Author Archives: john

3. Humanists Should Aspire to Balance (which is to say Manage) Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Imperatives

Dear Mark,

I’ve been struggling with the scale of item 3. I’d love to suggest that this was mostly your fault, but you’re totally right that the Redbook authors are the ones responsible for binding matters of governmentality, normalization, and the notion of merit. We would do well to recognize that accomplishment. You wrote,

3. In claiming “the opportunity to rise through education to the level of one’s merits” as a unifying force, Harpham rhetorically sublates tendencies the Red Book presents as opposites in need of balancing. Centrally, it weighs the “Jeffersonian” principle of “discovering and giving opportunity to the gifted student” against the “Jacksonian” principle of “raising the level of the average student” (27). The authors stake the nation’s future on balancing these opposing imperatives: “The hope of the American school system, indeed of our society, is precisely that it can pursue two goals simultaneously: give scope to ability and raise the average. Nor are these two goals so far apart, if human beings are capable of common sympathies” (35). “Unity” thus becomes the central problem, and “general education,” its instrument. Harpham does not err in pointing out that Red Book-era rhetoric made meritocracy, democracy, and training in the humanities appear to coincide. But he empties that achievement and reduces it, precisely, to a cliché, by underplaying the “Jacksonian” imperative. No merit without normalization, the Red Book reminds us. If the Jeffersonian principle looks to individuals, the Jacksonian considers populations. General eduction, in contrast to Jeffersonian specialized education, was to be a unifying instrument for populations, and not so much a meritocratic one for individuals. “Democracy” in the Red Book is not centrally a problem of “self-government,” rather, it is a question of proper training, a management proposition (see, e.g., 93).

You would make managers of us all.

Certainly, the contemporary tendency is to separate Jeffersonian and Jacksonian imperatives rather than to balance them.

Exhibit A: pressure on community colleges to stop thinking of themselves as part of higher ed more generally and consider themselves a venue where people are trained for “middle-skill jobs.” Writing in The New York Times, Joe Nocera argues that for community colleges the “raison d’être has always been to help grease the wheels of social mobility.” Once, “in their earlier incarnation,” community colleges did this by serving as “a passageway to a university degree. (They used to be called junior colleges, after all.)” Now, however, “with the skills gap such a pressing problem — and a high school education so clearly inadequate for the modern economy — the task of teaching those skills is falling to community colleges. There really isn’t another institution as well positioned to play that role.” Nocera seems fine with that. Better than fine: “Community colleges can be our salvation, if only we let them.” To think of community colleges this way brackets “training” as well as Jackson. Training here includes, “important soft skills that the upper-middle-class take for granted, like how to interact with colleagues in an office setting.” Behave like a Jefferson, even if your average ability keeps you from attending his university. (You wrote in your last post that “The proposition that a healthy nation needs general education that includes the humanities is alive and well.” I don’t disagree, but do think we’re in the process of restricting who gets that general education beyond high school.)

Exhibit B: we are tasked with understanding how democracy and higher ed intersect every time the liberal arts college gets exported to non-democratic polities (NYU in Abu Dhabi, etc.). We are further compelled to wonder if Jacksonian principles of raising the average are in peril in the likes of Quebec, where the daily protests of French-speaking college students and would-be college students have garnered administrative/governmental responses ranging from stick (managing the blow of tuition increases with new formats for student debt) to bigger stick (new laws that criminalize protest). Much talk in the papers recently about whether and how the student strikes will shape elections in the fall. Is this the democracy the Redbook was talking about?

Your point, regardless of whether these ripped from the headlines Exhibits seem germane, was that Harpham underplays the Jacksonian side of the equation. “No merit without normalization, the Red Book reminds us,” you write in 3. And in your last post you continued the thought in claiming,

We have not arrived at a new day in which established defenses of general education, talent, and “critique” have lost all traction. What has broken down are the mechanisms conjoining these rhetorics (ideologies?) with the actual practice of humanists, who look most out of touch not in the content of our scholarship (who reads most of it anyway?), but in the institutional configurations we tend to defend. Defend is the right word. Where’s the offense? This Chronicle headline may be relevant.

It is possible that the bond market agrees with you. Moody’s not only expects “governance and leadership clashes to increase in coming years as the [education] sector’s ability to grow revenues dwindles,” but also argues that at UVA “the final resolution affirms the stability of the university’s faculty-centric governance model that will allow it to continue to effectively compete with the nation’s leading universities for top students, faculty, research grants and philanthropic support.”

“’Democracy’ in the Red Book is not centrally a problem of ‘self-government,'” you argue, “rather, it is a question of proper training, a management proposition (see, e.g., 93)”.

