Author Archives: mark

23.0101 & 50.0601

Dear John,

After WWII, the Feds started paying serious attention to the types of degrees college students completed. They had been compiling educational statistics since 1870, but Vance Grant explains (in the historical overview here) that increasingly detailed surveys of higher education were funded in response to the post-GI Bill boom. Currently, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports degrees conferred by field of study going back to 1949-50 in its Digest of Education Statistics. In 1966, the Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS) made major improvements in the granularity and scope of data collected. Institutions of higher education were asked to report degrees awarded under standardized numerical codes designating the field of study. (I have yet to determine the reporting mechanism for 1949-1966 surveys.) In reporting on degrees awarded in 1986-87, Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes replaced HEGIS as part the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS, here’s a history). This was a lengthy bureaucratic process rather than a wake-up-and-take-a-CIP kind of change, but for the sake of clarity let’s just stick with 1986 as the Dawn of CIP.

At that point, HEGIS codes 1501 English, General, and 1502, English Literature translated to CIP codes 23.0101 English Language and Literature, General and 23.0801, Literature, English (British and Commonwealth). HEGIS  605 Communications Media (Videotape, Film for Radio/TV) became CIP 10.0104 Radio & TV Prod & Brodcs and HEGIS 1010 Cinematography became 50.0602 Film-Video Making/Cinematography & Production.  That’s it for “film.” Taxonomically, “Film Studies” did not exist. One might well ask, therefore, how, if at all, degrees in film studies were counted?  (Turn to the timeline in the back of Inventing Film Studies to discover among the juicy factoids that in 1970 the AFI reported 68 institutions with a degree program “in film or a related field” including 11 with PhD programs.)  In 1990, a CIP code was finally added for Film/Cinema Studies: 50.0601. In 2010, the name was revised slightly to Film/Cinema/Video Studies. By definition this is: “A program in the visual arts that focuses on the study of the history, development, theory, and criticism of the film/video arts, as well as the basic principles of film making and film production.”

2010 brought bigger changes for English: a new series of 23.14 codes for Literature. 23.0101 abides, but a degree specifically in British and Commonwealth literature could now be numbered 23.1404; by definition: “A program that focuses on the literatures and literary developments of the English-speaking peoples of the British Isles and the British Commonwealth, from the origins of the English language to the present. Includes instruction in period and genre studies, author studies, country and regional specializations, literary criticism, and the study of folkloric traditions.”

I am sure you have already intuited the genius of CIP. It is so obvious! One simply lops off digits to arrive at higher levels of statistical abstraction. Thus the four distinct series under 23 English Languages and Literature/Letters (23.01 English Language and Literature, General; 23.13 Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies;  23.14 Literature; 23.99 English Language and Literature/Letters, Other) can easily be collapsed into the area code for English: 23. One can perform the same trick with the six different varieties of 23.14 Literature  (23.1401 General; 23.1402 American (US); 23.1403 American (Canadian);  23.1404 Brittish; 23.1405 Children’s and Adolescent ; 23.1499 Other). This allows institutions to track degrees at the level of granularity meaningful to them, while facilitating the kind of aggregation that makes results meaningful to those thinking about trends across the higher ed sector. When the Digest of Education Statistics compares degrees granted over time in various disciplinary areas, in considers the top level (two digit) CIP code by default. Degrees in Literature (whatever sort) will show up along with Rhetoric and Composition under 23 English Languages and Literature/Letters. Degrees in Film/Cinema/Video Studies will show up with degrees in studio art, music, “arts, entertainment, and media management” and so on under CIP 50 Visual and Performing Arts.

I find a number of points of interest in this. Although it seems almost too obvious to state, English takes up a lot of real estate on this list. 54 History, by comparison, only contains one series with 9 parts. The level of granularity makes no difference to the aggregate totals (it shouldn’t), but it seems to point to something about disciplinary structure. What generates the need to distinguish so many flavors of English?  History also has “general” and “other” categories, for example, but English seems to need them at the 23.14## level as well as the 23.## level. Why 23.1499 English, Literature, Other as distinct from 23.99 English Language and Literature/Letters, Other? Their definitions differ by a single word. 23.1499: “Any instructional program in English language literature not listed above.”  23.99: “Any instructional program in English language and literature not listed above.” Does this result from taxonomic logic merely or are there really hyper-specialized degrees out there that require this distinction? Is it an attempt to capture approaches at different types of institutions (Research 1s and Community Colleges,e.g.) and/or levels (PhDs and AAs)?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Another kinda obvious point: while “English” and “History” designate both disciplines and commonly encountered administrative divisions (departments), the same cannot be said for 50 Visual and Performing Arts. At my institution, for example, the degrees encompassed within this category are spread out not only across different departments but also across different colleges: 50.09 Music has a Dean; while 50.06 Film/Video and Photographic Arts does not designate a coherent institutional entity at all. Precisely because the point of CIP taxonomy is to report degrees and not departments, we can see a much closer fit between institutional organization and taxonomic organization in the case of History and English than with Visual and Performing Arts.  With respect to the latter, there is a striking disjuncture between the discourse that reports on the credentials higher education confers, on the one hand, and the institutional organization producing those credentials, on the other. At the level of aggregated data about “Visual and Performing Arts,” the institutional arrangements that credential students disappear entirely in favor of a new unity produced by the taxonomic scheme. 23 English is also an unity generated by the taxonomy, but looking at the series it comprises, one can imagine actually existing departments.

Curiously (kinda obvious point number three), the term “humanities” organizes practically nothing in this schema. CIP code 24 Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities is clearly meant as a designator for generalist degrees and not as rubric encompassing disparate disciplines. In contrast, CIP 45 Social Sciences has under it Anthropology, Archeology, Criminology, Economics, etc. NCES does sometimes combine CIP codes to report trends in the “humanities,” but that requires an explanation of what gets lumped (see below). Reporting about “Social Science” does not–although History does get combined with Social Science in the same tables that report on the humanities. Is the “crisis of the humanities” partially, or maybe even primarily, taxonomic?

