Of Climate Change and the Humanities

This week, most unusually, two topics that are of great interest to me, but which rarely make it into the mainstream media, suddenly surfaced in The New York Times.

It was not glad tidings.

ipcc_altlogo_full_rgbAn article about a “leaked draft” of a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, strategically placed in the Saturday edition of the NYT–generally the least read—warned that global warming is going to severely disrupt food supplies in the near future.

A burgeoning global human population, expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, is going to need more food—but climate change is predicted to reduce agricultural production by as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century, with predictable results in terms of famine and civil unrest.

Meanwhile, back on the higher-education ranch, it was doom and gloom for the humanities this week, with a “Room for Debate” discussion in the New York Times about whether or not the study of the humanities has become vestigial in these science-focused times, just an “academic luxury.”

The answer I liked best to the question “what good are the humanities today” came from Lisa Dolling, an associate professor of philosophy, and dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology, who said:

“While science and engineering can tell us the “what” and “how” of the world, the humanities and social sciences provide insights to answering the “why” — along with the skills necessary to communicate it all to others.”

i-f38d8b0bf62d6e656f1e4bf2c111d9b2-IPCCScience and engineering can tell us all about the problems we face due to global warming, but it is the humanities that will be able to tell us why it is so impossible for human beings to agree on reducing carbon emissions and shifting into a sustainable economic framework.

And perhaps it is the humanities that will be able to persuade us to overcome our collective inertia…find the necessary fire in our bellies…and insist that corporations and politicians join hands to make a livable future for us all.

 

Personally, I have never been more excited to be a humanities professor than I am today.

All of my courses this year are focusing on urgent issues of social and environmental justice, giving students the models and tools they need to become the kinds of change agents our world so desperately needs.

In science & engineering courses, students will learn how to measure and impact biofeedback systems.

But in my courses, they will learn how to communicate these statistics in ways that not only inform, but also inspire a thoughtful response in others.

It is not enough today to understand what is going on, although that is a crucial first step.

We must also be able to take the next steps of a) explaining to others why global warming is important and b) creating channels through which people’s fear, passion and courage can flow into positive efforts at social change.

According to the Stanford University website, “the humanities can be described as the study of the myriad ways in which people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world.”

I find it sad that humanities scholars have to defend the utility and validity of our field today.

Science without the humanities would be a cold social environment indeed, and I think even scientists probably recognize this.

In the age of climate change, we need the humanities more than ever to understand where we are, and to provide the moral framework for where we want to go.

It is not enough to simply describe population growth or agricultural decline. We need to explain why it is imperative that we work to curb human populations and create economic and biological systems for sustainable growth.

We need history to show us how we got here; philosophy to show us our ethical responsibility; and literature and rhetoric to show us how to most effectively communicate with others.

What an impoverished human society it would be if empirical evidence was all we focused on.

Scientists need the humanities, and vice-versa.  To suggest otherwise is to greatly undersell the capacity of human beings to think with both sides of our large, ambidextrous brains—with potentially disastrous results for human society and planet Earth.

We can do better than that.  And we will.

Holding the Fort for the Humanities

Michael Berube

Michael Berube

In a recent address to the American Council on Graduate Schools, out-going Modern Language Association president Michael Bérubé argues trenchantly that American graduate education in the humanities is in a state of crisis, and in urgent need of structural revision.

But to my mind, he does not go nearly far enough in his thinking.

“Graduate programs in the humanities have been designed precisely to replenish the ranks of the professoriate; that is why they have such a strong research component, also known as the dissertation,” Bérubé says.

But “the overall job system in the humanities has been in a state of more or less permanent distress for more than 40 years,” with doctoral programs “producing many more job candidates than there are jobs; and yet this is not entirely a supply-side problem, because over those 40 years, academic jobs themselves have changed radically. Of the 1.5 million people now employed in the profession of college teaching, more than one million are teaching off the tenure track, with no hope or expectation of ever winding up on the tenure track.”

So, he asks, how can we, in good conscience, continue to encourage students to enter graduate programs in the humanities, knowing the grim future that awaits most of them?

Bérubé reminds us that “the study of the humanities is more vibrant, more exciting, and (dare I say it) more important than it was a generation ago….The sheer intellectual excitement of the work, whether it is on globalization or subjectivity or translation or sustainability or disability, is one thing. This work is so valuable—and it offers such sophisticated and necessary accounts of what “value” is.