I agree with this and find it offers tantalizing propositions to rethink the role of faculty as managers and maybe even teaching as a form of administration. The Redbook authors urge us to “hold firmly in mind the final purpose of all education: to improve the average and speed the able while holding common goals before each” (90). That is, absolutely, a management problem. It can be difficult to think about the relationship between what goes on in the undergraduate classroom or in the curriculum with what is happening in boardrooms at UVA and in the streets of Montreal. I wonder how much that disconnect owes to the conceptual separation of teaching and service (as the administrative portion of our job is bizarrely known), and with the institutional bifurcation of managerial and professorial labor. I’ll lean just slightly farther out on this branch with help from an entry to that Chronicle forum on inequality. Anthony Carnevale asserts that “College education is becoming a passive participant in the reproduction of economic privilege. Taken one at time, postsecondary institutions are fountains of opportunity; taken together, they are a highly stratified bastion of privilege.” The problem here, it seems, is one of passivity as much as inequality. Or, the problem is passivity that keeps us from thinking about the sort of inequality (we call it meritocracy) we’re invested in and could be more aggressively managing.

Let me wind up this (rambling) post with my favorite passage in the Redbook. On page 98, the authors provide a vision of the America they think their model of higher education might produce and reproduce.

An ideal but not impossible vision of American society might see it as made up of myriad smaller societies representing between them all the arts and insights, all the duties and self-dedications, of civilized men. It would be in order that they might participate in some of these, quite as much as for making a living, that education would prepare young people, and this participation would in turn be the door to the good life.

There’s surely a complicated genealogy behind this model, but what strikes me is how the Redbook appears to consider the movement of students among classrooms and majors as a kind of training for participation in more various large and small societies upon graduation. What a compelling balance of Jackson and Jefferson: the Jacksonian common goal of Jeffersonian differentiation both organizes the Redbook university and the Redbook society.


2. A Jeffersonian Matter? Shrinking colleges, shifting dollars to K-12.

Dear Mark,

Your question 2. about General Education in a Free Society reads as follows:

2. In Harpham’s account, the Red Book seems of a piece with the good old days of taxpayer supported higher-ed, but by far the strongest funding argument happens in chapter 3, where the authors note that inadequacies in state funding for what we would now call K-12 education mean that “out of every hundred young people between six and nine are good college material but do not reach college” (88). The argument here is not “college for all” but “America needs talent”: it is wasting youths that could succeed in college if only their parents could afford to get them through high school. Has Harpham considered that reclaiming midcentury clichés might logically mean shrinking the number of college students and, perhaps, shifting dollars to K-12?

I am going to treat this as a Jeffersonian question, leaving the Redbook’s consistent counterpoint of normalization and the Jacksonian goal of “raising the level of the average student” (27) to our discussion of 3.

I’ll speak to my sense of Harpham on this in a moment, but in general I would say two things about the status of “America needs talent.”

First, I think the conventional wisdom today outside academia is very much “college for all,” with considerable disagreement on how to fund that goal and whether you get a residential experience to go with your course credits. Populists on the left and right privilege “accessibility.” This term morphs according to the user. A Fox News editorial supporting the ouster of UVA President Sullivan propounds, “Simply put, high-quality universities have become too expensive and increasingly inaccessible because their presidents and other top leaders have failed to recognize and address the challenges and opportunities posed to their institutions by new technologies.” On the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act, the Carnegie Corporation has put out a press release concerning new poll data that shows “3 out of 4 Americans Feel Higher Education Should Be a Right.”

That may be how Americans feel, but will they pay for it? In California at least K-12 funding is what gets people to the polls. Or so our Governor hopes. He’s using a threat to cut K-12 spending as a stick to encourage voters to support tax hikes. Meanwhile, we may soon have a state budget that boosts funding to higher ed if the UC and CSU systems don’t raise tuition any more.

It appeals to me to think of this question of “college for all” v. “America needs talent” in terms of broader thinking about meritocracy. Has college stopped seeming like an engine for generating meritocratic hierarchy? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? There is, I’m hoping, a Chris Hayes “America After Meritocracy” angle to the question of how humanities cliches relate to the politics of academic funding. Hayes argues that universities have gotten worse at talent spotting as test prep and application coaching programs blur the good and the great (and leave those who cannot pay for test prep and application coaching out in the cold). He goes further, contending that the ideal of meritocratic mobility “runs up against the reality of…the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible.”

For Harpham’s part, I confess to not having finished his The Humanities and the American Dream yet, but so far the closest he gets to this question is in a chapter adapted from a talk he gave at the University of Richmond. There, he rehearsed the cliches of liberal arts education with its “critiquing, probing, testing, speculating” (132). He ties those skills to professionalization but not to meritocracy per se. The “liberal arts faculty,” he contends, “was brought into being by the desire to professionalize knowledge” (135). He has his eye, I presume, on the mid-century field-definers we talk about too in our work in progress. For liberal arts faculty alarmed about the rise of the professional schools, he argues, “the glass is half-full. For if the liberal arts are already professionalized, then the intrusion of professional education into the curriculum does not constitute a second fall of man, and a productive collaboration may be feasible without either side’s having to capitulate” (136). Of the examples he offers, the executive training team Movers and Shakespeares is especially intriguing. “A two-person mom-and-pop company,” in Harpham’s characterization, “founded on the premise that in order to be a good leader, one must understand people, and that Shakespeare understood people better than anyone” (139). So many thoughts come to mind. Among them, reflecting back on your post from a couple of weeks ago: here’s Shakespeare as an example for you. Certainly, the humanities in this usage (or English in this usage, lest you accuse me of conflating the humanities and English [perish the thought]), are on the side of professional-managerial differentiation.

