Why Hope Matters

This is a story of two days: yesterday, when I started writing this entry; and today, when I finished it.  But it starts a week or so ago.

When I was first asked to contribute to this blog—one that, as I see it, not only discusses why humanities scholarship and teaching matter, but also tries to do so with a certain positive framing—I said, and I think I quote, “Erm. You know me, right?”  For those who don’t, well… in short, there’s a reason students make memes of me as grumpy cat.  The end of Douglas Adams’ So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish sums up my usual public persona pretty well: travelling to the edge of the universe, the protagonists read God’s final message to Creation: “We apologize for the inconvenience.”  Marvin, the paranoid android, thinks about it for a minute, and says, “I think I feel good about it.”  And then he shuts down.  As with this blog, Marvin’s “it” is of the final importance to him.  It is just specific and yet encompassing enough to summarize that what there is to feel good about probably isn’t really worth elaborating upon.

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In case you’re wondering, I’m Marvin in this little story.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think that the humanities matter.  Profoundly.  Deeply.  Fully and Completely.  It’s just that, on some days, it’s hard to believe that the fact that they matter, well, matters.  I could both wax poetic and calculate financial; I could celebrate tension and boast cost-benefit ratios.  I’ve read enough articles that I could fill the internet—really, the whole thing—with enumerations of the humanities’ value, both individual and social, with catalogues of its worthy consequences.  If I got on a roll, this blog could list so many of the “its” that do indeed matter about the humanities that it could risk becoming the equivalent of a complete rendering of all of the names of god, except instead of the universe ending when the list was finished, senior administrators and corporate politicians of every political stripe would weep, rend their garments, beg to be allowed to sit in our classes, and the shiny corporate fantasies of the neo-liberal university would crumble to dust—an added bonus of which would be that none of us would ever, ever have to use or hear the term “neo-liberal” again.

Sure, I could do that—maybe not all of it, but I could certainly add to the ever-growing list of defences of what it is we do.

But I suspect it wouldn’t matter.  I suspect it wouldn’t matter because when I woke up yesterday, friends, colleagues, and former students (now friends and colleagues) are on strike at two of the major universities in the neighbouring province of New Brunswick (the province where my father was born, and where I spent many a summer), while other friends, colleagues, and former students (now friends and colleagues) in Alberta were recently being told that if they even mention the word “strike” they could be punished.  In New Brunswick, they are walking the line in the cold, the snow, the freezing wind, when they would rather be in their classrooms.  Many of the people I know on the line are junior colleagues, people who should be either starting their careers or coming into the height of them, but are meanwhile scraping by on poverty wages even as they teach students whose tuition has quadrupled or quintupled since I was in undergrad (not that long ago).  Tuition is outstripping inflation, but universities have seemingly stopped hiring tenure-track faculty.

And yes, I know that provincial funding has plummeted (pdf).  But I also know that administrative costs have exploded, and that collegial governance has collapsed.  Money might be tight, but the way it’s being spent seems awfully loose.

So, let’s not mistake the situation facing this country, which is playing out right now across New Brunswick.  At stake is not the pay for tenured and tenure-track faculty. At stake is a generation of teachers and scholars who should be helping with the learning being sought out by the next generation of citizens, including those from poor and otherwise marginalized communities who could and should have full access to their institutions of education, and help to reshape them, if only corporations and the well-to-do (yes, including some of us tenured folks…) were properly taxed and those tax dollars properly directed. Universities shouldn’t be money-laundering schemes for corporate interests.  At stake are the coming generations of students.  At stake are the coming generations, period.

But does that matter?  Or, more specifically, does it matter to those who, in the halls of power, matter in the current moment?  Last night, my answer wasn’t hopeful.

But then I woke up today, and Pete Seeger was dead.

And it’s given me hope.

In this case “it” isn’t his death, obviously.  It’s the outpouring on all my social media. It’s the videos being shared of his songs and interviews, spanning a career that lasted from the late 30s through to almost yesterday.  It’s the letter he wrote to JFK in the wake of his conviction of contempt for refusing to answer HUAC’s ridiculous and stupid questions.  It’s this song and this song about fighting for what you know matters.  It’s this song, obviously.  And it’s the look in his eye as he finishes the verse about private property in this performance, when he seems to be having at least eleven kinds of fun.  It’s this song, about the problems of the state directing education and restricting academic freedom.  And in the context of New Brunswick, of course it’s this song.

