Current Affairs digital humanities Higher Education

putting an object-orientation to work in the new humanities

I'm following along the lines of some recent posts here and a clearly broader conversation. Here's Dave Parry quoting Jean-Luc Nancy on the SUNY Albany business. Here's Jeff Rice. Here's Richard Miller. Here's Rosemary Feal in the Chronicle. The MLA has produced a report on rebuilding foreign language programs. Here are UK students protesting changes in higher education (a large part of those changes impact humanities and social sciences, i.e. non-STEM, education).

I am sympathetic to Rice's argument:

Ours is an unoriginal profession interested in the originality of texts. For years, we’ve seen this point played out in pedagogies devoted to the study of creative works, creative minds and creative writers but that ask students to produce banal and bland writing in response. Now we see further evidence in an uninspiring, unimaginative, unproductive argument that falls back on cliches and commonplaces in order to make a point. Not one appeal is creative in design. Not one appeal offers or suggests a new mode of thinking. Not one appeal recognizes that a new situation exists, a new exigence to respond to, a new problem that must be contextualized and understood as a 21st century problem.

Indeed in some ways the humanities remind one of the stereotypical ugly American tourist (you know, the one that language/cultural education tries to mitigate), where one someone appears to not understand you, you just repeat yourself but louder and slower.

Who knows what exactly motivates decisions like the one at Albany? We can only guess, interpret, critique. However, I would imagine that the people in the room are familiar with the arguments we make about the value of the humanities. They just don't believe those arguments. Or so it would seem. And it would appear that the discourse in mainstream American culture is divided at best on the topic. I would imagine that anyone who has been through high school and certainly anyone with a college degree is familiar with the basic argument about why studying literature or history or another language is valuable. As Jeff suggests, I'm not sure what repeating the argument is meant to accomplish.

Richard Miller offers a related position:

For the only meaningful constant in human experience is neither death nor taxes, but the condition of unknowing. The humanities curate the record of all previous human efforts to engage this condition and they could also house contemporary efforts to do so as well. Blowing the dust off previous defenses of the humanities comes just from moving through the stacks; engaging in the creative act of inventing sustainable responses to the current situation is the very essence of the humanistic enterprise. It's time we got on with the work of begin building a better world.

While it doesn't get us out of our habit of navel-gazing, the primary project for the humanities right now would seem to be figuring out how to survive. We begin by recognizing that the traditional arguments for the humanities are not timeless but the products of historical and material conditions. They have to be able to change along with those conditions. In the end, adaptability is necessary for any assemblage's continuing operation. 

My response to such challenges is generally to be experimental rather than comprehensive. That is, rather than beginning with a grand theory of the new humanities and then figuring out how to get there, one begins experimentally with changing behaviors and see where the changes lead. Balance and sustainability are, I would say, emergent qualities of assemblages.

So this is my "object-oriented" approach… in really basic terms. Change the objects in the room. Change what you are studying, the activities the students engage in, the social network the curriculum establishes, and the products the students produce. Forget the old goals or objectives. Discover what is achieved, what in fact does happen in the classroom under these new conditions. Rather than operating from some grand narrative about ideology or humanism to explain what is happening and/or what should happen, pursue, in ANT-like fashion, the real associations. Not that curriculum should be 100% student-driven, but maybe listen to the students and their own explanations for why they do what they do. What is sustained in these spaces? What questions are asked? What is produced and what do the products do? What assemblages do they form?

Composition has been the dumping ground of the humanities for decades. Few wish to take the course, fewer wish to teach it, and virtually no one wants to pay for it. It's also the place where the humanities tends to dump its pure ideological drives (b/c composition has no content of its own, right?). So whether its liberatory pedagogy or critical-theoretical thinking or an abstract mastery of grammar, composition becomes the place where the goal is to produce students who freely express in Marxist/feminist/whatever terms, their appreciation for the humanities… all without comma splices. 

So foreign language departments seem to be in trouble. Other humanities disciplines may be in risk. Composition has been the discipline that not even other humanities disciplines would bother to rise to defend. But my argument would be that if you want to imagine a new humanities or just save the humanities, perhaps it begins by saving composition, by recognizing composition's overlooked content. And maybe you could begin with Latour's Compositionist Manifesto, even if he doesn't manage to mention writing. At least you could see a broader picture of composition. Ultimately though, composition is about making things in the world that have effects; composition is about taking student work seriously; composition demands us to engage with the world productively (we don't just look at things; we need to look with an eye toward fueling our own productivity or invention); composition is about making things that work (not that they always do) and delivering them to the world. 

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