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Scholarship and Justice


The U.S. presidential election of 2016 made many professors think harder about teaching toward a better world. My colleagues and friends found the immediate aftermath especially challenging. If, on November 9th, your students were shocked, sleepless, weepy, angry, afraid—how could you console them, or help them channel their responses constructively? If they were pleased by the election, ready to report you if you said something partisan—how should you behave then? There’s a Professor Watchlist, after all—and as Karen Kelsky wrote recently for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the pressures squeezing universities in recent years are likely to accelerate soon.

Yet dangerous times also clarify the work of teachers. Creating diverse syllabi is essential, but a concern with justice can resonate with many different kinds of texts. Langston Hughes’s political poetry, for example, has been on my modern poetry syllabi since the nineties. This November, however, it was freshly electrifying, because we as readers had changed. Even Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” sounded different as the country argued about borders and immigration.

Further, it’s not only what you teach that matters, but how you teach it. Teachers can counterbalance the bias inherent in U.S. institutions by making the spaces we control—our classrooms and offices—zones of fairness, mutual encouragement, and frank conversation. It takes tact and creativity, but a professor can create intellectual discomfort and foster student confidence that all serious contributions will be received respectfully. We can also train students to read critically, evaluate evidence, and frame logical arguments. Good reasoning is in perilously short supply. Cultivating it is obviously worthwhile.  

Many in academe, for all these reasons, believe teaching can advance social justice. But what kind of good can scholarship do in the world? I’ve been asking myself this, so I started asking others, too.

One answer comes up again and again: scholarship helps us teach. The modern poetry seminar I taught this fall looked very different from the modern poetry courses I took as a student, in part because I’ve been influenced by groundbreaking research published by others.

For Deborah Mix, this truth drives an increasing commitment to pedagogical scholarship: “Even though the scholarship itself might only reach a small academic audience, maybe some of those folks will take a chance on teaching a text, which will reach more people, which keeps rippling out.”

Online scholarship, written accessibly, seems more vital than ever, for the same reason. The desperate teacher, searching “how do you teach x?” late at night, is more likely to find your work via a Google search than behind a journal paywall. The phrase “written accessibly,” however, glosses over a host of problems. Cheryl Savageau nails the core issue: “The language of academia was specifically designed to exclude, so embracing accessible language is also a revolutionary act of social justice.” I agree with Savageau, and don’t think enough professors have taken this truth to heart, yet I’m also aware of how scary it can be for individuals to break rules ingrained in grad school. Even if a scholar figures out how to communicate her research to non-specialist audiences, her work may become harder to publish because it doesn’t fit existing lists and venues. It may also be undervalued by the universities that pay many of our salaries.

Even publishing for a slightly different scholarly crowd—speaking from one small specialty to an adjacent one—can be surprisingly difficult. Deborah Miranda, for instance, wonders “how to break out of preaching to the choir with our work. This can still be an issue for me. I’m in the academy, and the sole Native professor at my university, one of a handful (and I do mean handful, probably under a dozen right now) of Native PhDs in the humanities in the U.S. You would think it would be obvious that my work speaks to those who need to hear it, and yet, getting published (both scholarship and creative) outside of my ‘niche’ is tough.” How many scholars, moving to a slightly different research neighborhood, have had the door slammed shut because they didn’t know, or respect, the secret passwords? How many have spoken on a panel to small audiences comprised only of people who look like them?  

I have failed in my efforts to shout across various fault lines more times than I can count. Yet what’s the alternative? As Annette Debo points out, speaking only to the elect is sometimes more strategic in the short run but hurts the profession in the long run: “By writing ourselves into a narrow corner, we really limit our impact in terms of social justice and find ourselves de-funded by legislators who can’t figure out what we're talking about.” Michelle Brock, a historian at my liberal arts college, urges similar tactics for the public good: “Professional historians need to reinsert themselves into the popular discourse about history and its application to the present, in ways that are accessible, engaging, and persuasive.”

