promote.

Finally, I will turn my attention to the university’s role in civic life, by exploring the ways that our work might be opened up not just so that it can be accessed by others but also so that they might participate in it. In part, this chapter will focus on what has been called the citizen humanities, public projects whose interactivity allow them to do more than simply teach others, but that rather allow us to learn from them. This chapter is also concerned, however, with the university’s relationship to the public good, a phrase that is often used in institutional outreach materials but that does not always have concrete follow-through. What would it mean for a university to understand its primary function as public service? How could such an understanding be fostered in order to transform a campus culture that, at present, rewards prestige, competitiveness, and individual accomplishment? What might our campuses and the work they produce look like — and how might they be perceived — if our values were genuinely outward- rather than inward-facing?

Generous Thinking proposes just such a transformation in academic culture, beginning with the mindset of the individual scholar and extending through the structures of the institution as a whole. It begins, as we all must begin, with an open consideration of our goals as scholars, as fields, and as institutions, and it will work toward a revaluation of the relationships between the academic world and the many publics with whom we might fruitfully engage. It is a call not just for more open critical practices but for more open scholarly selves. And it is an argument that, at this hour of the world, such open, generous thinking is crucial to all of our futures.


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