Humanities

Dear Diary…

Dear Diary,

Today I find myself in graduate school, I look around and still wonder how it is that I came to be here. In the fourth grade I cried while reading The Lord of the Rings because I believed that one of my favorite characters died. I would sneak out of the lunchroom to read The Wheel of Time in middle school, escaping to a future world in which the moon landing was known as the time people learned to fly in the stomach of firebirds. Chuck Palahnuik nursed me through high school anxieties, Bukowski through post-bachelor part-time coffee shop employment. Some time later I interned at a Fortune 500 company and Woolf taught me that a cubicle was not a room. Arthur had a vassal who disrupted the court after obtaining the love of a Fair Queen; I compared labor strategies of multinational national companies between liberal and coordinated market economies – every mythos has its own magic.

Mythos are comforting; they provide a sense of stability that belies chaos.
A narrative of elisions asserting its authority over origin that must be taken on belief.

What little evidence remains of a body’s passage through time and space would do little to comfort an empiricist, but I choose to dream. In time I will come to question their authenticity, were they ever my dreams or an overexposure to fantasy novels as a child? This is really an anxiety over whether or not I have an interiority – a crack in my phone renders the seamless continuity between body and technology an illusion. Were the avant-garde the last of the humanists?  

…legs wrapped around your stomach kissing the back of your neck…despondent and watching little flakes of gold twirling in the wind – 50 degrees on 9th of November…

I found myself in graduate school, lucid enough to know that I was not dreaming. A semester spent discussing the permeation of melancholy, mornings spent at the diner down the street reading over coffee and hash browns. A car full of strangers traveled six hours to make their voices heard, nihilism would not be revolutionary.  

I will feel like a pastiche of the materials I confront, and take comfort in that we are all hybrids. I will grow sick of melancholy, consider returning to it for my next paper, settle on the fact that affect is separate from materiality and so it becomes a question of mediation.

Then I laugh.

I spend time pulling from the stacks, and although at times have emitted a small growl, find excitement when discovering more texts than I had expected. I cross paths with graduates in the physics department, we discuss the stars. I find myself confronting new stories, reading for materials and energies that shape, and cannot shape, our bodies.

Today I am in graduate school, the humanist project has not ended.

Dear Diary,

Today I find myself in graduate school, unsure if it is the translation or the theory that doesn’t make sense. I’m sitting in a class surrounded by people I just met. I’m wondering at what point I’ll feel like a graduate student—if I can even define “graduate student?” Graduate students look like the people around me. Allegedly, I look a lot like them.

Someone once told me individuals who hesitate when talking in a room full of people are afraid because everyone else looks like a complete human being, like they are in control of their bodies. I realize first-person perspective is nerve-wracking because I do not see a composed body. I can only see hands, gestures, flailing limbs that, I hope, are somehow clarifying my point. I can only hear how weak words sound when they are mumbled into my lap.

One day, we will talk about identity politics, about identification, and debate whether or not words have power. I don’t know yet that this will become relevant all too quickly. One Wednesday in November, I will walk onto campus and feel the tired breathing of bodies, like mine, that were up until 4 a.m. the night before.

I will spend this day and the coming weeks waiting for, hoping for, dreading the moment someone wants to talk. This anxiety will be more than just a product of introversion. I will interrogate the expectations attached to this side of the desk. There’s a frail aura of authority that comes with being the one already seated when someone enters a room.

Eventually, I will need to learn how to handle the guilt of looking away to get things done, to decompress, to not lose hope. I will fight back the feeling of sickness, the stomach acid associated with the privilege of being able to think about decompressing.

I will learn that so much of graduate school feels like learning how I’m probably being irresponsible. Why new historicism? Look what happens if you combine feminist criticism with that. Didn’t you have interest in class at one point? If you’re just looking at the feminist individual, are you inadvertently “reproducing the axioms of imperialism” in nineteenth-century British literature? I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of syphoning off problematic portions of texts to read other points I have personal investments in. How close is this to paranoia?

But then, I breathe.

One day, I will relish the feeling of breaking ground, of fingers flying over keys, the paradox of excited exhaustion. I will remember the way strangers’ smiles became familiar fixtures, and how I learned to read and laugh again.

Today, I find myself in graduate school. I say it is okay to feel fulfilled while still fulfilling.

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Empathy and Education: The Double Burden (Part II)

In the numerous fields comprising that artistic and cultural field we call “the humanities,” we who self-identify as scholars must constantly be on the defense regarding our own choice of profession. An increasingly corporatized world sees banks encouraging ballerinas and actors to become engineers and botanists instead, and federal agencies such as the CBO actively suggesting reducing federal funding for the Arts and Humanities, since “such programs may not provide social benefits that equal or exceed their costs.”

