Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” and Big Tent Humanities

Dear Mark,

This new Harvard report rejects the version of the humanities that welcomed you and me into the academy as graduate students in the 1990s, and that may be a good thing.

Back then, “theory” provided the means to turn humanities disciplines into very big tents, places where one felt emboldened to study just about anything. Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” departs from that recent past, offering instead an account of humanities disciplines organized around “Great Works,”  defined as “works whose transmission in our classrooms we consider vitally important” (33). It is possible to agree that this is a good idea even if canon building and list making seem to you the least interesting thing that humanities study can do. The reason? By dismantling the big tents (and especially turning away from big English), this report demands that we rethink interdisciplinary experiment as well as disciplinary curricula. The report would be even better at doing this, you rightly argue in your recent post, if the authors of “Mapping the Future” made any mention of twentieth-century humanities attention to mass media:

Exactly like their 1945 forebears [in the Redbook], these Harvard professors can only present “media” as an antagonist to the “high arts” that humanist properly study, or else as site of brave new experiments designed to bring “popular culture” into the conceptual space of “arts” they already know how to administer. For about a century, other humanists have wisely rejected these alternatives.

I agree with you, and think we’re pretty much on the same page when it comes to the strengths and weaknesses of the history of humanities study sketched by “Mapping the Future.” The report is oblivious about much that has happened in the twentieth century, but its tracking of what can persuasively be called humanist work from classical Greece through medieval Europe and the Renaissance right up to the founding of Art History as a discipline in the nineteenth century is impressive and vital. Our project to generate a 20th-century genealogy of the humanities ought to find allies in scholars capable of noting the significance of the 12th-century study of “modern fiction (Latin integumentum), along with the modern European vernaculars,” of the way 14th-century “Humanism dedicated itself to the cultivation of certain applied practices (e.g., rhetoric) deemed useful to ‘good government,’” and of a 19th-century “secular” university including “Comparative Literature and Linguistics…alongside classical philology” (12-15). It does not seem wrong to say that in this history managing cultural media is entwined with questions of managing populations, even if the Harvard authors don’t put matters quite in those terms.

They don’t put matters quite in those terms, however, and do not provide an alternative means for explaining how engagement with civic life follows from mastery of a canon. The report is premised on what, following Elaine Scarry, it calls “the simple truth that ‘the main work of the Humanities is to ensure that the [great] books are placed in the hands of each incoming wave of students and carried back out to sea’” (32-33). We submit that this “simple truth” is not a 12th century one but rather a 19th and mid-20th century way of thinking. It derives from and responds to the proliferation of mass media.

It may be that I’m just not a listmaker–I’m no more engaged by the process of deciding what books our PhD students need to know for their preliminary exams than I am in debating whether Federer belongs on the list of greatest tennis players ever. But it is hard not to conclude that limiting the impact of recent intellectual interventions to questions of what we analyze in our respective fields is, well, limiting.

As the profiles of our disciplines shrink, we might also turn to those works that magnify the discipline, sometimes known as the canon. That revisited canon would of course be duly enlarged in the light of gender, ethnic and geographical challenges made to the very notion of the canon since the 1970s. (No movement has so thoroughly and dynamically energized the Humanities as feminism, since the 1970s.) Every new work for which persuasive claims are made changes the very structure of the canon: as T. S. Eliot argued, with a new work, “something…happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it.” (32)

Russell Berman argues that the Harvard report is not interested in refighting culture wars, and that seems true to me. However, it is also worth observing that the report has absorbed a version of those wars in which what was truly at stake was objects of study rather than methods. What Berman finds bracing (“Bolder, however, than the rejection of departmental tunnel vision is the report’s call to revisit the canon.”), I find disappointing. Are we really at a moment when adding some extra books to our lists counts as bold?

Hard not to notice, moreover, that “Mapping the Future” fails to practice what it preaches: the salient cultural examples in this document are largely drawn from a hoary old collection of classical, Renaissance, and T.S. Eliot works.

Still, it does seem true that the humanities would be a different place if each unit within it were better defined by its media examples. The blurring of disciplinary boundaries that allowed one to read across media might be harder to accomplish if it was clearer that Comparative Literature had its examples and Film Studies had its examples and Art History had its examples and poaching was less easy than it could be when justified by a methodological ism. Theory could sometimes make it appear less important for scholars to discriminate between a poem and a movie and a painting. No more, the Harvard report might be read as saying.

