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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sick and tired

So on Thursday night, after grading and returning my first batch of student papers, I decided it would be a really good time to get sick.  Accordingly, I woke up on Friday with a wicked sore throat and assorted other symptoms—shaking, chills, weariness, and so forth.  But no coughing or sneezing!  Just a general sense of unease.  And that was good, because late Friday afternoon I had to drive down to Baltimore, because many months ago I told the Maryland AAUP that I would speak to their fall meeting on October 9.  Armed with ibuprofen and throat lozenges, I made the three-hour drive, had dinner with my hosts, then repaired to my hotel room and crashed at 11.

I awoke from a deep sleep alert and refreshed ... at 1:30 am.  I then spent the next six hours slipping in and out of weird dreams, and finally roused my now-groggy self at 7:30.  My talk was scheduled for 10, and I managed to pull myself together (shower, breakfast, more ibuprofen) in plenty of time.  I had just enough energy to get through a one-hour talk and 30 minutes of questions, and just enough left over to make the three-hour return trip.  I got back home at 4 and crashed again.  But I had to go to a reception that evening, so rallied around 5:30 and put on my nice suit and my game face.

Sunday is usually a day of rest, but many months ago I accepted an invitation to speak at this event, thinking it would be fun.  And it would have been, if I hadn’t spent so much of Sunday morning and early afternoon curled up in bed.  If you’ve seen TED presentations, you know that speakers don’t read papers or work from notes, so I spent much of the week memorizing my 12-minute presentation on disability in “low” popular genres.  I don’t ordinarily have performance anxiety about speaking gigs, because I’m used to them by now ... but this was different: it would be part of a pretty amazing lineup, it would have to be tightly scripted and executed, it would be livestreamed and tweeted all over the place, and it would take place in front of 800 students in Penn State’s Schwab Auditorium.  I took the stage around 3:30 feeling like I was swathed in cotton—and, I see, looking as if I were stuffed with cotton too.  But the talk seemed to go reasonably well.  I did not faint, and I did not lose my train of thought and stare helplessly out into the middle distance.  Fifteen seconds before I stepped out onto the stage, I thought there was a good chance that either one or the other might just happen, just this once.  At the last moment, though, my Public Persona draped itself over me, and—whew!—I got through it.

But I basically had to divert all my meager energies to what should have been routine talks, which is why I am now four days behind on everything I was supposed to do between Thursday and today.  Dear everyone who is waiting for something from me, I apologize.  I am back on the case, feeling much better, thanks, and will get to you momentarily.  And, of course, my schedule will be a bit more flexible once I am free of this aged blog, this paltry thing.

But I have one more post before I sign off, and one more task to accomplish today.  I direct your attention to the New APPS blog, which you should henceforth read regularly, and especially to this timely post by John Protevi, with the distressingly dead-on accurate title, “Stanley Fish Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About.” It’s funny, you know.  I devoted a good portion of my talk to the Maryland AAUP to arguing one of the real crises of the humanities is that so many humanists say so many stupid, wrongheaded, uninformed things about their fields, all of which take the form of “we know we’re ugly and pointless and nobody takes our classes and everybody is right to hate us.” That lament, having been disseminated steadily over the past two decades, is now responsible for the widespread attitude that when university programs and departments have to be eliminated, of course the humanities should go first, because they’re a bunch of boutique disciplines and also they lose money and have to be subsidized by other departments and also enrollments have declined precipitously since 1970 and also they have been ruined by trendy theorymongers and queer feminist theory deconstructionists and also there was the Sokal Hoax, Q.E.D.  And so it is that when SUNY-Albany looks to cut programs, they look first to French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater

To his credit, Stanley Fish knows why the SUNY-Albany decision is a travesty, but by starting from the premise that the humanities don’t earn their keep, he’s given away the store.  Do read Christopher Newfield’s latest, and while you’re at it, read this indispensable Chris Newfield essay too (.pdf), and then send it to a legislator—or a New York Times blogger—near you.  Two relevant excerpts:

First we must understand that though the humanities in general and literary studies in particular are poor and struggling, we are not naturally poor and struggling. We are not on a permanent austerity budget because we don’t have the intrinsic earning power of the science and engineering fields and aren’t fit enough to survive in the modern university. I suggest, on the basis of a case study, that the humanities fields are poor and struggling because they are being milked like cash cows by their university administrations. The money that departments generate through teaching enrollments that the humanists do not spend on their almost completely unfunded research is routinely skimmed and sent elsewhere in the university. As the current university funding model continues to unravel, the humanities’ survival as national fields will depend on changing it. (271)

The humanities and social sciences are major donors to science and engineering budgets. Major dogmas about university research turn out to be wrong: science and engineering research costs money, and humanities and social sciences teaching subsidizes it. Furthermore, humanities and social sciences students receive a cheap education—that is, they get back less than they put in. Making matters worse, university officials have historically perpetuated the myth that the science and engineering fields are the generous subsidizers of the “soft” humanities and social science fields. This concealment of the humanities’ contribution to the progress of science fed the vicious cycle of the culture wars: underfunded humanities fields cannot buy respectability through the media, think tanks, or prominent science agencies, a limitation that gives free rein to assertions that the humanities produce only pseudo-knowledge. This belief has lowered the humanities’ status, which in turn has justified flat or declining funding, which further lowers the humanities’ status, which encourages further cuts. (279)

Yep, that sounds about right.  Read the whole thing, as they used to say on blogs.  Read New APPS.  And come back and read my last American Airspace post, which should be up by Friday.

Posted by Michael on 10/12 at 12:18 PM
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