This cacophony joins with countless other voices in our own lives: those cautioning us about the shrinking opportunities of the academic job market, who gently chastise us for dabbling in a passion instead of pursuing a career that will prove economically viable, and otherwise reminding us that the humanities are not where the dollars – or pounds or euros, among other forms of financial credit – lie. There is no Wall Street of literature, no actual stock market of philosophical ideas, and little funding to be found in dusty bookshelves and puzzling over words, ideas, and their meanings.

Why even bother?

As the old adage goes, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” A bastardized proverb, perhaps, with uncertain origins, and appropriated right and left – often by the political and ideological Left and Right – for various ends. The myth of linear progress haunts us with these lessons of the not-so-distant past. Especially in the awareness of unavoidable pitfalls, regressions, and obstructions in the hard-fought effort forward and upwards, we take into consideration the wisdom of looking over our shoulders and consulting voices that tell tales of suffering and horror never to happen again.

For those of us working in the fields of analyzing literature and encouraging critical thought, our reasons for choosing to engage with such materials on a day-to-day basis have long found ethical expression in empathy. We aim to broaden awareness of self and others, and to celebrate multicultural differences by considering multiple avenues of theoretical exploration. This is why we construct syllabi with an eye toward incorporating more writers outside the realms of canonical literature, the majority of these names belonging to women writers, and writers of color. For many of us teaching at the collegiate level, or in higher education in general, critiquing the norms of institutions, modeling thoughtful self-reflexivity, and teaching students how to close-read all goes hand-in-hand.

On some level, either personally or with boisterous confidence, we all wish to believe in our role to “Make America Smart Again.” Our faith in education fueled our optimism in a future defined by intelligence and inclusivity, and many a liberal-leaning Op-Ed piece declared the one advantage of Britain’s recent referendum to leave the European Union as both instruction and a tale of warning:

“One of the few good things about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is the rich curriculum of lessons it offers leaders and electorates in other democracies…

Across Europe and in the United States, politicians can either respond to these cries of protest or face something worse than Brexit.”[1]

Was such belief a stroke of overconfidence?

Following November 8th, with electoral results and statistics rushing in from all sides, bleak disappointment followed closely by crushing realization began to settle in. These gut-reactions mingled with irritation at the instantaneous, yet contradictory impulse to assign blame:

“Why Did College-Educated White Women Vote for Trump?” (The New York Times)

“Blame Trump’s Victory on College-Educated Whites, Not the Working-Class” (New Republic)

“Trump Won Because College-Educated Americans are Out of Touch” (The Washington Post)

Such was, and still is enough to shake one’s faith in purposeful education. In the face of all this, what is the point of what we teach? These are the questions to haunt us now: does the work of our lives actually take any root? Should intellectuals shoulder the blame of having morphed into snobbish cultural elites?

Does investment in efforts toward empathy really yield any ideological change?

merriamwebster

 

In the days and weeks that have followed the 2016 Presidential Election, attempting to navigate and teach in this new reality has proven unsettling. All of a sudden, we have swerved from the academic postmodern into a maelstrom of media-influenced misinformation, Twitter rants, and unprecedented threats against freedom of speech, critique,[2] and intellectual or creative expression.

Welcome to the new American age, where everything about knowledge is made up, and apparently, points of truth and facts no longer matter. While Merriam-Webster considers its top result of 2016, The Oxford Dictionary has chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year. As NPR reports, “The word has been around for a few decades or so, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, there has been a spike in frequency of usage since Brexit and an even bigger jump since the period before the American presidential election…feelings, identifications, anxieties and fantasies, that’s what actuated the electorate. Not arguments. Not facts.

Perhaps this struggle we now face started long before Election Day; now, it seems more urgent than ever. From a fake news epidemic of so virulent a strain that that Pope Frances felt compelled to condemn the “sin” of perpetuating misleading information, to a linguistics battle over how to address the Ku Klux Klan-backed “Alt-Right” White Supremacy movement, words, ideas, and the ideological weight they hold have become weapons and flashpoints.

