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Expanding the Definition of Humanities Scholarship (Panel Summary)

Today I attended the first day of “Community Colleges and the Future of the Humanities,” which you probably remember that Raven recommended near the beginning of class.  It’s been a great conference so far, but my favorite panel today was “Expanding the Definition of Humanities Scholarship,” moderated by Elizabeth Alsop from the CUNY School of Professional Studies.

The panelists were:

  • Leah Anderst, Queensborough Community College
  • Ria Banerjee, Guttman Community College
  • Kevin Ferguson, Queens College
  • Lisa Rhody, The Graduate Center

Alsop opened the panel by explaining its genesis. She’d found that public scholarship felt like a natural outgrowth of her work, but as she came close to the end of the tenure clock, people started asking her how she would frame this work to make it “count.” So, she put together a panel to talk about some of these questions.

Leah Anderst spoke first, about how finding a full-time position had felt like a small miracle to her, but several members of the older generation of PhDs with whom she was acquainted seemed worried about it, because she was in a pedagogically-focused position.  She spoke about the versatility of faculty members who think and write about pedagogy, and how this work ended up influencing her research. She developed an accelerated program and studied and wrote about it, and although it was not closely connected to the research concerns that she’d come in with, she learned a lot about working with information, especially qualitative information, that she was later able to use in her film studies research.

Ria Banerjee discussed all the conflicting advice she’d received as a graduate student — to publish a lot or not at all, to devote herself to teaching or to treat it as something that happens alongside the “real” work of writing and getting published. She has had a lot of opportunities to speak and write publicly, for audiences she never expected to reach. She’s written some op-eds and blogs, and she’s spoken in events presented by Humanities New York.  This work doesn’t “count” as scholarship, but it does count as service.  Because service isn’t considered as important as scholarship in tenure reviews, this work doesn’t have the same weight that speaking at scholarly conferences and publishing in peer-reviewed journals does, but Guttman does make room for some work like this. They allow a certain number of “substantive” blog posts; there are ongoing conversations about exactly what that means.

Kevin Ferguson works in the English department, but his real focus is film studies. He recently was granted tenure, and made sure to do all the traditional things alongside his more innovative work. He really wanted to help students apply digital humanities principles to film and moving image texts, and to move beyond the mode of film studies scholarship that consists of a written text with some black-and-white still photos. He pointed to his work on MediaCommons. MediaCommons is in collaboration with the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies (formerly Cinema Journal), which is the journal of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies and thus a top film studies journal. This collaborative effort, called [in]Transition, is interesting to him because it takes seriously the idea of writing using the materials of study — in this case, moving images. [in]Transition refers to this as “video essays,” but he prefers “videographic criticism” because it emphasizes the idea that these works can stand on their own, without a written explanation.   The peer review process is also interesting: the reviews are published alongside the videos, which makes for a kind of transparency very unusual in scholarly publications (and perhaps interesting to members of this class?).

Lisa Rhody framed her perspective around storytelling, which is a very powerful tool for connecting with people and changing minds, but can also be used for erasure, colonialism, and exclusionary canon formation. She calls this “the hubris of the humanities.” Her work is on ekphrasis, the literary representation of visual art. There is a certain scholarly narrative about gender and ekphrasis that she wanted to push back on, so she used discourse mapping software to  study it beyond those narratives.  There were a few more technical details than the ones that made it into my notes, but she showed that some of the poets that were usually held up as examples were actually isolated from the poets’ social networks, and that other kinds of languages were used to talk about ekphrasis than the ones on which the current narrative was built. (I want to read a lot more about her work; this is very very interesting to me.) In any case, she did this work as part of her dissertation. It was three times the work of other dissertations, and she also had to work very hard to convince her dissertation advisor that this was a worthwhile project. After all that, it didn’t lead to a full-time, tenure-track position for her, either. But she is working to bring this kind of work to the mainstream, and believes that it’s important. Ultimately, she wants to use messy humanities data to challenge algorithmically designed reading systems.

Rhody also argued that you have to advocate for your own work and take calculated risks. This can be scary, especially since institutions tend to make conservative choices in times of austerity.

There was a question from the argument about talking with peers about this work: Kevin Ferguson made the point that being able to show that the journal was peer-reviewed and prize-winning makes a huge difference, even if people don’t quite understand the work itself.  Being able to show that this work is part of a larger, national conversation with its own vocabulary was also important.

Anderst pointed out that it’s always hard to assess other people’s works because there are so many disciplinary silos, but faculty at her institution are encouraged to publish open access and have a more public voice.

There are several aspects of this discussion I thought people would find interesting, so, enjoy! I’m really looking forward to Day 2 of this conference tomorrow.