The Place of the Humanities

A Kind of Usefulness

By Gabriel Solis

At the beginning of the Spring semester 2010, when the University of Illinois administration announced that all employees would take mandatory furlough days, I was interviewed by the News Gazette, our local paper. I took issue with the use of furloughs to address the university’s budget problems—in part because they seemed (and indeed were) fiscally insufficient, but more importantly because they suggested a theoretical discontinuity between teaching and research.  We were asked to do no work one weekday per month; but also to take the furloughs without a visible impact on our teaching. To explain why teaching and research are, at least ideally, inseparable for humanities faculty at a Research-1 university, such as ours—indeed, how they create a productive feedback loop—I told the story of how I wound up doing research into the music of Indigenous people of Australia and the southwestern Pacific. The story is a positive one, I think, and a tidy package.

In a nutshell: having finished my first book, on Thelonious Monk’s music and the history of jazz in the last quarter of the 20th century, I needed some new, large research project. I could, certainly, have continued to investigate jazz and American music-culture—and in time I have—but I wanted to do something different first. My teaching has always revolved mainly around theory and method seminars in ethnomusicology and a large, 100-level, gen ed course on world music. While teaching those courses I had become interested in Aboriginal Australian music. My interest stemmed from a number of things, but most importantly the fact that in all the world, there was no place I had learned anything about where music and dance were accorded such importance. They were, as I read, a total social and cosmological fact. Music and dance encapsulate the creative power of the ancestral spirit beings who made the earth as we now know it, and they are a primary modality for managing land, law, and the structures of sociability. Over the past five years I have travelled regularly to Australia, doing fieldwork with Aboriginal communities in remote North Queensland and Sydney and have recently expanded my work in the area to include Papua New Guinea, doing research in collaboration with professors at the University of Goroka. In addition to writing about this material, I have begun teaching it, with good results. The students seem to enjoy it, it helps crystallize my understanding of the material—as teaching generally does—and it adds a distinctive feature to our course catalog.  It is, as far as I can tell, the only such course presently offered at an American university.

I expected some push-back from somewhere when the News-Gazette article was published—administration, tuition-paying students and parents, non-university folks—because, ultimately, I think we professors have it good.  Our jobs are neither arduous, dangerous, nor insecure, in comparison with many, and despite how it feels sometimes, we are well compensated for our labor, in the greater scheme of things.  We—I—have relatively little to complain about, and I imagined some would balk at what they might perceive as complaining—particularly unseemly, given the larger economic picture at the time.

I was surprised, though, to hear, on local talk radio, the morning the article was published, the only real objection to the piece was not to my general point (that furloughs were an inadequate response to the university’s very real financial straits, and that they fundamentally misconstrued the nature of academic labor); rather, the caller was shocked and appalled that the state of Illinois was wasting its money paying  someone like myself to research and teach about Australian Aboriginal music. What value, what use, what point, the caller wanted to know, could that possibly serve taxpayers, students, the state at large?

I do not know how best to argue the case for what I do, and for this research and teaching in particular. Given the recent publication of Academically Adrift, which suggests (among other things) that students in the humanities show more significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over the course of their college years than students in many other programs, I might posit that regardless of the particular topic, students who learn about Aboriginal music and dance from me are better off for it because they have learned something about critical reading and have had feedback on their writing.  That is: whatever the topic, my classes and those of my colleagues in the humanities are potentially valuable for their educational process. But I am inclined to argue something further, that the specific work I do in Australia and the Pacific is of some real use, value, and meaning in the world and in the interconnecting worlds that make up the University of Illinois.  I am so inclined because I think we, humanists, choose topics for study not at random, but for good reasons; not always reasons that are easy to articulate, or even ones of which we are fully aware, perhaps, but good reasons nevertheless.

What might the specific value of studying indigenous music from literally the other side of the world be for the various constituencies served by a flagship land-grant university? I believe the opportunity to transition from the received exotica perpetuated in virtually every corner of Western popular culture about the Pacific—about indigenous people around the world—to a more informed view is fundamental to building a clear understanding of the world our students and we live in. It gives students—particularly those whose upbringing is typical of our students at the University of Illinois, middle-class, suburban—a vision of the world that is fundamentally different from the one they see in the 24-hour news cycle, read about in most media, hear about in casual conversation.

As Chickasaw nation scholar Jodi Byrd has said,

“As the twenty-first century faces looming economic and environmental disasters, along with territorial wars initiated by current and former superpowers, questions of living convivially at the expense of Indigenous peoples will continue to haunt us even as we strive to reorganise political structures in ways that are inclusive for all. Until the ongoing colonisations of Indigenous peoples around the world are recognised and redressed, the project of liberal democracy, no matter how inclusive it becomes, will remain a lost cause.”