Caption: “Hey! A Message to Media Normalizing the Alt-Right”

Source: Late Night with Seth Myers, 7 December 2016

Speaking truth to power has never been an easy task, and the struggle against the normalization of silencing dissent is, and will remain difficult. While we elegize and self-reflect, we also turn to writers such as Zadie Smith to remind us that “history is not erased by change…progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive.”[3] Likewise, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of the dangers of complacency and neutrality – and goes a step further to remind us of the boundaries of empathy:

“Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of ‘healing’ and ‘not becoming the hate we hate’ sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.”[4]

Words can obfuscate, enlighten, and entrap – and these complexities are elements we anticipate and enjoy when working with literary texts and critical theories. Although the questions surrounding a liberal or humanities-affiliated education may still haunt us, nowhere else can one find a space more prepared for the deconstruction of flashy rhetoric and the unpacking of ideology. Beyond the humanities, critical engagement with disparate voices, texts, and the ideas they represent pertain to disciplines all across the board, and intellectual endeavors of all stripes. We have many more lessons to teach, and much left to learn. This is our task, and may we rise to meet it.

[1] “Learning from Britain’s Unnecessary Crisis.” E.J. Dionne Jr. The Washington Post. 26 June 2016.

[2] Most recently, the union president representing workers at the Indianapolis branch of Carrier Corp. criticized the business deal the President-elect enacted late last month. Chuck Jones, the leader of United Steelworkers Local 1999, challenged Trump to authenticate his claims, and soon afterwards began receiving anonymous death threats.

[3] “On Optimism and Despair.” Zadie Smith. The New York Review of Books. 22 December 2016 Issue.

[4] “Now is the Time to Talk About what we are Actually Talking About.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The New Yorker. 2 December 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

Coda: The Human in the Humanities (29 Jan. 2016)

My first semester of grad school was kind of a wreck: I was constantly sick, my nerves were bound tight with anxiety, and my back and wrists were in pain from the Soviet-era metal chair-desks in a basement classroom. None of this was helped by the ideological distress I found myself in. Two pieces of scholarly advice that found their way to me that semester still linger with me: one, there’s no such thing as the human condition; and two, your graduate program will tear you apart and remake you in its image.

A photo of a metal classroom chair with tiny desk attached at the armrest.

The chairs were still the worst part, though.

In the classroom, I mentally conceded the probable truth of the first one. My undergrad philosophy classes taught me that we have no good definition of “human.” And the conditions people live in vary so radically that there can’t really be a universal one: the Elizabethans understood the world’s functions quite differently than do the Mosuo or a New Yorker, and attempts to demand that there is one ideal understanding usually end up serving some hegemonic understanding to the exclusion and oppression of other worldviews. That didn’t stop the statement from messing with my heart, though.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I had recently graduated from a Jesuit college, and “the human condition” is a big part of Ignatian philosophy. My best friend and I had lofty aspirations of studying “the human condition” through literature in grad school; I still amuse myself by correctly identifying Jesuit-educated students and priests by their use of the phrase in discussions and homilies, respectively; and Christ’s entering “the human condition” through the Incarnation is the foundation of Ignatian imaginative contemplation, my graduate research, and my personal aesthetic. To be told that “the human condition” is inherently meaningless was like being told that J.K. Rowling’s prose is mediocre, only worse: both statements may be true, but I still love the object that they discredit — and “the human condition” informed my life and work more deeply and for far longer than Harry Potter.

A photo of tree-lined sidewalk leading to a redbrick academic building, which features a statue of a priest over the entry doors and a clocktower topped with a cross. The trees are bare but there is no snow on the grass.

Le Moyne College on a rare snowless day in winter.

 

As imposter syndrome set in and I attempted to impress my professors and fit in with my classmates through mimicking their interests and ideologies, I began to darkly wonder if there was some degree of truth to the second statement, too. As I’ve gained confidence in my ideas, my professors have all been wonderfully supportive of my research, even at critical moments of doubt, but I still felt strangely disembodied from my ideas. They were necessarily available, even susceptible, to outside influences in the name of getting a job, which could range from something as benign as entering them into a critical discourse I was unenthusiastic about to something as disheartening as avoiding theories that are no longer trendy.

Not until I took a summer creative nonfiction workshop with the magnificent Minnie-Bruce Pratt did I realize that this compulsory refashioning had nothing to do with my program, but with the state of English-language literary studies. I spent two weeks reading first-hand accounts like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, in which Morrison exposes the subtle racism of American literary tradition not in the form of a journal article, but of a personal reckoning with that history. I spent three weeks writing in the first person about the body of Christ, the woman’s body, and the queer body not in the form of a seminar paper but in the form of a series of anecdotes and meditations steeped in medieval and Renaissance mysticism. I found myself applying my research to my life in ways that made the Early Moderns come alive — in our exchange of good-byes, classmates from diverse religious backgrounds told me how fascinating and important my research was through having encountered it in this genre.

