Humanities in the Aftermath: An Interview with Gary Olson

Todd Taylor: We chose to hold this conversation in New York City—ground zero in the 9/11 attacks and the lynchpin in the recent global financial crisis—in order to reflect on the changing contexts of the work of rhetoric, critical theory, cultural studies, and the humanities in general. What’s at stake within these shifting contexts?
Gary Olson: In a certain way, our humanity is at stake. What it means to be a human is at stake, because if we lose sight of the value of rhetoric, of critical theory, of cultural studies—of the humanities in general—we on a certain level lose our soul. In other words, it makes it that much more difficult to respond to situations such as 9/11 or the various kinds of problems around the world right now when we lose the desire and ability to attempt to understand the Other, to communicate with the Other, with people and cultures different from our own. So, the humanities are absolutely essential when it comes to these very real-world problems. Of course, what I am saying applies not just to terrorism and economic crisis; the humanities equip us to deal intelligently with the world in general, and especially with the kinds of pain and conflict that the world always seems to present to us.
TT: What’s your assessment of the present state of the humanities, particularly in terms of its position within U.S. colleges and universities?
GO: It’s embattled. More than ever, there is a need for us to make the case for the relevance of the humanities. The problem that I keep running across is that many people in the humanities simply assume the importance of the work that we do. We as scholars within the humanities need to understand our own work to be valuable, but that’s only a start, not an ending. If the humanities are going to survive, we must learn to make the case for our relevance much more effectively than we have in the past. So if reading poetry, let’s say, is truly an important activity, then we must not simply assume that it is; we need to be able to articulate to the world at large why reading poetry is important, especially, as you say, in the context of a world in crisis, not just as a result of global terrorism, but in light of the global economic crisis and the other real-world problems that cut to the heart of people and communities. Why is reading poetry, or why is studying rhetoric, or why is studying another language relevant in the context of such grave human suffering? We need to make that case, we need to learn to make it more strongly, and we need to be strategic in how we go about it.
TT: Where do we begin this process of becoming more effective advocates?
GO: We need to begin by becoming better advocates within our own institutions. The academic disciplines have become, as we say in higher education speak, “siloed”—we’ve erected hardened boundaries around the various disciplines. So we don’t have biologists speaking about their research to English professors, or language professors speaking with anthropologists, and so on, much less collaborating on cross-disciplinary research. This intellectual isolationism has got to end. Part of the reason why it must end is that the relevance of some disciplines is all too apparent. I had biologists in my college at Illinois State, for example, who are on the verge of developing cures to infectious diseases that are killing thousands of people in Africa. The value of such work is readily apparent, but it’s not always clear what the humanist does. The first place to begin is with our own colleagues. It is important for the chemists, for the biologists, for the anthropologists to understand why the humanities are important to what the university does. We first need the understanding and solidarity of our colleagues within the institution to help us make the case for our relevance to the public. That is where I would begin.
TT: Is Barack Obama’s election as president good news for the humanities?
GO: I’m hopeful. For the first time in history, a president, a vice president, and both of their spouses have all worked in educational settings. This is quite relevant. They are going to have at least some understanding of education, and higher education in particular. So the stage is set for education to become a higher priority nationally and perhaps for the humanities within higher education to become a higher priority than it has been historically. Whether or not that pans out, of course, will be a matter of history: We will have to look back in 2012 or 2016 and judge whether higher education and the humanities in particular became higher national priorities. But I am optimistic.
TT: You seem to agree with Stanley Fish that literary critics cease to be such the very moment they pursue overtly political aims in their work. Yet, at the moment, with the stakes seemingly so high for humans around the globe in general and humanist scholars within their institutions specifically, are we at risk of losing our relevance if we fail to respond, or are we in danger of losing our identity if we do respond?
GO: Stanley wants to say that when you are doing the work of literary criticism, your work is narrowly circumscribed by the disciplinary practices in play. In your analysis of a literary work, you may well look at the cultural and historical context of the time, even at the politics of the time, but present-day social activism, he would say, does not belong within those disciplinary parameters. Social activism is a completely different activity from literary criticism. Now, on a superficial level, Stanley is exactly right: If we accept this narrowly circumscribed definition of what it means to be a literary critic, then activism does not belong there—but only if we accept the most narrow definition from the outset. I personally believe that there is room for social activism within the confines of English studies. People in rhetoric seem to be able to fit an activist agenda in quite well even within the accepted boundaries of the discipline’s intellectual work. The same is true with people in cultural studies. But, once again, we need to make the case for relevance on multiple fronts; as I said: If reading poetry is really a valued and even treasured activity, we need to articulate why and not assume it. More than anything, we need to become our disciplines’ best publicists.
