The People’s Field: The Ethos of a Humanities-Centred Social Network

Hello readers of Daniel Paul O’Donnell’s blog. My name is Megan and I am a former student of his, having completed (among others) his 2014 seminar on the Digital Humanities. The following is a paper I wrote for that class, which Dan has kindly offered to feature on his blog.

The inspiration for this essay comes from my experience as a musician, specifically a guitarist. It has always been possible to — indeed, far more common anyway, I would think — to learn to play outside of a classroom setting. But the Web has given us something spectacular: huge social networking websites aiming to encompass all aspects of playing guitar, whether learning, teaching, critiquing, or making music with others. The education is there, and the community too, similar to the post-secondary experience. If non-academic music education can thrive online, why not the humanities?

I’m sure many of you are humanities people, and so I’m also sure you’ve thought about the State of the Humanities — their financial viability, their usefulness, their place in academia and in general public life. This essay is not so much an argument as it is a reflection, an appeal to all of us humanists to broaden the venue and audience of what we do. It is an appeal to think bigger: not what the humanities should look like just in academia, but what they could look like in the wider world. Humanists hate clichés, but I think one rings true in this case: if we love what we do, we have to set it free.

The People’s Field: The Ethos of a Humanities-Centred Social Network

In a 2010 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Donoghue attempts to finally answer why the academic importance of the humanities is seemingly in permanent dispute:

The shift in the material base of the university leaves the humanities entirely out in the cold. Corporations don’t earmark donations for the humanities because our research culture is both self-contained and absurd. Essentially, we give the copyrights of our scholarly articles and monographs to university presses, and then buy them back, or demand that our libraries buy them back, at exorbitant markups. And then no one reads them. The current tenure system obliges us all to be producers of those things, but there are no consumers.

The public simply does not need humanities research the way it needs scientific or medical research – incest in Hamlet or the meaning of Finnegan’s Wake are still great questions worth pursuing, but no one’s life hinges on the resolution of Hamlet’s fraught relationship with his mother; people will and do, however, die of cancer and diabetes, and James Joyce cannot fry our brains if climate change does it first. For a field whose very name suggests a focus on all humankind, the humanities’ products are remarkably individualistic in scope, the pet projects of bookworms. Yet this is not to say these products have no value, nor is the decline of the humanities as an academic field indicative of a culture that no longer cares for literature, history, languages, or philosophy. Donoghue notes that

Intelligent popular novels continue to be written; the nonfiction of humanists who defy disciplinary affiliation . . . will still make best-seller lists; and brilliant independent films . . . will occasionally capture large public audiences. The survival of the humanities in academe, however, is a different story. The humanities will have a home somewhere in 2110, but it won’t be in universities. We need at least to entertain the possibility that the humanities don’t need academic institutions to survive, but actually do quite well on their own.

People will always enjoy creating and consuming literature; it is the demand for literary (and other humanities-centered) criticism that is constantly being called into question in modern academia. But if not in universities, whither that criticism? The answer lies in the one of the most ubiquitous – and perhaps most important – technological developments in recent history: social media. The aim of this paper is twofold: firstly, to prove that social media, specifically social networking websites, is a viable way to build a consumer base for literary criticism; second, to provide an outline of the features of a theoretical humanities-centred social network and how it would operate. For simplicity’s sake, my project will focus primarily on only one aspect of the humanities, namely literary criticism, and it will admittedly be North American-centric in its analysis of the state of the humanities and assumptions of available technology.

First let us take a more in-depth look at what is seemingly Wrong with the humanities. Little academic research has gone into this topic (though Stuart Hall formally explores the disconnect between the less-than-concrete goals of the humanities and its potential for informing social activism in his pre-Web 2.0 “Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities”). However, the last five years have provided a plethora of popular articles devoted to parsing out this perennial problem. Two key themes endure: for one, the typical argument that the humanities do not make employable graduates, thus turning the field into more of an economic burden than an aide (Sinclair); second, the more interesting idea of a disconnect between the public and humanist academia, causing the hoi polloi to distrust the humanities and therefore not value them. With regards to the first argument, Stefan Sinclair claims that, “the attacks on the humanities are bolstered by the underlying assumption that in this model [the “knowledge-based” economy] every department must rely solely on their own market revenues. Whether or not humanities departments would actually be viable in this model is up for debate, but commentators often assume this would not be the case.” David Lea attributes these assumptions to a shift from collegial to managerial principles in university governance; administrative and technology-centred spending has thus increased at the expense of cuts to the humanities (261). Sinclair obviously finds these assumptions and their resulting cuts unfair and unimaginative, and he does remain somewhat justified in that no one seems to have expended any thinking on how to make the humanities a more profitable academic field. Yet that point brings us right back to Donoghue: the humanities are inherently insular, and their societal effects are markedly indirect compared to the immediate benefits of the natural sciences, technology, and medicine.