: The greyscale cover of Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark. Morrison holds a giant floppy hat. A gold sticker proclaims that the book won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Fantastic book, by the way: accessible first-person literary criticism. Highly recommend.

Creative nonfiction enabled me to communicate my ideas — shaped by research and critical writing — with a public upon whom they had material impact. My ideas became my own again: I had a personal investment in recovering historically obscured understandings of gender and the body to not only locate the essential value of the queer and the female bodies in Catholicism but also to share old ways of embodying queerness and femininity that are relevant today. In creative nonfiction, my first-person voice had credibility, purpose, and an audience who otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t access to this knowledge.

Radical queer and feminist scholarship is somewhat better at this, leveraging the personal narrative as a source of knowledge and an act of inquiry. To assert a self in English (and, I’d wager, biology, history, math, or information studies) is to assert that you are not the implied raceless, genderless, classless entity interested only in books, but that you instead have an investment in disrupting the status quo. This trickles down into policing how we frame our inquiries: we teach our students not to use the first-person because the personal isn’t credible, and we apply the same principle to our critical essays. Consequently, I have no idea why most of my colleagues study what they do: I assume they all love literature, but if that were their only motivation they wouldn’t still be suffering through grad school. If the English scholar speaks, it is only through the voice of their subject of study, and tentatively: papers on nuns I identify with, on devotional poems that resonate with me. Our research overwhelms our selves, and obscures its own real-life applicability. And so we get accused of navel-gazing and being out of touch with reality:

Nothing like some anti-intellectual sentiment to kick-start one’s drive to inform the public.

So maybe there isn’t a single human condition, but that doesn’t mean studying the humanities can’t improve the conditions of some humans. If my experience with creative nonfiction is any indication, one of the most meaningful ways to connect with those outside the academy is to acknowledge our own subject positions, explicitly recognizing the self in order to humanize the humanities. This is what I’ve tried to do here. But now it’s your turn:

Why do you study what you do? Why do you work where you do? Who are you?

A painted full-length portrait of a nun sitting in a library, paging through a book; she wears a large icon of the Annunciation over her breast.

Also, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is just objectively rad.


Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

 

A Match Made in the Archive: Reading and Poaching Through Ngrams and Rare Books (22 January 2016)

On a hunch, I went home after the DH events last September and typed “Jesuit” into the English corpus of Google Books’ Ngram Viewer. The tool is more powerful than what I used it for, but my search revealed how popular the word was in the English-language books that Google has digitized and made searchable. One result from 1524 (before the Society was founded) is the result of a wrong date (actually 1920). But things get really interesting in 1609, four years after the Gunpowder Plot to restore a Catholic monarchy failed and English Jesuit missionaries took a good chunk of the blame. Things more or less taper off as the corpus of extant books expands in later years, but with curious spikes in popularity, one of which occurs between 1840 and 1860.

A line graph tracing the popularity of “Jesuit” from 1550 to 1900.

Jesuits making seismic waves in English literature … or at least tremors.

This spike follows the 1844 Philadelphia Nativist Riots, which is in the news lately as journalists draw apt comparisons between the anti-Muslim paranoia of Donald Trump & Co. and the ultra-nationalist anti-Catholicism of nineteenth-century America. Sometimes called the Bible Riots, Philadelphia nativists violently destroyed Catholic property after outrage over Catholic parents’ wanting their children to be allowed to personally use a Catholic translation of the Bible in their public-school Bible studies: Protestants feared a foreign takeover from these people who often heralded from Ireland or Italy and followed a religious leader in Rome. The Google Books corpus shows that anti-Catholic sentiment persisted on both sides of the Atlantic, however, and includes such salacious titles as Jesuit Interference with Domestic Affairs: A True Statement of Facts Concerning the Conduct of the Jesuit Priests of Texas (unknown, 1848); The Friendship of a Jesuit (with an epigram from Hamlet: “meet it is, I set it down / That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”; Edinburgh and London, 1848); The Perverter in High Life: a True Narrative of Jesuit Duplicity (London, 1851); The Female Jesuit; or, The Spy in the Family (New York, 1851 — and its 1853 sequel); and Madelon Hawley, or, The Jesuit and His Victim: A Revelation of Romanism (New York, 1857; 1859).

The title page and an engraving from Madelon Hawley: the latter features an old man in a black cassock and biretta seated next to a young man in a suit; in the background are a leaded window and at least three crucifixes, one quite large.

