Humanities in service of others, pt 2

This post elaborates on an idea I wrote about last week, namely that framing the intellectual work of the humanities as a service to others (other people, other disciplines, other causes) might free us from the current bind of fixating, either positively or negatively, on the uselessness of the humanities. The word “service” might sound sacrilegious, but humanities scholarship—as interested as it is in the arts—is not itself art, so why should it have the privilege (I almost typed the ‘luxury’) of uselessness accorded to the arts?

Let’s not even raise the issue of university funding and employment. Let’s talk about the marketplace of ideas. Great ideas are not only intellectually sound, but they are, in the academic parlance, “productive.” That is, they break new ground, provoke debate, suggest further areas of study, and even reanimate fields that have gone fallow. Come to think of it, great ideas often may not be bulletproof, but they still possess the power to create something of a cottage industry across different disciplines. (See Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.)

The truth is, although humanities scholars tend to be allergic to the word “useful,” the currency in this economy has an undeniable use-value (valuable, as Marx defines it, “only in its use”). In fact, academics are trained to spell out the use-value of their ideas to interested audiences. This work entails describing the state of their research area(s) to date; explaining how their particular intervention promises to shake things up; and then suggesting further questions for others to tackle, in light of their contribution. In this way, an academic publication doesn’t aim to be the last word on a topic, but an invitation to engagement.

This consideration brings us closer to what I mean about putting humanities “to service,” although commonly scholars generally think primarily about serving colleagues in their field or related disciplines. What does it look like when the humanities are put in service of “outsiders”? Here are the examples that I promised in my last post:

The first is an anecdote from my grad student days, when I worked as a teaching assistant in an interdisciplinary course on Caribbean culture. Although the professor teaching the class was employed by a literature department, some of the assigned texts and discussion topics might be thought of as belonging more properly to a history or economics course. In fact, the final two units dealt with the Cuban socialist revolution and the institution of neoliberal economic policies in the region as a whole. In the latter unit, students were exposed to economic theory via papers written by economists, but instead of having them graph supply and demand curves, they we had them evaluate neoliberalism in light of songs by Bob Marley and a literary polemic by Jamaica Kincaid.

Yes, this is exactly the kind of stuff that makes some parents and students shudder to write out those tuition checks, but let me explain. The point of the unit was not to teach students the ins and outs of economic models (that’s best left to the economists themselves), but to expose them, via the arts, to the human impact of those theories. So let’s take Kincaid’s A Small Place. It’s most broadly described as a meditation on the impact of colonialism on the island of Antigua, but for me its power lies not its specific lessons on Antigua, or even its more general critique on colonialism. What stands out for me, rather, is Kincaid’s searing commentary on the tourism industry. After I read the work as an undergrad, I experienced my travels as a changed person. A Small Place unmasks the complex relationship between tourist and “natives” and leads readers to understand how even the most well-meaning, culturally sensitive travelers enter immediately into a hierarchical relationship with the places they visit. Tourists are inescapably complicit in an industry that at once exploits and benefits the inhabitants of places such as Antigua. There are no simple answers to the ethical questions raised by tourism, and that’s why Kincaid’s book provides great fodder for debate. Is this lesson worth the price of college tuition? Well, that is a pandora’s box in itself, so I will say this: that such conversations cover ground untouched by business conferences on travel and tourism. There were quite a few business majors in that course, and I overheard some of them chatting about how they “never talk about these things” in their business and economics courses.

My second example comes from more recent memory. Congressman Todd Akin was in the news this summer because of his assertion that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant (diminishing the  need for abortions in cases of rape). Days after the story broke, historians of science in the UK and the US published articles revealing how Akin’s comments fall right in line with medieval beliefs on human reproduction and female sexuality. Basically, medieval medicine believed that the female orgasm was necessary for conception, so the logic is that in a rape situation, when the woman isn’t excited by her assailant, she wouldn’t be open to receiving his sperm. As Prof. Jennifer Tucker explains, this theory had an unfortunate legal ramification: women who fell pregnant after being raped were legally considered not to have been raped in the first place. In this example, you can see how humanities scholars add to the conversation a dimension outside the purview of science. Where medical science is concerned with understanding the nuts and bolts of the human reproductive system, historians of science give a long-view of that process, unmasking how science doesn’t always get things exactly right, and how those misconceptions have a very real impact on female bodies. The fact there are people in the twenty-first century who continue to hold erroneous views on human reproduction remind us just how persistent false beliefs and misguided views of the female body can be, and why we cannot afford to bid goodbye to feminism as a relic of the past.

In closing, let me steer blog readers to the series of talks that got me thinking about all this in the first place. Here is the publication of a roundtable organized by Prof. Teresa Mangum called Making a Case for the Humanities. The panelists share a range of provocative ideas that range that are both highly pragmatic (PR tips on different ways to get your message “out there”) and quite revolutionary (I am especially interested in Susan Jeffords’ ideas for a matrix organization wherein humanities scholars would be integrated in departments around the university while remaining on their discipline’s tenure track).

I like to think of this blog as part of my “service” as a student of the humanities, and in that spirit, I hope that my last couple of posts (and everything under the category of “Big Ideas“) invite your thoughts.


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