As for the Redbook, as you say the authors of this volume see high school as a sorting mechanism, and hope that it makes clear who has the talent to attend college and who is but one of those “young people of average intelligence…not suited for the traditional college,” rather capable of profiting from “training in agriculture or nursing” (89). Everybody should have the “chances to perfect what is in them,” but what is in some is not in others (98). I think of Althusser here, and of an education apparatus that boots people out into vocational / specialized training as their aptitude allows. The Redbook authors imagine general education as “the trunk of a tree from which branches, representing specialism, go off at different heights, at high school or junior college or college or graduate school–the points, that is, at which various groups end their formal schooling” (102). The smarter you are, the longer you remain general in your education. When you shift to vocational training, you are finding your place on the great tree of merit.

It is fortuitous that Harpham has a tree as well. The faculty in the professional schools, he suggests, have long looked out of their well-appointed offices and asked of the university, “Why aren’t the English teachers treated as the marginal ones, the ornaments rather than the tree?” (135). Who is the tree and who the ornament at UVA if, as some commentators anticipate, the Board of Visitors decide to un-oust Sullivan?

Trees aside, who if anyone has interest in funding meritocracy these days, and how much do our cliches of critique, etc. depend on their capacity to mold the “talent” those Redbook authors think America needs? To answer this question might well tell us how out of sync our cliches really are with the tenor of contemporary conversation about the university.


1. The scope of the project is vast.

Dear Mark,

I say “Yes!” to your proposition that we write a series of posts dealing with each of the five problems in your framing of General Education in a Free Society.

On to problem 1., with acknowledgment that I’ll necessarily touch on issues you have categorized in other problems. You wrote,

1. The scope of the project is vast. It surveys high school as well as college, charts the development of these institutions since the 1870s, considers problems of funding and staffing, and confronts squarely the issues of differential ability and meritocracy. The authors situate their argument for university-level general education squarely within an analysis of the educational system as a whole. Unless I am much mistaken, such an awareness of the big picture is almost totally absent from the current alarmist rhetoric about “the humanities in crises.” It does show up, however, among those thinking about the digital revolution (e.g., Davidson’s, Now you See It). Does the Red Book warrant description of the “humanities crisis” people as reactionary defenders of an increasingly narrow and rapidly obsolescing point of view?

There are a bundle of issues in this item that I care about. Let me drift my way towards one answer to your question. Warning: my answer will take the form of another question.

For the authors of the Redbook, the humanities are most important as the focal point for a general education curriculum. “While the Redbook never explicitly identifies the humanities as the first among equals in the divisions of knowledge,” Harpham writes in The Humanities and the Dream of America, “their primacy is strongly implied, not least by the fact that whenever the divisions of knowledge are treated serially, the sequence is humanities, social studies, and science and mathematics” (157). As both you and Harpham note, no humanities discipline receives more attention in the Redbook than English. More on this in posts regarding Problem 4.

To the extent that the humanities feature so importantly in general education, they are agents for the Redbook’s effort to de-emphasize specialization in both high school and college study. “[A]s modern life has come increasingly to rest on specialized knowledge, the various fields of college study have in consequence appeared simply as preparation for one or another position in life. They have become, in short, for many, though by no means for all, a kind of higher vocational training” (38). The challenge or problem the Redbook sets out to resolve with a revised curricula “is how to save general education and its values within a system where specialism is necessary” (53). The “aim of education,” the book’s authors declare, “should be to prepare an individual to become an expert both in some particular vocation or art and in the general art of the free man and the citizen. Thus the two kinds of education once given separately to different social classes must be given together to all alike” (54). Not only does the education system envisioned by the Redbook have both Jeffersonian and Jacksonian aspects, but also the subject of that education system has a more specialized and generally human qualities. The humanities are, by and large, important in the Redbook for their special capacity to help a person develop the general side.

Different humanities disciplines contribute to this “general art of the free man and the citizen.” English is a unifying force, its great books are meeting points, and serve as tools for illuminating “norms of living as they are presented to the eye by the best authors” (107). You’ve noted this normalizing component, which English shares with the other humanities disciplines. The arts “bring delight,” and they also “train the emotions; they develop understanding.” “Foreign” language training is primarily important in high school and college because it can help you understand better how English works. Philosophy’s contribution is imparting “the habit of self-criticism” and “perspective, the capacity to envisage truth synoptically, from the standpoint of ‘all time and all existence.'” More on the contributions of “New Media of Education” under Problem 5.

From the perspective of the Redbook, the only crisis of the humanities worthy of the name would entail a breakdown of these complementary functions.

A crisis of general education, in other words, is what the Redbook authors might mean if they said the humanities were in crisis.

