Work, currently…and life (sort of)

So remember when I balked at Gerald Chertavian’s advice to double whatever amount of networking I was currently doing? Well, it’s happened. In the past couple of months I’ve been invited to join groups in the nonprofit and youth development spaces, and I also finally signed onto Meetup. My calendar Read more…

Write the dissertation

Lacking a passion project was the very worst condition to be in as a graduate student. At first it’s liberating to be able to explore different concepts and areas of study. It’s like a dream for the intellectually curious. But soon the process of trying on and discarding topics gets wearisome. And then it becomes frustrating. And it isn’t too long before it becomes absolutely soul-crushing because all the books you’ve read (and you’ve read plenty), all the little ideas and pieces of knowledge you have rolling around in that expansive mind of yours—they all amount to a hill of beans.

What matters is having an idea that drives you, arriving at a unique vision, and finding your voice. What matters is producing material evidence of that singularity because you believe others would like to experience it. Sure, the world will keep on turning if you dropped out of grad school. But assuming you went into a doctoral program for all the right reasons, if you ask for my advice, chances are I would talk you into staying. Here’s why: (more…)

A very nice tribute to teachers

I’ve written before about Freakonomics‘ Stephen J. Dubner and his blog series on the value of college. The economics professors he interviewed were able to address issues such as the cost of a college degree and how that weighs against the prospective earnings of college graduates. They were also able Read more…

Humanities in service of others, pt 2

This post elaborates on an idea I wrote about last week, namely that framing the intellectual work of the humanities as a service to others (other people, other disciplines, other causes) might free us from the current bind of fixating, either positively or negatively, on the uselessness of the humanities. The word “service” might sound sacrilegious, but humanities scholarship—as interested as it is in the arts—is not itself art, so why should it have the privilege (I almost typed the ‘luxury’) of uselessness accorded to the arts?

Let’s not even raise the issue of university funding and employment. Let’s talk about the marketplace of ideas. Great ideas are not only intellectually sound, but they are, in the academic parlance, “productive.” That is, they break new ground, provoke debate, suggest further areas of study, and even reanimate fields that have gone fallow. Come to think of it, great ideas often may not be bulletproof, but they still possess the power to create something of a cottage industry across different disciplines. (See Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.)

The truth is, although humanities scholars tend to be allergic to the word “useful,” the currency in this economy has an undeniable use-value (valuable, as Marx defines it, “only in its use”). In fact, academics are trained to spell out the use-value of their ideas to interested audiences. This work entails describing the state of their research area(s) to date; explaining how their particular intervention promises to shake things up; and then suggesting further questions for others to tackle, in light of their contribution. In this way, an academic publication doesn’t aim to be the last word on a topic, but an invitation to engagement.

This consideration brings us closer to what I mean about putting humanities “to service,” although commonly scholars generally think primarily about serving colleagues in their field or related disciplines. What does it look like when the humanities are put in service of “outsiders”? Here are the examples that I promised in my last post: (more…)

Humanities in service of others, pt 1

This promises to be a long post, so let me get straight to the punch line here and explain that the text below is my attempt to get out of the intellectual stalemate in the debate on the humanities by reframing the conversation not in terms of use, but of service. If this is your kind of thing, read on: (more…)

Wrestling with difference

Freakonomics’ Stephen J. Dubner recently did a two-part podcast on the true value of a college education. While part 1 gives convincing evidence for a strong correlation between one’s health, wealth, and level of education, part 2 takes a much harder look at the economic costs of a university education and, intriguingly, tries to get a handle on exactly what students learn when they go off to college. As someone who has been thinking about this question for the good part of a decade, I get tired of hearing the old chestnut that college “teaches people how to think.” It’s lazy and vague, and frankly, I can’t see how that would persuade people to fork out increasingly higher tuitions for their children’s education if they themselves haven’t had a transformative college experience. For this reason, I really appreciated how Dubner pushed his guests to spell out what they themselves got out of their college experiences, and what they hoped would stay with their students long after they’ve earned their degrees.