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As I began thinking about my remarks on “Research in the Humanities : My Personal Questions, Doubts, and Aspirations,” my greatest questions were—Is literature relevant in today’s society? And by extension, is my interpretation of literature relevant to my colleagues, the field in general, and more importantly, the broader public?, my greatest doubt or worry—that university culture is beginning to think it isn’t and that we may need to rethink the current model for scholarship, and my greatest aspiration—to produce research that not only examines literature for literature’s sake, but that also makes connections between the fictional and the personal, and in so doing reaches a broader audience. Marc Forster’s Stranger than Fiction, aside from being just an incredible film, seems to represent all of my questions, doubts, and aspirations about research in the humanities on the screen. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is about Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who discovers one day that his life is being narrated by an omniscient Other. Upon hearing his death is imminent, Harold seeks the help of Professor Hilbert, an expert on literary theory. In an effort to determine where Harold’s life narrative is going, Professor Hilbert devises a test, composed of questions like : “Has anyone recently left any gifts outside your home? Anything. Gum, money, a large wooden horse” and “Are you the king of anything ? King of the lanes at the bowling alley, king of the trolls.” I couldn’t help but identify with the professor as he was conducting his interview. Not only was he overloaded with commitments—teaching five courses, mentoring two doctoral candidates, and working at the faculty pool—but Harold’s initial response was comparable to that of our students, and maybe even ourselves on occasion, as we ask questions about the literature we study. “What do these questions have to do with anything ?”
teaching literature at the university only perpetuates a system wherein rich. Stranger than Fiction takes this idea to the extreme. Benedict Anderson states.” He asks. then at least the readers who consume it. Walter Benn Michael echoed Fish’s defeatist sentiment in his presentation. mirrors. “The imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life. One of the most exciting moments of the film is when the two meet—each encountering the personal. at a panel entitled. why should anyone fund it. “What is the value of such work. the author grasps the dramatic repercussions of her craft on the main character—who actually exists!—while the hero’s vision of himself is forever altered as he meets the voice who has been recounting the mundane details of his life and is forced to contemplate how these details might . Karen Eiffel.” Stanley Fish has been raising the same kinds of issues as he explores the “uses of the humanities” and discusses “the shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty and the corresponding rise of adjuncts. and the poor remain perpetually on the margins. and why. and challenges these realities? In his book Imagined Communities.. why we are here. fiction seeps quietly and continuously into reality” (35). At this particular moment. as Harold Crick’s fate is determined by the whims of his narrator. What do MY research questions have to do with anything? Then I remember why I chose this career.” In his view. I can’t help but feel a bit discouraged by comments like these as I turn toward the last third of my doctoral program and begin my own research in the humanities.. Literature transforms—if not the world around it (which I believe it can).. And what could be more important than thinking about who we are.. “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” at the MLA Convention held in San Francisco. white kids are supposedly instilled with the values of social justice. and how literature expresses.I am not the only one burdened with this uncertainty. In his blog for the New York Times. the human in the Other.does anyone do it ?” Furthermore. “Maybe We Shouldn’t. “Think Again.
Indeed. “Adoption Narratives. Even . For a long time. and a recognition of a certain hybrid self that results from the experience. Anne Hébert’s Le Premier jardin.“birth culture”” (4) I’m still not sure what this means for post-colonial theory or for the field of Francophone literature. and this is what led me to my own research interests. as he. when he asks. I could not articulate what it is about Francophone literature that draws me in. My readings have helped me to learn more about who I am and how I define myself. date. incorporating the personal in our research can be an immense challenge. the reasons became more and more clear.. Of course. and I encountered modalities of identity formation that I myself had experienced as an adoptee: anger at having been given an identity to cover or displace the one I had been born with. but I do know that there are inextricable links between colonization and adoption that I would like to explore. the authors combine the experience of adoption and the experience of colonization. In each of these works. “Qui et quels nous sommes? Admirable question!” (28). a desire to return “home” wherever that may be. and Origins. I identified completely with the narrator of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Trauma. my work will have achieved its purpose. not an external third party.” Margaret Homans writes. and . and Maryse Condé’s Desirada. sees it. Witness the transformative power of literature and literary theory. place. we define ourselves with and against what we read. and then proceeds to articulate his identity.come to an end. In her article.. “Life stories of adopted people often have complex narrative lines. As I read Henri Lopes’s Le Chercheur d’Afriques. if anything. since to the already insurmountable difficulty of any human effort to know and fix one’s origin is… added the extra difficulty of lack of information about birth parents. and if I can help my students to learn more about their own realities— and the realities of others—through exposure to different literary texts.
though it encourages a respectful distance from our personal experiences as humans and our separate objects of study. perhaps the University needs to re-consider how tenure portfolios are evaluated and what constitutes solid academic contributions in the humanities] And this brings me to the wristwatch. as we think about how we encounter ourselves in literature. producing articles and books that will be read by a select few? Incorporating our personal experiences in our work is one way to connect with a broader public. it could/should also include innovative partnerships. Even though Karen Eiffel is in the business of writing books where the heroes die—so much so that her own research on how best to kill her protagonist includes visiting emergency rooms and envisioning horrible car accidents (not quite the same as our libraries/archives)— when she encounters the personal. or at least viewed as less rigorous. I had a difficult time using the word “I.” and all formal writing guidelines were laid aside. completely changing the narrative. I can’t help thinking that the academic profession. simply because of a personal feeling I have?] Nevertheless. The meeting between Harold and Karen results in an alternative ending to the story. scholars. [Am I reading things into texts that aren’t there. Are we. [My point here is that research/scholarship in the humanities needn’t be limited to publishing. I am concerned that my dissertation topic will be discounted. has at the same time become over-personalized. since it resonates with my own life experience. The meeting between Harold and his creator reminds us of the importance of encountering the personal in our work and also prompts us to consider a different model for scholarship in the humanities: collaboration. both with colleagues and community partners. in that we find ourselves entrenched in our individual research projects. isolated in our libraries and archives. the fruit of our cooperation with colleagues and community partners could revitalize and redefine the field. human side of the .as I wrote this talk. For similar reasons.
unlike the natural sciences and social sciences is to grasp human things in human terms. or more pointedly does research in the humanities. and so on. biological drives.character she has created. psychological disorders. I am not asking whether or not the humanities can save us—a question that Stanley Fish has already posed--and I agree with Wilfred McClay when he speaks of the value of the humanities. He writes : “The distinctive task of the humanities. It is in interacting with the protagonist himself that she fundamentally alters her writing : I don’t want to totally ruin the movie for you.” My question instead has become: Do the humanities. . she rewrites her novel’s ending. need a wristwatch? If they do (and the Chronicle of Higher Education and Stanley Fish would have us think they do!). mechanical systems. social structures. so I’ll just say that a wristwatch— a critical part of Harold Crick’s calculating. without converting or reducing them to something else : not to physical laws. I would argue that integrating the personal in our research and encouraging more interaction with colleagues and the broader public could fundamentally alter our writing and perhaps even save us by revitalizing the field. number-obsessed identity—ultimately saves him.
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