James English partly addresses this question in The Global Future of English Studies. As his title suggests, English is specifically concerned with the discipline of English. He makes good use of the NCES data to deflate the rhetoric of “crisis” often employed by English professors who want their departments not to change, to change dramatically, or to receive more funding. “Though the specific position of English is subject to shifts on the wider academic landscape,” English writes, “the discipline appears, according to various reasonable metrics, to be firmly embedded in the terrrain” (8). It is true that the percentage of graduates with degrees in English in 2008 (3.5%) was roughly half of its post-war peak in 1971 (7.6%). But, he argues, there are number of systemic factors at work here, such as the fact that the increasing diversity of degree programs available has tended to decrease the individual market share of  each of them. Once this is taken into account,

English has held its own, remaining one of the largest non-vocational degree programs as well as the largest by far in the humanities. Nor are the humanities eroding away, as many of us believe them to be . . . As a sector, the humanities has been the clear winner in the enrollments chase over the last 20-25 years, outperforming all other sectors . . . including business. In short, considered strictly in terms of US higher education enrollments over the past quarter century, English is the dominant field in the fastest rising sector  (16-17)

English illustrates with a chart (Figure 1.4. Percent change in share of undergraduate degrees granted, United States, 1983-2008). This has the humanities increasing by a whopping 28% at the left edge and Computer Science and Engineering declining by more than 30% on the right edge (worry about your bridges!). The source for this is Table 274 from the 2009 Digest. That table explains that “humanities”

includes degrees in Area, ethnic, cultural, and gender studies; English language and literature/letters; Foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics; Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities; Multi/interdisciplinary studies; Philosophy and religious studies; Theology and religious vocations; and Visual and performing arts.

This aggregation includes within the humanities some fields perhaps not typically imagined there–those disciplines that might be encompassed by the “arts” part of “arts and humanities” as well as degrees like 50.1001 Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management and 50.0912 Music Pedagogy. The numbers would have to be re-aggregated and crunched to see what difference, if any, the inclusion of particular degrees makes to the overall trend, but differently tabulated data from the 2011 Digest does shed some light on the matter. If we take the same period English considers (1983-2008) and look at the change in the number of BA’s awarded, those in the Visual and Performing Arts more than doubled (220% increase) while those in English did not quite double (176% increase). Moreover, the absolute numbers are much higher in Visual and Performing Arts. In 2008, for example, BAs there totaled 87,703 as compared to 55,038 in English. As James English points out, what matters to the “health of the humanities” overall is the proportion of these increases relative to the overall growth in the number of BAs. But differently aggregated data does cast new light on his assertion that “English is the dominant field in the fastest rising sector.” The dominance of English seems evident if the point of comparison is any one of the numerous disciplines comprised in the humanities as NCES defines it. But its presence does not loom so large within the aggregation that includes Foreign languages (20,977 BAs in 2008–a 188% increase over 1983), Visual and performing arts, and all the rest. Moreover, it is not itself the fastest rising component of the fastest rising sector. The 2011 Digest doesn’t let me say conclusively which two digit CIP wins that honor; it only breaks out Visual and performing arts; English; and Foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics. Of those, “Visual and performing arts” wins. But then again CIP 50 contains a disciplinary hodge-podge, some of which are arguably not “the humanities.”

James English is able to make the kind of argument he makes about English not so much because of its numerical strength but because of its institutional power, because, among other advantages, of the very good fit between the taxonomy that measures it and the departmental structures that sustain it. This is implied by his argument and worth underscoring. That fit does not exist for those fields whose faculty and curricula may overlap with English but also have disciplinary autonomy, e.g,: 30.2601 Culture Studies/Critical Theory and Analysis, added in 2010 to CIP 30 Multi/Interdisciplinary studies (along with Mathematics and Computer Science, Gerontology, and Historic Preservation and Conservation); and 05.0201 African-American/Black Studies, part of 05 Area, Ethnic, Culture, Gender, and Group Studies (along with German Studies and Tibetan Studies); and of course 50.0601 Film/Cinema/Video Studies.

James English makes some astonishing claims about degrees in these fields.

While they are not English majors, their intellectual formation is being guided more directly by English than by any other discipline, and to this extent they remain under the curricular umbrella of English studies. The numbers at issue are not large: about 7,500 students graduated from American universities with degrees in the relevant subfields of ‘Area, Ethnic, Cultural, or Gender Studies’ in 2008 and another in “Film/Cinema Studies” subfield within visual and performing arts. But these figures are rising rapidly, having increased more than 25% over the last decade. They might be regarded as representing a small but nontrivial ‘hidden’ fraction of English degree students. (21)

If we start from the contrary assumption that “cinema studies, ethnic studies, women’s studies, culture studies, African American studies, and Asian American studies” exist because scholars and students weren’t satisfied with the guidance they were getting under the English umbrella, it’s less easy to deny their disciplinary identity. (50.0601 definitely thinks it is a discipline and not a wayward child of 23.0101; I’m just sayin’.) Moreover, if we look at the CIP’s within Area, Ethnic, Culture, or Gender Studies, we discover that James English’s overhasty generalization may lump together very different types of programs (African-American Studies likely has a joint appointment in the English Department, German Studies may not). Because I like English’s book overall, I don’t want to brand him a typically imperialist English professor. Can we just stipulate that the small but rapidly rising numbers are probably not best understood as “hidden” English majors?  Unless, of course, they get aggregated in that way, through the two-step that turns them into “humanities” majors and then establishes English as the dominant discipline in that sector.

It’s more interesting, I think, to play with the granularity that IPEDS affords, which anyone can do with the handy dandy report generator here.

In 2010-11, your institution awarded the following numbers of “1st major” BAs, out of a total of 6,511:

  • 92  (1%) Ethnic, Cultural Minority, and Gender Studies (50.02, not the higher level that includes the Germans)
  • 139 (2%) History
  • 196 (3%) English Language and Literature, General
  • 283 (4%) Visual and preforming arts of which 20 (less than 1%) were in 50.06 Film/Video and Photographic Arts (which includes production and studies)

At my institution, the numbers were, out of 4,462:

  •  9 (less than 1%) in Ethnic, Cultural Minority, and Gender Studies (demonstrating that California and South Carolina are, in fact, different)
  • 107 (2%) History
  • 98  (2%) English Language and Literature, General
  • 220 (5%) Visual and performing arts of which 68 (1%) were in 50.06

Do these numbers describe the campus you inhabit? Mine make sense to me but they do provide a new perspective. History and English, which seem ginormous on the ground, don’t look that way in this comparative view. Visual and performing arts, which does not seem to be a coherent area at all on my campus, looks like a major one in the numbers. Some of the degrees there to do not look like “the humanities” to me, but a great many of them do. This suggests that a major thread of development in the humanities may already be precisely where we think it should be: in engagement with the full range of culture industries.

The bottom line: it is a good thing we’ve been paying our taxes because IPEDS will help us describe the humanities differently (and let’s hope the Department of Education stays in business). But it will be necessary to dive into the data, rather than rely on the Digest exclusively, and we have to figure out how disciplines like film were counted before they were counted, which may mean research at particular institutions.



5.From Mass Culture to Mediation: Next steps

Dear John,

Your last neatly tied up some points and introduced some new ones. Good work! It has left me wondering where we are in the big picture. The discussion of mass culture feels like the main thread to me, to the point that I almost wish we’d considered the Red Book points in reverse order.

