Shakespeare and the 99%

Leaving aside the fact that the first comment is from someone who’s still angry about the fact that people think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays (which is fun but too “age of the internet” for me), this review by James Shapiro of Shakespeare and the 99 Percent is excellent and well worth reading.

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The Future of the Literature Curriculum

I just came back from Calvin University, where I had a great couple days visiting classes and discussing the curriculum with the faculty there. Like many programs in literature, they have been losing majors (the creative writing and linguistics majors are strong or stronger). The question is, of course, what individual departments can do to respond to a crises whose causes are largely national and international in origin.

As part of our conversation I ended up producing an outline of some remarks and ideas that I wanted to share. I’ve pasted it below.

Hayot / After the Deluge Handout

  1. The enrollment decline in the humanities is not your fault. It does not result from anything that you or your colleagues have been doing in the classroom. I am happy to discuss causes!
  2. Nonetheless it is something that is worth trying to change, especially if one believes that humanistic learning is crucial to creating a better society.
  3. Will things maybe just go back to the way they were? Maybe they will! And then you would get to feel good about having done nothing. On the other hand, Pascal’s wager…

Above the department level

  • Fight like hell for the liberal arts mission. If we do not have the liberal arts, we are just a set of job training programs. This requires also fighting to stay in the Gen Ed/core requirements. These are the centerpiece of the mission.
  • Don’t give away, and resist at all cost any attempt to give away, your writing programs (fiction, journalism, nonfiction).
  • Find allies in other departments and programs, both in likely places (history, women’s studies) but also in places farther afield that will also be affected by the slow turning of the university into job training (the hard sciences).
  • Educate your Dean (see below) and help your Dean/fundraising group educate donors.

Marketing Issues

  • Education as an opportunity to develop “receptors.” The world is full of information/stuff/pleasure! How much of it will you get to see?
  • You don’t just want to get ready to do a job; you want to get ready for the world
  • Collect data to counter myths about humanities job outcomes and salary outcomes. Widley available (MLA developing some of these resources, too)
  • Collect articles that speak to value of humanities/liberal arts degrees in all kinds of careers; start here and click on all the links. Publicize widely to your faculty (who often unwittingly reproduce myths), students, and administration. Pick select quotes/facts/charts and put them up around your department.
  • Give your students the support/ammunition they need to feel good about their choice of course/minor/major. Remember that they need help to convince their parents.
  • Integrate (formally, in an organized way) an introduction to the value and meaning of a humanities degree into every single one of your classes, not just for 5m, but for a good discussion (even a whole class): what are the humanities? Why are they valuable? What do they study? How do you think like a humanist? Why would you want?

Curricular reform

  • Content opportunities: enrollments are up in (1) creative writing (2) film/television/manga/pop culture/YA etc. (This is not a betrayal of our mission!). (3) ethnic studies
  • Teach courses around big ideas; students still care about these (because they’re people and people have always cared about them).
  • Rename your course, or rethink your course, around the most important idea in it. Teach that course. (These last two almost certainly involve giving up on teaching literature exclusively.)
  • Think across the humanities; the problem is not how to move majors from French to German but how to retain what’s most valuable in the humanities, and how to make it visible to others. Consider making a new program or minor in the  humanities or liberal arts; what would it look like? Look at Purdue’s Cornerstone program
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Travel/Talks 2019-20

It’s been a while since I’ve updated the site; then the old code built into WordPress broke and I’ve spent the morning fixing it. But… victory, so a time to update some talk and travel and teaching news, all coming up.

I’ll be giving short talks as part of panels at MLA (Jan 2020, Seattle) as well as the ACLA (March 2020, Chicago). Longer talks coming up in April at Rutgers (for the graduate writing program) and the University of Wyoming (for the Humanities Center) in April 2020.

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Travel/Talks 2018

A few talks coming up:

April 5-6 is a conference on Poetry and the World at the new UVa Center for Poetry and Poetics. I’ll be talking about the blazon, and totality.

I’ll be giving a talk, “Why Humanists Should Be Interested in Information,” at the University of Miami on April 12. I’ll also be doing a workshop on writing for the graduate students in English.

In October there’s a digital humanities/structuralism conference, Novel Worlds, being held at McGill, where I’m one of a pretty fantastic lineup of speakers. And in late October I’ll be in Rome for a DFG-sponsored conference on world literature.


