On Enchantment and Necromancy: the Double-Edged Magic Words of the Humanities

I’m only a little self-conscious that for all the positive things I’ve had to say as a writer, as an educator, as a generally happy guy, the two things that seem to have won me the most attention are fire on the one hand, and brimstone on the other. By far my most circulated blog piece to date has been last summer’s indictment of now ex-President Busch-Vishniac at the University of Saskatchewan, followed by my most recent critique of Western’s double-dipping President Chakma, which was picked up by Western’s Alternative Listening Tour and recirculated (I was given Day 16: an intrepid early date from before the bandwagon was so safely crowded with objectors).

stand by both of these articles; they both needed to be written, and the abuses of executive of administrators remain to this day one of the most major threats to the quality of our education system and the futures of our students. Beyond principle alone, I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth; and this work is a very big part of why I can boast upwards of 6,500 visitors, which starts to be the kind of reader base that makes publishers smooth out the crumple creases and reconsider a manuscript.

It does, however, raise the problem of typecasting me in a highly problematic genre—the genre of calling out university presidents behaving badly. For an adjunct hobo writing without the protection of tenure, particularly an active one on the university job market, this is a bad line of work to be in—or at least a high-stakes one.

There may be a certain “court jester appeal” to what I do—that is, my lack of a job to be let go from gives me a certain freedom to speak truth to power—but even in times when a little negativity is warranted, negativity is bad for business. And for whatever reason (maybe it’s the nature of the Internet), negativity gets the hits.

As I finish the term, though, what’s given me final swift kick in the pants to keep at it has been the support and encouragement of my students, which is one of those things they never really show you until the marks are in and they’re safely out of harm’s way. In general the letters of support for teaching have been kind—and they always catch me by surprise. I’ve mostly recovered from the “impostor syndrome” of my grad-student days, in part by bludgeoning that fear out with over-education and over-preparation. But this year I felt like more of a talking head than I have in years past, and it’s nice to know that I wasn’t, in fact, the rampant bore I feared.

A rampant boar, the classic charge on the coat-of-arms of long-winded talking-head professors.
A rampant boar, the classic charge on the coat-of-arms of long-winded talking-head professors.

This year, though, I’ve had the surprising experience of students thanking me for my involvement with these concerns outside of the classroom—a development that says more about them, I think, then about me. We are entering an age of savvy students who may not memorize sonnets, may not worry about “singular-they” errors, may not spell so well without a little hand-holding from the lovable Clippy… but make no mistake; these brain cells are going somewhere. Students are more educated than they’ve ever been about the nature, place, and trajectory of their education as a whole. Students are informed about the issues surrounding their programs and their curricula on a level unprecedented even in the activist heyday of the late ’60s and early ’70s. They are taking more responsibility for themselves, not within the classroom on a course-by-course basis, but on the level of programs and professionalization. It reassures me to see, particularly as a counter-argument to students who are having more trouble with modernist poetry than they used to. It means that students are less defenseless than they once were against the adversarial forces that matter. And in these troubled times, T. S. Eliot is not their most dangerous adversary.

They are angry, too; they should be, but it surprises me that they are. I’ve had the rare chance to see my critiques resonated with, and it’s saddening to live in an academic world when my students feel I’m articulating their sorrows. It is, to an extent, the natural fate of those of us who are fed by the academic world to bear its suffering in exchange for our bread. It should not, and should never have been, the burden of those who pay for that bread.

In such cases, I find myself responding to student commiseration—a grim sort of thanks—with the positivity that I know this field, and this industry, and this calling all deserve. I am able to articulate it, to a hopeful listener, so much more clearly than when I try to write it here and send it out into the phlogiston of the Web. My students remind me in every way, from their repeated Albus Dumbledore references to their indefatigable hope, that the dents in the machine are recent and superficial dents on a very old and durable machine indeed. They remind me that there is still magic in the work of the Humanities, in a way I’ve had a very hard time articulating on my own, but have managed to get out in a response here.

The words of my student, of course, will be kept in confidence. But I think my reply to this person has a value beyond its immediate audience of one, and has helped me articulate some hopeful and positive things about the Humanities and the nature of a liberal arts education that I’ve been trying to get off my chest for more than a year. You will have to use your imagination to picture a brief letter thanking me for my fiery involvement with the Alternative Listening Tour—and one Albus Dumbledore reference—to which I have replied thus:

“Many thanks for your kind words of support. I, too, am amazed by just how active this Department has been in response to the Alternative Listening Tour. Of the 21 respondents so far, 17 have been professors or PhD candidates. Of those 17, fully 12 have been from English or its sister disciplines — students of modern language, literature, and media.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that literature-people are the ones most inclined and best equipped to participate in this kind of work. But I’m glad people are getting to see the effects of some powerful Humanities educations put into action: it’s notoriously hard to define, unless you witness its use, what sort of things you actually get from an English degree, or what you learn how to do with it. We’re forever the sculpture in a world of power tools: It’s very difficult to defend the value of literature or poetry based on what it does, and if you continue on in the arts in any capacity (as I hope you do), you may often find yourself in conversation trying to explain or defend this weird thing we’ve chosen to do with our lives. And it’s really hard to come up with an answer good enough to satisfy someone who has to ask.

Words are, as dear Albus says, our most inexhaustible source of magic. That sounds like an equally silly and hard thing to defend, until you realize that “magic” is just a fancy word for shaping the world into the one you want it to be, a piece at a time, using methods that make no scientific sense, and are seldom understandable to those who haven’t studied them. Having come to understand those methods thoroughly, knowing one’s synecdoche from one’s metonymy, one would think it would all start to feel less magical. But in my experience, the wonder only grows with time.”

As important as the other articles may have become, this is the kind of writing I’d rather be known for. The unspoken second half of Albus Dumbledore’s quote reminds us that words are “Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” It’s very hard to recognize when we are doing one of these by doing the other—hard to know with conviction we are doing positive work with our anger, and compassionate work with our sternness. But “compassionate work with our sternness” is exactly what we’re doing when we give our students a failing grade, and we have come to terms with that. Perhaps it’s time we came to terms with giving our executives a failing grade as well.

Even so, I’d sooner write of wonder than corruption. We’re not so overrun with the latter that it’s shunted out the former. One of the great tragedies of life is that corruption needs our words more than wonder does. Wonder is there, waiting, whether we have the words for it or not. And yet, however important the work, one can only write so much with a poison pen before the hands are stained by venom. It’s fatiguing work and leaves one empty rather than filled. I have a very small stack of references to write, and I think I’m going to turn to them now. The carrot business is so much more fulfilling, sometimes, than the stick business, and I’m grateful to my student(s) for reminding me of that.

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