We’re agreed that

  • the Red Book authors position commercial mass culture (other than literature) “as having a limited experimental role in the classroom” and “as antithetical to the sorts of examples featured in general education”
  • this move goes hand-in-hand with elevating a particular version of English as isomorphic with Humanities,
  • this two-fold gesture omits/erases half a century of efforts to incorporate the study of media like film in Humanities, along with any awareness that the particular version of English at issue was itself a relatively recent invention.

If an undeclared aim of the book is to accomplish this, we might reassess its concern with balancing Jeffersonian and Jacksonian imperatives, its privileging the Humanities as a unifying element within General Education, and its opening gambit of thinking systemically about General Education beginning with K-12.

Such a reassessment begins to clarify the Red Book’s role as a Truman-era policy blueprint. The mass media gesture with which the authors conclude, as much as the K-12 argument with which they begin, proclaims this a high-stakes, big-picture endeavor. It also underscores the funding pitch. System-wide, what could possibly compete with the funding stream available to advertisers? Only the Feds!  Similarly, putting media front-and-center reframes the Red Book’s vision of General Education as the fulcrum upon which leveling/unifying and meritocratic/sorting ed functions might balance. It points us away from the context of the Early Republic and toward that of 1945. Then, the big education news was the G.I. Bill (1944), which funded education as a back-to-work program and a benefit like business loans and subsidized mortgages. The big media news had to do with imagining a post-war market that included television, educational films, reconfigured international regulations, and major anti-trust cases (the 1945 Film Daily Year Book provides a contemporary overview.)

To take up the mass media problem, in other words, is to begin to make a materialist critique of the Red Book, in which we would think of schools and colleges as institutions among others concerned to unify and sort national populations, to produce an admixture of obedience and innovation. The Red Book’s authors are elites who, with some success, leveraged their institutional authority to define a fundable mission for English-led Humanities in General Education–a mission that succeeded better as national policy than it did at Harvard. In this mission, reading would be valued over, and sometimes opposed to, watching and listening. “Great works in literature” would be valued over a catch-all approach that encompassed “anything that has anything to do with anything in the Metropolitan Museum” (108). The Red Book authors say this is because great works provide commonality in an age when specialization, complexity, and increasing numbers of students from diverse backgrounds threaten “common heritage and common citizenship” (5). If we take this argument seriously and imagine 1945 instead of 1830 as its context, then the democracy-demands-English argument just looks lame. It is not unified culture per se that the professors are after (for that purpose, Hollywood might be a better interpreter of great works than Harvard), nor is it political participation (if that’s the goal, why not place civics, rather than English, at the core of General Education?). Rather, the professors want to administer what counts as common culture by setting its touchstones in Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, etc. Nice work if you can get it!

Here’s where I’m going with this riff on a well-established theme. (Alert! Unsupported polemic follows. Can we just agree to call it a working hypothesis?) The Red Book is much less the reasoned voice of a mid-century consensus about the Humanities than Harpham, e.g., would have us believe. It is an early, and maybe the defining, strategic move in the culture wars. This move established the coordinates that would guide arguments about the humanities right up until the present. Schematically:

Unity Difference
Great Works Anything
Humanities values Commercial values
Interpretation Facts*
Reading Viewing/Listening
College/School Other Institutions

Twenty years on, dissident humanists inside English departments and outside them would organize themselves around one or more of the devalued terms in the right-hand column. Thirty years on, materialist critiques of this structure (Bledstein, Ohmann) gained some currency, without however, foregrounding the crucial link between educational institutions and media institutions. Forty years on, the right-hand column people could be represented by left-hand column people as posing a threat to the national future in their influence over general education. Fifty years on, it became clear that tactical advances by Studies programs and  big “T” Theory had moved the dividing line between the columns into the heart of English departments, without altering the structure of oppositions. It was obligatory for English professors to consider whether “the human” and “the humanities” were categories worth defending. Sixty years on, humanist self-crit had come to seem self-defeating. Some commentators looked nostalgically to the left-hand column as a recipe that would retain or renew public funding. But the real action was elsewhere, in the struggle to grapple with  a period of media change more sweeping than any since the first decades of the 20th Century, when arguments about commercial cinema profoundly shaped the Humanities and Social Sciences.

This struggle, which is in no small part a struggle to define what “Digital Humanities” will come to mean, promises (if we’re lucky) to decentralize the Imperial English department, to open educational institutions to real collaboration–both internally across disciplines and with certified and vernacular experts outside their borders, and to establish a new strategic alignment. Schematically, that alignment might push the established alternatives aside, like so:

Populations Unity/Difference
Examples (of Practices) Great Works/Anything
Contested values Humanities/Commercial values
Mediation (specificities, interactions) Reading/Viewing/Listening
Continuity/Change Interpretation/Facts
Good Management (a question & a project) Institutions

How about it? Should we try to demonstrate this hypothesis?

In other news, we’ve spun-off a series of to-dos for ourselves in recent posts. Maybe we should create a static page to keep track of these?


*This one is probably too much shorthand. I have in mind the set of arguments and assumptions that make a certain kinds of historical and social analysis part of the Humanities in the Red Book and another kinds part of the Social Sciences. Humanities: interpretative procedures that work form text to context. Social science: ordered series that aim to establish “what happened” or “what is.” Theres a lot more to say about this. The placement of history (as an epistemology) inside the Humanities and History (as a discipline) outside it (in the Red Book but not necessarily elsewhere) is something we really need to look into. To do list?


4. Until Further Notice: By 1945, but Not Before 1935, the Humanities Were Made Isomorphic With English

Dear John,

I like this plan. Let’s drive on to Red Book issue #5 and return to the strange career of English Departments later on. Let me add two observations for that later discussion.

First, to the investigation of Richards you propose, I think we should add some consideration of the American Studies types that Graff finds it difficult to incorporate in his account of mid-century English, such that he has to loop back and tell the story again in the chapter “The Promise of American Literature Studies.” There, Graff identifies an alternative trajectory despised by Northrop Frye for its interdisciplinarity in 1957 and identifiable as early as 1948 in Stanley Edgar Hyman’s The Armed Vision, which characterizes “‘modern criticism’ as ‘the organized use of non-literary techniques and bodies of knowledge to obtain insights into literature‘” (Graff 209-10). We should look at Hyman. Graff also makes much of the difference between V. L. Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1927-30), which treated literary works part of a broader intellectual history, and F.O. Mattheissen (and numerous others listed on page 216) who “conceived the organic structure of a literary work as a microcosm of collective psychology or myth and thus made New Criticism into a method of cultural analysis” (217). Tellingly missing from Graff’s English- and university- centered story are at least two influential humanists of the 1920s and 30s who wrote broadly on US culture and are looked to as generative in a number of disciplines: Lewis Mumford and Gilbert Seldes. I read a lot of this stuff back in the day, and would welcome a chance to revisit it. Also worth reevaluating from the vantage of the present is Graff’s conclusion that this entire trajectory is one of “‘patterned isolation’.” As he sees it, “cultural history” failed “to become a centralizing context,” and this “created a vacuum that was readily filled by an attenuated New Criticism of explication for explication’s sake” (225). If we shift our attention from the evils and virtues of New Criticism to the problem of when and how the study of “literature” seems to equal the study of “culture” or the “humanist” approach to it, I suspect this history will look rather different.

