Thursday, January 19, 2017

What? The Humanities Center WON'T be closed!

What? The Humanities Center, NOT closed? I didn't even know it had been threatened with closure.

The Humanities Center in question is, of course, the one at Johns Hopkins, where I did my undergraduate work. This is the Humanities Center that launched a thousand chattering Frenchmen into orbit. Well, not exactly. But in 1966, its inaugural year, the Humanities Center sponsored the symposium on structuralism that now, for better or worse, serves as the notional inflection point for the revolution in literary criticism that had become Theory two decades later.

I found out about its non-closure when I visited the site of my alumni magazine and read: "An interdisciplinary committee tasked with making recommendations about the future of Johns Hopkins University's Humanities Center has advised against closing the half-century-old academic center—a possibility that had prompted protests on campus and from alumni." The article didn't even mention Dick Macksey, who ran it for years and who was my undergraduate mentor. That absence strikes me as being a bit conspicuous, but I'm not really in touch with things at Hopkins. I was there 50 years ago, a different world, lots has changed, Macksey gave up the directorship years ago and has now been retired from the full-time faculty for a few years.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the fact that "interdisciplinary" work functions mostly as a beacon off there in the distance, beckoning us to a better future, rather than as a source of light in the present. I was only a sophomore when the Center was founded and its mission struck me as common sense. But then, what did I know? I was only a sophomore. I actually expected the academy to change. When I left Hopkins I went to the English Department at SUNY Buffalo, which was all but a small liberal arts college unto itself and apprenticed myself to David Hays in linguistics, who taught a course, "Linguistics as a Focus of Intellectual Integration." Disciplinary myopia never appealed to me  – one reason, no doubt, the academy eventually extruded me.

What I'd like to know is why these folks keep yammering about interdisciplinarity as a Good Thing when they clearly do not mean it. Is the institutional purpose of these humanities centers mostly to serve as a credible threat to the departments? If you don't toe the line, we'll dissolve you – something like that.

In any event, I suppose it's a good thing that Hopkins isn't closing the old Humanities Center. That gives them two interdisciplinary humanities centers, as they established a new one last year, The Alexander Grass Humanities Institute. No doubt the administration intends to play them off against one another, with the threatened closure of the ancient and venerable center of '66 as a credible threat of collapse into disciplinary monoculture if they don't toe the line.

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See my old posts, Interdisciplinarity is the Utopian Dream of an academic culture whose time is rapidly running out, and Interdisciplinary Research.

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