Waiting for a New Academia

This evening I stumbled upon a blog by Stanley Fish about the “Digital Humanities.” In which Fish, an academic 50 years into the profession, wrestles with how the digital age is affecting the Humanities. His article reminded me of my studies in philosophy and my master’s education. Most of all, it had me thinking of the new academia that I’m waiting for.

You see, the plan for me was that I would go from my bachelors to masters to PhD to become a Philosophy or Literature professor. Before I was even ready to admit this to myself, my high school French teacher told me I should be some sort of Humanities professor. I liked the idea so much I started planning out my opening lecture while I sewed in our basement.

I discovered throughout my undergrad that I definitely do have a knack and passion for teaching. That’s also when I realized Philosophy is more my taste, at least to teach, than Literature. I strongly believe that the Humanities play as important a role in our daily lives as the sciences, just in a different way.

But something happened along the way. It’s the reason I’ve taken this year off of school (and will be at least taking next year off as well). Since positive statements are usually better, I think it’s best to say that I realized that I want to be part of a different kind of academia.

Fish’s blog touches on what’s at stake for me. In his blog he wrestles with modern and postmodern opinions about the Humanities. Though he focuses most on definitions of what a text is and what role the author plays, he articulates two sides of academia.

On Fish’s side (or the modern side), there is an academia that sees knowledge as definitive, comprehensive, monumental and original. Only credentialed individuals (ie PhDs or those seeking PhDs) are creating meaning. The knowledge they give us is meant to be taught, learned and lived by others. Only other credentialed individuals are really able to enter into dialogue with or challenge this “knowledge.” Their response must be equally definitive, comprehensive…etc.

On the other side is the postmodern or digital humanities take on academia, it sees knowledge as provisional, ephemeral, interactive, communal, available to challenge, interruption and  interpolation.  As Fish summarizes, “Meaning [is] everywhere and nowhere, produced not by anyone but by everyone in concert, meaning not waiting for us at the end of a linear chain of authored thought in the form of a sentence or an essay or a book, but immediately and multiply present in a cornucopia of ever-expanding significances.” In short, everyone whether they have a PhD or not, whether they write a long argumentative book or a blog, contributes to the development of knowledge. Whether an idea is original is not as important as whether or not it is alive, active in our society.

Between these two sides, I stand near the digital humanities (that is leaving alone the extremes which Fish brings up in his article like the idea that there is no individual and no real text, that so much communication from so many directions and so much movement in knowledge ultimately means there is no communication at all and no real knowledge-that I disagree with).* Of course, considering the generational gap between Fish and I this isn’t surprising but I like to believe I have a better reason for feeling that way than just our age difference.

The more I studied philosophy, the more I saw it all around me and in history.  The more we talked about and debated postmodernity the more I realized how much our lives are in dialogue with it. I’ve become convinced that individuals, communities, key moments in history, etc are all wrapped up in philosophy and play a role in writing philosophy (in different ways and degrees, of course). I’m sure this can be said of so many more disciplines.

The beauty of education, especially in the Humanities, is it does this, right? It makes us so much more aware of our reality and the multiple layers of our experiences and existence. Also, it helps us to see the intersection and interconnection between these layers. As we become more aware, we often become more reflective. We realize our choices have ripple effects and that they carry more weight. So, we try to choose more wisely.

At least, it has the potential to do this. Here’s the problem: Fish’s academia, modern academia, is too buttoned up and exclusive. After students graduate they can quickly lose that sense of its relevance because they aren’t included in the dialogue anymore. They can quickly become disillusioned by what they learned because all that decisive, comprehensive, definitive, monumental, isolated knowledge doesn’t make as much sense in a world that is so often provisional, ephemeral, interactive and communal.

Along with that there are two other problems. One) Higher education has become overpriced. Even though we’re in a serious recession prices keep rising for no good reason. (Besides their belief that they need more bells and whistles to continue attracting students and need to convince all people it is a necessity instead of a commodity). Two) I disagree with a liberal arts education being advertised as job training. It’s dishonest and ridiculous. The concept of Liberal Arts education was constructed around the idea that higher education is much more than job training. The purpose was not to create a good worker, it was to create a better human being. Advertising it as something else sets ups false expectations for most students. I know enough people my age who regret the debt they accrued for an education that was, for all practical purposed quite useless, at least in relation to their career which it was supposed to relate to.