TT: So we should embrace public relations as a way to sell humanistic work to the outside world?
GO: Some people have made that very point. Stanley is one of them, and J. Hillis Miller is another. Academics have not done well in what you are calling public relations (PR)—that is, in getting the word out about the importance of the humanities. Stanley said in at least one publication that he thought we do such a poor job that English departments should just hire a PR professional to assist in publicizing the department’s relevance. Of course, as usual, Stanley is being provocative and overstating the case, but the heart of what he is saying is correct. Academic departments are not likely to enlist PR people any time soon, but there needs to be some way of engaging with the outer world about the kind of scholarship we do. If we are insular and talk mainly to ourselves, if we are preoccupied with the narrow confines of our work and are not interested in making connections with the rest of the world, we run a real danger. I’ll remind you that it was not very long ago when every college student had exposure to the classics. Generally, you did not get a college education without studying the classics, Latin and Greek languages and their literatures. Every educated person studied either one or both. Well, that is not the case anymore. You will find plenty of universities that do not even support a classics department, and most no longer have general education requirements involving the classics. You might find one or two courses in Latin and Greek, and often not even that. Clearly, someone along the way did not do a good enough job of articulating the importance of that tradition, and we consequently lost a very important part of the curriculum and of intellectual life. We can’t let that happen to the rest of the humanities.
TT: For as seemingly far back as anyone can remember, intellectual work in the humanities has been locked within the confines of the monograph/book, the article/essay, and the presentation/paper. Is that changing? If so, what’s driving these changes?
GO: Obviously, this is changing. The cost of production of traditional kinds of publications has skyrocketed. The cost of paper has gone through the roof, along with many of the other costs of production of traditional print publications. That is why it is becoming increasingly more difficult to publish, let’s say, traditional monographs, especially monographs on more narrow subjects that don’t have the likelihood of attracting large audiences of interested readers. Journal editors face the same types of economic pressures, so we have a very real problem there. And, of course, the development of digital publications and electronic forums is revolutionizing the production of scholarly work. We are still experimenting with new genres of scholarship, and there are all kinds of new ways of disseminating our intellectual work now that did not exist even a decade ago. That is going to revolutionize even how we define scholarly work, much less how we produce it. I hesitate even to imagine what scholarly work will look like in another ten years. We have a sense of it: We know that e-journals will become increasingly important; we know there will be independent scholarly Web sites on particular subjects. But, we don’t know what will happen for example, to the monograph. Will it be completely subsumed by these other forms, or will it be relegated to “printing on demand”? It will likely exist, but in what form? Will it simply be put in electronic form and be available online? We don’t know, because we don’t know how technology will change over time. So, we will just have to wait and see.
TT: To what extent will the future of the humanities be a function of effective undergraduate education?
GO: It will be a function of both graduate and undergraduate education, but undergraduate education is particularly important, primarily because we need a more highly educated populace. Currently, only about one in four citizens in the United States earns a college degree. This may well be a higher percentage than in some countries, but nonetheless, for an economically advanced nation such as the United States, this percentage of college-educated citizens seems to me to be low. We need to increase the number of college graduates. Doing so is especially important to our national competitiveness. We have all read works such as Thomas Friedman’s (2005) The World Is Flat that talk about how the United States is losing its competitive edge to other countries because our citizens no longer understand math, science, and a host of other subjects. And many of our citizens no longer read or write effectively either, sometimes even despite having a college education. And when I say “competitiveness,” I don’t just mean in matters of economics and the competition for material things. I also mean the competition for ideas, the ability to win over the hearts and minds of people who don’t think the same way we do. That, in key ways, is even more important than the competition over material things; both are important but for different reasons. So, we need to foster an increasingly more highly educated populace if we are going to play a role in the future. In fact, here is an important area where humanists can better make the case for the relevance and even centrality of the humanistic disciplines.
TT: Your catalogue of interviews with prominent contemporary scholars is extensive. What are your thoughts about the “interview” as a scholarly mode?