It’s the collective recognition of Pete’s recognition of the collective that has given me hope.

So forgive me for transforming into the naïve fool I am today, but I have hope.  I have hope in Unions.  I have hope in the professional and political collectives inside and outside of, standing with and standing against the academy.  I have hope—so much hope—in the resurgence of student activism.  I have hope in the academic associations and groups of colleagues and fans and klatches of friends who get together to talk about literature, film, culture.  I have hope in those friends, colleagues, and students who care enough about education that they’re willing to risk their jobs to fight.   I have hope in our collective resistance to those who say, against evidence of every kind, that it doesn’t matter.  So, I am, today, yes, a hopeful fool.

Because, whatever our specific rationales, arguments, defenses and beliefs about why it matters, and even what exactly it is, we know damned well that it does, because we see it every damned day as we learn and teach and learn some more.  And I think I feel good about it.

Haslam HeadshotJason Haslam is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University. His research interests have been focussed generically and institutionally: he has published several works on prison literature (both writing about the prison and writings by prisoners) in relation to the history of the prison, and on science fiction, the gothic, and other non-realist modes in relation to institutions of identity (esp. race, gender, and sexuality). On the first, he has published a monograph analysing writings by political prisoners and slaves in the US, England, and South Africa, a co-edited collection of essays, and an edition of a suffragette prison autobiography. On the second, he is currently completing work on the interconnected representations of gender and race in American science fiction from the nineteenth century through to the end of the twentieth; several essays and his edition of Tarzan of the Apes are part of that project. In addition to these research projects, he recently finished a collection of essays, The Public Intellectual and the Culture of Hope, co-edited with Joel Faflak (U of Western Ontario).


The Purpose of Higher Education: Three National Studies

First published on ActiveHistory.ca on NOVEMBER 5, 2013
By Roberta Lexier

In recent months (years, really) universities in Canada have come under sustained attack. Provincial governments, especially in Alberta and Ontario, have dramatically reduced financial support for higher education and have publicly demanded that universities solely contribute to economic growth and development through their utilitarian functions. These demands are based on a particularly narrow view of the role of universities.

Conflicts over the purpose of higher education are not new. My research into Sixties student movements in Canada, for instance, demonstrated how developments in the post-World War II period, including increasing funding from federal and provincial governments, a more utilitarian focus, and the perception of universities as, in historian Philip Massolin’s words, “the focal points for the continued material and technological advancement of society,” led to significant discussions regarding their role in the post-World War II Canadian context.

Along with often heated debates within universities themselves, national studies were also undertaken to try to understand the issues and make recommendations for the future. The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, generally referred to as the Massey Commission, concluded in its 1951 report that universities encourage cultural communication between the provinces, supply the trained individuals and expertise necessary for continued economic growth and prosperity, and contribute to the development of a cultural and intellectual community. They were the “nurseries of a truly Canadian civilization and culture.” The Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Prospects (the Gordon Commission), which released its findings in 1957, insisted that universities are “the source of the most highly skilled workers whose knowledge is essential in all branches of industry” and are central to the “expanding and increasingly complex economy.” Responding in part to these two Royal Commissions, a report published in 1965 by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) known as the Bladen Report, highlighted the personal benefits that individuals could obtain through postsecondary education. “[B]y this greater concern for the individual,” the report argued, “we will surely come nearer to achieving the ‘good life.’” These three national reports emphasized different reasons why universities were important, including cultural development, economic expansion, and personal advancement, and together reflected an increasing belief in the value of postsecondary education in Canada.

To a large extent, governments seemed to accept the positions put forward in these reports and provided increased and relatively stable funding for universities in the decades that followed. They also allowed and encouraged institutions to develop a wide range of programs that could contribute to economic, cultural, and personal development in varied ways. However, as Paul Axelrod has clearly explained in his book Scholars and Dollars: Politics, Economics and the Universities of Ontario, 1945-1980 (1982), public support of higher education began to erode once these benefits came into question. Thus, by the 1990s, governments began to withdraw their financial support and began to question the role of these institutions in Canadian society. These challenges have only increased in recent months (and years).

