Higher Education

the broken fun of the humanities

The moral of this story is probably that some Chronicle of Higher Ed clickbait articles are too absurd to pass by, in this case, Timothy Aubry’s “Should Studying Literature be Fun?” I find this to be such a bizarre question and ultimately I’m unsure what it has to do with the concerns of the article itself.

Aubry observes “So much of academic life seems colored by high-stakes political struggles.” Huh. Not sure, but you’ve got to love the passive voice there. Who is doing this coloring I wonder. This, it seems to my reading of the essay, is part of the “not fun” portion of academic life and studying literature (we can discuss disambiguating those two some other time). Here though it’s the decades long history of canon-busting, recovering voices, and incorporating new cultural perspectives that is familiar fare, or as Aubry terms it “The urge to dethrone literary heroes on the basis of their bad politics.” What is apparently lost (or wait, maybe not) is an opportunity for an aesthetic appreciation of literature. He notes the (again familiar) rite of graduate school passage where one learns to abandon (or at least not vocalize) one’s love of literature. “It wasn’t that professors spent much time debunking aesthetic judgment. Those battles had already been fought and won. It was just that certain questions to do with beauty or pleasure almost never arose; you learned not to ask them the same way you learned to stop liking bands like Coldplay.”

These are all familiar stories to me about grad school and English Studies. (Don’t worry, rhetoric has parallel processes to those of literary studies.) You can decide on their veracity for yourself.

My thought though was that I wasn’t really sure what any of that had to do with experiencing fun. I’ve witnessed glee in the critical evisceration of authors, scholars, fellow faculty and/or students. Plenty of people appear to love a good public pillorying on social media, in some online magazine, or maybe at a conference. And I don’t mean that as a negative judgment. My point is just that, from what I can tell, people enjoy these activities. On the other hand, I’m not sure that aesthetic appreciation is inherently fun. I’m not saying it couldn’t be fun for some people. I’m just saying I don’t think it’s intrinsically more enjoyable than a good expression of righteous indignation and anger. 

Now that said, I do recognize that there’s always been some odd pseudo-(?), Neo-(?), post-(?) Puritanical urge to insist that none of this critical/political stuff is fun and certainly none of it is done for personal enjoyment! Maybe that’s some version of the mommy/daddy “this hurts me more than it hurts you” (no, it doesn’t). Or an ethical/rhetorical warning that (to appear) to enjoy doling out judgment and punishment undermines its moral foundation: sober as a judge as the saying goes. Or perhaps, as Aubry suggests, a way of indicating the seriousness of our academic work.

So Aubry ends with what I’d consider a commonplace. Specifically he switches what he presents at first as an either/or (politics or aesthetics) and tries to turn it into a both/and.

Moreover, to struggle against inequity and discrimination, it is important not only to stop celebrating those bad modes of writing that denigrate particular groups, but also to work to spread the opportunity to have good, fulfilling aesthetic experiences as widely as possible — even when those experiences contribute nothing to the improvement of society other than themselves. To affirm literature’s aesthetic value is to argue that it does something more than serve as an instrument for a particular politics, that the experiences it fosters are worth pursuing not only because they reaffirm our political views or further our ideological aims, but because they represent a mode of fulfillment — a quickening of our perceptions, a dilation of our temporal experiences, a revitalization of our thought and feeling — unavailable elsewhere.

In short, there’s gotta be some overlap in that good politics/good aesthetics Venn diagram, right? I don’t know. You could ask Plato or maybe enjoy some good Socialist Realist theater.

But let me end on some fun. The work we do should be fun. Not all the time of course but I’m going to go out on a limb and say, on balance, at the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy the work you’re doing then maybe you should consider doing something else (or at least working somewhere else). I know that can be easier said than done for a variety of personal/unique reasons. But as general career advice and even more generally as a way of defining the work undertaken by humanities faculty: yes, you should be able to enjoy it.

Hell, work/life is hard enough as it is without insisting that you shouldn’t enjoy it whenever it’s possible to. What a weird idea. But the fact that this whole “no fun” notion is all too familiar is just another odd broken thing about the humanities or maybe academia.

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