GO: The scholarly interview plays an important role in the production of knowledge within the disciplines. The interview is less formal than traditional genres of scholarship, and so it’s more nimble: It enables you to shift around from subject to subject, and the interviewer and interviewee can play off one another, just as we are now doing. That’s a good thing. You typically don’t have two or more intelligences at play in traditional scholarship, unless you have a coauthor. Because it is unscripted, the scholarly interview has a kind of agility that other forms don’t have. It is therefore more likely to produce unexpected thoughts or positions and nuances than the more cut-and-dried article. Clifford Geertz speaks highly of the importance of the scholarly interview as a genre (1994). I’ve even heard some scholars say that they have gotten more out of scholarly interviews than they have from various more formal pieces of scholarship. So, I do hope that the interview continues on. Given the nature of digital technology, I can imagine that the scholarly interview has a bright future and that it will thrive. It’s likely that we will not only have the transcribed and carefully edited types of interview that you and I are used to but also the more live, raw, unedited type of interview, as when you simply make an unaltered recording available.
TT: Any perspective on the prejudice against the interview as not being serious or weighty, an inferior type of intellectual work?
GO: Academics, intellectuals, are categorizers. Along with the good that can come from this taxonomic imperative often comes an unproductive kind of categorizing, as when colleagues develop prejudices against this or that form of scholarship. I’m certain that there are many people who think that the scholarly interview is a lesser form of work. Who knows, perhaps they are right, but that does not mean that the interview is not valuable, and it doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. It just means that it is a different form, and apparently enough scholars find it useful that it’s a thriving form in a number of first-rate journals, such as JAC and the minnesota review. In fact, both journals clearly established the scholarly interview as a major force in our intellectual work. I’m optimistic that such prejudices will not prevail.
TT: Every university administrator I know champions interdisciplinarity. To what degree are U.S. institutions nonetheless determined by traditional disciplinary silos? Isn’t the call for interdisciplinarity quixotic and utopian?
GO: No, it’s not utopian or quixotic, but it does present a good number of challenges. Intellectual work was at one time much more interdisciplinary than it has been during the last half century—since, say, around World War II. For a number of reasons, universities tended to become much more strongly compartmentalized and departmentalized during and immediately after the war, and we have been living with that compartmentalization for many decades. Lately, I see a rising movement back toward the kind of interdisciplinarity that at one time characterized intellectual work. Over those decades, for example, you often had trouble finding chemists and biologists talking with one another; that’s not the case anymore. One force impelling us back toward a more productive interdisciplinarity is the federal funding agencies. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are now much more likely to fund interdisciplinary proposals than more traditionally narrow projects. So I see a decisive movement toward increased interdisciplinarity. No, I don’t see it as quixotic or utopian, and I certainly don’t see it as a problem. I see interdisciplinarity as the way to go. This trend does present challenges, though. Because we have been in the mindset of World War II disciplinary silos, as we have been calling them, it does become especially important that departmental tenure and promotion committees—not to mention deans and department chairs—give due credit for interdisciplinary work. What is damaging to the growth of interdisciplinary work is when a committee or administrator says, “Well, because this particular journal that you’ve published in is not really in our discipline, we are not going to give you much credit for your article.” That kind of mindset needs to be abandoned.
TT: It is increasingly more of a challenge to keep up with advances in digital technology. What do you see as some of the most immediate implications for humanist scholars as digital and information technologies continue to expand exponentially?
GO: As I mentioned, the dissemination of scholarship is likely to be radically different from how any of us might have imagined. We already see this trend, and it will continue to revolutionize how humanists do their scholarly work. The same is true with teaching. Teaching is radically different from what it was a decade ago thanks to the technologies now available to us. I came up in the days when you had to do much of your work in the library “stacks,” and you relied heavily on card catalogs and printed bibliographies. In the classroom, you were considered cutting edge if you used an opaque projector once in awhile. None of our present digital research and teaching aides existed in those days. Now you can do much of your research—both as a student and as a scholar—online. You can even order an article from a vendor to appear on your iPod. Instructors teach in “smart classrooms” equipped with an array of electronic teaching aides. Because these kinds of innovations are such fundamental changes in how to go about research and teaching, they may very well even change how we think in fundamental ways. These developments are quite exciting in a positive sense; I do hope, however, that we are cautious not to allow the new technologies to entice us to sacrifice the quality of our teaching and research for the shortcuts and convenience they provide. That would be a mistake.