Second, I agree that we need follow this through the “1960s-80s debates concerning the hold of great English books on undergraduate education” as you state. I think as a result of those debates English Departments become more powerful than ever before, even if less coherently organized around a single literary mission. This was the period that invented the version of the English Department we now inhabit, which simultaneously claims that all of “culture” is within its purview and purports to be the special custodian of a distinctly literary knowledge and heritage. Key intellectual developments encouraged this state of affairs. For example, we’ve discussed already the importation of formalisms and structuralisms that allowed English professors to define themselves as experts in “narrative” or “texts” and authorized transposition of procedures for reading novels or poems onto any expressive medium. But there is another, perhaps less familiar, way to tell this tale. Big English departments are administratively convenient. They have lower overhead costs than creating numerous small “studies” departments or programs. It is much easier to develop and offer new courses under the umbrella of an established department than it is to secure the approvals necessary for new requirements and programs; and when departments are large this can happen without requiring revision of a shared curriculum–teaching can be distributed to allow the unit to pursue several agendas at once, although some will likely seem more central or legitimate than others. Simply put: I’m suggesting that we make organizational scale a factor in our analysis. Surely it must be possible to get some comparative numbers on the sizes of humanities departments and programs for, say, the last 75 years. I suspect these numbers will show that the growth in areas like Women’s Studies, Southern Studies, and African-American Studies was accompanied by an increase in the size of English departments (and thus their institutional importance). If, as I also suspect, growth in these areas made English relatively larger than, say, Art History or Comparative Literature, than many of the organizational dynamics of the humanities can be thought of as problems of scale.

A note on the Lippmann-Dewey debate. I warn you that I may feel compelled to bring this up again despite the fact that you are tired of hearing me prattle on about it. The debate was an absolutely formative argument of the 1920s, and it also demonstrates some of our overarching claims about intellectual life between the wars: what would later be seen as very different disciplines (philosophy, sociology, mass comm, education leadership) intersect there, the argument crossed over from the popular press to academe and was broadly influential, and the problem of “mass culture” animates it.

So let’s talk about mass culture!


3. Humanists Should Inhabit the Present, not the Early Republic

Dear John,

After too long a hiatus, let me try to pick up this thought where you left off. You wondered about the complex genealogy of this quotation and marveled at its ability to balance (which is to say manage) Jeffersonian and Jacksonian imperatives:

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. (98)

I think I can fill in some of the genealogy. To me the quotation highlights the some the more troubling aspects of Red Book rhetoric.

In particular, it dodges the central governance question. The idea here, I take it, is that the perception of civilized unity inculcated by general education will allow the myriad small societies to work in concert to open that good-life door. Yet all actually existing societies I know about comprise groups with competing practices, values, and interests, even if they may be said to be united by other practices, values, and interests. The Red Book’s authors may hope that general education will provide a foundation for the adjudication of competing group interests. They do not, however, envision plausible mechanisms whereby generally educated Americans might meaningfully participate in such feats of adjudication, nor is such judgment the kind of thing that general education in the humanities or social sciences seems particularly designed to encourage. The emphasis is on unifying works of durable value. If general education does not equip generally educated citizens to question what is meant by “the good life” and for whom, then “unity” and “civilization” become alibis for the status quo.

In the hope that functioning small societies might  through a vague process of magnetic conduction improve the common weal, I hear the echoes of Charles Beard’s college textbook American Government and Politics, which went through six editions between 1911 and 1931. Beard taught Arthur Schlesinger, the historian on the Red Book collective, when the later was a graduate student at Columbia in the early 1910s. It may be Schlesinger who gives the Red Book its organizing “Jeffersonian” and “Jacksonian” metaphors. His autobiography could offer a clue. In any case,  in an epilog entitled “How can citizens play well their part in the development of American political society?,” the 1931 edition of American Government and Politics confronts a problem of bureaucracy that Beard had addressed the year before in American Leviathan. To whit: the machinery of the state has grown too vast, and its mechanisms too sophisticated, to be susceptible to informed direction by the masses of citizens. The sorts of participation idealized in the Early Republic’s vision of democracy–public debate, elections, and so on–seem feeble in the face of increasingly sophisticated public relations efforts by political parities and pressure groups, not to mention an ever-increasing number of bureaus only nominally controlled by elected officials.  How could young citizens hope to affect a political culture so obviously controlled by experts paid to control it? Beard’s advice is to join “small societies”–political parties as well as business, professional, labor, and civic groups–and to hope to influence the broader direction of politics by influencing these smaller groups.

I am  proposing that the Red Book marks itself as a twentieth-century work in its hope that the kind of political participation that we might think of as a hallmark of neo-liberalism will secure the type of republic idealized by classical liberalism.  In the US context, probably all wishes along these lines respond in one way or another to the argument between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey inaugurated by Lippmann’s 1922 Public Opinion. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere (in Love Rules), and I won’t drag you through it all again. We may never know a more effective critic of Jeffersonian ideals than Lippmann, who treats the entire edifice as a massive PR exercise that convinced Americans to confuse the procedures outlined in the Constitution with self-governance. The PR machine was perfected under Jackson, he argues, when the political parties learned how to use Jeffersonian imagery to legitimate themselves. Henceforth, voting on agendas shaped and decided behind closed doors could count as public rule. Lippmann’s overarching critique centers on the power of media to define what citizens can know about the world that they are invited to help “govern.” Famously, for Lippmann  media do not promote communication so much as circulate stereotypes–reductive views of the world that get mistaken for the world itself. After Lippmann, I think, any serious argument about democracy had to take on board a theory of mediation. Certainly Dewey does in his riposte, which advocates a program of continuous community-building education more radical than the Red Book authors could countenance, but that probably informs their appeal to education as an instrument of unity.

In later posts, we’ll deal with the Red Book’s limited treatment of mass culture as a competitor to general education in uniting American society. Here, I’ll just note  that the issue of mediation is a serious and indicative omission from their account of general education’s supposed democratic benefit. To change how people are governed requires changing the shared signs and symbols that make modern governance possible. I think it possible that the Red Book authors know this perfectly well and see themselves as engaged in such an adventure. They just don’t think that knowledge about how this works this should be part of general education. Their proposed course on American Democracy, for example, leaps over the Lippmann-Dewey debate. Students will read only defenses of classic liberalism: Tocqueville, Bryce, and Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (219).

