what goes on in English departments

An emailer to the Atlantic‘s notes section, self-described as “a graduate student in the humanities at a major Midwestern research university,” writes:

The idea, to put it simply, is that the way we represent people, places, and things is as important—if not more important—than reality itself.

In fact, reality is actually itself shaped by the way it is represented.  Thus, making use of clichés and stereotypes, using a word that contains certain connotations, or even simply speaking at all without the proper qualifications (primarily based on gender/race/class identity) may not just be questions of taste but, instead, potentially grave acts of violence.

Some may remember that in the 1990s, this formed the basis for a broad debate in academia over the merits of what was generally referred to as “postmodernism.”  This debate is pretty much over, partially due to the turnover of older professors trained in materialist methodologies retiring and being replaced by younger scholars who enthusiastically embrace the priorities of the “cultural turn.”

This is a frustrating attitude. Not because it criticizes a reality I agree with, but because it does not describe a reality I recognize. The fact of the matter is, there are all kinds of things happening in the liberal arts and social sciences that have nothing to do with the cultural turn, and all you have to do is be bothered to look for them. But because there are so many people invested in pretending that there is nothing but the cultural turn and “postmodernism,” whatever that even means, they don’t get discussed. The humanities today are defined in the public imagination by a terribly limiting definition of the actual working getting done, despite the fact that much of what is happening is precisely what sighing commentators say they want. This email epitomizes that position.

I happens that I have recently completed my doctorate in the humanities at a major Midwestern research university. Not just the humanities, but an English department. Surely, that must be the darkest pit of the “authoritarian turn” in the liberal arts, right? A place where nothing but wooly postmodernism and viciously-enforced identity politics reigns.

No. Quite the contrary, in fact. Within Purdue’s English department, you have people who, like me, are primarily quantitative researchers. I spent my last several years there working in assessment theory, spending a healthy amount of my time taking graduate statistics courses and learning the ins and outs of algorithmic approaches to language research. This learning was not only not resisted by my faculty or department, but was widely and enthusiastically supported. My friend Xun, one of the most brilliant quantitative minds I’ve ever interacted with, spent his career as an English PhD student at Purdue almost exclusively working in testing theory, psychometrics, and statistics. He’s since gone on to a great job in another Big Ten school. My friend Ploy is working on her dissertation now, having pursued a similar path. Many other students in the department pursue some engagement with quantification, mixing it with more traditional English methodologies, learning skills that they may have to apply in their research or their administrative service in the future. Though I have occasionally received skepticism from people in my broader field about this work, I in fact find that the overwhelming response has been positive and receptive.

Quantitative work remains a niche in English, of course, and probably should; we don’t want to try to save the humanities  by making them something else than the humanities. But there are dozens of paths to pursue that are neither numbers-based nor emblematic of the cultural turn. We have many students studying rhetoric here, examining the arts of persuasion, looking at ways in which motivated arguers persuade or fail to persuade an audience. We have experts in composition, who study how better to teach within, administer, and assess university writing programs. We have people studying technical communication, working with scientists and engineers and programmers on how to relay complex technical ideas to an untrained audience. We have scholars devoted to business writing, who work with students on how to understand the complex and subtle communicative codes of the workplace. Our building houses the Indigenous and Endangered Languages Lab, where thousands of hours of audio of endangered or extinct languages has been collected and analyzed, some of it the last remaining record of these languages in the whole world. We have people working in visual rhetoric, asking how design cues make various kinds of texts more readable, more stylish, and more persuasive. We’ve got people looking at how reading text on computers, tablets, and phones alters the reading experience. My  friend Kyle is looking at disasters as the product of breakdowns in written communication, studying how incidents like the Challenger explosion could have been prevented with more effective written communication. Another friend is examining decades worth of trial transcripts concerning expert witnesses to see how expertise is defined in a courtroom and how that definition influences legal outcomes.