This, to me, is one of the values of the humanities in the contemporary academy. Indigenous peoples of the southwestern Pacific may never command airtime in the U.S. media, but I will have done a small part to raise the subject.

Each of us studies something that, on the face of it, is obscure in its own way. In my own case that means giving students a new perspective on the histories that brought Western people into contact and in time relations of domination with Indigenous peoples. For another it may be studying little-remembered 17th century English poets, and yet another it may be understanding changes in the idea of night in early modern German-speaking lands. We all do so—at least ideally—not to lose ourselves and our students in a world of our own, and not to fortify the walls of the ivory tower. Rather, the effect of our collective endeavor is to upend the everyday, to disclose the strangeness of received wisdom, to trouble the surface of experience, and to show the centrality of knowledge at the margins. I believe this is a kind of usefulness.

Gabriel Solis is an Associate Professor of Musicology and African American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Monk’s Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making (2007), and the author of the forthcoming book What Is He Building In There?: Tom Waits and Rock at the end of the ‘American Century,’ a project completed while he was a Faculty Fellow at the IPRH.


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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3 Responses to The Place of the Humanities

  1. Jerod Crane says:

    We should all thank professor Solis for being a positive voice in this difficult time. It is a shame we have reached a point where the public universities in this country must deflect criticisms about their core mission because people do not see that their tax dollars are being spent on things they value.

    It seems we are at a time when a majority of students come to the U of I for technical training and not for a rounded education. It is also the time where people such as the last governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty can say on the Daily Show, without a hint of sarcasm, that he believes a corporate model should be brought to university education because if someone can get a cheap class on their phone, they shouldn’t be forced to get out of bed to go to class. Because of these and other pressures, the humanities have been called on to justify themselves, lest they be cast off as merely overhead. (The thinking being, “why pay for music majors, when you can make more engineers or management consultants?”The reasons humanities scholars fail to do so is partly because social and cultural forced in the U.S. have marginalized older conceptualizations of education that assume the value of humanities research is unassailable. But it is not entirely the fault of these socio-cultural forces. It is also not because of the irrelevance of the research done within research institutions–an argument that relies on erroneous logic. No, it is because of the tendency of researchers to keep their work within the system.

    This in part deals with the larger debate in various recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and even the New York Times about the value of the tenure system. Humanities departments are often guilty of producing academics rather than producing truly capable researchers–the two do not have to be the same thing. Because humanities professorships are not partially, or indeed mostly funded by grant money obtained by the researcher themselves, there is little impetus to teach to push the system forward or shake the boat. One’s quality is tested by how much one publishes small-run books and in academic journals, rather than one’s impact on students or on larger public debates. Research is safe and is seldom expanded to a level of wider applicability-or even presented in wider formats–despite the fact (as Prof. Solis points out) this is entirely possible to do. I am not continuing the argument that research is irrelevant, but rather that the system rewards the desire to stay within the boundaries of expectations and not to try to address a larger audience.

    The tendency to ‘play it safe’ also leads to the social advocacy canard as the major justification for the research. It is here I disagree with Prof. Solis’ comments. While it is true that ‘every little bit helps,’ this line of thinking grew out of a post-1960s and post-Marxist inflected attempt to rehabilitate positivistic, quasi-scientific colonial anthropology and other culturally oriented research. As such, it is a justification for what is essentially an intrusive process–one that rarely ends with financial, logistical, educational, or material assistance to the studied peoples. The trouble with the argument that research is justifiable because it brings important issues to light and aids the marginalized, is that if advocacy is a desired goal there are clearly much better ways to go about redressing the wrongs done by the social, political, and economic imbalances in our world. If social advocacy is the purpose, then do it directly and teach as part of the larger process of advocacy. Being just another scholar who arrives, pokes, prods, and leaves, isn’t the best way to help. This argument cannot be, and simply is not, going to save the humanities in this antagonistic environment.

    We must dig deep and find ways to demonstrate that the humanities has more than a practical application to one’s cognitive development. It isn’t simply a “Mozart effect” that is valuable because it aids science or math scores. We must use the research we do to demonstrate to others that what we study are specific examples of things that impact everyone’s lives and are broadly applicable. We must work against the disciplinarity that marginalizes one methodology or topic, and allows the sciences to lay claim to an epistemological exceptionalism. We must work to broaden the reach of our teaching so that it is impossible for students, or anyone else, to assume that if their class isn’t directly related to getting an accounting degree that it has not inherent worth or validity. We must write books that convince rather than speak to an audience of only a few thousand. We must appear in newspapers, on television, in magazines and use what we know to enhance the world around us. This is not merely leaving the ivory tower. It is saying with an emphatic voice that the ivory tower/real world dichotomy presents a false choice.

