Here’s a collection of random books from around my office, all of which have recently been a part of some sort of academic work of mine — my dissertation, articles I am trying to send out, a book proposal, or most of all, the hundreds of pages stuffed into my hard drive of ideas and arguments and explorations that will never bend themselves into a form that will permit me to share them.
Showing books is always, in some ways, a brag. I suppose I can dilute that element a bit just by saying that I have not read some of these cover-to-cover, and have no intention of doing so, and also that in each of them, there is some aspect that I barely or don’t understand. Beyond that, I accept that this is a brag.
With that aside, I share them simply to demonstrate the variety of intellectual and mental work that I have been permitted to do, these past 6 years of graduate education, and to use that variety as an answer to a question I hear a lot. Typically, when people out there in internet land hear the name of my field, they laugh at it. (Take, for example, this emailer to Andrew Sullivan, and to salve my ego, read also these responses to him.) That’s OK. When I made the decision to go into grad school, I knew that “grad student” generally and “humanities grad student” especially are codes, in our culture, that attract ridicule. I’ve written about my decision to go before, so I won’t belabor the point, but the long and the short of it is that if you try and do something that you think will bring meaning and purpose to your life, people will savage you for it these days. And savage they may: the last six years of my life have been the happiest and healthiest I have enjoyed since my very early childhood.
Still, the question “why do you study that?,” and a more sophisticated version, remain permanent fixtures of this double life I’m living as an academic and a blogger. The more sophisticated version comes from those who understand the labor and institutional conditions of the contemporary university. Since I have interest in, and growing competency for, using algorithms and coding languages to analyze text, why not pursue a degree outside of the humanities, such as in dedicated linguistics departments or quantitative social science programs, or in those rare slices of the humanities that retain an amount of sexiness, like the digital humanities? You seem to do a certain kind of work, the thinking goes, and that kind of work could be done in fields that are more likely to result in permanent employment, and the kind that are more likely to get respect from the kind of people like that Dish emailer. So why didn’t you go to a department like that?
Well, to be clear: I’ve applied for jobs in those fields and would consider taking them, if offered, though I wouldn’t at all give them priority over jobs in my current field. I would weight the pros and cons just like any job. But as to why I didn’t start out in those fields given the perceived employment and prestige advantages… The first response is the most pragmatic, which is that these questions presume that I could have gotten into those programs when I started. I’m not suggesting that my current program is easy to get into; in fact, if I can again get away with appearing to brag, it’s very hard. What I mean is that I didn’t discover interest in, and facility for, some of the things I do until I was already here. I learned that I liked this stuff, and have ability (if not talent) to do it, while I was exploring within rhetoric and composition. (More on that in a sec.) I doubt I could have gotten into some of the programs that people think I should have applied to, in large part because they wouldn’t have had any reason to. Second, while I recognize the sense in which these fields are sexier and more in keeping with the zeitgeist, it’s not at all clear to me that there actually would be a job market advantage in pursuing them. While my field has suffered as the entire humanities have, and especially in the great contraction of post-2008, the labor market is about as healthy as the humanities get these days. It happens that the world still needs to train young people in how to argue and write, perhaps now more than ever. I am simultaneously amused and disturbed by people who presume that, because we are living in a world of a thousand facile arguments for teaching kids to code, we have suddenly lost the need to teach people to express themselves in writing and to make good arguments when they do so. As much pressure is being brought to bear by the Scott Walkers of the world, there are still enough people who recognize that we need to train communicators, citizens, and human beings, though I admit that this conviction is deeply threatened.