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Teaching 2017-18

So this year I taught the video games class again (300 students this time). Evaluations were ok… not as good as last time, and I think I know why. I basically did more of what some folks liked last time but that meant that the folks who didn’t like it were unhappier. Also got a note after the semester ended warning me of rampant cheating on the team exams. Sigh.

In Spring 2018 I’m teaching Modern Novel–the first time in four or five years that I’ve taught an upper-level undergraduate course! 19 students, which is fun. We’re doing Barthes’s S/Z and Joyce’s Ulysses…both of which I’ve taught before but which continue to make me very very happy.

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Travel Plans, 2017

I will be giving talks (on worlds) in Dublin on May 11, and in Munich, probably May 23. Otherwise no conferences or talks planned for the Spring. I will not be attending the ACLA (in Utrecht) or the MSA (in Amsterdam) since I’m going to try to spend the summer working on the Kant book.

No plans for the Fall, but lots going on here at Penn State, including the second CHI conference in late September. Thinking about going to the SLSA conference for the first time ever, since MSA won’t be happening in Fall.

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Teaching, Spring 2017

Teaching two classes this semester, a graduate class on Derrida (syllabus) and the usual undergraduate class on video game culture (syllabus), this time with 400 students, a new record. I had planned to make a bunch of changes to the undergrad class, eliminating Will Wright as one of my auteurs in favor of someone younger and newer (I thought about the Belgian indie design group Tale of Tales, and Jonathan Braid), but I realize that basically you get lots of points for inventing a genre, even if all your recent projects have been failures (for almost a decade now!).

So I’ll still do some Wright, but I’m going to add in more Braid, more Journey, more Tale of Tales, more indie games overall, just here and there throughout the semester.

As for the Derrida class, I have to say that I borrowed (with permission) the opening six weeks from Christopher Bush, who taught a similar class at Northwestern a decade ago.

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Center for Humanities and Information

So one of the things I’ve been up to that I’m really excited about and proud of is Penn State’s new Center for Humanities and Information, which has just started up this year. The best thing (well, one of the best things) about it is that it spends 95 percent of its budget on people, including some very smart and interesting postdoctoral fellows. Read all about it here.

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Visits/Conferences Fall and Spring 2015-16

I’ve been terrible about updating the site, but here’s a quick rundown of where I’ll be:

Sept 18-19: U of Tampa (about literary worlds)

Oct 2-3: Concordia University, Montreal (the new Kant book)

Oct 22-23:  Norwich University, Vermont (talking about Elements)

Nov 5-6: University of Cincinnati (the new Kant book)

January 7-10: MLA, Austin (something from the To the Lighthouse project)

March 17-20: ACLA, Boston (on the end of the humanities)

April 8: UC Santa Cruz (the Kant/artwork project)

May 13-14: Oxford University (UK) (Elements again)

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More upcoming visits for Spring 2015

I’ve been terrible about updating the site, for which I apologize to the three readers out there. Meanwhile, a schedule of talks and travels for Spring 2015:

Feb 4-5-6: ACL(x), U of South Carolina

Feb 12-14: Berkeley, 5pm on Feb 12, on Kant and the humanities; Sat 13 all day at a conference at Stanford

Feb 19-21:at the Humanities Center at BYU, on Kant and the humanities

March 5: Rutgers, on Chinese metaphor

March 9: U of Florida in Gainesville, on academic writing

March 23-26: ACLA, Seattle

April 16: U of Virginia, topic tbd.

If you’re around at any of these places, and want to hang out, please let me know.

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Upcoming visits: Yale and Minnesota

Saturday, Nov 15: I’ll be speaking to graduate students in Sociology at Yale (along with real sociologists Elijah Anderson (Yale) and Mitch Duneier (Princeton)) on questions of academic style and writing in and around ethnography. Prepping by reading Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade, Elijah’s A Place on the Corner, and John van Maanen’s Tales of the Field. We’ll see if I manage to be helpful.

Thursday and Friday, Dec 4-5: I’ll be in Minneapolis, giving a talk at the Institute for Advanced Study, as well as talking to graduate students and research groups; topics On Literary WorldsThe Elements of Academic Style, and, for the public talk, new work on singularity, Kant, and analytic scale.

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MLA: New Theories of the Novel

I actually spoke on this roundtable from a single page of notes, as is my preference; but then I typed up the notes for a friend and so here they are. I only spoke for 6 minutes so I’ve said more below, I think, than I said then… but for whatever reason (probably the same reason one hears one’s own voice differently from others the written stuff seems thinner… Hmm.