References to Jefferson and Jackson make it seem like the Red Book authors are talking about education’s contribution to a long heritage of American democracy. They are not. As they sometimes acknowledge explicitly, they are really talking about the role of expanding twentieth-century educational  institutions in identifying and encouraging talent and in defining and inculcating social norms. In this project, educational institutions have a great many competitors as well as collaborators. A real commitment to democracy would require an educational program encouraging much harder questions of actually existing governance in the present.

All that said,  good management must agree that education should be about more than making a living, that it should encourage people to discover affiliations with one another, and such affiliations ought to renew the evergreen challenge of “the good life.”




2. A Jeffersonian matter? Funding merit.

Dear John,

It’s taken me a while to work up a reply to your excellent post–not least because I so tragically misread your previous. I think you hit the nail on the head in asking: “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? ”

With Chris Hayes and Althusser you point out that the language of merit can ratify privilege. (For Hayes, this is because of the contradictory principles of difference and mobility inherent in meritocratic systems, for Althusser it would because, in “the last instance which never in fact arrives,” capital has structured the rules according to which merit is judged merit.) I also take the (mostly implied) point that even when we “see through” merit to the privilege it ratifies, you and I will continue to believe in meritocracy anyway, because our professional practice is inconceivable without it: we’d be different people in a different line of work. No question of getting outside this ideology, only, perhaps, of exploiting its contradictions.  One answer to your question, then, is that the already “meritorious” want to fund meritocracy and that, insofar as they have the resources to do so, they may be likely to fund merit in ways that undermine meritocracy by exempting their own values and interests from challenge.

This leaves your intriguing suggestion that the 20th Century’s educational institutions may have exhausted the meritocratic rhetoric that justified them, such that “meritocracy” can no longer be appealed to as a reason for funding public universities and, more particularly, humanities disciplines. If this suggestion is correct, the exhaustion of the old order would create an opening for alternatives that would appear horrifying or lovely, depending on one’s point of view and ability to apprehend them.

In the “America needs talent” universe of the Redbook it was imagined that properly funded high schools would do the sorting, and also that the cost of college would pose no obstacle for the meritorious student. Students certified by the very best colleges could confidently claim to have obtained their credentials due to talent. With a Jacksonian general education in place, they could also claim that those credentials certified a certain kind of public virtue, an exposure to the stuff of the commonweal, particularly as rendered in classic works of fiction. Even in 1945 this was an ideal. The Redbook authors’ insist throughout on the wide disparity in the quality of high school and college experiences. If high school disparities are regarded as a problem, college disparities, as you note, are regarded as inevitable. The authors take for granted that vocational, junior, and 4-year liberal arts colleges differ (178-180) and suggest a place for general education in each before focusing on Harvard as a test case. I find no argument in the Redbook that college should be publicly funded. The argument, rather, is that Harvard  should and will provide financial assistance to “broaden the economic base from which its students are drawn” (184). Clearly, others had made and would make an argument for publicly funded meritocratic universities–not least those responsible for the Morrill Act. We probably need to look more closely at some of those arguments. So long as the Redbook provides our example of mid-century rhetoric, however, it’s worth underscoring a fact that emerged via our last round of exchanges: the authors give the humanities (and especially English) a special role in Jacksonian leveling but not so much in Jeffersonian sorting. When Harpham appeals to Redbook-era clichés, he’s reprising a move barely hinted at in the Rebbook itself. That move marries the work of literary eduction to specialization in literary reading and thereby makes the role of English in “general education” depend on special expertise, talent, and sensitivity. The Redbook and “Criticism, Inc.” are not merely contemporaries, but structural complements, the role prescribed for English in general education makes no sense absent  the kinds of professors Ransom (and Leavis) believe should be trained. It is this compact, established at mid-century, that the second half of the century brought to ruin.  The proposition that a healthy nation needs general education that includes the humanities is alive and well. More about this in a later post. For now, at the risk of belaboring the point, I just want to underscore that the Redbook’s “America needs talent” argument includes, but only by implication, a call for talented humanities specialists capable of engineering the leveling functions of general ed (206-07). Were the Rebooks authors to make this argument explicitly, they would hazard looking like their great antagonists: propagandists and advertisers (266).

Back to the present. Despite the dominance of “college for all” rhetoric, I think we continue take for granted the idea that “college” is a tiered market of different types and qualities of institutions. I also think we continue to imagine that excellent K-12 education should ideally be equally available for everyone (even though it manifestly is not). Doubtlessly the fact that K-12 education is, for the most part, compulsory in the US has a great deal to do with this.  (I wonder what the Carnegie poll results you cite would be if, after being asked whether higher education should be a “right,” respondents were also asked if it should be required?) If “college for all” has not changed these assumptions, then it contains a meritocratic logic within it: the assumption is that everyone will be able to get into and attend some college or another according to their merits; not everyone will be able to get into every college; some BAs will be more equal than others. In the Carnegie poll, 67% of respondents said that funding was the greatest barrier to attending college. Which college, one wonders, did they have in mind?  The “best” college to which a student is admitted? Any college whatsoever? It’s unclear to me that for any given student there would be a huge difference, although marketplace intuition says it’s always possible to buy up. My main point is that the question ambiguates the difference.  It allows us to imagine that “attending college” equals “attending any college” and simultaneously that it means “attending the best possible college for that student.” The rhetorical shift from “America needs talent” to “college for all” is perhaps best grasped, then, not as a move from meritocracy to equal opportunity, but as a shift in emphasis from the nation’s needs to the individual’s. Both formulations, it seems to me, rely on old-fashioned liberalism’s logic that society and individuals have opposing interests that should be balanced. I think we both regard that logic as powerful, but bogus. This may suggest an avenue for further comment along the lines of pointing out that individual merit is meaningless except in reference to group norms.

Here’s more evidence that the shift from “America needs talent” to “college for all” amounts to no fundamental change. In the press release announcing the Carnegie poll results, Carnegie President Vartan Gregorian finds Redbook rhetoric ready to hand: “We shortchange our nation’s progress and squander our greatest renewable resource–our intellectual capital–if we allow critique of academia or passing partisan squabbling to stifle investment in higher education.”  With Jefferson he appeals to “intellectual capital,” and with Jackson, national unity. One could say that Gregorian’s a throwback who preaches to a shrinking choir–I’m not so sure of that–but my point would be that, anyway, he does so under the “college for all banner.”

