Archive for the ‘Humanities’ Category

I am a member of the faculty at UC Davis, and my campus has been roiled these past few days by violent actions taken by the campus police, directed at non-violently protesting students. The video of campus police pepper-spraying students has been seen ’round the world, and letters of protest, outrage and demands have been blowing up my email inbox all weekend.


On Sunday, just as I was catching up on Friday’s events, I was also set to present at a panel at the American Academy of Religion Conference, in San Francisco.  The panel was convened by the good people behind Freq.uenci.es, a “collaborative genealogy of spirituality” and a website to which I’ve contributed.  I prepared some remarks, but I felt impelled to preface them by saying how weird it felt to talk about spirituality life on my campus — for my students, colleagues and friends — had changed irrevocably.  I opened with some comments about feeling that tension, and then went on with the show.  I explained that I was having a hard time reconciling these two things, but that I was okay to live with that unreconciled tension.


This morning, on my way to participate in the General Assembly at UC Davis, a friend told me about another video.  A second video – not of police and protesters, but of the Chancellor, Linda Katehi, being walked to her car, following an on campus meeting Saturday night.  In the video, you see Katehi walking down a road, flanked by hundreds of silent, standing students, making their protest as loudly as possible by not saying a thing. 


All you hear are her heels click-clacking on the asphalt.

That video, not the one of the cops, speaks to the power of these students that this community.  And the sound of her heels amidst the crowd of hundreds of students express perfectly the potential in this moment.  Potential that is political, and dare I say: spiritual, too.



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How did the humanities lose out to neuroscience in making culture seem interesting?

I’ve been listening to a lot of NPR and podcasts lately. I’ve given my historical favorites a little break (sorry, This American Life and Sound Opinions), and I’ve been listening more and more to Planet Money and Radiolab (as podcasts), and to the usual NPR fare that airs while I do dishes or cook dinner: All Things Considered, Marketplace, and of course: Fresh Air.

What I’ve noticed is how often scientists and economists show up on theses shows to talk about things I thought were the main interests of humanists and social scientists. Questions like the how restaurants work, whether or not race matters, why certain songs get stuck in our heads, how people calculate the value of things or make decisions they know are not in their best interests, and so on.

These are the questions to which I have long sought answers by looking at culture and its various expressions, and in which my field of American Studies has long been interested (albeit in different forms, over time).

Yet somehow, every time I turn on the radio, I find one or another neuroscientist (or, often enough, Jonah Lehrer) talking about precisely these same questions, and about how the pathways of neurons and synapses can answer questions art or love or whatever.

So here’s my question to my colleagues: how did we become so untouchable or so uninteresting to mainstream media? How come the good people at NPR (and, presumably, their listeners) find neuroscientists and economists more interesting and more capable of talking about these questions that we are? How did they become the go-to academics for understanding how and why people do what they do? Social scientists and humanists look at those phenomena, too, but somehow, we have become generally less interesting than our colleagues.

This is not the neuroscientists’ fault: they are good at what they do, and their creativity in asking profound questions that teeter on the line between culture and biology ought to be encouraged. Similarly, it’s not the fault of the radio programmers; they are looking for the most intelligent, engaging guests they can find. And they’re finding them in neuroscience and economics, not in the Humanities.

Why is everyone else talking about culture but us? Are we that boring? Have we grown so adept at gazing at our own navels that we can’t talk about other things? Does “the public” think that so-called “hard” science is really the only arbiter of actualities in the world?

How have we become so irrelevant even on topics that are ostensibly our areas of expertise and scholarly interest?

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This is an excerpt from the keynote address I gave on June 11, 2010 at the American Studies Institute of the Lovett School in Atlanta.

…In my talk this afternoon, I would like to conceive of American Studies not as a method, or a field of study, but rather as a habit of mind.   I think we in American Studies sometimes get too bogged down in trying to define concretely what American Studies is or is not, in trying to identify whether or not American Studies has a method, or in debating what kind of scholarship or what kind of teaching is or is not “America Studies.”  I’d like to set all of those debates aside for now, and talk about American Studies as simply a habit of mind.