While the context within which universities in Canada operate has changed significantly since these reports were undertaken, they are nevertheless valuable contributions to important debates about the value and purpose of higher education. Ultimately, there are numerous ways that postsecondary education benefits both individuals and the wider society and it is fundamentally important that we continue to discuss the place of these institutions in our society. These debates are increasingly necessary as universities face persistent threats from provincial governments intent on reducing their fiduciary responsibilities and shaping programs and courses to fit their particular, often short-sighted, practical goals.

robertaRoberta Lexier is an Assistant Professor in the Department of General Education at Mount Royal University. Her dissertation, titled “The Sixties Student Movement in Canada: Three Case Studies,” explored the creation, evolution, and eventual decline of student activism at the University of Toronto, University of Saskatchewan Regina Campus (now University of Regina), and Simon Fraser University in the 1960s. Her current research focuses on social activism and social change from a variety of perspectives in an effort understand how and why individuals come together, as well as what tactics might be most successful to effect social change.

Why do making connections in the classroom matter?

As I begin another year of classes, I am once again reminded how little course content actually matters in terms of student engagement and success. Those concise class descriptions and proposed reading lists that left me struggling to choose between classes that all sounded, well, really good, are no longer relevant in the pedagogical space of the classroom. The most interesting material can easily be murdered and the dullest brought to life; this is dependent on how the professor engages with students. When my readings and preliminary assignments are done, I go to class, I sit down, and surrounded by my classmates, I wait to be taught. At the most basic level, this is what the classroom is all about: we as students are there to learn and our professors are there to teach us. And the most important thing we as students can be taught is why the content we are learning about matters. This is the difference between a degree and an education, between graduating with a BA and graduating with a genuine belief that the humanities are necessarily and absolutely relevant.

I was lucky to encounter a professor that inspired such a realization in my first year at university, and this encounter is the reason I switched from a BSc to a BA with a major in English and Canadian studies. While there are plenty of good reasons why I made the switch, one stands out in particular. Combining lyrical rhetoric with sincere concern for comprehensibility, this first year professor actively grounded literary subject matter by relating it to accessible contemporary examples. Whether it was a Heritage Minute, a recorded reading of a particular poem, or a Dr. Pepper commercial, the professor’s efforts to tie abstract theories to recognizable, concrete examples validated our liberal arts education at a time when government rhetoric and popular culture often perpetuates claims of its uselessness. In effect, the professor not only cared that we understood the material she taught, she also cared that we understood the relevance of that material in a social, political, and cultural context. It was just one class in first year, but it triggered subtle shifts in my own thinking that led me to sincerely believe the humanities, and those who work within them, do create, drive, and inspire positive change.

From my perspective, the best professors don’t simply lecture on individual texts, they lecture about the relevance and impact of those texts today. When I graduate this coming spring, the lessons that will stick with me are those that gave me the clearest sense of both the necessity and practicality of my humanities education.

Jacob photoJacob Sandler is a fourth year undergraduate student studying English and Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University. His academic interests include contemporary Canadian literature, contemporary poetry and poetics, cultural studies, and the relationship between individual and collective forms of identity. He is currently co-president of the Dalhousie Undergraduate English Society.

Why does the first day of school matter?

For years, my sister gave me school supplies for my birthday, which falls at the beginning of a new school term. My sister also walked me to school on my first day, when I was five. I followed her to university and we started my first day together by ordering a fancy coffee at the campus café—she was so cool with her lattes and biscotti. She has taught me much about the first day of school. Now, teaching at a university, my first day looks a little different. But there is still much of the same nerves, hope, and excitement.

Yesterday a friend posted this: “‘I don’t know. I know nothing. I am very tired’ – Ford Madox Ford. This is also how I answer questions after the first day of teaching for the year.” Indeed: the frantic jostling at the photocopier, the beginning of year meetings, and (oh…) the deadlines. Tired: yes.

But also the excitement (equally as tiring). The new, rigid, blank notebooks. The new pens. The promise of learning alongside a new group of students.