It is tempting to suggest that they would be alarmed in just this way by recent events at the University of Virginia. The Washington Post was among the news outlets to report that Teresa Sullivan was forced out as President because some members of the Board of Visitors felt she “lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.” Combined with the Board’s appointment of Carl Zeithaml, Cornell Professor of Free Enterprise and head of the UVA McIntire School of Commerce as Interim President, what is going on in Charlottesville seems to be putting pressure on the Redbook version of the university. The neoliberal recentering of the university on the business school certainly looks like a reversion to exactly the sort of vocational training that the Redbook authors rail against. But is this what is at stake in the suggestion that Sullivan was canned because she wouldn’t exercise the authority of her office to defund Classics?

(The fact that UVA is a public university makes it different from the Redbook’s Harvard. Still, given the private donors in play what is happening at UVA touches on yet another matter for yet another post, namely, Harpham’s good and bad philanthropists. Good ones from mid century and a few remaining like Richard Franke, discussed in The Humanities and the Dream of America, think that the humanities are useful for businessmen, public policy experts, and all sorts of other specialists. Bad ones are impatient types exemplified by Peter D. Kiernan, recently resigned chairman of the Board of Trustees for UVA’s Darden School Foundation, who wrote the much-quoted email in which he claimed that “the governance of the University was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, internet, technology advances, the new economic model. These are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.”)

(Related too, Chris Newfield’s analysis of the UVA matter, which hinges on his insistent opposition of managers (bad) and professionals (good), where the former favor dynamism and the latter planning.)

(Also: my friend Andy Lewis thinks we should consider mid-century innovations in general education in concert with Brown v. Board of Education, a rough contemporary of the Redbook.)

Back to where we started. You asked: “Does the Red Book warrant description of the ‘humanities crisis’ people as reactionary defenders of an increasingly narrow and rapidly obsolescing point of view?” The suggestion that Sullivan was kicked out because she wouldn’t crush Classics and German makes me ask the perhaps obvious follow up, What part of the administrative turmoil at UVA and elsewhere turns on the humanities contribution to general education?

This sort of question was invoked by an apposite series of tweets appearing yesterday in response to a comment by the columnist Matt Yglesias. He tweeted: “I like mocking MBA-speak as much as the next guy, but is there really a sound case for taxpayer-funded German language instruction?” A film blogger (!!!) named David Robson responded with the vocational position: “German’s ‘the language of the dominant economic power of Europe.’ Learning it’s good for economists.” Swarthmore History Professor Timothy Burke asked, “Is there really a case for any subject once you start putting it like that? Or is the only case narrowly vocational?” Mike Konczal, a Roosevelt Institute fellow who writes a blog on finance and politics, asked, “Isn’t it just a subset of the general case for humanities education?”


For and Against Object-centered Collaboration

Dear Mark (and Ralph),

Mark wrote:

The image-argument thus encodes the complex proposition that “collaboration” entails an opposition, a “them,” and that the ground for the us-them distinction is inherently unstable. It is easy to break collaborations apart by denying the principle commonality that unites them. It is perhaps equally easy to find alternatively commonalities, grounds for collaboration where none seemed to exist. Which is to say, I suppose, that collaborations exist as they are practiced and not as they are planned or defined.

Ralph commented:

First, collaboration involves serious risk, specifically, a risk that one may betray oneself, investing precious effort in projects of little interest or value, or perhaps of interest and value to one’s adversary. To my mind, the sea-change from Ransom’s time has to do with how we might conceive the adversary today, in particular, our inability to identify it with anything as self-contained, objectified, and monolithic as Ransom could or did. However, that increases the risk, making it more likely to be insidious and devastating. (I take this to be no argument against collaboration.)

All agreed. Collaborations are provisional, sometimes project or segment of project specific, and as bound to schism as they are to growth. All the better.

I do not want to collaborate with Nazis like Louis does in Casablanca and am relieved that Ralph thinks that is not really the risk anymore. Relieved but than on alert, in as much as Ralph says that I can stop worrying about card-carrying goose-stepping Nazis, as it were, but should start worrying about the far riskier proposition that (other than the banks perhaps) our adversaries today are less identifiable than card-carrying goose-stepping Nazis, as it were.

To my mind, this apt description of the risk entailed in collaborating now makes it crucial to question the givens that make our humanities practices identifiable. Not that we need to be in disguise because our adversaries are diffuse and not readily identifiable. But rather because by reconsidering the practices that let us know what we are doing and why, we may prepare ourselves for working on different problems and considering new projects and maybe even getting wise about what it means to collaborate with a diverse array of experts.

Where I am, then, on the object question, given that objects tend to organize our work in the humanities.

For the object:
Objects serve as matters of concern around which collaboration happens and they also are collaborators themselves that facilitate some kinds of work and exclude others. Humanities scholars cluster around objects and things happen. Any limit to the sort of work that can be generated through object-centered study is, as Ralph stipulates, also potentially a strength. Ransom, Ralph writes, “can hardly conceive of his practice apart from what he practices it on, in relation to or with, and vice versa.” I have had the good fortune to be invited to join a sizable collaborative endeavor organized around the study of video games called IMMERSe. Across disciplines, on six plus campuses, including “industry partners,” and forecasting myriad projects on an array of themes, this collaboration would be unthinkable without the object, video games.

Ransom, in this regard, is a model.

