the sunset humanities

It's about 200 miles from my office at UB to Binghamton NY where the SUNY Council on Writing (COW) conference was held over the last two days. Intellectually, though,it seemed a lot farther than that. I was thinking about this last night as I was driving west along I-90 into the setting sun: when was the last time, if ever, that it felt to you as if "the humanities" was gathering speed or energy? Certainly we are still rolling along, but is it just a matter of intertia that must be spent?

At the SUNY COW one can meet a number of great professors, instructors, and graduate students who all care about teaching and their students. In many ways, they are the classic composition conference crowd and share in that familiar ethos. In my last post, I wrote about Kurt Spellmeyer's plenary, so I won't revist that. Before Spellmeyer, Pat Belanoff spoke briefly about the history of SUNY COW. She was the COW's president for nearly 20 years until my colleague Arabella Lyon took on the job a couple years ago. Belanoff had tracked down the history of COW and its 24 annual conferences. She remarked that the questions and themes raised across those conferences were still valid today. I think this was meant as a good thing. There seemed to be general assent among folks in the audience that this was a good thing.

I wonder in how many other discourses one can say "We've had this issue for 20 years, and it is still unresolved" and for that to be taken as good news?  Only in the humanities, I would suppose. Of course, we aren't in the solution-finding business but rather the problem-posing business. This despite the fact that conference presentations, journal articles, and monographs in rhet/comp are replete with examples of successful pedagogies and disciplinary calls-to-arms on topics from assessment to the web. Most of the presentations I saw, however, addressed what they perceived as new problems (and solutions) dealing with technology. On the one hand it is good to see writing faculty addressing issues of emerging media; on the other hand, I think it is too late and ultimately misguided to be following the thinking of Nick Carr or Mark Prensky. From my perspective that's a little like the tail wagging the dog. To be honest, even though questions of attention, the effects of networks on discursive practices, teaching in online spaces, and such are presented as new, they too are questions that are 15-20 years old in our field. Read Lester Faigley's Fragments of Rationality (1992).

1992: that was the year to discuss these matters. Unless we believe these questions are still relevant. And I suppose they could be, just like the question of evolution is still relevant in Kansas. In other words, the questions still seem relevant in the context of a certain set of beliefs.

Ultimately this is the thing I don't understand about my field and the humanities in general. Let's assume the following, all fairly suspect, claims are accurate:

  • "google" is making us stupid(er) (i.e. shortening our attention spans, reducing our "critical thinking" ability);
  • social media is weakening our "real world" relationships;
  • texting, etc. is making us worse writers;
  • video game play is making us violent and brutish;
  • "people" are less happy now than in the past.

IF all these things are true, they still would not validate an argument for trying to go backwards. Besides, Stephen Hawking has argued that time travel backwards is not possible. When the neolithic revolution began to unfold, do you imagine those early farmers were better off than their hunter-gatherer neighbors? Not necessarily. The bone record shows those early farmers suffered from serious nutritional deficiencies. It took centuries for that technology to develop. We are all more familiar with the industrial revolution. Was life in early industrial cities better than life on the farm? It took decades to figure out a humane industrial society. It's probably worth observing that the modern academic humanities emerged as part of making industrialization more humane and ethical. Consider Matthew Arnold, for example, or Marx for that matter.

It would seem fairly obvious that the "new humanities," if such a thing were ever to exist, would serve a similar role for the post-industrial age. This doesn't mean jumping on bandwagons or waving flags for the latest technologies. It means undertaking a humanistic investigation of those technologies and exploring their pedagogical uses. 10 years ago, Google was not the dominant search engine it is today. Social media did not exist. Americans didn't text each other. There was no broadband to speak of. None of the technologies we fret over today matter in terms of their specifics, except in the sense that they are part of an unfolding pattern. While we can and must research the actual technologies that are at work, we need to understand that as humanists our objectives are broader in investigating the ethical, rhetorical, aesthetic, cultural, affective, ontological, epistemological dimensions of living in the networked world. It's not about being for or against. And most importantly, it's not about trying to reassert the humanities of the past in the context of the new. Put differently, it's not about trying to live like a farmer in the city. Of course we bring some of that farm life with us, but mostly we need to figure out new ways to live. 

I don't really see that going on. Most of the humanities, as I read them, are about trying to understand who the "modern human" is. We fixate on Shakespeare in part because the modern human seems to be emerging there, because modern English is taking shape in his plays. Perhaps we can continue to study this concept of the modern human, but we must now approach it the way we approached conceptions of the human in the middle ages or in antiquity, as concepts that operated in a time different from our own. 

In terms of first-year composition, I believe we need to let go of our ideas about how things "should be:" thinking, communicating, relating, writing. We need to let go of our modern goals for perfecting civic discourse and social relations. Instead we need to address and investigate what is before us. It is no longer a question of IF or weighing pros and cons. As rhetoricians we must simply enter into the digital networked world and develop new practices, new ethos, new rhetorics, alongside our students and everyone else. Of course, that's not likely to happen. Hence the sunset.

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