Sometimes stereotypes ring true, though, and a Catholic affection for many and ornate crucifixes is definitely one of them.

 

This last title, written by William Earle Binder, has a hard copy housed in the Special Collections Resource Center (SCRC) at Syracuse University’s Bird Library. The book is fairly small for a hardbound book by today’s standards, a little smaller than a trade paperback — a book for casual reading. Though the interior is in good shape, it has a worn-out cover and spotted edges. Framed as a story that the author heard from a dying man, Joseph Secor, who left a corrupt Society of Jesus, the text traffics in the hallmarks of anti-Catholic prejudice handed down from the English Reformation. During his time in the Society, the Fr. Joseph clashes with a tyrannical and cunning senior member, Fr. Eustace, who tormented to death the married Mrs. Hawley, a woman who refused his sexual advances; later, he pursues her virginal daughter Madelon even after excommunicating her (spoiler alert: he and Madelon both die). The pages are filled with priests in disguise, gross caricatures of the Irish, kidnapped women held prisoner in cloisters, allusions to the Inquisition, and vivid (historically and doctrinally inaccurate) ritual. Flipping through the book, I wondered what kind of person would have held it before I put my hands on it — what they would have thought of a dorky Catholic studying Jesuit literature for a living. Indeed, I found written large inside the back cover:

Mrs Clara T Crane

91 3/4 Clark Street

Auburn NY

 A hand holds open the back cover of a book, with Mrs Clara T Crane's name and address written in large, curly script.

Don’t feel bad if you read that as 9 3/4, too.

Auburn hits rather closer to home than Philadelphia. A little Googling revealed Mrs. Crane to be the wife of a W.W. Crane, an English immigrant and manufacturer; in 1900, he died and was buried with Episcopalian and Masonic services.[1] Perhaps she was an anti-Catholic crusader: her husband came to America in 1852, when many of the anti-Jesuit texts were published in England and the US. Maybe she just liked sensational conspiracy novels. Or maybe the book belonged to someone else who merely took note of her address on the back flap of a text they didn’t care about.

A torso in a blue sweater reaches out, holding open the book: one page full of text, the other an illustration of the dying Madelon and Fr. Eustace.

Caution: Dorky Catholic at Work.

In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau (himself a Jesuit) suggests that there is no text without a reader: the reader “invents in texts something different from what [the author] ‘intended’” (169), “like nomads poaching their way across field they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves” (174).[2] Consequently, there are as many readings of a text as there are readers; each reader interacts with the text differently, and that interaction subtly shapes their interpretation of the book. My experience, as a dorky Catholic studying Jesuit literature, with a specific copy of a text that may have belonged to someone who enjoyed anti-Catholic sensation novels will necessarily shape my interpretation of that particular book. Similarly, your experience, as someone with your background, with this digitized version of a different copy of the text will necessarily shape your interpretation differently, especially since you’ve read this post and are probably thinking your own thoughts in the process. Especially, you can’t touch the handwriting at the back of the SCRC’s book; if this book were reproduced by a nineteenth-century equivalent of EEBO instead, you wouldn’t even know there’s a name and address copied there, since EEBO doesn’t usually include covers in their scans.

A sepia-toned portrait photograph of a middle-aged white man in a turtleneck, corduroy blazer, and tinted glasses.

Michel de Certeau, in the craftiest of Jesuit disguises: nerdy scholar

Books have real, material, human consequences. Sometimes, digital humanities can efface the small consequences: somewhere in Auburn, probably, someone bought an anti-Jesuit sensation novel in the wake of the Nativist Riots, buying into anti-Catholic sentiment at least economically. But other times, DH brings to light the bigger consequences: Madelon Hawley fits into a long literary tradition of demonizing the Catholic other. The humanities are at their best when they combine the two to reveal something about how humans read the books we can still access today, no matter the format.

Next week: The human in the humanities.

[1] See Auburn Weekly Bulletin, February 27, 1900 and Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Vol. 6.

[2] Michel de Certeau, “Reading as Poaching,” The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 165-76.

Many thanks to the Special Collections Resource Center at Bird Library, and especially to Nicolette Dombrowski and Nicole Dittrich, for their assistance with researching this post and for permission to post photographs of the book.


Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

Common Knowledge?: EEBO, #FrEEBO, and Public Domain Information (15 Jan. 2016)

If you work in the humanities and you’ve used a database, a dictionary, or Google Docs in the past ten years, congratulations! — you’re already doing digital humanities. This was a point emphasized by Syracuse University professor Chris Hanson in a panel discussion on the digital humanities that I attended after the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon workshop last fall. Grad students, faculty, and a librarian from a range of disciplines underscored that, according to this definition, anyone can do digital humanities — in fact, many already do — as long as they have access to digital information and the tools to manipulate it.