TT: You have served as both a dean and a provost. What is your position on granting tenure to a humanist whose primary scholarly contributions are presented in hybrid, digital genres—say a blog, multimedia project, or online archive?
GO: I have answered this kind of question a multitude of times, and the answer is still the same: Because of the very prejudices that I was just referring to within academic departments and the academy in general, I think it is foolish for people to put all of their eggs in the digital basket at this point in time. In other words, for young scholars working toward tenure, it is important—as they might say in the investment world—to diversify their portfolio. That is, make sure you produce sufficient scholarship that is more traditional and that is published in established forums. Then, alongside, do some work in these newer, nontraditional areas. Unless you have clear indication from your institution—preferably in writing—that publishing exclusively in digital forums is going to be acceptable, then you take a substantial risk. If you do have that assurance, or if you are at a uniquely progressive institution, well perhaps you will have less risk. I do worry about colleagues simply ignoring the traditional assumptions and prejudices in the academic world and doing all their work in digital forums when it might not be as acceptable as they think it ought to be in the best of all worlds.
TT: Let’s talk for a moment about cultural studies. Do you think cultural studies is a “discipline”?
GO: Well, there is potential for it to become a discipline in the usual way that we define academic disciplines, but right now it is more an amorphous collection of approaches and subject matters. You find cultural studies activities and approaches in a large range of disciplines using an array of different critical approaches. This is not necessarily a bad development, but I think if we want to get to the point where we call cultural studies an actual discipline we need to have (and I recognize the irony of what I am about to say) some identifiable boundaries. Saying that a field should have boundaries is not to say that we must have “siloed” boundaries in the bad sense that we have been talking about. And I am certainly not harkening back to Stanley Fish (1995) and the narrow sense of the boundaries of literacy criticism, as articulated in Professional Correctness. But let’s face it; in order to name something, you have to have a definition, a demarcation, some kind of boundary. I don’t believe most people right now would call cultural studies a discipline in the traditional sense of what we mean by “discipline,” but it certainly could get there with some careful attention—and I hope it does.
TT: Perhaps, then, we don’t want to call it a discipline. Perhaps we are no longer worried about disciplines. Might cultural studies be the ideal interdisciplinary academic unit of the future?
GO: Yes, it could be, but first we need to develop a more consensual sense of what cultural studies is and what its objectives are. Right now, cultural studies is all over the map. You will find sociologists doing one thing and English professors doing another—all under the name “cultural studies.” Again, there is nothing wrong with that either, but if we are going to talk about cultural studies becoming an academic unit or department that is more formalized within the academic structure, it needs to possess some recognizable identity. Here is where Stanley makes a good point, but he makes it too strongly: If you are everything to all people, then you are really nothing at all. If, on the other hand, you have an identifiable boundary, people will recognize you by your distinctiveness. So, if cultural studies wishes to have an identity as a distinctive approach, academic unit, or discipline, it needs to have an agreed upon structure. I hope it arrives at that point.
TT: Cultural studies’ origins within the Birmingham School in the 1960s is well known. How would you describe the story of cultural studies, fifty years later, in the first decade of the new century?
GO: Back then, cultural studies was new, edgy, and cutting edge. There was considerable excitement about our entering unexplored, uncharted territory, and there was uncertainty about how to proceed and what methods of analysis to employ. Cultural studies now has become more institutionalized and permeates the disciplines. It is no longer unusual, no longer as edgy, and it may or may not be cutting edge. That’s okay; there’s nothing wrong with that. Cultural studies has clearly evolved—or at least changed—from the Birmingham days, and it still serves a very important purpose: It helps create critical consciousness, helps us explore ideological structures and the working of ideology, especially as ideological formations play out in popular culture. So cultural studies still has important intellectual work to do; it is just a little bit different from what it was in those early days.
TT: In the 1980s and early 1990s, you published extensively about feminist theory, but that strand seems to have faded in your recent work.
