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The necessity of practical humanities – a provocation?

‘Tis the season here in the US that universities make decisions on their tenure-track hires for the coming fall. I am learning this through my Twitter feed where the freshly nominated assistant professors share their exciting news.

In my feed, however, these news are interlaced with other kinds of announcements – most of them, too, exhilarated in their tone but also often flavored with a whole range of other kinds of emotions. These are people sharing their stories of leaving academia.

This “quit-lit” contains a double narrative. It testifies to the widening cracks in the walls between academic and other kinds of job markets. But at the same it shows that the walls still remain.

To me, the career diversity of PhDs is a crucial part of the societal impact of the humanities and a major motivation behind my wanting to advocate for the practical in the humanities.

Unfortunately, “leaving academia” is still all too often seen either as a failure or a lesser choice, and irreversible at that. All too often practical – or applied as its synonym – is perceived in the same way, as the opposite of something more serious and intellectually more valuable.

A couple of weeks ago I presented my project at an academic seminar. I was the odd one out in the group. The rest of the papers were all proper scholarly works, whereas mine consisted of a string of blog posts.

On the other hand, I knew going in that my paper would hardly leave anyone without an opinion. I was thrilled at the opportunity to discuss the project, but at the same time I was faced with all my old academic insecurities. Surely they would find out that I’m not knowledgeable enough, not critical enough, not theoretical enough!

The discussion turned out to be lively and balanced, even if critical at times. I would, of course, have wanted to hear more about the practical side of things, about the collaborations and practices my colleagues are engaging in to communicate their research to wider audiences.

Still, it was also useful to go through some of the more philosophical arguments that humanists may have both for and, in particular, against the “practical humanities”.

Here are the top three counter-arguments against paring the practical with the humanities:

  • the humanities don’t need to be practical;
  • the humanities are practical by default and that’s why “practical humanities” as a term is unnecessary; and,
  • “practical” is an ideologically loaded value that should not be applied to the humanities either way.

The last one in particular stayed with me.

It made me see that even if, to me, “practical humanities” is about building bridges between different realities, the mere paring of “practical” with “humanities” can also be a provocation. And if it is, I better own up to it. So let this be my stab at the more polemic stand I was also prompted to take!

To be clear, I don’t think all of the humanities need to be practical.

But I also think that even if people who are well versed in the humanities may see their practicality, it is far less evident to people who are less familiar with the kind of thinking and research that is characteristic with the humanities.

And why should we care what these other people think?

Not because of the overall value of the humanities would somehow depend on it. The humanities – as all other academic disciplines – would continue to have intrinsic value even if no one outside of the field gave it any value at all.

But is this really all there is and all we care about? Of course not!

We want our universities and their funders to provide us with resources, we want our students to gain an education and personal growth, and we want our graduates at all levels to find meaningful jobs. Some of us want to advance aesthetic enjoyment, public awareness, or democratic values and citizenship.

Some also want their work to contribute to research in other fields, to societal decision-making, and yes, even to a culture of innovation.

In order to get what we want we need to be able to articulate the value of our work to different audiences. And, as is desirable in a two-way dialogue, we may also need to re-evaluate and adjust our work accordingly. This is not selling out – it is being humble about our own blind spots and underlying assumptions.

This has been a recurring theme during this spring in my interviews with academics and professionals engaged in a range of collaborations.

All have underlined the need to understand where their interlocutors are coming from – the need to speak in a language that resonates with them, to listen to their problems, and to have these problems inform the research questions. This applies to colleagues in other fields, community partners and public audiences, and partners in private, public, and third sectors.

None of my interviewees see that speaking in more than one language is taking away from the intrinsic value of their original research. For all of them, translation is a game of adding, not of subtracting.

Yes, the humanities – as other disciplines – should be valued regardless of their practical usages.

But to shut out any discussion on the more practical aspects of the humanities by always reasserting their intrinsic value merely serves to alienate the humanities from their potential audiences.

And even closer to home: for senior faculty to deride the practical usages of the humanities is to actively contribute to the career anxieties of their students and graduates. More than anything, it serves to reinforce the career hierarchies that makes “leaving academia” seem like a failure with no option of return.

“Practical humanities” is, to me, about chipping away at the walls around academia. The higher the walls, the more danger they are to what they are supposed to be protecting. If this is a provocation, so be it.

Photo: Masood Aslami by Pexels