Screw jouissance

“It is nice to hear that the Times Supplement on Higher Education has affirmed Stanford’s international pre-eminence as a center of research and teaching in the humanities and arts, a pre-eminence that has also been acknowledged in recent years by other periodicals and national agencies, such as U.S. News and World Report and the National Research Council.  Yet I’m not sure that all of our undergraduates know what riches lie in wait for them in the English Department and our other humanities departments.  They should give us a try.  This spring, Gavin Jones will guide students through four of America’s most beloved novelists: Hemingway, Hurston, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.  Mark McGurl will explore the literature of the Wasteland from T.S. Eliot to the present.  Franco Moretti will ask why English novelists from Bunyan to Orwell have prized normal heroes.  And I’ll introduce students to the first theater of sex and violence: the Jacobean tragedy of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  Students who enroll in one of these courses — and these are just the tip of the iceberg — may just find that the Times is right: we offer some of the best teaching and the best research in the humanities available anywhere in the world.  It would be a shame to miss out on that.”

– Prof. Blair Hoxby, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of English

In the Times Higher Education’s most recent rankings, Stanford topped the list of institutions in Arts and Humanities. These rankings were released in October of last year, and yet I wasn’t aware of them until just last week. Thinking recently about what this means for Stanford, for its Arts and Humanities departments, and for the scholars and students who call it their intellectual home, I have had to repress a desire to simply throw my hands up and mutter an expletive to convey that I share what I suspect is a widespread (dis)regard for college rankings and their distortions. I pause, however, when I consider the importance of the mighty Ranking as it functions in discourses about the academy, about education, and especially as it crystallizes the sometimes institutional antipathy about the Arts and Humanities at Stanford. 

I won’t rehash, regurgitate, or reimagine the sources, importance, or value of Stanford’s (perhaps I should say “some of Stanford’s students’”) visible hostility towards the Humanities, or the place(s) its departments inhabit in an institution which has made itself attractive (partly through the very Rankings that I’m considering here) because of what it contributes to commercial enterprises. I need only think of Stanford’s relationship with Silicon Valley, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, etc. — or of the tiered access such corporations have to Stanford’s student body through “Platinum,” “Gold,” and “Silver” memberships with the Center for Career Development — to locate the origin of some of the anxiety about majors and students in the Arts and Humanities and the teleological myth of their worthlessness. My gut tells me that the Arts and Humanities have become, in an increasingly capitalistic university context, also increasingly displaced in a Lacanian manner.

English (read also “CompLit,” “History,” “Feminist Studies,” etc.) majors, I also suspect, have become the cathected objects of this displacement; we are a population for scorn, sometimes pity, often amusement. This impression of Humanities majors is so widespread, so sinewy, so absolutely ubiquitous, that departments all over the country find themselves defending the legitimacy of their studies. Marketing strategies increasingly defend the “transportability,” “flexibility,” (i.e., “marketability”) and abstract skill sets students gain studying literature while also asserting these things as the primary reasons for studying, well, literature. (The actual literature be damned!) It is particularly telling that the narratives and incentivizations used by English departments themselves have internalized the constructions made of them. Just check out this video, from Arizona State University, which, importantly, begins by delineating (and never quite departs from) “misconceptions about English majors”; or this list of “50 Famous and Successful English Majors Who Shatter the Stereotype.” Not satisfied there’s a definable — but multiform — rhetoric dominating our contemporary thinking about the Arts and Humanities? Google “English major.” Or simply note the function of the definite article in “the Stereotype.”

Of course, the invisible nucleus of this rhetoric is the capitalist commercial model, which has redevised the institution of higher learning as a recruiting center for corporate entities. If there is a system which regulates the results of this, it is composed, I would suggest, of students themselves. We peruse each other’s academic interests as often as we police them, creating systems of legitimacy and success which are built in discourses about the relational values of various areas of study. In one article, which ranks the “10 Most Worthless College Degrees,” English is #4. The comment begins, “If someone can spend a weekend with a box of Cliff’s Notes and have only a slightly less conversational knowledge of what you spent 4 years studying, you probably don’t have the most employer friendly degree.” Note — beyond the incredible grammatical awkwardness of “and have only” and its tenuous grasp on time and tense — that the “employer friendly degree” stands as the benchmark of worth, the ultimate goal. Also note the invocation of a second person narrative mode. The “narrator” of the passage points to the individual major but also to the essence which defines zher. (One might even say that in this discourse ze is an entity whose essence is zher major.) “You” are reading this article because “you” are an Arts or Humanities major; “you” are abundantly aware of how some of your peers think about you. This kind of rhetoric, it is clear, relies on students’ awareness of these constructions and their resulting self-surveillance (and reminds me, perhaps rather tellingly, of stereotype threat, which was developed by Claude Steele, a professor in Stanford’s [also #1] Social Sciences).

I will say that Prof. Hoxby’s comments on these rankings are reassuring, insofar as they make good use of the galvanizing effects of Rankings by redirecting the commentary back to the material, to the intellectual matter, which drives our studies. Perhaps Hoxby’s comments can teach us something about how to deal with the Ranking’s construction of our disciplines without failing to address its very real parallel effects, i.e., the contribution these Rankings make to declining enrollment in the Arts and Humanities. Sell the major, fine. But if you need to sell the major, sell the ideas, not the derivative, marketable skill sets that evolve from hours of manipulating those ideas. I particularly like Hoxby’s conclusion: It would be a shame to miss out on that. “That,” of course, is the unique experience that is studying literature at Stanford.

So what of these particular rankings? What is it about them that so insistently prompts my thinking about these issues? What I haven’t told you yet (but what you more inquisitive readers will no doubt have already discovered) is that in the other categories THE ranked — Engineering and Technology, Clinical/Pre-Clinical Health, Life Sciences, and Physical Sciences — Stanford is ranked 5th, 6th, 5th, and 5th, respectively. If THE’s international rankings were absolute (and in a way, they do operate on an international scale and they do have a different and arguably more comprehensive methodology, so they are more comprehensive, if not “absolute”) Stanford would thus necessarily be reconstructed as an institution with excellent departments in all fields but better departments in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Hogwash! Drivel! Hokum! Blasphemy! Ironically, the very system (the Ranking) which inspires such competitiveness betrays, when it tells us something contrary to the narrative we expect, our total infatuation with affirmation and our reliance on the idea that something other than what we study legitimizes that study. The Ranking says we rock. So we rock. Screw jouissance.

Thoughts, observations, admonitions? Anything is welcome.



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