If debates within English centered on questions about what works “we consider vitally important,” it would certainly be harder to conflate English study with Humanities study as a whole. Doing English would look incommensurate with being interdisciplinary, because disciplinary borders defined more emphatically by kinds of media examples would be harder to cross without knowing it. No more the presumption that because everything is a “text,” everything can be “read.”

If debates within English were limited to debates about canonicity, furthermore, it might be clearer that English is one small department among many others, rather than the biggest of big tents within the humanities.

When the report turns to the question of what interdisciplinary work would entail in this climate, method helpfully returns. Not, however, as a property of specific disciplines, mind you, but as a technique for moving among them. “In addition to permitting the combination of skills, interdisciplinarity, understood as a method, could be considered a skill in itself” (35). Leverage that skill, and you will see new things, be able to make new arguments about various cultural examples, and respond to changing conditions, the report suggests.

Allegiances among disciplines sometimes need to shift in order to tackle (or untangle) complex questions. Paradigm shifts or revolutions in human knowledge often came about owing to the consideration of questions or approaches that previously had been regarded as irrelevant to the understanding of any given body of material. (35)

Interdisciplinarity understood as method is the counterweight to disciplinarity associated with canonical examples. This formulation has benefits that the report only begins to perceive. It could have allowed “Mapping the Future” to offer a more persuasive account of feminism’s impact, not to mention all the other isms that altered humanities research in the second half of the twentieth century. These surely altered how we analyze our examples as much as what those examples were. From the standpoint of disciplinary distinction, however, this methodological impact was a major problem. The isms with their methods were stronger than the disciplines with their examples.

(As a sidebar, when I recently moderated a panel on interdisciplinarity at Davis, one of the matters the panelists discussed was precisely this question of whether method was the key to crossing disciplinary borders [so argued Mike Ziser, an Environmental Studies / 18th and 19th Century American Literature person] or whether examples were better at enabling dialog across disciplines defined by their methods [this was what Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, a historian on the panel described happening at a conference where scholars approached with their competing methods a particular sort of textile].)

As much as I’m intrigued by this division of labor, I repeat my complaint that the list making version of disciplinary activity is boring. That said, I am also convinced by arguments (made by, among others, you) that questions like What is film? are rightly understood as organizing disciplines and that to move among disciplines should mean considering the range of positions those questions engender. I sometimes miss the big tent that theory enabled with terms like “text” and “discourse,” but I readily acknowledge that using those terms as magic keys often leads to sloppy thinking. And I’ve certainly tried to keep the “What is” questions in the forefront of my mind as I engage in a project that deals with movies, video games, and novels in addition to position papers, surveys, maps, photographs, and other media associated with urban planning and urban studies.

Last thing I’ll say, which loops back to why the Harvard authors cannot just come out and agree that they are for our idea of training students to manage media as a way of managing populations. Yes, they’d have to read our blog to know that was our idea. This circumstantial detail aside, they would also have to agree that they were suggesting how to train a humanities workforce when they proposed their balancing act between the disciplinary curation of great works and the interdisciplinary “consideration of questions or approaches that previously had been regarded as irrelevant to the understanding of any given body of material.”

In this light, one might consider the interaction between the skills they recommend advertising to undergrads (and campus administrators) and their version of the midcentury project of molding citizen subjects. Although the authors of “Mapping the Future” describe their intervention as more modest than the Redbook (because they focus on the humanities instead of attacking general education), they reproduce a 1940s argument that the humanities help achieve “some stable understanding of the aim of life (e.g., the responsible citizen in a free society)” while enabling us to simultaneously consider “what the best way to characterize and cultivate such an aim might be” (24). This grand vision is supplemented by a more pragmatic notion of “the transferrable value of formal skills from university to the professional world beyond college”:

• the ability to absorb, analyze and interpret complex artifacts or texts, often of foreign provenance;

• the capacity to write intelligently, lucidly, and persuasively;

• the ability to participate effectively in deliberative conversation;

• the capacity to speak intelligently, lucidly and persuasively. (50)

Of course these are things we train our students to do (and we regularly proclaim as much when asked to justify our continued existence to various review and accrediting entities). But “Mapping the Future” seems so close to declaring something much more interesting, namely, that the work we do administering our disciplines and their examples within the academy might prepare us for work in cultural administration outside it. I’m struck yet again by how hard it is to take that last step. And how much clearer the necessity of doing so seems if one focuses on methods, how Humanists work, rather than on their privileged examples.

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2 thoughts on “Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” and Big Tent Humanities

  1. Pingback: Specialization is not the problem » Humanities after Hollywood

  2. Pingback: Provincializing English | Humanities / Work

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