GO: Well, most of my scholarly work has faded, in that once you commit to administrative work you have little time for other activities. I certainly have not abandoned scholarly work, and I do occasionally teach a class (and my classes usually have a strong connection to feminist analysis). What is most important is that once you are deeply committed to a certain kind of intellectual work you take that work into yourself; it becomes an integral part of yourself. Postcolonial analysis and feminist analysis have very much become part of the way I think and part of the way I work on a daily basis. So, even though I haven’t been producing articles about these subjects recently, these discourses have formed my consciousness in very strong ways. As my old friend bell hooks has said, it is very difficult to effect change from the margins, from the outside; it’s much more effective to be on the inside if you want to change institutions and institutional practices. So, on the one hand, being in an administrative post is a good thing for those who believe in the goals of feminist studies and postcolonial theory. Administrators perhaps have more opportunities to make more worthwhile change than other people might. But this is not to say that administrators can simply wave a wand and everything gets better either. Change is more often than not incremental, a matter of changing minds and practices (Olson 1995). As an example, I worked hard at Illinois State to make the governance structures within the college more inclusive: We opened up previously closed councils and committees so that staff, adjuncts, and even students now have a voice. Another example is that we adopted a college-wide Partner’s Accommodation Policy. According to this policy, we pledge to assist partners—men and women, of course—of faculty that we are recruiting. That does not mean that we necessarily will hire a spouse; that will depend on the situation. But there are all kinds of things that we will do to facilitate, not only hiring a faculty member, but also bringing the spouse or partner as well. These types of initiatives arise out of the very perspective that feminist thought makes available. So, I believe that there is no better place to be if we are going to make changes than inside. And I encourage those who have strong beliefs along these lines to get inside and help out.
TT: You no doubt find an ally in Fish because he, too, sees rhetoric as central. What’s your definition of “rhetoric,” and how do you imagine most of your colleagues in English studies understand the term?
GO: I tend to have a capacious sense of rhetoric, in that I am not just talking about rhetoric in the narrow Aristotelian sense of finding the available means of persuasion, and I certainly mean more than techniques associated with the teaching of writing. I see rhetoric as the workings of discourse, and as such it’s very much tied up with (and, we might say, “entangled with”) ideology, because ideology works its way through discourse and discourse is always already ideological; it is the very fish bowl that we exist in. Rhetoric, discourse, is also tightly connected to epistemology, and as such is central to how we understand reality and make our way in the world. This is why the study of rhetoric is fascinating to me, because it is central to how we think, how we understand, and, if you listen to scholars like Lynn Worsham, even how we feel. If you listen to her work, our very emotions—how we are socialized to feel about things—are also dictated by ideology and discourse (2001). So I conceive of rhetoric in the broadest sense. You won’t always find that broad sense of rhetoric in many departments; you’re more likely to find a more narrow understanding of one sort or another.
TT: As a graduate student, I first got my Derrida through Spivak. In the Afterword to your Justifying Belief, J. Hillis Miller ( 2002 ) suggests, with a wink, that future generations might get their Stanley Fish through Gary Olson. What are your thoughts on acting as a sort of channel or medium for Fish?
GO: Well, I hope I’m not a channel for Stanley and his work. I admire Stanley and his intellect, but I don’t always agree with every position he takes. I saw my work more as a translation than a channeling. The small book that I wrote, Justifying Belief (2002), is really a way to explain or translate some of Stanley’s key ideas to a group of scholars who might not have been reading him. In other words, I am addressing rhetoricians, not literary critics. My objective was to unpack some of his key ways of seeing the world. In that way, I imagine Justifying Belief as a kind of translation; it is neither a synthesis nor a channeling.
TT: Many readers admire Fish for the sharpness of his insight, the strength of his intellect, the quality of his writing, and the provocation of his challenges. He’s also frustrating in his tendency to be unpredictable if not contrary—proudly donning the badge of “contemporary sophist” in one of your interviews with him. What’s your take on Fish’s complex profile?
GO: Fish’s positions are often hard to counter because he constructs seemingly iron-clad arguments, and if you accept the parameters that he sets up in advance but attempt to disagree with him, you are caught in a trap: It is futile to argue with him so long as you accept those parameters. On a certain level, that is the brilliance of the intellectual game he plays. That strategy is maddening to those who want to challenge his points because he keeps reminding them of the parameters. As a concrete example, I mentioned before that in the book Professional Correctness he sets out the parameters of what literary studies as a discipline is and then argues that anything that does not fit within those boundaries—such as social activism—is by definition something other than literary studies. So he has got you if you attempt to argue that something not already included within those boundaries is part of literary studies. But you have to accept the original parameters, the original definition of what literary criticism is for his gambit to work; if you refuse to accept those parameters, then you have room to argue with him. But he will always want to bring you back to the original parameters and insist that you can’t exceed them. So that is frustrating to some readers. But it is a marvel to see Stanley work; he really knows how to weave an elaborate argument, and it is sometimes spellbinding to see him perform in public.