Mark, you wrote,

I think Ralph’s got a point that no matter how low we estimate Ransom’s approach, it is notably self-conscious in saying what English should be as a professional endeavor.

Do we collaborate with Ransom in trying to figure out 1) what it means to be an English professor and 2) how this could be made more satisfying work?  I think we might when we use him to call attention to assumptions that continue to inform the practice of the discipline, even if few current practitioners would explicitly avow the whole “Criticism, Inc.” package.

If memory serves, we credited Ransom like Leavis for doing what everybody says they did: making English reproducible as a university discipline. So in response to your questions, I’d say “Yes” to both 1) and 2). I also think that we are more convinced than many of our colleagues that “Criticism, Inc.” is a pretty relevant essay for thinking about what happens in English departments today precisely because English professors are far from being convinced they should give up object-centered practice akin, in many respects, to that promoted by Ransom. Ralph, I take it, is with us on this one. We’d make a comparable argument about the relevance of Leavis, although for a slightly different strain of English professor (a little more Raymond Williams-esque).

To the extent that we can recognize the capacity of object-centered study to organize inter-disciplinary collaboration and departmental formation (itself a collaborative practice), we’re intrigued by Ransom et al. We might go farther and say that these Ransom et al. established the default mode of collaboration in English. They helped make it possible (how, exactly…) for English professors to think of themselves as collaborating most profoundly with the literary objects they study. Such professors do so as part of a collective composed of similar close readers, of course, so even discrete pairs of scholar and poem are part of something bigger. That collaborative model worked for more than a half century, in that it facilitated the growth of English and other similarly collaborative disciplines/departments. Does it still work today?

Against the object:
Objects balkanize the humanities. Their very capacity to help us group into departments and specializations divides and excludes even as it brings certain scholars together. That’s not a problem, per se, but it can be in certain circumstances. I think this balkanization tends to be entrenched now, such that it can make more plastic collaborative dynamics hard to fit into our existing institutional structure.

Objects tell us to stay in our lanes. They make us recognizable (film scholar, novel scholar) which can be good but also limiting. Our specialization becomes a kind of professional identity. With all the benefits and costs implied.

I have a fantasy in which we become more specialized and, as a result, less self-sufficient. If we are expert in something really small, doesn’t that mean we’ll see the greater need to work in groups? To stop pretending that any of us could possibly write a book on our own and to start making more visible collaboration that currently exists the better to manage it in the future?

I’m not interested in reproducing the English department or the humanities as they have been, in short. Objects are part of that legacy I’m willing to consider living without.

Living with Hierarchy:

Mark wrote:

Collaboration entails an idea of the common good and an epistemological uncertainty about it.

Graphic Artist Two iconographically invalidates as bad faith Billy’s semantic negation of competition, while leaving the imperative “Collaboration!” untouched. I like this second interpretation. It seems to be of a piece with Graphic Artist Two’s cynicism: a reminder that while collaboration might be valued over competition it cannot be opposed to it, since would-be-collaborators begin from a position in a competitive hierarchy with which they may unwittingly collaborate despite avowals to the contrary.

If that’s cynicism, then I’m cynical. There’s nothing about collaborative practice that mandates equality even if collaboration invokes the common good in principle. We’re talking about collaboration that takes place within and connected to the university, a meritocratic institution, a hierarchy-generating machine. Unless we think meritocracy just completely incompatible with the common good, we’re stuck with something like this dynamic. And something like this critique. No?


Moving On

Dear Mark,

I think we’ve reached the end of a couple of threads here.

First up, you wrote:

Objects don’t define practices. Practices define objects.
Academic disciplines and media industries are best though of as institutionalized practices.
For both sorts of institutionalized practice it matters that pictures aren’t words (even though, like with the 70s and 80s treatment of everything as “text,” there are often disavowals). You seem reluctant to agree. Why?

This, I agree with. No murky ontology. Practices define objects, and if we want to stop defining ourselves by reference to the objects we study, we must redefine our practices. At the risk, that is, of losing control over (including the definitions of and the distinctions among) those objects (pictures, texts, etc.).


We might want to devote some other posts to explaining what it means for a practice to be institutionalized.  It may be worth pointing out that since Robert Merton’s 1940 classic “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality” it has been clear that institutions cannot be adequately thought of as Weberian rationalizing machines, because they also train people to over-conform to their rules. Merton discovers that bureaucratic inefficiency is an effect of the very rules supposed to make institutions hyper-efficent.

This would be good to talk more about. Off the top of my head, I’d say that we lay the groundwork for this already, but that like Graff et al. we tend to rely on polemics about institutional practice rather than sociological studies of what happens in the classroom, etc. Do we need to think more about the latter? Or do I just need to get off the couch and read more of these classic works on bureaucracy you seem to know something about?

Third, part one:

I want to embrace the flattening gesture that puts us all in the market, while also registering that major differences of opinion exist within film and media studies on the question of “whether [we] should work with and within the culture industries.” Projects dedicated to using “new media” to promote participatory culture, like those of Sharon Daniel, have a different orientation than those working to bridge industry and academe under that banner of the Convergence Culture Consortium.