“And yet when we look at the public reputation of the humanities; when we compare the dilapidated Humanities Cottage on campus with the new $225-million Millennium Science Complex (that’s a real example, from my home institution); when we look at the academic job market for humanists, we can’t avoid the conclusion that the value of the work we do, and the way we theorize value, simply isn’t valued by very many people, on campus or off.”

Unfortunately, Bérubé doesn’t bring up the deeper questions about why our society currently values science and business so much more highly than the humanities.

Why is it that professors in the humanities make a fraction of what professors in business, law or science earn?

Why is it that academic programs in the humanities are under constant threat of the budget ax, while programs in business and science continue to attract huge inputs of resources?

Is it any surprise that students take a look at the depressed adjunct faculty in their dingy offices and take the nearest exit for the shiny new science building?

To me it’s pretty obvious: in our capitalist society, the academic fields that are most highly valued are those that create the possibility of more profit—with profit crudely conceived of as dollars in the bank.

My work in the field of comparative literature over the past 20 years, for example, has little to show for it in terms of money in the bank.

I’ve been focused on bringing the voices of marginalized or lesser-known women writers and activists to wider audiences within and outside of the Ivory Tower, because I believe that the perspectives offered by these women writers bring important, under-recognized and certainly under-valued ideas to the intellectual table.

For example, writers I study, like Rigoberta Menchu (technically not a “writer,” as her texts are transcriptions of her oral testimony), Vandana Shiva, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua, have been arguing for many years that human society must begin to honor our differences and value our interconnections with each other and with the natural world, in order to create a just and sustainable society.

Lorde, long ago, recognized that the “masters” are interested in keeping the oppressed divided, competitive, fighting with each other for the crumbs.  She urged us to think outside the box, “for the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The truth is that the humanities are dangerous ground for the “masters” of Euramerican society, because it is in the various academic terrains of the humanities that moral and human values are debated and interrogated.

It is no accident that critiques of capitalism itself, along with capitalist tools like elitism, militarism and globalization, have found their strongest purchase in the humanities.

Humanists who follow the lines of intellectual inquiry stretching back to the dawn of human written traditions and forward into the speculative reaches of science fiction and futurism, often find ourselves thinking outside the box of the current capitalist structures into which we have been born and indoctrinated to accept.

The moral questions raised in many humanities classrooms are themselves alternatives to “the master’s tools,” and they have the potential to dismantle the master’s house.

That is why, I believe, the humanities are currently being starved and derided by the masters.

That is why adjuncts in the humanities are being paid less than a living wage, discouraging the best and brightest from choosing that educational and career path—unless they are independently wealthy.

Bérubé ends his speech by suggesting that graduate programs in the humanities need to begin to combine the traditional focus on research, writing and teaching with the development of skills and connections that can help Ph.D.s secure good jobs outside of the professoriate, since he does not foresee any change to the current trend of an overwhelmingly low-paid, adjunct humanities workforce.

He points to the “digital humanities” as a prospect, since highly trained academics who can translate their knowledge into digital formats are more likely to find work in business, publishing or media.

I wish he would think a bit more radically.

As one of the humanities thought leaders of our time, I would like to see him come out and say that the deep questions of the humanities–questions about society, ethics and social and ecological justice–are precisely the ones that we need to be asking most urgently today, whether the masters like it and support it or not.

I know, up close and personal, how hard it is to wage this lonely battle, watching all the honors and riches going to colleagues who are willing to do the masters’ bidding more compliantly.

Sure, biotechnologists and creative financiers are going to get more funding and more accolades than someone like me, who studies ethics via personal narratives by little-known women writers.

But in the long run—or what is increasingly, in our era of climate change, seeming like the short run!—I believe that the wisdom these women have to offer will be more important than the latest patent on bio-engineered corn, or the most ingenious restructuring of debt derivatives.

Humanities education is one of the last outposts of oppositional thinking within the Academy.

Let’s hold our positions with honor, knowing that even if the material rewards are scant, we do get to keep our integrity, and do our best on behalf of the planet and all its denizens.

The power of words for a world in crisis

So what am I, a Ph.D. in comparative literature with years of teaching experience in global women’s literature, gender studies and media studies, doing writing and thinking so much about the environment?

Why am I spending time blogging rather than diligently writing research-based articles for peer-reviewed academic journals?

I entered grad school part-time in 1984, first in English, and then in Comparative Literature.  Why those fields?

