Crisis in the Humanities, Mary Poovey Edition

I went to the University of MN today to see Mary Poovey speak in the last lecture of the IMPACTS series. Her book, A History of the Modern Fact, was one of the standout readings in my science, technology, and society class last spring.

Her topic tonight was “Reflections of a Worried Feminist, 30 years on.” She outlined the impact of feminist theory and activism on literary studies since the late 1970s and questioned how much benefit it has really had on the disciplines, especially the humanities.

She started with a personal anecdote about her first job at Yale. Soon after her arrival, a colleague pulled her aside and told her she needed to publish a book quickly if she had any hope of getting tenure. She panicked; she had never thought about publishing while she was a graduate student. Today that attitude would be naive. Graduate study has become very professionalized since the 1970s.

Her first project was a study of Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, and Mary Wollstonecraft. In the late 1970s and 1980s writing about women was a novel approach to scholarship. But throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s the women’s studies movement, feminism, French literary theory, and liberal politics pushed gender into the center of literary studies. And by the end of the 1980s and early 1990s the cultural wars were in full swing.

I saw Donald Kaagn fire one of the major volleys in the PC wars at my freshman convocation in 1990. I remember thinking the speech was a bit of a shock to the system, what did we know about the cultural wars raging in the academy. Some background on the “Great Political Correctness Panic.”

According to Poovey the theory wave of the 1980s had two outlets during the next 15 years. One outlet was a broadening of literary scholarship that began to look critically at institutions. Her book on the modern fact was one of the outcomes of this wave and moved away from direct literary sources to examine broader cultural trends. The other outlet was an elaboration of the leftist critique of gender. Gender became the central ideological issue for some literary scholars. She cited Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Sedgwick and Colonial Desire by Robert Young as two examples of this second outlet.

The two groups had different scholarly approaches and outlooks. The first group - the culturalists - tended to work on 18th and early 19th century topics and focus their literary arguments on broad changes to large categories, such as genre. The second group - the politicists (my terminology for both camps) - tended to focus on the later 19th century and the early 20th century when the problems of colonialism began to come to the fore and would often use literary scholarship to discover the telling allegory that confirmed their existing theoretic positions on the importance of gender.

During the same time period there has been a continual decline in the institutional power of the humanities within the university. The humanities don’t make money or bring in grants like the sciences and so they are marginalized by administrators.

Recently, Poovey has begun to question her belief in the transformative politics of the classroom. She and many others believed that the wave of ethnic and women’s studies departments started during the 1970s would have a liberalizing effect on student politics. If only we taught students how to think like the liberal professorate then the world would become a better place. But this didn’t happen. During the Q&A this was described by an audience member as the “narcissism of the classroom.” Today she has turned her teaching away from political topics to studies about the development of genre and the history of the discipline.

She concluded that we are faced with a choice between teaching as a political activity, which doesn’t seem effective and contributes to the marginalization of imaginative studies, or teaching as a disciplinary act.

In another anecdote she described a recent forum at NYU on the close reading requirement for undergraduate courses. Almost everyone agreed that close reading was useful. But near the end of the discussion one of the graduate students spoke up and said that everything that was said up to that point was useless to her as a radical lesbian teacher. The spirit of the discussion quickly chilled. Many of those who supported the political form of teaching were 20th century Americanists. During the Q&A this bias toward recent American studies seemed to be indicative of a general arrogance on the part of Americans seeing the world and literary studies through their own ideological blinders.

She said that the humanities are being squeezed between an antithetical administration that sees no value in them and a diffuse politics of identity that has no lasting effects. Politics in the classroom, a place that is already highly privileged, does not equal politics in Chinatown or Bed-Stuy. If we continue to politicize the classroom then the discipline of literary studies will lose its value.

For further reading and evidence I offer this commentary at Evolving Thoughts and two recent columns by Stanley Fish on French Theory in America.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.