TT: Perhaps the most prominent thread you trace through Fish’s nonliterary writing is his insistence that “belief” precedes persuasion: A person will buy an argument when it complements his or her current array of ideas, as opposed to being swayed by the argument per se. Is this ideological determinism?
GO: I firmly believe that we are ideological beings. Whether you want to call that “determinism” is a matter of how you define “determinism,” but I do believe that we all operate out of an ideological context. Stanley refuses to use critical jargon in his work, especially left-inflected terms such as “ideology,” but when he talks about “a structure of beliefs,” he is in effect talking about ideology. Your summary of his argument is accurate: We become convinced of a belief or position not by a well-constructed argument but by something much more elemental—call it “a structure of beliefs,” as Stanley does, or “ideology,” as I would. You just can’t talk someone out of a firmly held belief by a fancy argument, according to Stanley. We have all witnessed this phenomenon: You and a friend watch a political debate and agree that one candidate won the debate hands down, and then you walk out into the hallway and meet some friends who firmly believe the exact opposite. It is as if you are inhabiting parallel worlds, and no brilliant argument could possibly convince either side to accept that their view of reality is wrong. Each side sees the world according to its structure of beliefs or ideological structure. Persuasion enters the mix once you already have a belief—you turn to the mechanisms of rhetoric and persuasion to justify that belief, first to yourself and then to others. That is, for Fish belief precedes persuasion, as you said.
TT: One of your most pronounced recent arguments has been to examine what you term “the rhetoric of assertion,” in which you point out the differences between healthy “agonism” and unproductive “antagonism,” while also laying bare the patriarchal/hegemonic tendencies of “assertion” as a rhetorical strategy. I can’t help but connect this conversation with the rhetoric of the Bush administration and its conservative politics since 9/11. To what extent did you have the state of national political rhetoric in mind?
GO: There are two subjects in your question, and they are not necessarily related. One is the rhetoric of assertion, which as you say has to do with a kind of Enlightenment rationality preoccupation with Truth and with authoritatively asserting that truth with untroubled certainty. The rhetoric of assertion is very much in keeping with how the Bush administration behaved: They never seemed to allow facts or evidence to interfere with their assertions of what they considered to be truth. The other subject is the conceptual difference between agonism and antagonism: You can engage in agonism (principled disagreement) without descending into antagonism. That is, people on opposing sides of an issue do not have to become enemies just because they disagree. This is Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s distinction—actually, it is much more Chantal’s distinction (Worsham and Olson 1999). I certainly believe that this distinction is relevant to our national discourse. Our national political discourse is increasingly characterized by antagonism, not respectful agonism. You can see this in the U.S. Senate for example. It used to be that senators who vehemently disagreed with one another would nonetheless engage in a rhetoric of collegiality: “Would the great senator from Rhode Island please entertain another way of thinking about the issue we are discussing…?” And then they would embark on a respectful discussion. Lately, you are much more likely to see name calling, bitter fighting, ad hominem attacks, and just outright uncollegial behavior—clear forms of antagonism. Antagonism is more and more becoming part of the national discourse. I see it in discourse within the academy, as well. In fact, it has become a theme in the monthly column that I write for the Chronicle of Higher Education (Olson 2007). There is a kind of incivility that to me seems out of place in the academic world, if not everywhere, and it seems to be intensifying. This incivility is a problem—it’s a problem in the academic world, and it’s a problem in our national discourse. I do hope we can return to a time when civility and collegiality become more common—when we can be agonistic and not antagonistic, when we can disagree but be civil about it.
TT: Where does this increased incivility come from?