When I face a new group of students and present them with a syllabus on the first day of class I try to be mindful of their situation. I know that many of my students are unfamiliar with universities and are unsure about how to navigate the institution. I know I didn’t know. But I also know that much has changed in the years since I first arrived on a university campus.

So I devote the first day of class—the first few days—to talking about the academy, to articulating the work of the humanities. We talk about some of the issues that come up on this blog. We site read Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” and we start a semester-long conversation about the implications of our participation in the academy. This year I also asked them to think about Max Blouw’s opinion piece, “Universities should educate – employers should train.” Importantly, it is also a moment to remind myself why, alongside the acquisition of new pens, it matters.

Bart Vautour teaches at Mount Allison University. His research interests involve Canadian cultural production, Canadian social justice movements, literary history, textual studies, digital humanities, philosophy of education, and modernism. He co-directs, with Emily Robins Sharpe, the Canada and the Spanish Civil War project (spanishcivilwar.ca)


Why Public Libraries Matter

I never feel more at home than when I’m in a library. Any library, anywhere. It doesn’t matter which cataloguing system the library uses, I can find the book I’m looking for. Even though I tend to experience claustrophobia in other enclosed spaces, this never happens in the library stacks. I love to browse the shelves, look way up and way down for hidden volumes, sit down on the floor or step stool and leaf through pages.

Since I work at a university I have daily access to the university library and I will always be grateful to it for giving me the research materials I need: books, journal articles in print and via the web, stuff in the rare book room and on microfilm and microfiche. But when I’m on campus, I tend not to work in the university library. I pick up my book (and maybe a coffee and a sandwich) and I leave. I leave the university library to the students.
When my job does not require me to be on campus, I head to the public library to do my work. In the public library there is just enough ambient noise to be soothing and not distracting. There are comfy chairs and big tables for writing. There are plugs for computers. The lighting is good and there are big windows offering views of the city. I love the strict no cellphones rule. Coffee can be procured downstairs. And people are constantly coming and going. Some, like me, sit for hours creating, writing, thinking, and reading. I like being in a place where my visual field is crowded with books. Paper things.

One of the best aspects of public libraries is that they are really public. There are no barriers (that I can think of anyway) to a person’s entry into a public library. You can be anyone and use this space. Even a young person in existential crisis as I suspect was the case with the teenager who was at the table beside me the other day–what better place for such a person to be? You don’t even have to be a card-carrying member to enter, use, and enjoy a public library. Public libraries feel like very democratic spaces where we can (silently) commune with a very diverse group of people. Where we can be alone and together at the same time. Where we truly experience the civitas.

Linda Warley is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language & Literature at the University of Waterloo and also currently Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, Faculty of Arts. When she’s not doing administrative work she’s writing about and teaching life writing texts in diverse genres and media, particularly texts created by Canadians and First Nations authors.

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“Making the Case” by Steven Slemon (from ACCUTE website)

Steven Slemon, the President of ACCUTE, has weighed in with a round-up of articles on the current state of the Humanities… A one-stop collection of materials on why the Humanities matter:

[click here!]

Why Do Gender Studies Matter?

Recently, a friend asked me why Gender Studies mattered. While he was being deliberately hyperbolic—I had just landed a contract to teach Canadian literature and gender and literature at a new university—it got me thinking. Why do Gender Studies still matter in the Humanities? I mean, we know that a focus on gender, not to mention race, class, and sexuality, matter in everyday life. Women—especially women of colour—are more likely to experience physical violence than men. Women are still regularly paid less than men for the same work. The list of reasons why Gender Studies matter in our social spheres goes on and on and on. Gendered discrimination happens every day. But why does Gender Studies matter in the Humanities? And if it does matter in the Humanities, why is funding being cut?

Here is my answer to my friend: gender needs to remain a central focus to Humanities education is for the simple reason that the Humanities project is fundamentally an unfinished project.