A different orientation, for sure, but they share a reluctance to reproduce the academic exceptionalism that makes university practice seem somehow outside the market while commercial practice is in it. For our purposes here, we need sometimes to be agnostic about these differences. I’m thinking of the laundry lists of “interesting things going on that are not business as usual” that we’ve been generating. Sometimes, however, we may want to privilege one or the other. On what grounds, for me, tbd.

Third, part two:

We should not lose sight of the fact that in the 20s and 30s “zealous engagement” with Hollywood often meant strident opposition to it. What I think we aim to describe is how culture industries and universities developed together as institutional fields that collaborated, competed, and often mirrored one another. It’s not for nothing that we talk about an academic “star system.”

Sure. It matters to us why Hollywood is being opposed, in addition. There’s a regulatory argument in most oppositional stances, I think we’ve found. Looking forward to the days of fewer individual academic stars, more star teams.


I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the mental picture of films and novels strutting about in mediation suits with that of a 3D chess match involving  objects, institutions, and disciplines in which Bazin squares off against Marshall McLuhan (they are both wearing Star Trek uniforms).

Oh now you hate all figuration. Whatever. Try this one on: both wearing Star Trek uniforms, but it’s all about rank. Who is the redshirt?


Form, Objects, Media, and Profit

Dear Mark,

I don’t think that we need to do the realism thing, although you’ve never struck me as a person who was remotely afraid (to the contrary) of deep water. My invocation of realism was, allow me to say this as dismissively as possible, an example. Of, precisely, the challenge of thinking in inter-medial fashion. The only reason for us to care about realism would be if we thought its differences across media would tell us something about the changing inter-medial dynamics.

Some objects wear their mediation more lightly than others. But we cannot imagine that this variance resides anywhere except in the way that media have been institutionalized, can we? I take the (Bazinian?, not exclusively surely) point that there are properties of these objects that affect their mediation, but for our argument those properties must be significant largely for how they shape institutionalization and discipline.

You wrote,

I think our collaboration repeatedly demonstrates that my background in Film and Media Studies gives me something to say about about the problem of meditation that your background in English does not, and vice versa. This productive difference does have something to do with the fact that I’ve watched a lot of films and you’ve read a lot of novels. It ought to be possible to value this difference without perpetually reprising a love-hate relationship with these objects of study.

For other English types, it will be important that I’ve been reading 20th/21st C novels. Victorianists and 18th C scholars of the novel typically care more about mediation than contemporary fiction scholars and modernists do. In my experience the curiosity of the 18th C epistolary novel and Victorian seriality far more emphatically direct scholars to ask about relations among form, object, and media than even the experiments of modernism and postmodernism. Leave the novel for the lands of poetry and drama, you’ll find again this complex relation of form, object, media is rarely ignored. The novel, in short, is the problem, and the high profile of 20th C fiction in particular.

Which, given the still strong market for at least some novels, makes it odd that anyone could forget this point you reference from our work in progress:

This inter-medial encounter ought to remind us further that humanities objects are themselves moving targets produced and reproduced by nonacademic institutions.

Why is this not obvious?

Our account of how the humanities rose in status by retreating into the academy is surely part of the answer.

The fear of being useful is the affective remainder of the power plays associated with Leavis, Crowe, and Ransom, which legitimated criticism by retreating to the academy and, at the same time, complained that academics were not empowered to manage cultural reproduction.

Although I still like this formulation, I’ve been trying this out for a little while now on my colleagues, etc., and I don’t find that use is what galls them. Or so they say. What unsettles them is profit. I’ve been prodding you about this particular matter for a little while but you haven’t taken the bait. We like our objects to be worthless in exchange. Profitability when we refer to it makes a certain opaque point. Sometimes it testifies to significance, but rarely (ever?) analytic significance.

In our work in progress, we recognize the power of but are skeptical towards the Leavis / New Critical retreat into the academy and away from the market. We recognize the power of and tend to like the transdisciplinary efforts of mid-century anti-capitalists cum strange bedfellows Greenberg and Adorno/Horkheimer. I like having it both ways, and we do note that there’s no reason to be caught up in jazz-baiting or kitsch-hating when appreciating Greenberg/Adorno/Horkheimer efforts, as we put it, “to take in the whole picture of culture administration and explain how nominally opposed camps collude to maintain capitalism.” But it’s hard not to notice that Greenberg/Adorno/Horkheimer take different approaches than early century academics like Thrasher et al. who worked with and within the culture industries.

Film and new media scholars will doubtless feel closer to this problem of whether they should work with and within the culture industries than scholars of literature. Literature scholars should not feel so securely distanced from it, however. I think I told you about Amitav Ghosh’s presentation at the Novel conference in which he reminded a room full of academics that many writers write to make a living. There’s no escaping the filthy lucre. How are we to think about the way that humanities academics frame their relationship to it? The zealous engagement with Hollywood that we found so compelling in Grieveson, Wasson, Polan, and Decherney’s work on early film and film study can only appear as anathema today.


