The Humanities: It’s What We Do

Originally published in the Winter 2012 MLA Newsletter

I am always alert to news about MLA members, so I was pleased to read in September the announcement that Jean-Christophe Cloutier, a Columbia graduate student, had discovered an unpublished manuscript of a novel by the Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay. Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, his adviser, authenticated the work through “themes that recurred across McKay’s work, like Communism and labor strikes in Harlem, and characters, like the real-life labor leader Sufi Abdul Hamid” (Lee). Also in September, we learned that Angela R. Mace, a Duke graduate student, had solved the riddle of an Easter sonata often attributed to Felix Mendelssohn. Under the tutelage of her adviser, R. Larry Todd, Mace researched the history of the piece, tracked down and inspected the manuscript, studied the handwriting, and demonstrated that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and not her more famous brother, was the composer.

Graduate students rarely hit “scholarly gold” in the way that these two humanities scholars did, and yet examples of major discoveries abound in areas other than the natural sciences. The field of archaeology may be said to hinge on encounters such as the one Hiram Bingham experienced when, during an Andean trek a century ago, some local people led him to Machu Picchu. Art historians continually update our knowledge of provenance, attribution, possession, and other factors concerning works of art as they are created and circulated across time. Many advances in the humanities don’t emerge from the realm of manuscripts, monuments, or canvases, of course, and they don’t usually make headlines in the New York Times (except perhaps in obituaries). I find myself asking, What if we did think about them as newsworthy? Imagine what it would mean if the general public read about ideas in the humanities, told in understandable language and illustrated with enticing stories. So accustomed are we to defending our scholarship as discipline-specific, with its own vocabulary and audience, we rarely try to present it in any other terms.

What does it mean to “do the humanities”—in contrast to teaching, studying, or doing research in the humanities? I’ve heard a variety of voices on the subject recently, from digital humanists, who aspire to “more hack, less yack,” to scholars like Martha Nussbaum, who speak of “profitable skills,” to Neal Lester, director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, who recently organized a forum that I introduced at the National Press Club on this issue. There is general agreement that the everyday practices involving the humanities could be rendered more visible (and potentially more valuable) by marking—and, yes, marketing—them with their country of origin (the imagination, the mind).

Remember New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s erudite and articulate answers to the call-in questions on his radio program? English major. How about “We Real Cool” poet Gwendolyn Brooks? Also an English major. Look around at college and university presidents, and you will note a large number of English, French, and German PhDs. The proverbial query “What will you do with that degree?” rarely gets answered with “Become the first woman astronaut in space,” “Serve as Secretary of State,” or “Be the journalist who uncovers Watergate.” Yet in those instances, too, we find humanities majors making their mark.

We should keep telling our students (and their parents) that “doing the humanities” prepares them generally in a way no narrow occupational degree can; they can always pick up the specialized knowledge they need later. We should be teaching them to do hands-on research in the humanities in ways that engage them with others in the classroom, on the campus, in the community, and around the globe. Each one of us should be able to explain our teaching and research pursuits in compelling, clear language. We won’t all boast a jaw-dropping original Fanny Mendelssohn or Claude McKay tale, but we all have an interesting story to tell. Because if we don’t—if we are instead inducing somnolence in our students and in one another—then we’re missing the lessons that humanities-doers have imparted.

I remember running down the stairs one day back in the 1980s, so excited I could hardly speak. I had figured out what Salvador Dalí’s Hallucinogenic Toreador had to do with José Donoso’s El jardín de al lado, in formal terms of the painting and the text and also in the psychoanalytic meanings of both works. I went on to publish quite a bit on the relation of the visual arts to literature, and a few years ago I received a message from a graduate student who came across my article on Donoso. That she found my decades-old work useful filled me with pleasure and wonder, because I vividly recalled the joy of discovery when I was doing that research. When we say the word research, most people don’t think of the humanities, and they have trouble recognizing the product as useful. It’s true that “doing the humanities” doesn’t produce scientific knowledge that can, say, cure cancer. But it can yield imaginative works on cancer like Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman and Mary Cappello’s Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life that change people’s lives. Can you tell your research and teaching stories with passion to a broad public? Will you? The best way to promote the humanities is through demonstration. To wit (I borrow here from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”): “Let us, then, be up and doing.”

Works Cited

“Angela Mace and the Mystery of the Lost Sonata.” Duke Music. Duke U, Sept. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Lee, Felicia R. “New Novel of Harlem Renaissance Is Found.” New York Times. New York Times, 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.