GO: I have a theory about that. I believe that it is related to a troubling anti-intellectual phenomenon in popular culture: The belief that because everyone has a right to express an opinion, then every opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. This is a non sequitur. I wrote a column about the apotheosis of opinion—that is, in our popular culture, opinion has gained equal status with fact. People no longer feel a need to support positions with facts or data or evidence or examples or reasoned arguments; a simple opinion will do. The media encourage and promote this uncritical generation of opinion. For example, the media engage in perpetual and unending opinion taking of a trivial and even fatuous type. Every day on any of the cable news programs, you can call in to a poll and register your opinion on one subject or another. Later in the program, someone will announce that 80% of the viewers believe X, while 20% believe Y. Everybody gets to weigh in on any and every subject, usually without possessing substantive knowledge or facts about the subject. “Do you believe that we are in a recession?” “Will Osama Bin Laden be captured this year?” “Will so-and-so get divorced?” I am all for people having a voice, but these types of questions invite people to weigh in on a subject independent of fact or knowledge, and they are consequently made to feel that their opinions on these subjects have some significance, when, in fact, their opinions are based on little more than a guess or a “feeling”—that is, their opinions are baseless. What I see in popular culture is a serious erosion of critical thinking. All opinions are not created equal, but it is almost to the point that people believe them to be. I recognize that what I am saying sounds suspiciously like the kind of Enlightenment rationality thinking that I oppose, and perhaps it is, but the fact of the matter is all opinions are not created equal. I could have a racist opinion and that is not equal to your nonracist opinion. We as a culture—and especially those of us in the academic world—simply must resist this deeply anti-intellectual movement and the uncivil defense of opinion that often attaches to it.
TT: You have repeatedly emphasized that excellent teaching and scholarship can and often do go hand-in-hand. From your perspective as an administrator, do you believe we now value teaching more than we have in the past?
GO: I do believe that we are witnessing a kind of movement to re-value teaching, but I do not believe that we ever really jettisoned or devalued teaching in the first place. What happened is that different institutions have different types of missions, and the various academic values that we have get attached to those missions. So in very complex research institutions—what we used to call Research I institutions, let’s say—there is much more value attached to scholarship and research. That’s not to say that such institutions do not value teaching; it’s just that teaching must share the limelight with research and scholarship. In small liberal arts colleges, teaching usually takes a front seat, and research either takes a back seat or is not valued at all. So, academic values get attached to particular institutional missions. Now, that being said, I do think that across the board there has been a kind of movement since the late 1990s to reassert the importance of teaching as well as scholarship about effective teaching. I really don’t believe that anybody ever really suggested that teaching was not important; I just think that some of us in some institutions also have other academic values alongside good teaching.
TT: You’ve published essays on professionalism and graduate education. Many graduate programs in the humanities are in turmoil thanks to tight job markets, the constriction of publishing outlets, diminishing funding for students, and disciplinary confusion. How can we begin to reorganize our graduate programs?
GO: We can be more responsive to the world outside of our own departments—developments both in the discipline and in the workplace. Unfortunately, there is a time warp in many programs in the humanities in that often people are doing things today in the same way they used to do them twenty or thirty years ago and are ignoring developments in the discipline or in the larger world. I once had a colleague who was notorious for bringing to class age-yellowed lecture notes from his graduate student days and reading them as his own lectures. The problem is that the lecture notes were a quarter of a century old; he was teaching his students the state-of-the-art of the discipline of the past, not the present. And how many departments do the same with their curricula—offering a drastically outdated version of the field’s knowledge and approaches? First of all, scholarship evolves over time, and it is incumbent upon graduate faculty to expose students to the most recent work in the discipline, not just work that interested faculty years ago. And graduate faculty need to remember that they are preparing students for particular kinds of jobs. I’m not suggesting that we should think of graduate education in the humanities as a kind of vocational training, because obviously it is much more than that. Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are also preparing students to do a kind of work—yes, intellectual work of one sort or another, but usually with some kind of job or position in mind. Your most successful graduate students are always going to be those who are most responsive to the needs of the discipline and of those likely to employ them. If you are preparing a future English professor, for example, you will want to prepare that person to be a member of a contemporary department, not the department of 1978. So it’s important to structure your graduate program in such a way that responsiveness is key.
TT: The stratification between research faculty and “fixed-term” faculty seems to be deepening, with the former shrinking in numbers and the latter growing.