Not everyone has that kind of access, however, and this became painfully obvious for Renaissance-studies scholars a few weeks later when ProQuest discontinued access to the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database for Renaissance Society of America (RSA) members. Previously, those who didn’t have EEBO access through a university’s library subscription — such as independent scholars or those at smaller schools with smaller budgets — could gain access by joining the RSA, a professional organization rather than a library. After a Twitter uproar, ProQuest quickly restored access without much of an explanation, but not before Renaissance scholars could write about the implications of a private business’s controlling access to what is ultimately public domain information.

EEBO’s origins lie in World War II, when the London Blitz threatened to destroy English libraries and the thousands of medieval and Early Modern books they contained — a potential massive loss of information. University Microfilms International (UMI) stepped in to scan the texts for future generations … and for profit. UMI began to offer microfilmed titles in the English Short Title Catalogue (SCT) to university libraries through print-on-demand services.[1] For decades, Renaissance scholars outside the UK relied upon libraries’ microfilm reprints to do their research. Seventy years later, UMI is now ProQuest and the microfilmed SCT is now EEBO, a digitized and expanded collection of scanned texts. Just under half of the (rapidly expanding) current collection was released into the public domain last year. But anyone without library access will have to wait until 2020 for ProQuest’s exclusive rights to expire in order to access the complete collection.[2]

A library with the ceiling caved in. Beams, rubble, curtains, and ladders are heaped in the center. Three men in hats and wool coats inspect the books that remain on the shelves.

The private library at the seventeenth-century Holland House was bombed in the London Blitz. Books in national libraries were quaking in their dust jackets.

I’m one of the lucky ones: Syracuse University participates in the EEBO Text-Creation Partnership, so I have access even to texts that haven’t been made fully searchable. Without my university library access, I couldn’t possibly be an Early Modernist studying Jesuit literature. Syracuse is a long way from the Huntington and the Folger libraries, let alone Cambridge or Oxford. Not only do I not have a research budget as a PhD student, but some of the most prestigious libraries limit access to students already working on a dissertation.. If I hadn’t spent time browsing EEBO’s collections, I wouldn’t even know that I wanted to write about Jesuit literature. I may eventually have read that Richard Crashaw, a seventeenth-century poet and Catholic sympathizer-turned-convert, was raised by a virulently anti-Catholic father who wrote a tract called “The Bespotted Jesuite.” But without EEBO, I would never have had the opportunity to actually read the elder Crashaw’s text for its obsession with the maternal role of the Virgin Mary in Catholic notions of salvation, and then compare its horrified images of breastfeeding with the glorifying images that appear in the younger Crashaw’s baroque — even mystical — poetry. Without EEBO, I couldn’t read about the Maryland colony’s connection to the English Jesuit mission; I couldn’t perform full-text proximity searches comparing discourse on Eucharistic flesh and New-World cannibals; and I couldn’t crosscheck textual references to English Jesuits to add to Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.

 

A poorly copied black-and-white page of text titled “To OUR LADY OF Hall, and to the Child JESUS”; the rest of the text is half-obscured because text from the opposite side bleeds through.

A page from William Crashaw’s “The Bespotted Jesuite,” aka the “Jesuites Gospell” (1642). Read might be a generous verb.

But not everyone is so fortunate: in the few days when some RSA members believed they would lose their only means of accessing the full EEBO, proposals to make a #FrEEBO circulated on the internet. The conversations reminded me of when I graduated from undergrad and realized, to my horror, that I no longer had access to the Oxford English Dictionary. I found myself keeping younger classmates “on retainer,” pestering them to please, please look up the seventeenth-century definitions of this word so I can revise my writing sample to apply to grad school. Imagine being a scholar trying to publish a journal article for tenure and having to do the same thing — but with every single primary text you’re analyzing. Unlike the OED, the texts in EEBO are public domain, after all, even if ProQuest’s digitizations aren’t; there’s no reason scholars couldn’t create a parallel database that’s wholly public domain from inception.[3]

Digital texts have their shortcomings, of course, including other forms of inaccessibility as well. Untranscribed texts are wholly inaccessible to those with visual impairments. Databases like EEBO offer OCR transcriptions of some scanned texts, and while the good ones can be helpful, quality is inconsistent and frequently bad, especially for Early Modern typefaces and spellings. (If anyone has had a good experience using a screen reader with EEBO, let me know in the comments.) Digital texts also necessarily misrepresent the material object it’s based on by transcribing it into a different medium: a scan of a book obscures its size, its texture, its color, its smell, and even, in EEBO’s case, its cover. (More about that next week!)

