Blog Post

Space and Place, the remix (6 of 6)

Graphic design by Sheena Lai; image by Wasfi Akab.

As we close out this series of reports on the Humanities Core (HumCore) Workshops, it is worth returning to the two questions that have driven every session so far:

        1. Can we conceptualize the Global Humanities at all?

        2. How have our ideas created teaching structures in California, Karachi, and Singapore?

These questions, though remarkably elastic over the course of two quarters, are mutually inextricable: what kinds of established or shifting ideas do we have about the concept of the “global humanities,” and what kinds of pedagogies develop as a result, thereby influencing future generations of scholars? Though there has been lively discussion around each question, one point of tension bubbled up to the surface early on and lingered through all the sessions that followed: the impossibility of generalizing across institutions. Conceptualizing and then teaching the global humanities will never be the same at a small liberal arts college in Pakistan, at a large state university in California, or at a wealthy research-intensive institution on either coast of the United States. As Prof. Haris of Habib University put it, the inheritances left to the students and instructors at each institution will differ, such as Pakistan’s colonial legacy; Prof. Jan invoked the labor concerns specific to students in the Global South that affects their ability to be curious in their studies; and Prof. Burnett flagged concerns around politically-driven curriculum changes in conservative U.S. states that predominantly affect publicly-funded institutions. What has become clear in each case is that, though institutions like Stanford, Columbia and Harvard dominate public discourse around Great Books and Western Civ, they represent only a fraction of all college students in the world. As Corey Robin puts it in a New Yorker commentary on COVID-19 and the City University of New York:

For decades, a handful of boutique colleges and powerhouse universities have served as emblems of our system of higher education. If they are not the focus of discussion, they are the subtext, shaping our assumptions about the typical campus experience. 

Robin’s article is worth reading for its insistence on the role of the underfunded public university as a more important driver of social mobility among poor, working-class, and non-white students than Ivy League institutions. But, given the relative lack of glamor associated with the former, and given their focus on instruction for their thousands of undergraduates over well-funded and non-optional research agendas, which allow academics at a small subset of institutions the resources to pen op-eds and books on the merits of a Great Books curriculum, thereby shaping mainstream discourse around what, exactly, it means to conceptualize the global humanities, we are once again left with the inverted pyramid issue, in which a minority of academics are vastly overrepresented in these discussions. 

One effect of this inversion is the persistent idea that one’s teaching and research are necessarily, or advisably, intertwined and interdependent. While this may be true for academics working at institutions that have the resources to support both original research and pedagogical innovation, this is not true for many, many instructors at teaching-focused institutions across the country, even those in the Bay Area. The English Department at San Jose State University, for example, which serves a huge working-class Asian American and Latinx population, is dominated by lecturers over tenure-line professors; a brief glance at the English Department of Santa Clara University, which by contrast serves a small, affluent, and mostly white student body, is little different. While many of these adjunct lecturers and teaching associates carve out time between the multiple courses they teach every semester—anecdotally, a typical lecturer in the humanities at SJSU can expect to teach anywhere between five and eight courses a semester across multiple institutions and formats—to work on their own research, the support accorded to these instructors to develop specialized courses that weave together the strands from their archival findings and literary analysis for the benefit of their eager students is often minimal or non-existent. This is not even to mention community colleges, which account for around 40% of all undergraduates enrolled in college in the United States and are also primarily driven by adjunct labor. As the current labor movement sweeps through the country, including through universities, and the “great resignation” is felt at every level of seniority, merely touching on the centrality of labor issues to seemingly abstract questions around conceptualizing the global humanities, as we participants within the HumCore workshops have done this year, is no longer sufficient. These issues are not distinct: with around 75% of all instructors occupying non-tenure line positions, any discussion about teaching the global humanities in California, as the original question states, must take place squarely within the context of the collapse of tenured employment in American universities. 

The idea, then, as speaker Prof. Grant Parker put it in the sixth and final workshop of this series, that “we are dealing here with a balancing act between research and pedagogical approaches to the study of literature,” is not wrong when it comes to tenure-line faculty at Stanford. Any scholar who is primarily employed in both research and teaching absolutely ought to consider the relationship between the two. We simply see that this balancing act, relatively speaking, is far rarer than these discussions often imply, and may not constitute the core from which many instructors develop teaching practices around the global humanities. 

The first speaker at the final workshop, Professor Annette Lienau of Harvard, focused her talk on three topics: potential controversies that accompany the comparative framing of scriptural or Quranic Arabic inheritances in their coexistence with vernacular linguistic and literary forms; the politicization of this dynamic across former European Imperial lines and across the sites in which she works, including Senegal, Indonesia, and Egypt; and the further need for comparative and connective work along the lines of the HumCore workshops. The Arabic language, Prof. Lienau explained, had historically connected many regions across the transcontinental Asian and African space, but through what ideological grounds or prisms, she asked, has that historical connection been interpreted? Furthermore, given that the Arabic language across these regions coexisted with other languages, how might we frame those points of contact and coexistence, especially within the context both of European colonial pressures and the cultural impact of scriptural or Quranic Arabic?

These questions at best, according to Lienau, underscore the promise of framing a comparative approach to linguistic and literary dynamics within a transregional Arabophone context. However, she admitted, they are not without their limitations or potential provocations. Over the course of her talk, Lienau took issue with the historical conflation of the vernacularization of Arabic with historical modernity and/or civilizational progress, describing this attitude as a colonial tendency in and of itself, if not an orientalist trope. This tendency could squarely be located in European insistence on drawing comparisons between the different kinds of Arabic and different forms of European languages, regardless of the validity of said comparison. She cited British colonial architects from the nineteenth century who likened Quranic Arabic to Latin and classical Greek as justification for educating Egyptian children in vernacular Arabic under the guise of societal progress through mass education, even though Quranic Arabic is hardly an archaic language. Beyond the British Empire, other European colonies demonstrated an even stronger bias against the use of Quranic Arabic within the sphere of political administration and public governance, with far more corrosive effects on its use and with an impact felt through the present day.

