Defending the Arts. Again (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

When I was a Master’s student a decade ago at the University of Virginia, someone had posted on the department office wall a cartoon in which a young boy described his dad’s new girlfriend. She seemed really smart and motivated, the boy explained, because she talked about getting her “M.R.S. degree.”

“I think it’s something in the art history department,” he quipped.

The arts have, of late, been a punch line, if not a punching bag, in debates about the role of higher education. Frank Bruni points out that it’s not that new a phenomenon, but maybe it was President Obama’s dig at my field of art history in a 2014 speech that made it feel fresh. Continue reading “Defending the Arts. Again (Throwback Thursday)”

Defending the Arts. Again.

When I was a Master’s student a decade ago at the University of Virginia, someone had posted on the department office wall a cartoon in which a young boy described his dad’s new girlfriend. She seemed really smart and motivated, the boy explained, because she talked about getting her “M.R.S. degree.”

“I think it’s something in the art history department,” he quipped.

The arts have, of late, been a punch line, if not a punching bag, in debates about the role of higher education. Frank Bruni points out that it’s not that new a phenomenon, but maybe it was President Obama’s dig at my field of art history in a 2014 speech that made it feel fresh.

The standard line of defense for the fine arts these days seems to be that they foster critical thinking, which is problematic. It’s not that it isn’t true.  The argument is that exposure to methodologies that question conventional approaches to knowledge – say, feminist theories of art history – is beneficial in the creation of good citizens, which is undeniably true. But it’s beside the point.  After all, biologists and physicists challenge conventional wisdom and push the envelope too. (Check out a compelling critique, from a slightly different point of view, of the critical-thinking argument here.)

The arts are not important solely because they do what other disciplines in the humanities can do.  Rather, they’re important because they do what other disciplines cannot.  They are crucial because they are our humanity. As Alissa J. Rubin wrote, the destruction in Aleppo, Damascus, and countless other cities, and the looting of countless archaeological sites, including Dura-Europos (which I routinely teach in art history survey courses), means the loss not only of buildings, mosaics and frescos but also of the knowledge that different religions coexisted in this now war-torn space. And losing that history only enables those who’d wish to marginalize or eliminate groups with whom they differ. It’s about a lot more than buildings.

Are the arts a luxury? Maybe. Do your students ever ask you this? Friends outside of academia? If you are in a STEM field, what is your opinion of the arts and the purpose of the academy? How have the humanities impacted your work? It seems utterly silly to me that the humanities need to be defended at all, or that they’re derided as luxuries. We couldn’t do without them.

Collaborative Hunting and Gathering

When I try to describe Comparative Literature to those unfamiliar with my field, I think back to the way one of my undergraduate professors put it. Comp Lit, she said, is like a mad scientist’s laboratory, except for the humanities.  Working and thinking in such an interdisciplinary field means that I am encouraged to think outside of the traditional boundaries of thought (in my case looking to Sociology, Caribbean Studies, critical theory, novels, film, and medicine). So how do I conduct research? The short answer is “Read a lot and write a lot”, but thinking about how I’m going to approach writing a paper on Ralph Ellison this semester, I intend to:

  1. Ask myself questions: What are the key themes and issues that have come up for the authors? What do I find most confusing/interesting? This is an important step, since the last thing I want to do is impose my theories onto a text or author. In the case of Invisible Man, I’m really interested in how the trope of invisibility is linked to blackness, and I wonder about the way the author portrays history.
  2. Make connections: This is what brought me to Comp Lit in the first place! How does what I am reading relate to my larger research interests? How can I make this useful as I think ahead to my dissertation? Is there a particular theoretical model that is useful in thinking about the topic? I’ve also noticed some similarities and differences between this novel and writing by authors from the same time period in the Caribbean.
  3. Meet with my professor: Our professors are an incredible source of knowledge and experience, and the earlier you meet to discuss you ideas, the more focused your ideas will become: they can steer you toward key texts and theorists and advance your thinking before you begin to dig in the stacks.
  4. Hunting and gathering: Sometimes I prefer to do more free-writing (my idea of “gathering”) to really hone in on what I care about;  other times, I really need to dig in and find out (“hunting”) what has been said and done on a topic first. With my Ellison paper, I’ll probably  go the library route first: a) the Rutgers library website, b) the MLA Bibliography, c) my subject librarian, d) Google Scholar, e) for larger projects, traveling to archives to access relevant original documents.
  5. Writing! One of my mantras is “writing is thinking.” The only way I can really know what I think about something is to write about it, so after completing steps 1-4, I’ll begin writing my paper.

Although there are certainly times when my work revolves around my own relationship with the texts I’m exploring, the process really is collaborative…having a conversation with the authors and filmmakers I’m working with. As the conversation gets larger and the stakes higher, the sources you tap into may take you farther than you expect.