For Love of an Object

Dear Mark,

Your last post was a tour de force. And/but, we have ways of keeping any hint of ressentiment from creeping into our account of the renovation of English in the 70s / 80s. We have argued that film studies has and continues to contribute to its status as a minor discipline (attached to a major media) by reproducing an object-centered approach it borrowed from earlier, mid-century arguments about literature.

Quoting from our work in progress,

To be clear, cinema matters…because it institutionalized new practices and altered others, not because it has inherent value as a disciplinary object of study. To think of film studies in such object-centered terms is to treat it as an analog of the version of English invented in the middle of the twentieth century. Then, Ransom described the popularity of prose over poetry as a homicide in progress and urged critics to band together and intervene. Such New Critical crime prevention finds a peculiar echo in Yale film scholar Dudley Andrew’s 2009 defense of “the film object.”

To the extent that your professional status in an English department hinges primarily on your intimate relationship to the object called cinema, there’s no more reason for any of your colleagues to worry about what it means to analyze a film than for the novel scholars among them to worry about what it means to analyze a poem.

I agree it would be cool if “all this ‘extra’ non-literary and/or theoretical stuff” kicking around English departments turns out “to be a virus that will have entirely rewritten the code of English from within.” But I think we’d also like it to mean an end to film studies and any new media studies that declare their sovereignty by specifying a discipline-organizing object.

If we are to make the stakes of this absolutely clear, we need to concentrate on how the question of what a mass media object does got displaced by questions of what mass media objects are. The fact that English Departments don’t think they are still object-centered (because they are treating everything they encounter as text) is part of this story.

This essay by Joseph D. Anderson linked to on the “Bazinian, Neo-Bazinian, and Post-Bazinian Film Studies” entry from Film Studies for Free makes it sound like when it comes to thinking about realism in film, it’s all about the information-containing properties of the medium. Which makes me want to rehearse the distinction between medium and form you’ve persuaded me to pay better attention to. It also makes me want to observe how changes in what counts as medium tend to upset some film studies scholars as much as literary scholars (well, maybe not…but some film studies types talk about the crime of watching movies at home the way some literary scholars lament the kindlization of books). These changes are potentially upsetting in any number of ways, of course, but one of the key analytic reasons for distress may be that changes in medium make form seem less reassuringly stable. Or, because changes in mediation make it clear how easy it is to confuse the object’s form with the institutions and technologies involved in its reproduction.

Hypothesis: the question of what an object is subordinates the question of what an object does every time we stop asking questions about medium and mediation. I think it follows that in order for the humanities to reclaim an ability to talk about how its precious objects shape populations, the humanities needs to stop speaking about its objects as if they were precious.


The Fallaciousness of Time to Degree plus the Conflation of Humanities and English

Dear Mark,

Wielding “fallacious” like the weapon it is, you wrote,

The rhetoric of “relevance” allows readers to imagine that nebulously defined social goods (“meaningful,” “productive,” “rewarding”) can be appraised by means of metrics like time to degree, job placements, and starting salaries. The equation is obviously fallacious. As numerous PhDs, JDs, and MBAs of our acquaintance will testify, one can complete one’s degree on time, immediately find a well paying job, and still not be engaged in activities one regards as particularly “meaningful,” “productive,” and “rewarding.” It has been the job of the humanities to consider such questions of value. They will undo themselves by treating job placement stats as equivalent types of questions. This doesn’t mean that humanities disciplines shouldn’t contemplate a shorter time to degree, just that they have to stick up for the difference between such metrics and questions of social value, lest they lose their professional distinction.

You’re clearly right. I am thinking about time to degree adjustments as a potentially salutary shock that would require us to engage in the kind of curricular overhaul that for whatever reason the crushing job market has demanded. I agree that nothing necessarily follows from it. I love the simplicity of the thought, “flood the market.” It may smack of desperation, in fact it surely does, but it would force so many issues. I realize that this may be a kind of exacerbate the crisis thinking, for better and worse. I may have too much of a soft spot for “jolts,” as you call them.

You also wrote about Menand’s story concerning what happened in the 1970s to the humanities/English,

Note the indicative collapse of the difference between “humanities” and “English.” Note also that disciplinary hyperspecialization increases the number of credentialed professionals while decreasing their market value and interest to undergraduates. We think that–despite the culture wars–this is because English was obsessed with defining its object rather than explaining what its object does. Right? What changes about this picture once other humanities disciplines are admitted to it?

There are two big questions here.

Re: the first, English was and remains obsessed with defining its objects. And yet, I find that this argument or ours is greeted with blank stares or opaque nods of the head. Maybe because some wings of English think they are so over any concern with literary objects, maybe because these matters of what an object is and what it does don’t seem distinct? I think, for instance, about the current wave of interest in realist novels, which comes from different quarters but seems to hinge on the supposed critical potential of this particular breed of print fiction.

Re: the second, Is there a comparable concern with, and can you even say this, realist film? I’m new enough in video game studies not to have a firm grasp on the status of realism in that field (although I do know that nothing says “artsy” like 8-bit graphics).



Dear Mark,

A few relevant recent links that we may or may not want to think more about.

