The Place of the Humanities

The Humanist Workplace

The place of the humanities has been imagined as an ivory tower for so long and so pervasively that every claim for the humanities as a public force finds itself on the defensive.   We humanists may argue passionately that active critical thought is the most valuable of communicable skills in contemporary life, but that abstract claim is itself incommunicable if our listeners are worn down by passive, uncritical absorption.

Instead of abstractions about the humanities, this blog series invites scholars’ specific and personal reflections on where they put the humanities to work.  Its posts illustrate that the place of the humanities is everywhere in the world that humanists teach and learn:  the archives and libraries where we first felt the tug of research; the here and now of our classrooms and office hours; distant pasts or far-flung cultures, the cities or villages we try to understand; and above all, the community histories we try to re-imagine for the future.  I hope these posts (starting with mine) will look hard into the gap between the inherited injustices that researchers aim to combat and the occupational privileges we still enjoy.   I also hope these posts can capture the spatial turn that the 2009-10 IPRH fellows found ourselves taking as our seminar uncovered how deeply social representations are lodged in localities.

“Place” is on everyone’s minds now, with the global significance of going local asserted everywhere from political campaigns to restaurant menus.   To articulate the place of the humanities is a challenge both urgent and enduring.  The humanities, their historical centrality to university life marked on most American campuses by buildings ringing the main quad, today are fighting for budget shares, faculty lines, meeting space, even library space.  We would not be so tangibly embattled today, however bad the economy, if the place of the humanities in American culture had not been rendered ideologically suspect for decades.   We humanists, and our allies, need to show some of the good, lasting work we do all over the place.

Rust Never Sleeps

I –to be specific—began worrying about the place of the humanities as a young inductee in the culture wars, earning my Ph.D. on that faux-Gothic campus where, the national media claimed, the entire humanities faculty had sold their souls to Theory.   English graduate students were urged in seminar to always historicize and if possible politicize.  I found these arguments compelling, and the media’s suspicions sadly hypocritical; I still do.  I was vaguely troubled by an inconsistency between my newly clarified values and the textbook we were given to use in our freshman rhetoric classes.  The textbook’s cover placed the unseen “informed reader” in the humanities in a large empty wing chair, comfortably glowing in a fireside shade of rust.   This cozy image was laughably irrelevant to first-year college students, even at that selective private school.   I saw it as an icon of retreat from the world, assuring  course administrators that adoption of this textbook would shield young writers from the humanities’ renewed alertness.  

Although I’d pledged myself to such alertness, I recognized this armchair immediately, because I owned it.   Five years earlier, I’d graduated from my own selective private university, with an esoteric humanities B.A. as my only asset.  Beginning a hapless non-academic career, I’d rented just two pieces of furniture for my prefab apartment.   One was a bed; the other was a wing chair upholstered in cheap rust velour.   I couldn’t afford to rent a sofa, but I needed a reading chair in my lonely new life.  When I sussed out how to finance more education, my rent-to-own wing chair followed me to graduate school.   Only when I saw my wing chair pictured on this textbook did I recognize that it was not just a prop from my collegiate stage, but a fetish of academic privilege.    

The chair on the textbook cover wasn’t speaking to students or administrators; it was promising instructors like me, toiling in service courses, that we were headed for upholstered comfort.   Re-reading my rust chair’s hold over me, I wondered:  How can I shake off this sleepy fantasy of academic life?  How can I keep my academic life active in the world?   My idiosyncratic route through those questions has been to become a historian of popular reading.   My research challenges the armchair assumption that when the less educated sit down with a text—when seventeenth-century English men, women, and children  consumed romances or  plays or chapbooks—they read for some lesser retreat into mere escapism.  I believe that we who are paid to imagine the uses of texts ought to credit other readers, especially the inexperienced, with the desire to use texts inventively.   How and where does that belief work?  In my research and writing, I assemble evidence that reading practices in the past were widely varied, not hierarchical.  When I teach, whether my students are in Urbana analyzing a sixteenth-century fantasy of the New World, or in a London neighborhood discussing a fringe play about new tensions in the Old World, I ask them to imagine these texts, too, being adapted by past and future audiences to emerging needs.

Meanwhile, I do still own this wing chair, although it’s not very rust-colored anymore.  It apparently suggests a kind of public virtue to guests.  Speakers at my house–faculty, grad students, undergrads—always select this chair, as if its uprightness supports them as they share their own visions of reading.  And when it’s empty, a sun-bleached ghost of an untenable intellectual isolation, this chair unseats my own comfortable assumptions and reminds me of my real job:  showing that texts and readers always have and always must engage the world.

What places launch our other bloggers’ work in the humanities? And readers, what about yours?

Guest editor Lori Newcomb is an Associate Professor in the English department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. A scholar who specializes in the study of early modern prose fiction and drama (among other interests), she is the author of Reading Popular Romance in Early Modern England. NY: Columbia University Press, 2002.


About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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