I know I’m leaving a lot of threads dangling, but indulge me in one more. Bill Gates, interviewed by the Chronicle on the Morrill Act anniversary and at the height of the Sullivan episode , speaks unapologetically about what business leaders want to bring to higher ed: a set of approaches geared to identifying best practices and solving those structural problems affecting large numbers of students. Public enemy number one: completion rates. I’ll go out on limb here and declare that not only am I not against improving completion rates, but also that I think Gates is right to identify this as the kind of issue with which business leaders should be concerned. I acknowledge the problems involved in treating completion as a reliable metric made apparent in here. Nonetheless, “completion rates” gives Gates a way to ask about what Universities are doing to deliver what they say they’ll deliver without telling them what they should deliver (in terms of curriculum, e.g.). Does this Jacksonian emphasis amount to a rejection of funding meritocracy? Not at all. Gates says he funds “change agents” who model the best practices that improve completion rates. There is a lot of room for humanities expertise here, it seems to me. No surrender of clichés would be required. Critique and completion are compatible. What might be required are changes in how the workforce is structured, how the curriculum is imagined, how space is used on campus, etc.

So my answer is that funding for meritocracy is not in jeopardy, but meritocracy may well be depending on where the funding for it ends up coming from. 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.



1. The scope of the project is vast (part 2).

Dear John,

How could I fail to leap at your prompt?

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?

Not the whole enchilada, and I’m not sure that this is the most useful form of the question.

Retracing your steps “back to where we started,”  I notice, first, a series of rhetorical moves reducing “general education” to “the humanities” while pushing aside questions of disciplinary emphasis or orientation within the humanities. This gets you to the statement: “A crisis of general education, in other words, is what the Redbook authors might mean if they said the humanities were in crisis.” You make these moves deftly. Tthe reasoning is not unfamiliar. A different reading of the Red Book might challenge it.

For example, I would not be prepared to say that exposure to Darwin is less important for general education than exposure to Shakespeare or Casablanca. The Red Book’s authors are absolutely clear, however, that the history and philosophy of science should be part of the sciences’ contributions to general education (230). Darwin does not become “humanities” property by virtue of being important to general education, nor, I think, should he. While there is a privileging of the humanities and of English in the Red Book’s imperative to make general education a unifying force, the authors do not themselves equate the humanities with English with general education.

And it’s a good thing too, particularly given the narrowness of the Red Book’s conception of the humanities, which, one might note, includes neither Classics nor German. Although replete with references to hoary Greek classics, the Red Book does not isolate them as a disciplinary object of study, but instead tends to wedge them into history of Western thought and civilization under the social sciences. To the extent, then, that they are part of shared general education, they might not need a separate department to look after them. The Historians can take care of it. A similar argument could be made about German–let the business school offer language instruction for the MBAs, but one doesn’t need the full departmental apparatus for that. Let me pause here to say unequivocally that I think a university of UVa stature should offer advanced training in Classics and in German language and culture (although I remain open regarding the ideal administrative configuration to support such endeavors.) My point is that I do not think the Red Book’s defense of the humanities as a component of general education provides the rationale for such training. It could in fact support closing such departments, particularly if, for example, Classic made a general ed argument without succeeding in producing the desired unifying experience among masses of undergraduates. We look to the Red Book as a defender of the humanities at our peril, precisely because it so strongly links them to “general education,” whereas so very much of what humanities departments at large public universities now do looks like specialized education.

I continue to find important the Red Book’s insistence on “general education” as a problem set that conjoins K-12 and Universities, and I continue to be struck by a corresponding lack of commerce between contemporary discussions of K-12 crises and public university crises, although the frameworks of “privatization” and “neolibralism” are often applied to each. Henry Giroux offers an exception proving the general rule when he points to an “education deficit” at all levels. (Your friend Andy Lewis is absolutely right that Brown v. Board needs to be in this story, by the way.) I bring this up in response to your question because I think that the UVa situation points to arguments over what education should do and how it should be paid for that are broader than the university and certainly broader than the humanities. Reading through a bit of Helen Dragas’s email, for example, one is struck by the importance she attaches to publicly visible ways of reducing cost. To the extent that this interest exceeds the reasonable and appropriate oversight functions of a board member, it’s easy to imagine that the politics here have little to do with education at all (cost to renovate dinning facilities are a major issue), but rather with the deep suspicion of/hostility to spending on public institutions. Again, I think we turn this into a “humanities” problem at our peril. It is much broader.

I prefer Newfield’s “management” vs. “professionalism” to “humanities” vs. “the neoliberal university.” I understand him to be talking about two different professional-managerial styles. One, quintessentially  business sector, focuses on short term optimization of outcomes, and the other, quintessentially public sector, thinks about the welfare of populations in the long term. This is a longstanding, core ideological conflict. Thinking about the problem in this way broadens it beyond the university and also provides a way to explain what’s at stake in advocating for a particular conception of the university.  I think Newfield is right to conclude:

The core issue in the Sullivan firing is whether professionals will generally self-govern academic change–in equitable partnership with financial and other types of managers–or whether academic change will be defined and shaped primarily by managers, in nonbinding “consultation” with academics only when necessary.

I think he’s also astute in pointing out a rhetorical trap that resonates with our concerns:

Unfortunately, Teresa Sullivan falls into the trap of describing her collaborative method as incremental and conservative.  This kind of rhetoric allows the Board to define her as slow and inadequate in a time of rapid change, and to justify executive authority as that which is bold and decisive.

Should we go another round on this? I might rather first hear your thoughts on #2 and then circle back as needed.


The Red Book

Dear John,

The relatively brief, but eventful, history of the Humanities after Hollywood as we currently imagine it begins in the period from around 1915 to around 1935. Then,  “Hollywood” provided any number of institutions and disciplines a formative and, to remarkable extent, shared example. The example encouraged novelists, psychologists, social reformers, sociologists, Great Books advocates, policy wonks, filmmakers, and curators to collaborate in the project of managing populations through the management of culture. I mean “collaborate” here a very loose and general sense: with hindsight, positions that may at the time have seemed antithetical can be understood as aspects of a common project. Thus, although there were clearly  differences of opinion about whether and how film should be included in university curricula, disputants of the 20s and 30s seem notably eager to experiment with including it. “Hollywood” does not in this period name a problem clearly external to “English,” for example.  This comes as something of a surprise to those of us brought up on the narrative in which Film Studies arises in the 1960s along with other challengers to traditionalist disciplines.

Our explanation for what changed around mid-century has emphasized the growth and increasing professionalization of the humanities disciplines. We accept the standard line that New Criticism (in the US) and F. R. Leavis (in the UK) established new forms of professional orthodoxy for English. These orthodoxies have been associated with disciplinary rigor ever since. When asked to define for non-specialists what makes the study of “Literature” important (and different from the study of anything else) even the most cutting-edge of our contemporaries may well find themselves reproducing some version a New Critical or Leavisite argument.