We also have plenty of people doing the traditional humanistic work that critics so often say they want. We have people studying literature and the arts for their aesthetic value and meaning, undertaking historical analysis and close reading of precisely the kind that the people mourning the good old days ask for. We have people workshopping novels and poetry. We have plenty of people looking at the work of the old dead white guys, if that’s what this is really about. And, yes, we do have people looking at the world through a lens of critical race theory and feminism. Many. I don’t see that as a problem. In fact, much of this work is profoundly generative and necessary. Like all disciplines, these fields contain both better and worse, but the basic notion that we should consider the role of race and gender and similar issues in society seems beyond obvious to me. I do think, and have said, that my own subfield’s manic embrace of cultural studies has led to many negative consequences, and that we need to re-broaden our subjects and our methods. I do recognize that the urge to politicize everything can be overpowering. But plenty of people are doing other kinds of work, and if people like myself continue to advocate for the need for balance and diversity in our approach, that condition will continue.

And it’s worth saying: even in the world of theory, the kind of postmodern nothing-is-realism that typical complaints caricature is hopelessly out of fashion. People are at least a couple turns of the generational cycle away from there now. I’m out of touch with that world, but it’s worth saying at least that the world of theory has been through a robust rejection of the linguistic turn that the emailer skewers. You sometimes see this referred to as the “new materialism”: the insistence by theorists, so often derided as rejecting reality entirely, that we have to pay attention to the structure of the world as its experienced by most people and to have an accounting for that structure that enables us to do ethical work. Donna Haraway, one of the key architects of the new materialism, once put the challenge this way: “to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects… and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world, one that can be partially shared and friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness.” That sounds like a project worth embracing to me. Yes, Haraway insists that knowledge claims are radically contingent — that our understanding of the world is necessarily situated in a context which limits our understanding and shapes how we describe it. But she also insists that we can’t make progress without being no nonsense in developing accounts for how the real world works. Karen Barad, another new materialist whose doctorate is not in English but particle physics, titled a profoundly influential article on these themes “Getting Real.”

Why do these stories not get told? I’m not sure why this anonymous email critic isn’t aware of the vast world of non-cultural studies work going on in the humanities. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say he (and it’s probably a he) is one of the academy’s legion of disgruntled types who believes himself to be an undiscovered genius whose work is ignored because of a powerful political conspiracy. But in general, why do the many critics of the modern humanities, like Steven Pinker, still describe English departments the way they looked in the 1980s? Because though they say they dislike that condition, they are comfortable with that narrative; it is easy to ridicule and easy to dismiss. Much of the media has a party line, when it comes to the academy, and emails like the one at the top pretty much epitomize it: that the liberal arts are universally about left-wing pomo nonsense. Actually bothering to look and see if that’s true is harder than simply getting all of the anti-academic pageviews they’ve specialized in. You see, reform requires actual investment. It requires work. You actually have to care enough to dig in and get your hands dirty and see both the good and the bad. Far more fun, and far easier, just to wave your hand and deride without bothering to look.

Speaking of reform.  A follow-up emailer writes in to the Atlantic:

The position that the student takes, which I believe to be well-founded and fair, cannot really be taken with one’s name attached to it, especially if the speaker is a graduate student.

This is an interesting position. I myself have criticized the cultural turn, by name, in print, when I was nothing else but a graduate student. I have done so at conferences, on my own website here, in my own department, and in mailing lists that include some of the most influential and connected scholars in my field. I have tried to be as public in my arguments for reform as I can be, under the theory that this is necessary to invoke the public to make real change. I don’t have tenure. In fact I don’t even have a long-term job; I’m currently teaching semester to semester as a limited term lecturer. Could there be some career repercussions for publicly questioning the current state of my field? Sure, I guess. But that’s adult life; you say what you think is right and you sign your name to it and accept the consequences. If these emailers want to be part of a reform effort, then they need to have the integrity to say so, publicly, by name. If you’re not brave enough to speak your criticisms publicly, then you don’t deserve to consider yourself an agent of change. And if they’d bother to look beyond the very narrow confines of a certain vision of the research elite, I think they’d find they have a lot of allies doing tons of vital work.