So I’m waiting a little, until academia is more primed for a new kind of academia. That’s more responsibly priced, more honestly marketed, and more postmodern. Or until I’m ready to concede a little bit.

*At another time I’m sure I’ll share with you why I disagree with this.

4 thoughts on “Waiting for a New Academia

  1. A few years ago in the cafeteria, I recall a piano major talking about learning the craft when she was a child. During her finger exercises, the instructor adamantly told her (as all piano instructors should) that she could never use a certain finger to reach over to a certain key. After years of advancing in piano, the teacher suddenly gives her a “just kidding, you can actually use that finger to play that key!” The purpose of that is that, had she used the taboo finger stroke early on as she was learning to play, she wouldn’t have gotten the complete conceptual rules of playing the piano, which can possibly lead players exponentially astray, leaving them with subpar and unmastered playing hands.

    I read Fish’s article and though I’ve only gotten a fleeting gist of the discussion, I lean more toward Fish’s discretion and stand on the humanities and how it should be taught. The definition of “digital humanities” wasn’t clear (as at first I thought it was about merely the medium, but obviously it’s something larger than that), but it doesn’t seem everlasting, and more importantly, seems to lack completion.

    Like anything worth learning, structure is important. Though there is a place for discourse in every class or lesson, I think there’s value in the absolute headship of a teacher or professor. Once they take you under their wing, you just have to trust them to escort you to completion.

    I’m not against productive dialogue nor am I against a perpetual exchange of ideas intersecting a hundred times over, but if there is a movement for it (whatever “it” is) to entirely replace how the humanities is usually taught, it’s possible that it could lead to an Huxleyan education that is nothing but meaningless noise.
    It isn’t until we reach completion that we can understand and utilize the exceptions without them leading us astray.

  2. I appreciate your response but you’re taking my opposition and critique of Fish too far. I said I didn’t entirely agree with the postmodern, digital humanities side. I don’t. They do go too far, to a place where meaning and structure both begin to disappear. But I’m pretty sure I stated that. And I put added a footnote saying I’d take it up another time.

    Nowhere did I imply that teachers shouldn’t be leading or structuring their classes. They should be. It drove me crazy when my professors didn’t and usually I then tried to play that role.

    What I was critiquing extends beyond teaching styles and the classroom. I was critiquing academia itself which is a world onto itself comprised of so much more than teaching. Just as Fish was talking about much more than teaching.For many academics teaching is just how they make money to support being an academic. Their scholarly work is their career.

    My critique, in short, is that academia is often too insular. And in being so it quickly becomes irrelevant once you step out of it. Not entirely irrelevant. Your knowledge stays with you but you get excluded from the dialogue unless you want to read academic journal heavily laden with academic jargon (which varies between disciplines and can sometimes seem as foreign as Latin). The benefit of the digital humanities, even if those people go to far, is that they’re encouraging a broader dialogue. For example, academia may at times study pop culture or media but usually it isn’t in dialogue with it. Many disciplines within academia itself aren’t even in much dialogue often. Like how in my anthropology class master’s students where being blow away by ‘new’ knowledge that they could’ve learned from philosophy decades ago.

    What I care about is not just the dialogues going on in the classroom, though of course they matter, but the dialogue between universities and culture. Between academics and the world. The digital humanities isn’t entirely doing this. It’s going to another extreme that can be just as problematic BUT it’s opening the door for the possibility.

  3. “(that is leaving alone the extremes which Fish brings up in his article like the idea that there is no individual and no real text, that so much communication from so many directions and so much movement in knowledge ultimately means there is no communication at all and no real knowledge-that I disagree with).*”

    I must have been confused because I didn’t understand what you were disagreeing with. The extremes Fish brings up, or if you’re disagreeing with the statement that “so much communication from so many directions and so much movement in knowledge ultimately means there is no communication at all and no real knowledge.”

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