  2. Chris says:

    This morning on NPR, Richard Arum the Author of Academically Adrift talked about his book. He said he is trying to address the bad academic and social experiences students are having in U.S. universities. He said he found students today study less and yet get better grades than students in the past. He also said they lack some of the skills that used to be the focus of higher education. He was not blaming the students completely. His argument was that the universities are failing them.

    I agree with Jerod (I don’t like his tone however). Undergraduate students get a bad deal at research universities. Some professors spend more time out on fellowships and research trips than they do teaching in the classroom. Dr. Solis even comes from a department where (according to a friend who was in the class) a professor stopped teaching the course several weeks before the term ended saying “I have nothing more to say.” Undergraduate students here at the U of I spend more time with TAs than with professors. Dr. Arum says students do better and take more from the experience when they are pushed. The humanities, and universities in general, are better off with good teaching.

  3. gpsolis says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the general thrust of Jerod Crane’s argument in this comment, and appreciate the models of scholarly activity (both in research and publication) he wants to see us embrace. I do think there are two quite separate issues he is pointing to, and it’s worth thinking about them separately.

    As I hear what he is saying, his first argument is a critique of the old practices of anthropology: the idea that “Being just another scholar who arrives, pokes, prods, and leaves, isn’t the best way to help.” I think anthropological disciplines (like ethnomusicology) have at least in theory internalized this argument pretty thoroughly, though we don’t always manage to avoid this kind of extractive model of scholarship. I like to think that my work in PNG and Australia, which involves, among other things, collaborating with indigenous scholars, is more than poking, prodding, and leaving. Frankly, most of the groups I’ve worked with, who are cosmopolitan in important ways, and have institutional support and resources at their disposal, don’t really need my help.

    While ’60s-era “each one teach one” models of witnessing to social justice are nearly part of my DNA (I was raised among the hippies in Northern California in the last third of the 20th century), I hope this isn’t the principle argument I’m trying to make here. I DO think that teaching students about the struggles against the colonial project in places near and far is, in fact, a kind of useful social advocacy, and is important to me; but it is a secondary aspect of what I like to think I’m doing. Rather, I’m arguing for the value of the obscure (whether it is the struggles of marginalized people or the heart of the canon of Western civilization). Moreover, I’m not arguing that these have a “use value” in common senses of that term. I’m saying that upending the everyday, focusing on the apparently strange, is good.

    The second half of the comment, about where and how we present our ideas, is also well-taken. Ironically, when I write about jazz, I have a more-or-less built-in non-academic audience. (I was delighted to see that my book was reviewed in _Down Beat_, _Jazz Times_, and a handful of jazz fan websites). For whatever reason, jazz fans read academic jazz writing. But still, it’s not a large, general audience. That said, I think most of us want larger audiences, and many of us do things to reach for that audience. I maintained a blog for some time (, and found that I had virtually no academic readership there. The comments were pointed and interesting, and I found it a really enjoyable medium. I also have, off and on, maintained a presence as a commenter on other semi-academic music blogs; but I’ve found the time commitment in really keeping a blog going too taxing. I have colleagues elsewhere, however, who have maintained blogs with significant readership for years ( and, I’m looking at you). Would I like to contribute to NPR, The Nation, The Times, Rolling Stone and such? Yes. On the other hand, I like to think that each of us has our particular skills, and some don’t necessarily facilitate that kind of writing. I absolutely agree that the hiring, tenure, and retention systems should support and reward public writing; but I also suspect they do. Surely no one’s tenure case has been dinged because she published an article in Rolling Stone in the last 20 years. That said, Crane’s point is perhaps that the system doesn’t push people in that direction.

    I applaud this admonition: “We must dig deep and find ways to demonstrate that the humanities has more than a practical application to one’s cognitive development…We must use the research we do to demonstrate to others that what we study are specific examples of things that impact everyone’s lives and are broadly applicable.” I hope my post was not pointing anywhere but this. What I resist is when this sort of place for the humanities also involves a re-inscription of the canon to the exclusion of the obscure. It is easier to argue on these grounds that we should teach kids about Mozart than that we should teach them about 13th century motets, that we should teach Shakespeare than that we should teach 18th century travel writing; easier, but I think not right.

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