How we write and the problem of reaching larger audiences are both urgent questions. I could write a whole post about generosity and diversity in citation practices, for instance. Yet I’m also very much wondering what fruit this election will bear in terms of what we research and write. The answer won’t be immediate. Launching in a fresh scholarly direction can represent a kind of activism, but it takes years. Suzanne Keen notes that “my empathy work was a post-9/11 project, and it feels ever more important to continue trying to understand how literary reading—or reading at all—can contribute to the expansion of the empathetic circle.” Her Empathy and the Novel was published in 2007, five or six years after the impulse, and for scholarship, that’s rapid work.

Of course, all scholarly work is political, whether the author acknowledges his or her underlying values or not. Miranda observes, “Writing from my standpoint as a mixed-blood Indigenous queer woman who works within the academy, it seems as if everything I write (both scholarship and poetry/memoir/essay) has a social justice component—sometimes, even when I don’t intend it to, and more often, more strongly than I want it to.” In its very premises, her research poses challenges to existing canons and methodologies. Yet forgetting about social justice can seem like a prerequisite to pursuing some specialties. As Suzanne Churchill wrote last year, analyzing controversies at Contempo magazine for Modernism/modernity:

Silences in (white) literary discourse generate gaps in (white) scholarly memory that may be akin to what Eula Biss calls "forgotten debt." The "condition of white life" in America today, Biss argues, is … a state of being "lost in [an] illusion of ownership … that depends on forgetting" the systematic ways in which white people have acquired and maintained their wealth at the expense of black people. Modernist scholars have a wealth of knowledge, much of which is invested in white literary production. Our unwillingness to relinquish that which we have acquired (knowledge, expertise) and love (great writers who speak to what we imagine to be the human condition and whom we wholeheartedly believe should be read, studied, and passed on to the next generation as our cultural inheritance) helps sustain silences and gaps in the academic formation of modernism.

While I am in deep sympathy with Churchill’s call to reexamine our intellectual and aesthetic biases—our “commitments and complicities,” as John Melillo put it to me recently—I wonder if I’m kidding myself about how much this effort matters. When I evaluate whatever positive difference I might be making in the world, I don’t say, “Literary criticism: THAT is how a woman can have an IMPACT!” Modernism/modernity editor Debra Rae Cohen expressed the same hesitation in response to my Facebook query:

My position is odd, in that I was a journalist before I became an academic, and therefore in the eyes of many of my friends abandoned the "wider audience" for an academic one. I don’t see it that way; the concerns that came from my practice of journalism have always influenced my scholarly work, which largely, these days, centers on media institutions. As such it is always concerned, in some sense, with the operations of power and the construction of national discourses—and yet I think I’d be fooling myself to claim it contributes directly to social justice. The more direct work, as ever, is in the classroom, at a public institution, where critical thinking, media literacy, and ethics are everyday concerns.

Yet Cohen followed right up with: “But I can’t help feeling that I OUGHT to be doing work like this.” Great writing can inspire us to be better teacher-scholars.

Cynthia Hogue also cheers skeptics with a persuasive pitch for appreciating the fundamental slow carefulness of intellectual labor:

There is something to be said for the archival research, the excavational aspect, of deep scholarship—for the students we teach now and students in the future. H.D. would have disappeared without Susan Stanford Friedman, for example. . . . It’s not that the audience is small, though it is, but that it spreads out in wide and unpredictable ways over the years, perhaps in ways we don’t see because the students graduate. I have been seeking ways to write a more hybrid scholarly poet’s essay (with varying degrees of success and failure) because I’d like to "reach" more people, but I’ve also been seeking ways to fold scholarly training, the archival research, the time and care, into the writing of more hybrid poems, and I’ve found they reach about the same audience, in fact, as the scholarship (small, self-selected). Nevertheless, the skill is rare and worth passing down . . . 

And finally, there’s Marsha Bryant’s pithy salvo, also focused on tomorrow: “I write from the heart for the future. What matters to me is that something I learn and share catches fire with next generations.”

Start the slow burn, modernism scholars.