GO: Other than in a small department or institution, we are likely to have both research faculty and some term faculty. The main problem—and, in fact, in late 2008 the Modern Language Association issued a report about this—is that increasingly more universities have a higher and higher percentage of nontenure track and adjunct faculty than tenure track faculty. That gap is apparently widening nationwide, particularly in English departments but in other departments as well. Obviously, we need to correct the imbalance. I believe that departments ought to have a mix of both research faculty and some faculty on term contracts. Certainly, that is better than hiring large numbers of part-time instructors who are ineligible for benefits and who will feel pressure to cobble together an unreasonable course load from a variety of institutions just to make a living. It is much preferable to employ instructors on term appointments with a reasonable salary and benefits. The solution to this problem is a function of public funding of higher education. Until this nation takes education more seriously, seriously enough to fund it at reasonable levels, we are going to continue to experience these imbalances. My university now receives only 25% of its budget from the state; it wasn’t long ago that the funding percentage of many public institutions was in the seventies. This is a terrible decline. We need to return to a time when public education is funded appropriately so that we can address some of these very human situations such as the one you mention.
TT: There’s tension in the humanities between the production and interpretation of texts. Creative writers are often at odds with critics and other readers of texts. How do you assess the tension between production and interpretation within academic departments?
GO: This is the type of tension that has always driven me crazy. It speaks to the territoriality that academic departments sometimes descend into. I have been in departments where you will find some literary scholars disparaging the critical theorists because they believe themselves to be studying “the real stuff” while the critical theorists are only looking at ways to read it; then both groups will disparage the creative writers as the stereotypical flighty artists, while, in turn, the creative writers will disparage all the others because, after all, they are the ones that actually write the texts in the first place. I won’t even mention where rhetoric scholars often fall in these perceived hierarchies. These types of disciplinary squabbles are the silliest thing I have ever seen, but they continue. They existed when I was a graduate student, and they continue today, decades later. I remember being at a departmental cocktail party years ago and witnessing a distinguished scholar of eighteenth-century British literature respond to the news that a colleague, an Americanist, had just published a new book. He commented wryly, “American literature? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” He was deadly serious. To him, quite literally, the American literary tradition was vastly inferior and not worth studying in college. This kind of territoriality is why I have always believed that English department faculties really need to understand themselves to be all part of a common endeavor that we might call, for lack of a better name, English studies (or textual studies)—that is, the study of the reading and writing of all kinds of texts, the study of the production and reception of text. If we could ever arrive at a consensus that our common work in the broadest sense is “textural work,” I think we would have much healthier departments. As it stands, these typical kinds of squabbles—and they do not always take the same form in any given department—continue and are extremely unproductive.
TT: Over the decades, you have observed a long succession of critical approaches emerge, crest, and move along. Which traditions have had the greatest impact on your thinking?
GO: Many of them have in one way or another. I came up in a very strong New Critical tradition that valued close reading of text. We had the values and methodology of New Criticism hammered into us as if it were sacred dogma. I remember once as a college student I wrote a paper in which I veered away from my analysis of the text to offer a brief “subjective” response to a passage from Milton’s “Samson Agonistes.” My professor, a Catholic priest, was horrified; he seemed astonished that I would take it upon myself to do such a thing in a serious work of literary criticism, and he verbally chastised me for it. His response to my transgression may seem quite over the top to us now, but such nontextual readings had the status of heresy at one time. The newer critical approaches—reader response criticism, to begin with—were really eye opening to me and to lots of us at the time, but they were also threatening to many people. A few years later, I attended a graduate seminar, again on Milton, and the professor—not a priest—came to class one day extremely agitated because he had just read Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin. He slammed the book down on the seminar table, and I remember his words to this day: “This is not how you read Milton, and it’s not how you do literary criticism. Don’t waste your time and money on this drivel!” His world view had been shaken by a whole new way of conceiving reading. (And, of course, his tirade achieved the opposite effect of what he had intended: We all went out and bought the book.) The cumulative effect of reader response, deconstruction, and the other revolutionary ways of thinking about the relationships among authors, texts, and readers was that they dramatically changed our consciousness, our way of thinking. They freed us from a very restrictive and simplistic way of conceiving those relationships. But also, in a more general and amorphous way, what happens is that we take these approaches and their assumptions into ourselves; we imbibe them. They become so much a part of us that we don’t even realize that we are looking through these lenses (or at least lenses tinted by them) when we deal with texts. What a difference from the old days!


The author would like to acknowledge the technical support of Professor Kyle Jensen of the University of North Texas in preparing this interview.


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