Lienau went on to trace these effects in French West Africa and the Dutch West Indies, along with Islamic conservatives’ inverse defense of vernacular and Quranic Arabic as inherently inextricable. Along with offering directions for future work both within Arabophone and comparative cultural and literary studies, Lienau ended by asserting her belief that, given that the fate of the Arabic script is implicated in this connected history from Southeast Asian to Sub-Saharan African context, there is an imperative to work against the bias that still persists, likely inherited from orientalist taxonomies in both Southeast Asian and West Africa especially, that Arabic influences and Arabic orthographies are limited to Islamic studies—that they are generally traditional, archaic, obsolete, or amounting to a private religious median of limited or tenuous relevance to contemporary public culture and to postcolonial literary studies.

The second speaker of the final workshop, Stanford’s own Prof. Grant Parker, took a more applied approach. For Prof. Parker, the most exciting part of both research and teaching is encountering cross-cultural connections between different texts and artefacts. He reflected on the default pedagogical impulse of many classicists to invoke a canon, without which the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature might not exist, as well as other modes of structuring courses, like connecting ancient and modern objects of study. There is always a balancing act, Parker suggested, between research and teaching, canonicity and marginality, between small stories and grand narratives, when searching for coherence among infinite pedagogical possibilities. One poignant example Parker provided that seems to encapsulate many of these seemingly contradictory elements involved an ethnographic interview with a young Indigenous San man in Cape Town, who recalled a story told by his father about how, amidst rapidly changing colonial circumstances in the nineteenth century, he had begun to lose the ancestral shamanastic knowledge that his community expected him to have:

        My father sang: the string is broken

        Things have changed from what they were.

        He sang: ‘I cannot hear the ringing now

        I once used to hear, sounding in the sky.’

        He sang: ‘I feel the string is gone from me;

        The song is gone: for me things do not change.

        Sleeping, no sound comes calling in my sleep.

        I cannot hear a voice, the voice once with me,

        Which would come calling through my dreams.

                        Xaa-ttin’s lament. Stephen Watson, Return of the Moon via Wilhelm Bleek, Lucy Lloyd c. 1870.

 

This story, already passed through several layers of mediation, was transformed further still by poet Stephen Watson, delivering it into a poetic tradition of commenting on a changing world that was once exemplified by Virgil’s eclogues. Parker quoted the opening lines of the First Eclogue, which sees shepherds Meliboeus and Tityrus discussing the former’s resettlement amid the turbulence of the era (44-38 BC):

        Meliboeus:

        Tityrus, lying there, under the spreading beech-tree cover,

        you study the woodland Muse, on slender shepherd’s pipe.

        We are leaving the sweet fields and the frontiers of our country:

        we are fleeing our country: you, Tityrus, idling in the shade,

        teach the woods to echo ‘lovely Amaryllis’.

 

        Tityrus:

        O Meliboeus, a god has created this leisure for us.

        Since he’ll always be a god to me, a gentle lamb

        from our fold, will often drench his altar.

        Through him my cattle roam as you see, and I

        allow what I wish to be played by my rural reed.

                        Vergil, Eclogues 1: Meliboeus and Tityrus, tr. A.S. Kline 2001.

 

Both the First and the Ninth Eclogue, according to Parker, deal with the power (or lack thereof) of song and speech in times of crisis, precarity, and loss—not entirely unlike [poem name]. This perhaps surprising connection is the kind of cross-cultural comparison that allows for an unusual approach to thinking about the resonance of Virgil’s Eclogues across time and place—essential for Parker when period-specific teaching requires him to stay primarily rooted in classical texts. Drawing comparisons like this, for Parker, and centering on the question of resonance both constitute a sense of epistemic humility that sits at the heart of his scholarly and pedagogical engagement with literature. 

Ending his presentation, Parker commented on his own doubts about this strategy when it comes to the broader field. It is very hard, he said, to convince classicists of the need and the attraction of understanding the emplacement, the spatial elements of texts, or even of objects, with a particular geography. Perhaps, he said, tying questions of space and place to maps and map-making is the way forward into a new pedagogy of classics. This returns us to Prof. Lienau’s focus on colonial geographies of language, making it clear that both scholars, despite differences in linguistic and temporal focus, consider geographic space a central tenet of their understanding of the global humanities. 

As the role of geographic place in determining human rights continues to splinter the United States apart, as pedagogical and research freedoms either thrive or shatter depending on the location of one’s institution, concepts of place and space demand our attention. We have also seen throughout this academic year of workshops that place and space, specifically the historical contours and labor practices, of each institution determines the luxury of instructors to shape their pedagogy through their research. As we continue with our efforts to conceptualize pedagogies of the global humanities, it will be more important than ever to remember that place and space are not simply interesting theoretical questions, but factors that indelibly shape the working and teaching conditions of our colleagues and comrades across our fields, disciplines, and profession. 

Chiara Giovanni's picture
Chiara Giovanni is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She holds a PhD Minor in Anthropology. Chiara concurrently holds a SIGF and a DARE Fellowship; she has also been a El Centro Chicano Y Latino Graduate Scholar In Residence and a Haas Center Graduate Public Service Fellow. Her greatest joy at Stanford has been co-founding Humanities in Color, a graduate student organization for humanists of color. Her writing can be found at the TinyLetter link. Prior to coming to Stanford, Chiara completed her undergraduate and master's training at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. After graduating with her PhD in 2023, Chiara will join Bain & Company as a Consultant.

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