26.2.09

I never thought I would say this, but...

I actually find myself agreeing with Andrew Keen. Today Keen responded to Patricia Cohen's NYTimes article on how the pending economic crisis will affect the humanities. Keen concludes:

What I do know for sure, however, is that academic humanists -- especially the younger ones with a bit of life left in them -- better upgrade themselves before they get totally swept away by the digital revolution. Their traditional monopoly on wisdom, humanistic or otherwise, is being undermined by the communications revolution of blogs, Facebook & Twitter. Rather than learning to quote Shakespeare or W.E.B. Du Bois, I would advise aspiring humanities scholars to learn how to build their own intellectual brands and distribute their ideas more broadly and relevantly. Just as the death of newspapers is forcing smart young journalists to become self-employed entrepreneurs, so the imminent crisis of academic humanity departments, which will eventually do away with the archaic tenure system, offers a great opportunity to rethink what it means to be a professional educator in the 21st century.

Leaving the sarcasm aside, I agree that contemporary academics have to do a better job building their relevance, and that we have an opportunity to rethink the profession of higher education. Actually, I think this work can be traced back to before the Web2.0 revolution: to Lyotard's critique of metanarratives of progress and knowledge. Jumping back to my Lanham post the other day, we need to reconsider Kant's fracturing of the professors' public and private lives. For Kant, the professor must, in the "public" of his intellectual discipline, speak freely. But in his "private" duties as teacher and citizen, s/he must obey. Hence the motto "think, but obey."

A few centuries later, I think that disjunction has lead to the circumstances that Richard M. Freeman, Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education (quoted from Cohen's article):

But what we haven’t paid a lot of attention to is how students can put those abilities effectively to use in the world. We’ve created a disjunction between the liberal arts and sciences and our role as citizens and professionals.

Cohen concludes that "baldly marketing the humanities makes some in the field uneasy." But let's qualify this through Lanham: after the influence of the Modern Enlightenment, framing itself as something other than "stuff" makes the humanities uneasy. After the Modern Enlightenment, becoming a discipline founded upon praxis seems so inferior to being a discipline that focuses on production. Let's become something otherwise.

4 comments:

EnthyAlias said...

I like the idea of "branding" invoked by Keen's terminology here. Sure there’s a corporate flavor to it. But in a culture of rapid information turnover and iconic shifts that operates like mini Gestalts that allow people to grasp a lot in a short time, maybe the branding of the humanities is necessary.

Right now, in my senior seminar, we’re reading Gladwell’s Tipping Point, which is proving to be a delightfully accessible text for teaching rhetoric in an age of complexity. (I’m even working on an article about this.) This book is all about branding: altering the packaging of any idea to make it stick to an audience in an age of trends that, however briefly, shape society.

But the reason Gladwell’s book is so accessible – especially compared to the weeks of heavier theory we read at the beginning of the semester – is precisely because he “brands” his subject (cultural epidemics) with terms that the students get, and reinforces those with examples they can recognize. In other words, everything I’ve been trying to teach about rhetorical thinking with our traditional vocabulary is rendered more relevant by Gladwell’s branding of persuasive communication.

Somehow the humanities has to do this. We have to be willing to be the popular press versions of ourselves. We need to create tends. We need to learn how to make our ideas stickier so they have some impact on a transitory culture. We need to create recognizable “brands” of thought that resonate with people beyond the academic community.

Of course, this means allowing ideas to lose their rich complexity and finer nuances. But if we package them well … who knows?

EnthyAlias said...

P.S. I hadn’t thought of this until I read your post, but the work in my senior seminar is definitely focused on praxis. I’m trying to teach the students to put the theories of complexity and rhetoric into practice, rather than just learning and mastering the theory itself. I’m not teaching content; I’m teaching of way of thinking. Huh. Who’d a thunk it? Thanks.

Casey said...

We have to be willing to be the popular press versions of ourselves. We need to create tends.

I know you (Enthy & Wrangler) expect me to object to this in the name of everlasting Tr-th, but here's a practical objection:

Do we get paid enough to do this? What Enthy's suggesting sounds a lot like working for an advertising agency... "we don't care what the content is -- we'll sell it!"

My "Buddhist Geeks" podcast last week produced an episode titled "Monasteries as the Conscience of Society." The idea used to be that there would be a "space," purposely protected from the demands of the market...

I LOVE Enthy's admission that what ya'll are teaching is, in fact, a way of thinking -- that brings it into the arena of discourse, makes us conscious of the fact that it is one-among-many ways of thinking.

If we are serious about evaluating in terms of audience only, we must allow the fact that the quiet, bearded, guru functioning on the edge of the market, doing occasional seminars for free, and luring a certain number of "spiritual" seekers -- that he is simply effective in another way.

Let me continue the advertising metaphor: if I'm an "ad man" hired to create a brand and slogan for the latest high-fuctose corn-syrup product to destroy America's health, do I simply create the brand and slogan? -- or do I resist?

When I read your finished dissertation, Wrangler, which expect will turn into a book, I will be zeroed-in looking for the moment where it is demonstrated that branding on behalf of the highest bidder and *Ethics* work in such a way that Ethics is not just another brand, justifying the brand of the highest bidder.

Am I addressing the point here, or am I alone in left-field, pointing wildly at the flag pole for no reason?

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