English, we have been acutely aware, is not the humanities. We have wanted examples that would give the mid-century configuration of English a better context. Geoffrey Harpham led us to Harvard’s 1945 “Red Book” (General Education in a Free Society) through his essay in Representations special issue on “The Humanities and the Crisis of the Public University.”  In our FSU talk, we are critical of Harpham’s nostalgia for the moment the Red Book exemplifies:

In this heyday of general education and core curricula, funding humanities research supported a “perhaps quixotic and definitely nationalistic but fundamentally noble attempt to create a society unified…by the common opportunity to rise through education to the level of one’s merits” (Harpham 56).

What seems to have irked us most is Harpham’s two-fold belief, first, that capitalists in the Carnegie mode were inherently more friendly to the humanities than a “new breed” of “venture philanthropists” that seeks a “quantifiable return on a ‘social investment” and thus “inclines toward science, technology, and management and away from the humanities,” and second, that this state of affairs is best addressed by reclaiming the rhetoric that worked with old-school funders. He concludes: “we must make every effort to reclaim, reactivate, and reinvigorate our own clichés.”  We wrote:

What worries us about this call is not the agreeable and valid argument that a liberal arts education is good for juries, op ed pages, and dinner party conversation–it clearly is. We are dismayed, rather, by Harpham’s cynical embrace of a midcentury rhetoric built to find “American democracy” in the alliance of big-state nationalism and robber-baron capitalism. This alliance did not fund “democracy” in any direct way. It paid for meritocratic educational institutions. Such institutions work to certify and distribute the authority to represent and manage others. The logic of a “return on ‘social investment’” has never been as foreign to them as Harpham would have us suppose.

Now having read the Red Book, I like this argument against Harpham better than ever. The Red Book does indeed emphasize general education as instrument of national unity and “democracy.” Nonetheless, I never would have intuited from Harpham’s admittedly brief discussion some of the most notable features of the book.

  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?
  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?
  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).
  4. In defining the humanities as a key component of general eduction, the Red Book privileges the study of English literature. In the section on high schools, for example, the humanities look more far more strongly balkanized by area than the social sciences and sciences. Math, chemistry, biology, appear as a distinct subject areas, but we move with relative ease from a paragraphs describing chemistry and biology courses to those laying out math courses. Under the humanities, we have strongly separated sections for: English, defined in New Critical terms as not history or politics but “the works themselves,” conveyors of a unifying heritage, and clearly the heart of the matter; Foreign Languages, which may or may not be a humanities endeavor depending on whether the languages are treated as communication “tools” or as aides in appreciating English as a language; and Arts, the appreciation of which is felt to be enriching in a vague, emotional way.  In the section on Harvard, great English language books receive similar emphasis in the proposed new core curriculum. The authors voice a number of assumptions about what English Literature is and does that want further examination. I think we need to look, too, to the composition of the Committee whose report this is (Ivor Richards is the English professor on it). And we need poke around a little bit in the literature to determine whether the Harvard folks are voicing an established consensus about English or are attempting to institutionalize a new orthodoxy. This has the ring to me, however, of a representative example. Thesis: in 1945, but not 1935, educators could treat  “English Literature,” understood as the study of great works apart from their history and context, as if it were the essence of “the humanities.”
  5. The Red Book is symptomatically silent on the subject mass culture as a competing unifier. The issue comes up briefly in the final pages: “The press, radio, photography, television–our progressive disembodiment–and indeed all increased means of mass communication have their dangers too.”  The authors seem particularly concerned about advertising: “‘In a world of strife, there is peace in beer.’ That slogan was no invention of a satirist. It adorned many a newspaper in the days before Pearl Harbor and is but one example, less harmful through its very fatuousness, of the modes of attack to which mass communication exposes standards in all fields. Against them we can only oppose general education at all levels” (266). Apparently, effective opposition won’t require knowledge of the adversary, since there is no place whatsoever for “mass communications” in general education as Harvard imagines it. What a difference from the situation before the war!  Then, the problem of “mass culture,” how to learn from and about it, was absolutely central to considerations of the problem of democracy (e.g., in the Lippmann-Dewey debate) and the university both. Again, more research is needed, but this seems like a representative example of a familliar configuration: a particular notion of English Literature is elevated as isomorphic with the humanities, which are also, in the same stroke, clearly distinguished from the social sciences (which include history) and the sciences (which include math); mass culture appears as an ominous external force with which general education competes to unify the nation.

What would you say to a series of posts dealing with each of these five problems?


Examples, not Objects

Dear John,

I find Ralph’s reply to your last useful in its offer of “examples” as an alternative to “objects.”  Ralph asks us if we can agree that

institutional practices that are guided by particular examples, especially by examples that have functioned as very important in our early attraction to a practice or discipline, would seem less susceptible to balkanization, more likely to provide the basis for establishing new relations, than practices wedded to objects. I like examples because, in the same gesture, they explain to me both why Shakespeare is more important to me than Soyinka and why Soyinka is important to me.

I think we can agree, but agreement requires us to put back on the table some features of disciplinarily that have dropped out of our last few exchanges.

Of what is “Shakespeare” an example? “Literature,” “drama,” “poetry,” “English genius,” and “adaptation” are the first of several possible answers that come to mind. Likely the wide range of possible answers is one reason why Ralph regards Shakespeare as an “important” example (in addition to the fact that this example has been formative for him). Is it the same example in each context? Does Shakespeare mean the same thing in high school as at university? Certainly my discipline would find a major difference between a filmed stage performance of The Taming of the Shrew (about which it would care very little) and 10 Things I Hate about You (which it might treat as generic hybrid or star vehicle more than as a Shakespeare adaptation)Is a rose a rose? With respect to those examples that have formed academic disciplines, I think the answer has to be a qualified “no.”

This was an issue several posts back when you pointed out that as a “film” person in English, I am pigeon-holed and pigeon-hole myself by an object-centered account of discipline. I could only agree, but my main point in this thread was that my English colleagues and I mean different things by “film.” It is not the same object, because it is an example for different sets of arguments. “What is film?” is an organizing question for film and media studies; “What is Literature?,” not so much. I think that in English that the reverse is the case, with the difference that a very powerful disciplinary strand in English assumes that all cultural production can be treated as literature-like (“film” here might be an example of “narrative”). Film and media studies, I would say, sometimes acts as though it wants to secure the completing claim that all cultural production is media-like (“novels” here might be an example of “print media”). Not surprisingly, I like the imperialist ambition of my discipline much better than that of yours. Since your discipline is so very much better funded and institutionally entrenched, I also get to imagine my counter-imperialist claim as one of righteous rebellion against your discipline’s tyranny. But of course this is precisely the battle narrative we want to interrupt, by pointing out that neither discipline makes sense without the other and that overall structure and function of the humanities at present cannot be understood absent the media practices emblematized by “Hollywood.”