A black-and-white scan of two pages of text fills the top two-thirds of the image; a transcription fills the bottom third. The transcription is filled with punctuation marks to signal line breaks and diacritical marks. Each transcription has a yellow post-it note icon in the middle of sentences. The text that fills the margins of the scan is not included in the transcription.

A side-by-side comparison between the scan and the transcription of two pages from “True relations of sundry conferences had between certaine Protestant doctours and a Iesuite called M. Fisher” (1626) in EEBO. To read marginal commentary, you have to click the yellow post-it note icons — a very different experience than the Early Moderns had.

 

But shortcomings shouldn’t stop us from finding new ways to increase access to these texts. One aspect of Jesuit philosophy that’s always resonated with me is that education is inseparable from social justice. Extensive higher education is required during Jesuits’ training in part because they are meant to share that knowledge in service to others. Education itself is a common good, and as an aid to education the cultural heritage contained in databases like EEBO shouldn’t be limited to scholars attached to the wealthiest schools — or even to scholars alone. If public scholars are truly committed to democratizing knowledge, our work shouldn’t end at merely presenting our research to the public, which only reinforces the ivory tower’s hierarchical relationship to the public. Our service to the public should extend to enable universal access to the primary sources we work with, so that anyone who wants to — no matter their situation — can discover not only our knowledge but also how we arrived at it, and how they could make some new knowledge themselves.

[1] http://folgerpedia.folger.edu/History_of_Early_English_Books_Online

[2] http://www.textcreationpartnership.org/tcp-eebo/

[3] https://medium.com/@john_overholt/together-we-can-freebo-b33d39618f8#.wpxzn95s1


Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.

Changing The World From Within to Without: My Take on the Importance of Critical Theory (9 Oct. 2015)

The fact that there is a so-called “crisis in the humanities” is old, though persistent, news, with many theories behind its impending demise.  The main culprits are understood to be funding cuts at the state and national level as well as an overall cultural shift toward valuing professional degree paths in the private sector, spurred by conservative thinkers’ critique of the humanities as a degree that leads to “nothing but unemployment.”[1] It’s an ironic position, given the fact that coexisting with this concern regarding practical employment is another dilemma the business community has recently brought to the public’s attention: a general lack of sophistication in critical thinking skills among recent college graduates, as reported recently by Doug Belkin of The Wall Street Journal.

“General lack” is probably not the best way to put it given Belkin’s mention that, according to a survey of business owners by American Association of Colleges and Universities, “nine out of 10 employers judge recent college graduates as poorly prepared for the work force in such areas as critical thinking, communication and problem solving”––a rather staggering statistic. While critical thinking skills are not only found in English or History classrooms, no one would dispute the fact that the crown jewel of an education in the humanities is the extensive training in critical thinking, whether fostered through in-depth textual analysis or in developing the argumentative prowess of a PoliSci major.  The powers-that-be would do well to reflect on this.

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“They’ve redesigned the logo in the wake of funding cuts.”

Yet in terms of the humanities, even amongst those sympathetic to its aims, the popular perception of the “real” reason the humanities exists comes down not to critical thinking, but to passion––the fact that some of us have come, through the process of time, to be enamored with the great ideas of the past (and in fact, the term “humanities” emerged out of the intellectual turn from “scholasticism” to humanism in the 15th century).   As Adam Gopnik has succinctly put it, “The best way we’ve found to make sure that everyone who loves to talk about books have a place to do it is to have English departments around.”  History majors love history, philosophy majors love philosophy, and so on and so forth.  In defense of the existence of English departments, Gopkin stresses that love of literature is the raison d’etre of studying English and if there is a reason to continue supporting and not axing English departments it’s because

No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Because we are human and because we need to feel pleasure – this is why we should continue to teach English (and philosophy and history too), not because, as Gopnik puts it, “they will produce shrewder entrepeneurs or kinder C.E.O.s.”

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And also this reason.