This self-contained nature brings us to the second key explanation of the humanities’ decline. Surprisingly, much of the popular criticism involves not the economics-centred points above, but the argument that the humanities have become inaccessible to the wider population. Mark Bauerlein recounts the myriad points made during the 2011 symposium “The Future of the Humanities,” and summarizes the perceived problem as the “neglect or inability or lack of desire . . . [of humanists] to speak directly to the public in a public language” (Bauerlein). One can easily take objection to this argument: scientific papers are just as – if not more so – incomprehensible to the average citizen. Academia is fundamentally esoteric. But the humanities differ greatly from the sciences in one key aspect, laid out by Steven Knapp:

An investment in their [art and literature’s] particularity and therefore in their history is what most deeply and importantly separates the objects and events studied by the humanities from the phenomena studied by the natural and even the social sciences. In science, what matters is not the irreplaceable particularity, the irreplaceable origin, of the phenomenon in question but instead its generalizability and therefore precisely the replaceability of its particular history.(Knapp)

In other words, the sciences are necessarily future-oriented; they are always looking for answers to improve upon current human knowledge, to make generalizations such as “climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions” and thus replace the old understandings. The humanities do not operate in this way. They are concerned with and motivated by “the pleasure human beings take in the particularity of lived experience . . . the pleasure human beings take in preserving and enjoying particular things” (Knapp). The subject matter of the humanities therefore belongs to the public in a way that of the sciences does not: the vast majority of us cannot learn to explain the physical world in Newton’s laws without at least some instruction, but most of us can read Hamlet and get something out of it, regardless of formal instruction in literary criticism. Knapp elaborates: “What matters to the public is Shakespeare, not the logic of theatrical representation. What matters is the story of America, not the ideological structure of American essentialism” (Knapp). North American academe’s current love affair with (in his opinion) deconstruction, Marxism, feminism, and post-colonialism has alienated the public: “Humanities professors disrespected great works, so naturally the public turned around and disrespected them” (Bauerlein). Of course, we can hardly blame humanities scholars for examining literature through these ideological lenses; to expect professors to never question the messages of canon texts and dominant cultural narratives is tyrannical. But we must respect the fact that art and literature belong to the people and therefore traditional readings remain valid as well.

Yet the pleasure-motivated, “particularity”-centred nature of literary criticism is also a point against the humanities in academia. Laurie Fendrich claims “the only way to justify studying the humanities is to abandon modern utilitarian arguments in favor of much older arguments about the end, or purpose of man. Yet Darwin, in firmly swatting down the idea that man has an end, makes returning Aristotle . . . difficult for most modern thinkers” (Fendrich). There is a kind of nobility in studying literature, but as reasoned above, the humanities simply do not provide the kind of progress-fuelling information that the STEM fields do. Fendrich further recalls the highly elite nature of the early university, where well-to-do young men would go to learn the classics, philosophy, and languages, becoming “knowledgeable” but ultimately “useless” – a place where they could spend their time before inheriting their prospective family wealth (Fendrich). Now that universities have opened up to the “common” people, the study of literature has opened as well; however, this democratization of education means that post-secondary institutions must prepare students whose various social classes necessitate they will spend their lives in the workforce, not luxury drawing rooms.

None of these commentators propose any real solutions to the humanities problem; in fact, they all admit that the purpose of the humanities will always be called into question in utilitarian modern (i.e. Western) society. So what can we do with them? The answer is difficult – perhaps ultimately irresolvable – and this paper’s scope can only propose a partial remedy. The humanities are so deeply entrenched in academia that it would be unreasonable to simply get rid of them altogether, at least in the foreseeable future. We must maybe admit that studying literature in university is a privilege for those who need not worry about work once they graduate, and those of us from the middle- and working-classes who take that route must deal with the consequences. But by examining the problems, we can at least parse out a partial remedy: the humanities are the people’s pleasure, and we must give it back to them.