If this remains our goal, and I think it does, then we need to remember that the risk of talking past one another remains significant. “What is film?” and “What is Literature?” are not even the parallel disciplinary questions they may appear, because (as our discussion of “realism” brought out), consideration of the material carrier  (e.g., photosensitive emulsion on a flexible plastic base) has been front and center in film studies, whereas in English that question was largely consigned to the marginal subfield of “the history of the book,” until the impending demise of the codex brought it out retirement under the banner of digital humanities. Words like “film,” “print,””media,” and “mediation” mean differently in the disciplines that, like it or not, shape our approaches. Object-orienation points not to a consensus about what the objects are or how they differ from other objects, but to the unruly disputes, shared vocabularies, acknowledged and unacknowledged premises that animate academic practice. If objects keep disciplines in their lanes (as you say), they do so in part by making it difficult to recognize what’s going on next door, even when we’re looking right at it. The conceptional shift from objects to examples helps us here, because it requires us to ask “what is exemplified?,” a question more likely to disclose incommensurate premises and zones of dispute than the question “does this differ from that?”  Understanding differences of exemplification strikes me as a necessary first step in developing shared examples.

I am not taking back my initial point that examples are not unities. We cannot say in advance that examples point to commensurable explanatory contexts for which they are examples. But I am qualifying this point, because it seems to me that any decent explanation of that incommensurability is bound to transform the example into the common property of a new explanatory context.

I am trying to decide whether this notion runs counter to your “fantasy in which we become more specialized and, as a result, less self-sufficient.” I find the idea of specialized teamwork inherently appealing but practically difficult to imagine without shared examples capable of permitting a collective organization of  the labor. Absent such organizing examples, self-suffcient specialization sounds to me like alienation. I might have a sense of myself as a highly specialized cog in a machine without much idea of how I participate in its overall function. This may in fact characterize the academic humanities at the moment. I take that to be one way of reading Ralph’s comment about the uncertainty involved in conceiving the adversary these days.

So can we say that we need some shared examples as well as, because it really is not possible to know everything, some proprietary ones?  It seems to me that we are developing a set of such examples, including “Criticism, Inc.”





Dear John,

I recently got notes from Ralph Berry about our presentation at Florida State. The value we place on “collaboration” was a central topic. Ralph reminded me of the Q&A in which some questioners pointed out that “collaboration” does not have a purely positive connotation. Sometimes “collaborators” are enemies of the cause. There’s a big difference between those who collaborate with “us” and those who collaborate with “them,” but, at least in the fictions that deal with this problem, it’s not always easy to tell who’s who. In Casablanca, for example, Louis collaborates with the Nazis right up to the end when he and Rick begin again, but of course this beautiful new start is possible because he and Rick have been collaborating all along. And although Rick  says he sticks his neck out for no one and seems to be quite a loner, he’s clearly an arch-collaborator, forming ad hoc partnerships and knitting them together so that Ilsa and Lazlo can catch their plane. Collaboration entails an idea of the common good and an epistemological uncertainty about it.

This twofold proposition is encapsulated in the photo we showed during out talk. (I’ve added it here before, but you suggested we table discussion . . . until now!) The image captures a struggle to define the terms of collaboration. Graphic Artist One (Billy) sets collaboration over competition. In denying Billy anonymity, Graphic Artist Two negates his statement by disallowing the standpoint from which he makes it. The idea here is that persons belonging to the 1% have no authority to assert the value collaboration over competition. Such a statement is hypocritical because the 1% benefit from a competitive process that unfairly privileges them above the 99%. Probably there is more going on outside the frame. We are free to imagine the Graphic Artist Two feels an animosity toward Billy that far exceeds, and may be largely unrelated to, their relationships to the distribution of wealth. In any case, it seems that Billy wants to be one of “us,” while Graphic Artist Two insists, no, you are one of “them,” a collaborator with the competitors. This interpretation assumes that “Collaboration!” and “NOT COMPETITION” have the same author. The handwriting looks the same, although the shift to all caps may introduce an ambiguity: a different time of writing or simply a matter of emphasis? The line through “competition” presents a more serious conundrum. Are we to regard it as part of Graphic Artist One’s initial statement–an iconographic negation of competition to underscore the semantic negation of the “not”? Or is this part of Graphic Artist Two’s statement? If the later, we can understand it as a kind of double negative. 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. The image-arugment 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.

According to Ralph, our emphasis on “collaboration” sounded a bit like Billy’s when we made a “them” out of defenders of disciplinary objects.  To the extent that these folks are trying to figure out how disciplines work, he pointed out, they could be seen as collaborating with us. He offered Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” as a test case. We follow the crowd in presenting Ransom as a mid-century professionalizer who equated English departments with the work of criticism (as opposed to history or appreciation) and the work of criticism with keeping poetry from “being killed by prose.” I continue to find it telling that Ransom defines “criticism” mostly through a set of prohibitions. Be that as it may, 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. Above all, Ranson’s a reformer:

Professors of literature are learned but not critical men. The professional morale of this part of the university staff is evidently low. It is as if, with conscious or unconscious cunning, they had appropriated every avenue of escape from their responsibility which was decent and official; so that it is easy for one of them without public reproach to spend a lifetime in compiling the data of literature and yet rarely or never commit himself to a literary judgment.

Nevertheless it is from the professors of literature, in this country the professors of English for the most part, that I should hope eventually for the erection of intelligent standards of criticism. It is their business.

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.


Profit and Form, Objects, Media

Dear John,

Ok, I’ll write about profit, but first I need to figure out what this paragraph means:

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.

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).

My imagination wants to bulldoze all of this in favor of some straightforward propositions:

  • 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?

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 knee-jerk anti-profit attitude is case of humanist over-conformity. Paul Jay and Gerald Graff say as much in the “Fear of Being Useful” piece we cite. Christopher Newfield, in Ivy and Industry, observes that this particular institutional structure has early 20th century roots in the (bad) bargain that founded the modern American University: administrators would attend to money matters; scholars would be “free” to think and write. I think it is fairly obvious that the terms of this bargain are shifting under the pressure of a much broader argument about what universities should do and how they should be funded. Over conforming to old habits will not serve us well. We want our students to get jobs; we’d like to keep ours; we’d like ours to make a difference. These are not exclusively “profit” propositions, but profit’s sure in ’em.

I’m not sure what to do with a couple of ideas in your last paragraph. There’s this one:

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 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.

Then there’s this sentence:

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.

I think Grieveson, Wasson, Polan, Decherney et al. describe institution building arguments that configure still extant relationships among academic and industrial practices. (Although these relationships may be changing.) 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.”