Note: The following post is a taken from the Teaching page on my website. I’ve decided to post it as a blogpost because it introduces and pulls together some of the issues that I plan on discussing in upcoming blogposts.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, I am a firm believer in maintaining a strong interrelationship between teaching, writing and research.
However, teaching in universities is all too often viewed by faculty as an inconvenience or a hassle. This, to me, is a terrible shame. Not only that, it is very shortsighted: the plain and simple fact is that, without students and the tuition they pay, there would be no faculty, no departments, no universities. Perhaps there’s a (albeit weak) case to be made for this bad attitude among faculty in the sciences where important, impactful work often takes place. But such an attitude to teaching is unbecoming in the humanities, where ideological posturing, outmoded sources and tedious antiquarianism–often spatchcocked with poorly grasped critical theory–masquerade as knowledge that is then doled out to students with little or no thought given to how such ‘material’ will allow them to engage, navigate and understand the modern world they inhabit.
However, this bad attitude is downright bewildering (and deeply ironic) when expressed by faculty in literary and cultural studies departments–or, at least by those who still do a modicum of research. Such individuals appear to view teaching actual real-world skills like proficiency with digital tools, research methodologies, composition and critical thinking, as somehow beneath them; it’s almost as if they can’t see how the university sees the humanities as a whole. And so, all that ‘unimportant’ stuff gets farmed out to underpaid contingent faculty, who are, in turn, looked down upon; and those lucky–yes, lucky, because ‘talent’ plays no role in getting an academic job–enough to have tenure can then teach the ‘super important’ stuff like ‘images of grief from the C16th.’ Surely, however, such high self-regard is unwarranted since data shows that some 82% of academic articles published in the humanities are never cited by their peers, never mind read by non-academics. But, one might argue, doesn’t the value of teaching and reading literature lie in expanding the social abilities and humanity of others? Nope.
So, while I’m pleased to note that all the articles I’ve published fall into the 18% of humanities studies that actually are cited, data like the above made me really start to re-evaulate what teaching in literature and the humanities is all about. Throughout my career, I’ve tried hard to distance myself from the aforementioned attitudes and blinkered viewpoints, which are certainly not uncommon. To that end, I’ve tried to connect my teaching to my research: all of my research publications, with the exception of my first book, which was my PhD dissertation, have arisen directly out of the various courses I’ve taught over the years at UBC.
Of late, however, even this practice no longer seems to me to be enough: indeed, I often worry that what passes for ‘critical thinking’ in literature and humanities departments amounts to an active de-skilling of students. In particular, I have begun to wonder if pedagogical theorizing by the likes of the Marxist educational theorist, Paulo Freire, as well as notions of a ‘hidden curriculum’ (the belief that ‘lessons’ teach not just specified content but also the ‘hidden’ transmission of norms, values, and beliefs), are largely to blame, since they both often produce what looks more like cognitive bias and conspiracy theory than actual critical thinking. This thinking transforms classrooms into ideological battlegrounds and students into activists, with little room for thought given to the stuff to be learnt. So, we have a not-so-merry-go-round, where ideologically-driven suspicions about lesson content create condescending half-baked theories about the unconscious–Freud preserve us!–transmission of politics in classrooms, which in turn create political counter-measures that import yet more politics into the classroom…
So, where might all this lead? It would appear that such an ideologically-driven approach to education is already bearing terrible fruit: witness, for example, the ‘demands’ made by students at Evergreen College in the US, which seem to have little to do with important or essential content and more and a lot to do with enforcing identity politics. Now, Evergreen College is an admittedly extreme example, but it is far from being the only recent example of what I would call ‘unreason’–literally, the privileging of ‘feels over reals’ in educational and learning settings. And, as this type of educational approach has become increasingly widespread, more and more humanities students have left or are leaving colleges and universities, buoyed-up with the kind of misplaced confidence that only ideology can give and believing they have a simple solution to all that ails the world. The reality, however, is that many students leave their humanities education with very few actual real-world skills and find that their degrees do not open doors to well-paying jobs. Now, let me be absolutely clear here: this situation is not the fault of the students; it is the fault of ideologically driven and out-of-touch professors who do each and every one of their students a massive disservice by turning them into textbook examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (see image above). The humanities is well on the way to irrelevancy, piloted into the ground by people who seem to think there is actually nothing wrong. And I understand that this is a bitter pill for humanities students to swallow, and it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to have to say it.
As it stands, these problems seem mostly confined to the humanities; however, the sciences should not get too smug. Lysenkoism has shown that science is not immune to ideological infestation, and there are worrying signs that ideology is once again making its way into the sciences, especially biology. Nevertheless, I still think the humanities can learn a great deal from how things are done in the sciences: think, for example, of the intellectual honesty and integrity that is fostered by the scientific method, a wonderful tool for rooting out cognitive and ideological biases; the sciences are also constantly engaging with and trying to understand reality, a thing that the humanities seems content to deny exists. And, perhaps, this denial explains the increasing out-of-touchness of the humanities: if you don’t believe reality exists except as a projection of your own phenomenological experience and/or as a discursive formation something created by language, then why bother trying to understand it? Strangely, a lack of belief in the reality of reality doesn’t appear to bother such deniers when they turn on their computers or need a medical diagnosis or want to fly to Paris.
My growing concerns about the intellectual dishonesty in the humanities, coupled with my increasing appreciation for science and its investigative methods, are the main drivers of the shift in my more recent research interests, pushing them towards an engagement with information, cybernetics and technoscientific advances. In particular, I am interested in questions about how such realities are changing humans into ‘posthumans’ and how those changes signal the need for a transformation of the humanities into the ‘posthumanities.’ In short, there must be a reconfiguration of the humanities that both understands and incorporates the science and technology that is changing C21st humans. As I argue in Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplexed, if the humanities imagines that it does not need to understand advances in science and technology in their technical aspects and mathematical specificity, but treats them instead as opportunities for baseless speculation, reckless scaremongering or grinding tedious ideological axes, then why should anything the humanities has to say about such topics ever be taken seriously by those who do truly understand them? Afterall, what’s to be learned by listening to willful ignorance? And if, as I suspect, the gulf in the understanding of technoscientific topics that separates the science from the humanities is destined to ever-widen, then how can the humanities ever learn anything from the sciences? Can such a humanities claim to teach anything truly useful about the realities of the modern world to its students? Is this not to actively de-skill students?
The concerns and questions I’ve raised here form the foundations of one of my current research projects, a book on reason and unreason, as well as one of my upcoming classes at UBC.