The answer lies in social media. David Lea, in addition to the shift from collegial to managerial values, places the decline of the humanities on online learning, despite what he admits might be “obvious financial advantages” (261). Providing the humanities with a physical space is expensive; moving them online would cut costs to university departments, though of course there remains the desire to teach the humanities in actual classrooms. David Lea is therefore right to worry about the threat of online learning to the state of humanities education. But his observation also reveals a willingness among the public to transfer the education process to an online environment, and this willingness could be the saving grace of the humanities, the opportunity to bring it back to the people. My outline of a theoretical humanities-centred social network provides the crux of my argument.

First of all, social media can be split into five or six broad types. For our purposes, we will use Tim Grahl’s categories: 1. Social networking sites, where users create profiles to connect with others (e.g. Facebook); 2. Bookmarking sites, where users “save, organize, and manage links” (e.g. StumbleUpon); 3. Social news, where users share links with others and rate them (e.g. Reddit); 4. Media sharing, where users upload their own content, often accompanied by “additional social features, such as profiles, commenting, etc.” (e.g. YouTube); 5. Microblogging, “services that focus on short updates that are pushed out to anyone subscribed to receive the updates” (e.g. Twitter); and finally, 6. Blog comments and forums. Grahl further notes that many social media platforms incorporate features from multiple categories (Grahl). A humanities social network would primarily combine elements from categories 1 and 4, with elements of 2, 3, and 6.

The raison d’être of a humanities social network would be providing students, hobbyists, and professional academics with a space to upload and share their writing on various works of literature. Much like media networking sites YouTube or DeviantArt, users would create a profile in which they would list their literary and critical interests: which authors and styles they admire, which critical theories they like to employ. All content they upload would be labelled with various tags indicating the topic and types of criticism used; these tags would make the content searchable by other users, who could search for writing on a particular topic, read other peoples’ work, and provide feedback or invite them to be “friends” in a similar vein to Facebook. Users could then follow their friends’ content, discover the writing of their friends’ friends, and in turn building a community of people whose primary connection to each other is their passion for literature. The perceived hierarchy between professor and student, or academic and layman, would not exist, encouraging a perception of literary criticism as a hobby, accessible to anyone with a favourite book and ideas they can support. Another important feature reinforcing this bond would be discussion forums, allowing users to have meaningful conversations about works of literature and critical theories outside of the context of a particular paper’s comment page. Again, these discussion forums would blur hierarchical lines and make literary criticism accessible.

The success of social networks-with-a-purpose such as LinkedIn and sets a precedent for the branching out of a humanities social network. The website could easily split into a free version, and a premium version where established academics wishing to publish professionally can do, creating a database similar to JSTOR or Project Muse. Like those two databases, postsecondary institutions could pay for the premium version to give their students access to these articles, and students would still be able to share their opinions on the article with other users. Integrating this social network into university online services could reduce costs paying for physical copies of journals; furthermore, it would serve to get students interacting with their peers both inside and outside their institution, as well as with people not enrolled in academia. Furthermore, incorporating elements of social media categories 2 and 3, students could save papers (from the academic premium version only, as saving papers from the free version would invite too many complications regarding plagiarism) and rate them for students writing on similar topics. The noble intentions of the academic humanities and the pleasure of the people would both be served.

In the face of a changing academic landscape, the humanities are increasingly perceived as too costly for institutions and too pretentious for everyday people. A social network focused on the humanities would help remedy that, fostering the perception that literary criticism is accessible, while providing a database with the potential to cut costs for libraries.

Works Cited

Bauerlein, Mark. “Oh the Humanities!” Weekly Standard. 16 May 2011./p>

Donoghue, Frank. “Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 05 Sept. 2010.

Fendrich, Laurie. “The Humanities Have No Purpose.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 20 Mar 2009.

Grahl, Tim. “The 6 Types of Social Media.” Out:think. Out:think Group.

Hall, Stuart. “The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities.” Humanities as Social Technology. 53. (1990): 11-23.

Knapp, Steven. “The Enduring Dilemma of the Humanities.” Phi Beta Kappa Society. Phi Beta Kappa Society, 29 Mar 2011.

Lea, David. “The Future of the Humanities in Today’s Financial Markets.” Educational Theory. 64.3 (2014): 261-83.

Sinclair, Stefan. “Confronting the Criticisms: A Survey of Attacks on the Humanities.” The Digital Humanities Community, 09 Oct 2012.



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