More important are these two points. First, I deeply value a lot of the work that goes down in my field, and the presumption that a lot of it isn’t useful or rigorous simply reflects the pervasive bias of our times. And it isn’t even just that I find them valuable because I am at heart a humanist who believes in the traditional values of the liberal arts. Even many among the jaded who believe that we have nothing left to learn from the humanities could be persuaded to see the importance and pragmatism of what many of my colleagues are doing, if they could just open their minds a little bit. There’s so much of interest going on. My professor Thomas Rickert, for example, recently published a book called Ambient Rhetoric. Rhetoric is typically defined (when it isn’t mistaken as being necessarily a matter of deception) as the means of persuasion. That tends to create a certain narrowness in how we define the rhetorical situation: who is speaking, and to whom, and for what purpose. Rickert argues that there are a vast number of ambient features in which arguments take place that constantly shape their outcomes. Or look at a friend of mine, whose dissertation research is about communicative failure in large institutions, particularly corporations. What causes communication breakdowns in large businesses? Where do communicative failures occur, and why, and what are the consequences? There is so much interesting work being done, but none of it will be absorbed by those who have decided that the only knowledge of value these days comes out of algorithms. And I say that as someone who is waiting for an algorithm to finish spitting out its results at this very second.
Finally, though, there’s this: the books that you see above. Because to me, they symbolize freedom. True, immense, academic freedom, the freedom to explore all the different ways in which language and communication and persuasion intermingle. That’s what I’ve gained from being in my program and being in my field. There are a lot of departments in the world where I would receive great teaching and mentorship and support, but very few where I would be the recipient of the kind of freedom that’s been extended to me. I mean I have friends in educational psychology, for example, who are in great, supportive programs where they and their peers do innovative and important work. But they tell me plainly: they’ll be chasing a particular p value their whole life. That’s indicative of what constitutes success in their field. My faculty have always had a straightforward response to my own efforts to learn and research stuff that seems remote from what the field is about: you have to finish our curriculum, but otherwise go for it. When I said I had to take a class just in applied regression analysis, that it was important for me, they said, cool. Go for it. When I said that I was going to take some time to start teaching myself (sllloooowwwllllyyyy) to code in R, they said, cool. Good luck. They have had warnings and advice — remember your exams; remember that you have to write a dissertation — but they always encouraged me to follow my own inquiry. They were sometimes afraid that the people who would eventually be reviewing my credentials might not understand who I was as an academic, and not without cause. But they told me to go for it. In many of the fields people think I would better belong in, if I asked to take a course in classical rhetoric, the answer would be, what on earth for? And yet I have learned, from my limited, partial, and ultimately amateur dalliances with the social sciences and computation that my course in that subject was invaluable. Nobody here has ever told me no. And in a world where more and more people seem to define a field’s seriousness by the narrowness with which it defines success, that’s a blessing.
That great narrowing is, for me and for so many others, a great sadness. It is also an unnecessary one. As the man said, there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening. Nothing powers the growing threat to the humanities more than the widespread perception that they are threatened, often expressed by those who aver that they would change that condition if they could. I fixate on subjects like the STEM shortage myth because they demonstrate the danger of turning vast presumptions about the nature of knowledge and human progress into soundbites. So often, these arguments fly in the face of the very approach to human knowledge that they lionize. That is, they call for enumeration, but fail to provide meaningful numbers to defend their claims; they champion the rigor of certain fields, but apply none in that championing; they place “data,” whatever that is, on a pedestal, and yet assume great changes in the human economy without bringing any of it to bear. What could be more indicative of contemporary times than the growing throng of data journalists who run regression analyses while seeming barely to understand how to do so, or why? In an age of Tom Friedman-style aphoristic deepities, spouted endlessly by the most powerful people in the world at Davos or Aspen, wisdom and skepticism are not outmoded tools of a lesser age. They are the only life raft left available.
It happens that I have gotten a few bites, lately, a few institutions and businesses who are, perhaps, interested in putting coin in my palm to continue to do the work I have set out to do. Some are academic and some aren’t. Nothing is certain, and nothing may come of it. For now the interest is enough; I find that merely being asked “who are you?” brings a kind of gratitude I can hardly express. I began all of this with a simple reality about myself: that there are things I have to know, and things I have to share, and they come from all over the world of the mind. Maybe they will continue to let me make a little money doing those things, and may be they won’t. Either way, I’m prepared. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Today, I’m exactly where I need to be.