This is what I mean: in their classical iteration the Humanities were conceived as enriching human existence. Similarly, in its most basic iteration the Enlightenment cast Humanity in the realm of the possible: if only humans worked hard enough to broaden their minds, strengthen their bodies, and exercise their imaginations, then the possible was infinite. The concomitant problem with this aspiration was definitional but real: who or what is human? Who makes the decisions regarding access to knowledge production? Who decides what kinds of knowledges are knowledges as such? Find the answer to those questions and you’ve come to the answer of why Gender Studies matter. The definition of who and what counts has never been as open within the Humanities as could be, and thus those of us who fall on the outside of the definition in practice, if not in theory, come from long and varied histories of working outside the dominate sphere of legibility.

Gender Studies matters to the Humanities because they require us to constantly think about positive transformation for the future, while simultaneously paying close attention to the events and consequences of the past.

Transformation means dramatic change; it also implies that while performing this change, traces of the earlier state will remain. Faint perhaps, but discernable. A future-oriented Humanities whose praxis is in the present while working toward the future would deal in both theory and action. In other words, one would hope that future Humanities scholarship would be performatively self-reflexive; it would consider itself and its implications while in the process of enacting social transformation. Gender Studies is one clear place to continue this work. As Judith Butler asks, “how could it be that anything called ‘feminist’ could not in advance have an inherent relationship to social transformation?” (“The Question of Social Transformation” 1). However, Butler goes on to caution that in thinking about the double responsibility of creating theory at the same time as it is put into practice requires having an idea of “whether theory itself is a transformative task or whether it has transformation as one of its effects” (1). In short, the relationship between thinking and action, between mind and body, must once again be interrogated. Building on Butler’s statement, I would argue that in thinking towards a future-oriented Humanities the ideologies out of which present-day Humanities emerged need to be examined. Gender Studies continue to have a crucial role to play in this on-going Humanities project.

As I head into the classroom this fall to teach students about the import of thinking critically about gender I am going to begin with the premise that the Humanities are an unfinished project. Not very many of us enjoy being confronted with work we feel should be finished, but, as we will discuss, gender is an ongoing site of violent inequity. Moreover, gender is a site from which we each experience the world viscerally.

Last year Malala Yousafzi was shot in the head by members of the Taliban; her assailants were attempting to silence her because she was a young women who was determined to go to school, to gain an education, and to advocate for the right of all humans to access knowledges. Malala addressed the United Nations last week. Wrapped in a sari once owned by Benazir Bhutto she told delegates that knowledge is the most important tool we as humans can access and asked them to fund education on a global scale. Following Malala’s speech I want to suggest that Gender Studies matter because the Humanities matter and because that hopeful project is as of yet unfinished. Gender is one place upon which war is waged; the Humanities offer the tools for thinking critically through the whys and hows of these wars. If we continue to study gender in the Humanities, then we continue to work towards that promise of the possible in broader, more equitable way one discussion at a time.

Erin Wunker is an Assistant Professor (limited term) in the Department of English at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB. Her areas of research are in gender, contemporary Canadian poetry and poetics, and critical theory. erin photo

Why Does Reading Matter?

In Shyam Selvadurai’s most recent novel, The Hungry Ghosts, the main character Shivan is a teenager newly arrived in 1980s Toronto. He’s settling into the new city with his mother and sister, having fled the civil war in Sri Lanka. He’s lonely in his new surroundings. One day he sees a pamphlet entitled “Are You Gay?” in a bookstore. He slips the pamphlet into the book he buys and smuggles it home, not looking at it until his family is asleep before he has the courage to read it. A few days later, he calls the number in the pamphlet, which introduces him to gay life in his new city.

In this brief part of his story, you get a powerful illustration of why it matters. Why reading matters. Why the central activity of the humanities matters. Reading the pamphlet releases Shivan from the isolation he feels as a racialized person in white-dominated Canada and as a closeted gay man in his own family. It’s the secret intimacy of reading that allows him to connect with a community beyond the bounds of his given world. At the most basic level, this is why reading matters. Its privacy allows a person to engage ideas, scenes, or possibilities that she or he may not have the wherewithal to countenance in public or before peers. We talk about reading as escape. Maybe it’s an escape from loneliness, but it’s not an escape from the world. The privacy of reading is not solipsism. It’s connection to a wider range of experience.