I believe American Studies is, at its core, a habit of mind.  What is a habit of mind? A habit of mind is a usual way of thinking about things.  A habit of mind is a disposition.  It’s a disposition we employ to solve a problem.  It’s a disposition that we have internalized and that we can draw on instinctively when confronted with a problem.  Especially when we are confronted with a problem whose solution is not immediately apparent.

So what is the American Studies habit of mind?  I would argue that the American Studies Habit of Mind is a disposition we employ in the study of culture and history.  We draw on this habit of mind when looking at cultural problems and historical problems, when asking cultural questions, when analyzing cultural products like literature, art, film, and music, and so forth, and when framing cultural inquiry.

So what exactly is this American Studies Habit of Mind?  This disposition? What are its characteristics? How can we define it?  Let me begin by offering a few quotes that I think capture the essence of what the American Studies habit of mind is.

First, a quote from American Studies scholar Gene Wise.  In 1979 Wise published an important essay in the American Quarterly called “Paradigm Dramas.” And in this essay, Wise wrote that the practice of American Studies requires one to have a “connecting imagination.”  A connecting mind.  I’ve always loved this phrase.  Wise argued that exercising this “connecting imagination” was necessary if one was to properly understand the world around in its interconnecting context.  He wrote that the connecting mind can “probe the immediacy of the situation to search for everything which rays out beyond it.” So I would make the case first and foremost that the American Studies habit of mind is a connecting imagination.

Let me offer another quote.

In his recent book Five Minds for the Future, cognitive theorist Howard Gardner—he of Multiple Intelligences fame—argues that people will need to cultivate a “synthesizing mind” if they hope to thrive in the 21st century.  As Gardner defines it, the synthesizing mind “takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense.”  According to Gardner, a mind that can synthesize will be better equipped for the challenges of an increasingly interconnected, information-driven society.

So what is the American Studies habit of mind?  A connecting imagination, a synthesizing mind.  Let me go back a bit earlier in time and throw another quote into the mix.

In his 1837 essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson describes the mind of what he called “Man Thinking” as a mind that is, “tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground whereby contrary and remote things cohere and flower out from one stem.”

“Tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct.”  Now of course Emerson predated the institutionalization of the field of American Studies, but I would argue that his quote certainly captures the spirit of it.

So what is the American Studies habit of mind? A connecting imagination, a synthesizing mind, a unifying instinct.  Connection, synthesis, unification…

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There’s an article in a recent NY Times about this diagram:

Slide of American Military Strategy in Afghanistan

It came from a PowerPoint presentation about the complexities of the American military strategy in Afghanistan. It’s safe to say that the slide, perhaps unintentionally and certainly unironically, certainly does portray complexity….

The article then went on to discuss the military’s current obsession with and recent dissatisfaction with Microsoft’s PowerPoint slide show software because it is unable to convey complexity, which results in boring or irrelevant presentations full of “dum dum bullets.” In short, people seem upset with the technology because it cannot convey the complexities of culture.

They are right. It can’t This only the latest part of a longer and more varied critique of PowerPoint, offered first by no less than Edward Tufte, the genius scholar who was talking about visualizations and the display of data before the rest of us even thought of tweeting.

To expect that technology would be able to solve this problem is to deeply and profoundly misunderstand technology and to project one’s own hopes onto a tool that is, of course, never going to be up to the task. Perhaps the military’s problems in Kabul are not the fault of PowerPoint, but the fault of cultural and political differences between people and nations. Blaming PowerPoint for failing to represent cultural complexities is like blaming a cookie cutter for failing to make cake.

Blaming the technology is far easier than trying to appreciate the complex powers of culture, and technology is rarely better equipped to solve problems than the folks who are putting operating it. And people of all kinds and on all sides of every conflict are notoriously difficult to represent in a set of slides, to capture in bullet points or diagrams, no matter how complex those diagrams become.

