[iDC] The Future of the Humanities

Douglas Sery dsery at MIT.EDU
Mon Jul 11 18:35:05 UTC 2011


This conversation has been bothering me for a few days now as I think of what kind of impact some of the postings would have on changing the minds of policy makers, purse holders and/or "the public." My gut feeling was that it would have no impact whatsoever and might even serve to further alienate the humanities from these constituencies. Your response seem to be spot on to me.  I recently published a book by Mya Poe, Neal Lerner and Jennifer Craig called "Learning to Communicate in Science and Engineering." It's based on a course at MIT designed to teach students at MIT (a STEM institution if there ever was one) how to communicate their ideas and research to others, even if these "others" are not familiar with the ideas and language of the particular discipline. A conscious effort if being made to train young researchers how to communicate with people outside of their own, potentially narrow, network. Is this happening in the humanities? I'm not aware of any similar programs.

As an academic publisher, my purview is to try and bring forward the best ideas in the fields I publish in, yet I know that some of these best ideas are too often couched in language that guarantees no more than a select group of people will ever be able to use it and that it will often be used only as a footnote to a another work that will only be read by that same group of scholars for their footnotes.

I'm vaguely (only vaguely) reminded of Nick Lowe's So It Goes:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3jiCi7aFZE

Stepping aside from my natural negativity for a moment, great work is being done by scholars such as Ian Bogost, Jesper Juul, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Susan Kozel, Nick Montfort, Rita Raley, and Noah Wardrip Fruin, all scholars who are able to write about their oftentimes complex philosophical ideas with, paraphrasing Susan Kozel from her book "Closer," intelligence and some panache.

I am going to try and continue to work with authors toward the goal of making their ideas more accessible, knowing full well that it won't always be possible. So be it. But if the concerns expressed by some in this thread are to be addressed in a positive way, then changes are going to be need to be made in the way they communicate.

From: idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net [mailto:idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net] On Behalf Of Sean Cubitt
Sent: Monday, July 11, 2011 5:17 PM
To: idc at mailman.thing.net
Subject: Re: [iDC] The Future of the Humanities

As I cut the previous posts to reply, I realised what a good discussion this has been

But before we blame the STEM hegemony, we need to take a decent look at what exactly we offer in Humanities.

Compared top scientists, we are very poor pubic communicators of our work: if Hawking, Dawkins, Dennet et al can communicate their arcana, is there a reason we can't or don't?

Far too many humanities scholars take it as read that they defend the best and highest that has been thought said and made; their patrician delectation they seem to say is reason enough to provide them with a living so they can waft through halls of Rubens and Mallarmé

Worst of all, the actual production of far too many humanities academics is on matters no-one cares about: the nuances of assyrian basket-weaving has no doubt something to tell us; and the practice of the sciences is every but as specialised; but the truth is that skimming the contents pages of almost every humanities journal, you're bewildered by the intense dullness of the tiny patches of specialism. I'll say the same for the social sciences too: the vast majority of scholarship is not just normal science - it is crushingly banal.

And it's not as if there's nothing to do.

Political life in Europe, throughout the English speaking world, and increasingly in the East, South East and South Asia and in Russia, has abandoned any value but wealth creation.

The task of the arts, humanities and social sciences is neither to bemoan lost aristocratic values, nor to reinforce the database economy: it is to create what politics no longer gives us: a terrain on which we can argue values

The professional schools pursue their own values: wealth, justice, health, shelter. We are in the unique position where we can provide the floor where people debate the value of those values. Instead, we spend whole careers moving dust from one corner of the archive to another.

A profound lack of ambition shapes our every move: Lyotard was monstrously wrong to argue in the 1980s, in the middle of the birth of the environmental movement, that the big stories no longer motivated rebellion. Perhaps excusable he seems to have thought, like many of his generation, that because the Communist and Labour parties had betrayed the working class, there was no hope for historical change. That poisonous lack of desire for change  makes the 'sciences humanities' sitting ducks, quaking forlornly as we wait to be plucked and stuffed.

The projects outlined in these discussions are of the sort that can do what we need in the first instance: to turn our skills towards building arenas for the fierce antagonisms repressed by the politics of consensus can get out and get argued.

 Otherwise nothing changes, and we lurch form  crisis to crisis at the hands of 'scientific' economists and technocrats

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