15 may. 2008

Here is an interesting story. We humanists complain there is no money for research in the humanities, but if we define a certain kind of thing as "humanities" then our problem goes away magically:

... But for a humanities professor willing to take up applied work, sources of money are unexpectedly abundant. There is no need for humanities professors to waste any more time envying the resources available to scientists and engineers. Instead, you can offer to play Virgil to their Dante, guiding them through the inferno of cultural anxieties, laypeople's misunderstandings, and political landmines..

For example, this:

The Center of the American West, which I chair at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is making a documentary, the first enterprise (that we have ever heard of) to take literally the familiar metaphor of "America's love affair with petroleum" and put it to work to make a therapeutic case for moving on to a new, more lasting and gratifying relationship with energy efficiency and renewables.


I don't want to sound TOO snarky, because I think a documentary (with a cutesy premise to boot) about energy policy is a valuable thing. The Center of the American West sounds wonderful. I wish we had it at Kansas instead of Colorado.

According to this article, I can get great amounts of money for my research in the humanities as long as I address "cultural anxieties," which, if you think about it for a moment, can be defined as almost anything people are worried about at any given time. But if the humanities are "anything," then they are also essentially nothing. In its "applications," "humanities" tends to end up being social science without the social science jargon. In other words, mostly the history department, but with an approach to history that isn't terribly sophisticated ("the American love affair with petroleum"). She sounds very proud of herself for taking this metaphor so literally.

I shouldn't complain: I've had two NEH Fellowships. But getting one of these is hard. People in my department were in awe that I got it a second time. It's not a normal, routine thing at all, and it took fifteen years for me to get lucky a second time. I guess I'm barking up the wrong tree. From now on I'm only doing "applied humanities," guiding engineers through the labyrinths of cultural anxieties, whether they want to be guided or not. (The Dante/Virgil conceit is cute too.)


The article makes some other very good points; I don't want to be unfair here. For example:

To conventional academics in the humanities, contact with the public, as well as the entrepreneurial pursuit of financing, registers as contamination and impurity.

Touché. She (Patricia Nelson Limerick) scores a point here. I would say, though, that many [of us] conventional academics object not to "contact with the public" per se but to a certain kind of pandering. For example, what exactly are the "humanities" you are bringing to the public's attention in a project like the one described above? Where's the intellectual content?

She also remarks:

It is hard for me to remember why other academics choose to feel marginalized in American life.

Maybe because we don't choose to work directly on issues that are translatable into public policy debates and public television documentaries? It's great if you do want to work only on things directly relevant to people in the region where you happen to live, but is that what the humanities really are about?