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Why did I pursue a graduate degree in American Studies?  When did I know I wanted to teach American Studies?  When did I even discover that I had a knack for American Studies?  Someone recently asked me these questions.  I’m used to getting the common “What the heck is American Studies?” question, but these inquiries were more personal.  I confess I had not thought deeply about them beyond my usual rote response, “Well, I always liked literature and history.”  I applied to graduate programs in American Studies when I was 27 years old, but surely I was developing some kind of disposition for American Studies years before that.  This post is my initial attempt to pinpoint stepping stones, the episodes that guided me in the direction of American Studies before I even knew what it was.  An American Studies mini-autobiography, if you will.

When I was a teenager I wrote several songs for my high school garage band about my two primary interests (fears?) at the time: romantic love and nuclear holocaust.  The songs typically involved me falling in love just as the world ended.  This may in part explain why I am still single, but my bigger point is this: as a songwriter, my instinct was always to integrate larger social and political issues into my lyrics and have them merge with the personal, to examine how the broader world could shape and impact everyday people.  Possible stage 1: The skinny, nerdy American Studies composer, synthesizing with his synthesizer.

In college I was an English major and I wrote my senior thesis on the influence of blues music on African American literature.  I didn’t really know about American Studies back then, but it just seemed natural to me to study literature by intersecting literary works with other cultural forms, contexts, and concerns.  I couldn’t read Ralph Ellison or Jean Toomer without turning my attention to the writings of Albert Murray, David Evans’s fantastic book Big Road Blues, and the musical recordings of blues and jazz artists.  Possible stage 2: The undergraduate American Studies bluesman, ever drawn to the crossroads.

In my mid-twenties, when I was a high school teacher, I read the book Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean and also saw the film several times.  I discussed both with friends, and wrote about both in my journal.  Ultimately the book and film caused me to change my position on the death penalty, from pro to anti.  The process of engaging with this material helped me better understand the power of culture, the ways in which culture and ideas can affect our worldview and shape our identity.  Possible stage 3: The politically evolving young man influenced by the cultural work of Sean Penn and a nun.

And one last touchstone, the likely precondition for all of the above stages: I am adopted.  My adopted parents, whom I love dearly, have no information about my biological parents.  The adoption was arranged through lawyers before I was even born.  I have no knowledge of my biological family tree, my ethnicity, my roots and long generational history.  Perhaps as a consequence of this I have always considered myself simply American, born into and of this culture from the very beginning.  A blank slate.  If American Studies seeks to understand identity—how it is constructed and inscribed, negotiated and redefined—then I suspect my love of the field is not unrelated to my own personal story and journey.

So how did I end up in American Studies?  I guess I can credit love, nuclear war, Ralph Ellison, the blues, Sean Penn, and an adoption in a Philadelphia hospital in 1970.

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To wit: This week’s “Education Life” Section of the NY Times, where the cover article is called: “Making College ‘Relevant‘” I appreciate the quotation marks in the title, but the article seems to focus primarily on how to translate a BA into a J-O-B. This is a question that those of us in the humanities and social sciences get with some frequency. And our response is often couched in terms of “critical thinking skills” or “cultural analysis” or “nuance,” “subtlety,” “tensions,” or “cultural politics.”

But the question isn’t really if what we do is relevant, but rather why the job hunt and the endless pursuit of wealth and “practical knowledge” seems to have controlled the conversation about “relevance.” Why are those of us so gifted at cultural analysis often so poor at explaining its “relevance” to our students? Or, maybe more importantly: why is it such a challenge to provide frameworks for our students to recognize the relevance of what we’re doing on their own? Surely, relevance isn’t only about capitalizing on skills you can market through your “personal brand.”

Frankly, if relevance were judged by making money, the NYTimes would be in worse trouble than our universities.

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