Reading is listening to others, to people and experiences beyond our own familiar geography, but unlike other kinds of interest in others, it does not consume them. I know. Lots of readers take the writings of others and construct their egos out of what they have grabbed from them. Around the world, colonial systems try to steal Indigenous people’s knowledge. Nonetheless, compared to other kinds of consumption, the thing you read survives you. Even after totalitarians impose an approved interpretation, it’s always possible (maybe not safe, but possible) to re-interpret, to oppose the official version. The very ongoingness of interpreting makes reading irrepressible.

These days, I don’t think the big threat to the liberating power of reading is going to come from dictators. If there’s a threat, it’ll come from a culture of distraction. I don’t read as many poems, plays, novels, or books of criticism as I did ten years ago. That’s because I’m reading all day long. Truly. Mostly, I read email. By email, I mean reports, proposals, CVs, announcements, advertisements, notices, grad students’ chapters, departmental memos, government policies, and more. The inbox takes up 70% of my work day. And that’s not to mention Twitter, Facebook, or text messages. It’s too much. So I have to hurry, which puts me in the middle of that statistic that says people read 18% of the words on any given web page. We do “F-ing” reading: meaning that we read the first two lines, then let our eyes drop down the screen, never looking at what’s in the bottom right corner. We get used to scanning, rushing, surfing for the info we need. All of which looks like reading, but is F-ing reading, actually.

Shivan’s story of connecting is one I read in a novel. His story goes on to show how the gay community in 1980s Toronto runs the gamut from sexual predators to potential friends. How the pamphlet is not as complex as the real thing. As we read his story—not in fifteen minutes, nor in a hundred and forty characters—we learn about the nuance and density of his multilayered experiences. To escape our hurry and the alienation it makes, we have to stick to his story, read all the words, not just 18%, listen to the lilt of his voice in the book, relax into the time it takes for him to tell it all.

The humanities are famously bookish. There’s a good reason. Because the time we give to reading, to giving private and intimate attention to the words and experiences of others, makes us human in a diverse world of humans, helps us engage with worlds beyond our own without trying to own them, and breaks us out of the consumptive culture of distraction.

Daniel headshot feb 2011 011 (600x800)Daniel Coleman teaches and studies Canadian Literature, the literary and cultural production of categories of privilege such as whiteness, masculinity, and Britishness, the literatures of immigration and diaspora, and the spiritual and cultural politics of reading. He has published Masculine Migrations (U Toronto P, 1998), The Scent of Eucalyptus (Goose Lane Editions, 2003), White Civility (U Toronto P, 2006) and In Bed With the Word (U Alberta P, 2009. He has co-edited ten scholarly volumes on various issues including early Canadian culture, Caribbean Canadian writing, masculinities, postcoloniality,  race, the retooling of the humanities, and displacement for the University of Alberta Press, The Journal of West Indian Literature, Essays on Canadian Writing, Mattoid, Jouvert, Masculinities, and Textual Studies in Canada.

Why Does It Matter?

Why Does It Matter?

Within humanities fields we are becoming familiar with the wide circulation of narratives of crisis concerning the downfall of the humanities—these narratives understand that in this long neoliberal moment we are witness to the ongoing denigration of the arts and humanities across mass media, popular culture, and even the university itself. While such narratives present analyses that are important and necessary, we suggest that in addition to analyses of current conditions a better job could be done articulating palpable reasons why humanities education matters. Indeed, we believe the humanities matter and we want to work against a rhetoric and institutional practice that would suggest otherwise. Moreover, we recognize that perspectives on humanities education are multiple. This is a blog about why the humanities matter, but this is a blog that also attends to the multiple approaches, methodologies, subject positions, and affects of humanities work.

The author of each post has chosen how to define the “it” in Why Does It Matter? “It” might be reading. “It” might be the ways institutional memory can be passed on through humanities-specific research. “It” might be feminist scholarship. “It” might be conceptual poetry. Whatever “it” is, each author believes the subject of choice has a vital part to play in the unfinished project that is humanities education. Authors who contribute to this blog all agree that “it” does matter.

About the blog

The notion for this blog first emerged from a collaborative undertaking at the TransCanada Institute in Guelph, Ontario in the spring of 2013. The event in Guelph made apparent a need for a forum for brief articulations of diverse aspects of the humanities project.