I have essentially six things to say having to do with the way that new theories of the novel might emerge from a more generous syncretism than the one with which we are familiar from the great examples of from the 1920s-1970s (Watt, Bakhtin, Frank, Lukacs, Auerbach).

1. Let’s say you want a new theory of the novel, with examples from beyond Europe. Quite quickly you encounter the general problem of the relationship between exemplarity and generality. At the lower limit of this problem you will find someone willing to say that the example determines the general absolutely; that is, that there can be no distance taken from the unit of the example and a general theory that would bind together examples. On this view all conceptual thought becomes impossible: even a general claim about a single novel would be merely a claim about the limited set of examples used to adduce it; only (again under this rubric) a general claim about the novel including all the sentences of the novel would be allowable, meaning that you would essentially just reproduce the novel, which would be a general example of itself.

So we need a theory of the relation between exemplarity and generality that does more than just that, while recognizing that any such theory will be potentially subject to the critique above, and also that since such a critique is inevitable and always possible it is of limited value.

The general always owes a debt to its examples; it never breaks fully free of their gravitational pull. 90 percent of the problems people have with general statements can be resolved if people simply would do a better job of recognizing the degrees to which their examples influence their theories; so for instance we wouldn’t be complaining about Ian Watt if he’d called it The Rise of the English Novel. Adjectives are good!

2. So now that you understand that, you still want a new theory of the novel. Assume you know what a novel is. Now it’s just a matter of choosing a reasonable number (and spread) of examples.

3. (a) But! This all depends on what you think a theory of something does. If you think a theory of something is supposed to explain primarily its origin and development over time then you will always have a Eurocentric theory of the novel because, honestly, the novel happens in Europe first (remember: we are assuming we know what a novel is). That’s no great tragedy—sometimes stuff happens in certain places first. But the point here is that the choice to make a theory of X something that primarily attempts to explain X in terms of origin and progress will tend to produce certain kinds of results. That would be ok if the only way to theorize something were to focus on progress, but it isn’t.

(b) Because in fact you can produce non-progress-oriented theories of things, via among other things structuralism. I have done this in On Literary Worlds so I won’t talk about it here.

4. Now, assume you don’t know what a novel is. Then you might want to think of other kinds of Venn diagrams that would include many of the things you currently think of as novels but also possibly some things that don’t (or alternatively that would include a smaller group of texts). That is, think about the ways in which your sense that you know what a novel is depends on the examples you’re using. And imagine what happens if you change the criteria for exemplarity. For instance, you could have a theory of prose fiction, which would include Genji, the Chinese classics, the Roman novels, and so on. Of course you would have to assume you know what prose is, and what fiction is.

5. Why is the question of the future of the novel different from the question of the future of the detective novel? Is this merely a matter of kind and degree, in which the larger category acquires a qualitative difference by virtue of its scope and size, one that makes the “end” of it or the question of its future terrifying? I am not scared of a future with no detective novels, a future with no novels seems completely impossible to me.

6. Nonetheless: can we imagine a future without the novel? On the ecosystemic evidence, I don’t think so. One of the things culture is good at is retaining in residual form aesthetic structures and genres that belong to (and expressed the deepest logics of) earlier historical ecosystems. See poetry and drama. Of course they survive in somewhat muted, less dominant forms. On the other hand this actually gives them more aesthetic freedom. So I cannot imagine a future in which the novel does not exist. But, pace Nancy Armstrong’s essay on “The Future of the Novel,” I feel no need to believe that the novel will always adapt and change so as to remain the dominant written form of its era. I’m not quite sure she is saying this but there is a touch of anxiety about whether the novel can continue as novel in her essay; whether the novel can weather the ecosystemic change produced by the transformation of the relation between family/individual and polity. I for one don’t care too much whether it can; if it cannot, there will be a new form. And in general I think one ought to hope for something like that—that is, one ought to hope that someday there will be an ecosystemic change such that the novel will no longer best (of the various available forms) speak to the patterns of social and historical being. To wish for something else is either to wish for a novel that can adapt to anything, or it is to wish that we are living in the end of history. I don’t think we should wish for either of those if we want to retain some reasonably ethical relation to the future… by which I mean a relation in which we remain capable of being surprised.

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