As an undergraduate, I started out wanting to major in environmental studies, but was soon turned off by the level of statistical empiricism required by my biology professors.  Having always loved to read and write, I gravitated towards English, and ended up interning for the local newspaper and becoming somewhat of a prodigy cub reporter.  I went on to work as a reporter for a daily newspaper, then a staff writer and editor for trade publications in New York City.

After a while, I missed the excitement of the classroom, began taking a class or two at night, and was soon drawn into the orbit of the comparative literature department at NYU, where things were really hopping in the late 1980s and early ’90s.  It was the time of the culture wars; of deconstruction and post-structuralist theory; of post-colonialism and eco-criticism and Marxist feminism.  It was an exciting time to be a budding scholar, learning to talk the talk and walk the walk.

And now here I am at mid-career, looking back and wishing that I hadn’t allowed myself to be discouraged from environmental studies so easily.

These reflections are spurred by the lead article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, about the Modern Language Association convention, which starts today in Seattle.  I’ve already written about why I’m not there, and reading today’s Chronicle article, I don’t feel too sorry to be missing this year’s conference.

The article, by Stacey Patton, presents a pretty bleak picture of the field of languages and literature–a picture I recognize only too well.  Enrollments in literature classes are at record lows, and many leading voices in the field are being called upon to explain just why an education in the humanities is of continued value in the 21st century.

The Chronicle article quotes James Donelan, a lecturer in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara: “We have been going about our business as if the study of literature were self-justifying, and that making an overt case for its relevance to society was somehow too mundane a task for us….The immediate consequence of this attitude is that we’re losing undergraduate majors and financial support at a terrifying rate, and the far-reaching consequence is that anti-intellectualism and a general lack of empathy are running rampant in civic life.”

Meanwhile, as many as 70% of English department faculty nationwide are so-called “contingent” faculty–hired as adjuncts, on a semester-to-semester basis, often earning minimum wage or less despite their doctorates and their publications.  As one angry commenter (evidently an adjunct English teacher) put it, “I for one will not encourage ANYONE to be an English major.  I will teach them their required composition classes for their OTHER majors because I know those majors will actually change their financial lives and allow them to support their families and move out of poverty.  This IS an elitist profession filled with elitist ivory tower ‘folks.’  Everybody knows it; that’s why the numbers in this field are dropping so much.  Get real.  Stop b.s.ing and face what is really going on.”

Yeah.  So we have an anti-intellectual student body, most of whom are highly resistant to reading books at all; combined with a demoralized and exploited faculty.  Although things are somewhat different at my college, it’s impossible to ignore what’s going on in the field as a whole.

And although some literature professors may be willing to put time and energy into justifying why it’s essential that we continue to study so-called “high literature,” like Shakespeare, Milton, Dante,  and Joyce–or even Pynchon, Rushdie, and Roth–I am not.

Egyptian author, doctor and activist Nawal El Saadawi

My whole career has been dedicated to the kind of literature that provides windows into the real material conditions of people living on the margins of society–people outside of the ivory tower, whose voices are rarely heard in the American classroom.  My own personal canon includes Rigoberta Menchu, Wangari Maathai, Buchi Emecheta, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Paula Gunn Allen, Shirin Ebadi, Nawal El Saadawi, Mahasweta Devi, Malalai Joya, Vandana Shiva, and many others, few of whom would be familiar to most of the scholars gathered at the MLA this year.

These writers have taught me, above all, to listen.  They’ve taught me to be aware of the intractability of my own privileged social conditioning, and to work hard at overcoming the elitist worldview into which I was born and raised.  And many of them have shown me again and again how in a patriarchal culture women are lumped together with Nature as commodified resources to be managed and controlled.

I never wanted to be a scientist.  My interest in environmental studies sprang from my love and reverence for the natural world, which was so strong in me as a child, and my horror at learning what human beings were doing to the flora and fauna of our planet.

Knowing what I know now about the dire urgency of the manmade threats to our ecological systems on Earth, I cannot sit by and write yet another academic essay on literary theory and disembodied “texts.”

Yes, I care about the sad state of English and literary studies in the academy.  But we’ve doomed ourselves, each of us, by the short-sighted and self-centered decisions we’ve made as individuals and as institutions.  If students today see reading books as irrelevant, and if administrators see English professors as expendable, well…who should we blame but ourselves?

As we hurtle into the 21st century with its multiple crises of climate, ecology and economics, I find myself  still reading, still writing, and circling back around to where I began, in environmental studies, where I will do all I can to use the power of the written word to ignite the social changes we so desperately need.

In narratives of women and the natural world, I have found my home–and my voice.

%d bloggers like this: