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Humanities Relevance as a Zero-Sum Game

January 23, 2014

I’m a little late to this party started by Natalia Cecire, but I really appreciate her piece. I would only modify it to say that even some humanities professors don’t appreciate the revisionist nature and ongoing relevance of the field. Some have a vested interest in a certain line of interpretation and hold out, contrary to all evidence, against new views. They are constricted by a fear that their past (or present) work will be deemed automatically irrelevant by reinterpretations. I know, for instance, one prominently placed history professor who persistently and negatively reviewed my Adler projects. That one person caused my work to be rejected, explicitly, by one journal and two publishing houses. Who knows how many others were influenced by that person’s views. And I know of *worse* stories from other humanities colleagues. New research can feel threatening the humanities establishment. Relevance is a zero-sum game to those folks.

Back to Cecire’s piece, here’s a long passage that I particularly appreciated:
My hunch is that some people would rather that the humanities weren’t as relevant as they are, and have projected a distorted image of a self-involved, isolated profession in order to justify defunding the very research that makes the humanities so important. “Pay no attention to the research that’s going on here! It’s irrelevant!,” they insist. They wish that instead of doing new research on under-studied archives, bringing public attention to hidden histories, or offering new and challenging ways to think about the categories that most shape politics and everyday life, that we’d pipe down and eternally reproduce old, unchanging narratives about the usual suspects. They wish not only that we’d keep teaching about Thomas Jefferson (which we do, happily), but also that we’d keep teaching him the same way, forever, never bringing to light new historical evidence (Sally Hemings, anyone?***) or reinterpreting his writing through theoretical frameworks that bring new insight [Duke journals paywall]. They wish it were mere faddishness causing the humanities to do this kind of work. Sorry, guys: it’s evidence.

They stereotype us as standing up in front of a classroom and teaching the same old syllabus in the form of lectures that remain the same from year to year. But they only wish that were true. In reality, humanities scholars continually rethink their syllabi, taking into account recent research in the field, new approaches in our own research, and successes and failures in our previous teaching, which rarely takes the form of lectures. That’s because at the university level, the humanities, like every other field, is a field in the making. New knowledge is being created all the time, and that’s a good thing.

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