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.
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.
Jason 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).