But why not have our cake and eat it too?  Is it possible that the humanities can offer all of the above? Practical skills, attention to moral and ethical concerns, as well as plain old fun?  In fact, for centuries literary endeavors were to follow the Horatian Ode and do just that“to delight and to instruct.” In an era in which deep-reading is also as much in crisis as deep critical thinking skills, it’s important to engage with both literature and critical theory, two areas that are in fact at the core of the humanities.  Although opposites in their intentions and aims, they also complement one another.  While art and literature seek to unabashedly put forth entrancing new ideas that hope to transform its viewers/readers and their world, critical theory seeks to analyze it to pieces and, in some cases, debunk it.  As the adage goes, “Opposites attract.”

Critical theory is not the only way to teach critical thinking, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most important, given its attention to analyzing and critiquing the assumptions a society makes.  As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy more specifically puts it, “Some of [critical theory’s] core issues involve the critique of modernities and of capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation and the perceived pathologies of society,” critiques that inhere in traditional Marxist philosophy interested particularly in Hegelian dialectics.”  (Don’t worry if you don’t know what the hell I mean by “Marxist philosophy”––we’ll get to that later…)

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What she said.

For the month of October though, I’m not going to go into the history of critical theory or solely summarize the concepts of some of its most influential thinkers (You’re welcome.)  Instead what I want to talk about and to demonstrate is the importance of critical theory, not for academics or undergraduate students, but for people, plain and simple––that is to say, critical theory on a personal, rather than purely “academic,” level.  Why? Because I believe the most exhilarating power of critical theory is its ability to allow us to discern the structural forces that act upon us as individuals, its ability to reveal the inner workings of life and destruct the monolithic force of our everyday understanding that things are “just the way they are.” It has the incredible ability to cultivate the power of discernment––to look at the world and see through its most tantalizing lies and insufferable cajolements.  And it has the same capacity to help one see through oneself, to understand the assumptions our perspectives come packaged with.

Real people, as people, not just professionals or academics, need these skills.  Not because it will help you get a job or make you more erudite, and not even because it’s “fun,” but because, in the end, it is empowering; it can change and liberate your perspective.  As Marx famously put it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” And to be or not to be the change we want to see in the world––that is the question.

[1] Many critics and scholars have noted that there are other factors to consider when it comes to the “crisis in the humanities” too. Heidi Tworek argues in a December 2013 issue of The Atlantic that the humanities technically lost favor in the 1980s and simply haven’t gained back its relative influence is primarily due to the increasing opportunities for women to major in subjects outside of the humanities, an attractive option for those with an eye toward gaining employment in more lucrative careers they were formerly unwelcome in.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.

Wait, what do we do?

Wait, what do we do? – Staci Stutsman (29 August 2014)

I’ve spent a lot of the summer traveling around and visiting friends and family from back home. We eat, we drink, we catch up. Inevitably, these catching-up conversations wind their way back around to one of my loved ones asking, “So, wait, what do you do?”  As an English Ph.D. student just finishing up coursework, I spend a good deal of the academic year sequestered off from the real world; I am absorbed in the latest reading assignment, pushing through a seminar paper, or rushing through that week’s to-do list.  It’s quite easy to forget that there’s a real world out there, a real world filled with actual people who live actual lives that are not dictated by the academic clock.

While there are many competing ideas about how to define the Public Humanities, I believe it means that one should connect in significant ways with the public outside of academia. It means having engaged and sustained conversations about the world, the texts we consume, and our ideas. Kristen Case notes that “the most substantial contribution of the humanities to public life does not come through empowering elite students and faculty members to reach out to their communities.” Instead, it comes from “extending the most fundamental element of a real humanities education—the power to doubt and then to reimagine.”

With this in mind, the Syracuse University English graduate students wish to launch this blog.  This blog is not meant as a benevolent vehicle through which we most graciously bestow our ideas onto the public. Rather, it will be meant as a forum through which to start conversations.  We want to demonstrate exactly “what we do” by doing it with the public.  We want to let the public in on our process as we collectively doubt and then reimagine. We want to use the skills we have gained through our humanities education—the power to think critically about the world, close read, and engage with theory—to have conversations with the public outside of our small cohort, our discipline, and the university. We are interested in hearing how other graduate students are engaging in public humanities pursuits so that we can learn from each other.  We want this conversation to be made widely available, not locked behind a pay wall. And we want to hear others’ voices.

With that said, we welcome you all to this conversation.  A monthly blogger will post weekly and these posts will reflect the diversity of English studies in general and our department specifically. We hope that you read, join in if you wish, and share with others.


Staci Stutsman is a fourth year PhD student and teaching associate in the English department.  She will be taking her qualifying exam on film and television melodrama this fall.  She teaches introductory level film and popular culture courses and spends her free time binge watching TV, board gaming, and working out.