From Remaking the University, an update on the ongoing UC transformation, with this point of departure, “There is a large and growing literature about why the privatization of public goods reduces access (drinking water, electricity, education) and raises costs.” Given our interest in collaboration among experts in Hollywood and academe in the early part of the twentieth century, and given further our interest in the way that ANT, STS, and new media studies of various kinds are forging links among businesses and academic fields and initiatives, I want us to have a line on the status of such terms as privatization, public goods, and more generally for profit and non-profit.

Here’s another link that draws out the need for a position on that public/private matter, from the Chronicle, via 4humanities, “The Humanities and the Corporate World: Dedicated Deep Thinkers.” About the humanities as the source of corporate idea types.

Lastly, also from 4humanities about a Chronicle piece, this one regarding humanities types working with engineers at UVA: “The Changing Humanities: UVA’s Praxis Program.”


What is Institutionalized via Time to Degree?

Dear Mark,

I want to table for the moment one thing you noted and follow up (obliquely perhaps) on another.

The point to table:

Public Culture has been fairly unusual in allowing images to share conceptual space with arguments (as opposed to being objects that prose necessarily interprets).

I think this is vital for us, and thinking across media this way is something I want to talk more about. How does Public Culture do it? What does it mean that they do it and others do not? Etc.

The point to follow up:

To intervene on these questions requires not simply identifying and defending alternatives but actually institutionalizing them, which means learning to work with engineers and policy wonks.

Institutionalizing without identifying alternatives for what intellectual practice (for us most specifically humanities intellectual practice) should look like might not be a non-starter though. Certainly, you and I think we need to understand why it is important to talk to engineers, policy wonks, experts from other disciplines, and even professionals involved in profit-making businesses. (The latter sort of collaboration has been anathema for humanities types for a goodly while. Along with the images item above, I’d like us to think more about why exactly.) But how to do this? What institutional carrots and sticks are available?

What about time to degree, which is probably the primary way we humanists currently talk about the viability of the PhD in the humanities?

Consider “The Future of the Humanities PhD at  Stanford,” which got blurbed in an article on Inside Higher Ed this week called “The Radical New Humanities Ph.D.” (a couple of days after it was published this piece remains high up on the site’s most read list).

The professors behind the Stanford statement argue that they are in a position to overhaul the PhD because they have the financial and cultural capital to do so. No doubt. They are guided by these two goals:

1. Rationalizing the investment (on the part of students and the university), by reducing time to degree (TTD).

2. Redesigning graduate curricula to prepare PhD’s for a diverse array of meaningful, socially productive and personally rewarding careers within and outside the academy.

Almost all of the proposal document concentrates on 1., leaving 2. to departments. The proposal requests more secure year-round funding so that students can be students full time during the summer months, mandates times for various sorts of exams (comprehensive exams by the 3rd year, for instance), and asks departments to involve themselves in “serious” review of students completing their second year of course work to decide who goes forward and who gets a terminal MA.

Although in its goal of 5 years to degree for PhD students the proposal does not deviate that far from the perhaps more usual 6 year goal at all sorts of other universities, the proposal does break ground in the way it devalues (by taking time away from) the dissertation. The report suggests that “prestigious” dissertation fellowships have kept Stanford students around for longer than five years, and that such money should be shifted to the full-time, 12 month funding plan that would make pre-dissertation work more robust. What that pre-diss work shall be and the form the dissertation produced in a shorter time shall take will be determined at the level of the department.

In response to the question, “Can and should the humanities PhD remain centrally relevant – at Stanford, in the academy, and in an increasingly global and cosmopolitan 21st century society?” The proposal answers, yes, and it will take less time in school to achieve this relevance too. Or, yes, and the way to make sure is to get students their degrees faster.

This is Louis Menand’s argument too. He observes that humanities programs spend more time training their PhD students than the sciences and social sciences, and concludes as a result:

What is clear is that students who spend eight or nine years in graduate school are being seriously over-trained for the jobs that are available….

The moral of the story that the numbers tell once seemed straightforward: if there are fewer jobs for people with Ph.D.s, then universities should stop giving so many Ph.D.s—by making it harder to get into a Ph.D. program (reducing the number of entrants) or harder to get through (reducing the number of graduates). But this has not worked. Possibly the story has a different moral, which is that there should be a lot more Ph.D.s, and they should be much easier to get….

If Ph.D. programs were determinate in length—if getting a Ph.D. were like getting a law degree—then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having.

I wonder whether such a relatively simple matter as shortening time to degree might have even more radical effects. Or, I wonder if there is a way to ensure that shortening time to degree makes it impossible to reproduce a discipline like English in its current form.

How could tightening time to degree be helped to lead students (and their professors) to engage in different kinds of research and especially in more collaborative research? Since we would no longer provide time for every student to write a book of their own, what would encourage us to help them start working together more? Would shortened time to degree require fields with higher bars of entry (because they have language requirements, archival practices that are difficult to acquire, etc.) to rethink their fashion of mandating all participants in a field have all the skills instead of distributing those skills across a team?

What do you think about this small step towards institutionalizing a different sort of intellectual practice?