I’ve been in Charleston, South Carolina for the past few days at the Society for French Historical Studies conference sponsored by the Citadel and the College of Charleston. The weather here has been sunny, pleasant, and in the mid-60s during the afternoon, so it’s a lovely break from winter for many folks. (Since it’s also sunny and in the 60s back in the Denver area this weekend, I’m less impressed, but we have far fewer palmetto trees and not much of a harbor, actually.) It’s still warm and sunny here–and I’m blogging right now from Terminal A of the Charleston airport because my 2 p.m. flight to Atlanta was cancelled! I’m booked on a 6:15 p.m. flight to Atlanta, but my flight to Denver won’t leave until 10 p.m. EST, so it’s going to be a long stay in airportlandia for me. Lucky for you that I’ve got a suitcase full of opinions to share with you, and lucky for me I haven’t checked my bag!
SFHS President Joelle Neulander and her Program Committee did a great job of showing the conferees the town and sponsoring institutions. There was a fascinating (if depressing) roundtable up at the Citadel Friday afternoon on “The Present and Future of French History and the Humanities.” The Citadel, with its boxy and generously crenellated architecture, was a fitting place for this conversation because we all feel besieged as a profession. The panel members were affiliated with various institutions in the U.S. and England and featured both mid-career and nearly-retired scholars, and they all had interesting insights about what they’ve observed locally and over the past twenty to forty years in French studies. Many of the older scholars reminded us that there never was an imagined Golden Age for the Humanities in the U.S., and that they’ve seen other crises come and go. Other panelists and audience members were more alarmed.
The star witness on the panel was Brett Bowles, a French professor at SUNY Albany and therefore an eyewitness to the “deactivation” of his department along with the Italian, Russian, Greek and Roman Studies, and Theater majors. He was understandably quite gimlet-eyed on the future of French studies and the humanities because as he reported, 20 full-time tenure-track and tenured scholars are facing the end of their employment at SUNY Albany in another 16 months. Bowles urged everyone in the audience to be proactive and aware of what’s going on in their universities and to make alliances across disciplinary boundaries. He encouraged larger humanities departments like English and History to stand up for the smaller majors because he warned that “this is where we’re all headed. We’re headed to the end of tenure.”
Some of the discussion amongst the audience after the panelists had their say was rather limited, and focused more on ideas about pitching our teaching more broadly or trying to make arguments that our courses teach valuable and marketable skills. I don’t think the value of our teaching or the courses we offer in the humanities is at all in question, because we know that universities and departments are happy to hire adjuncts and casual labor to cover them when we resign or retire. Clearly, universities need someone to teach these courses–it’s our roles as humanities researchers and generators of new knowledge that are under attack. That’s what makes us different from K-12 teachers–those of us on the tenure-track are contractually and professionally required to conduct research and publish peer-reviewed articles, chapters, and books. That’s what the wider public doesn’t understand or care about, and what universities don’t want to support. They’re perfectly happy with our work as teachers–in fact, many members of the public don’t understand why we don’t do more teaching. We need somehow to make the case that ongoing research in the humanities is worthy of public investment and private support both in its own right, and as something that continuously feeds and nourishes our teaching.
Where do we get ideas for new courses, new books, new kinds of assignments? The answer, 9 times out of 10, is either directly related to or an indirect byproduct of our research, and if universities fail to support their faculty as active researchers, the curriculum and the quality of teaching will suffer directly. Moreover, universities and the general public have a broader responsibility to the culture of our nation to support humanities research across a variety of fields and disciplines: think of the cost to our other cultural institutions like museums and the arts if university faculty were required just to teach, and never learned new languages, never went to archives to look at ancient or recently unclassified documents, or stopped providing expert advice on preserving old buildings and on city planning and development questions. Would archives survive if there were no scholars to visit them? What about libraries? Would they survive without new scholarly books or journal articles? Are we really prepared for scholarship to become the pursuit of dilettantes again, as it used to be, or do we think that access to a great education and productive faculty scholars is important to fulfilling the promise of our democracy?
Flash: The Union still holds Fort Sumter. Will America defend her great democratic institutions, or should we all just fold up the chairs and go home?
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If the French historians and the free airport wifi connection isn’t enough to get you down here for a visit, there’s a lot more to say about Charleston. I’ve eaten extraordinarily well here–it turns out that the restaurant I ate at with my BFF ej on Friday night was written up in the New York Times recently as the hottest place to eat in Charleston with the dernier cri locavore chef-du-moment. It’s a good thing I planned ahead and snagged a reservation in January, which is very uncharacteristic of me! We almost blew it too, because we were at the plenary session and cocktail party that was up at the Citadel, a few miles northwest of downtown, and our cab never showed up. It was like a screwball comedy: we got to the restaurant with a combination of a tour bus ride and pedi-cab (a first for me), and the friendly folks at Husk held our table for us, and quickly served drinks to us in their adorable speakeasy next door when we arrived. Try the Corpse Reviver #2 or the Monkey Gland–tell them Historiann sent you (but you can settle the bill your own selves. That’s Colorado hospitality for you!) For dinner, I had the butter roasted catfish, ej had the duck, and we shared the hummus and the BBQ duck sausage appetizers. Yum!
Here’s a question: how long has it been since you went to a restaurant–not even the fanciest restaurant in town–and saw almost every man in a jacket (and many with ties? I have to think back to the last funeral I attended, I’m afraid, and count the corpse.) Nice jackets and ties, too, and all of the men were freshly barbered and even looked like they might smell good. All of Charleston dresses to impress–black and white, men and women. This is a town with a lot of uniforms in it, too–we saw Citadel cadets everywhere in their boxy grey-with-navy trim uniforms, and actual Navy sailors on the waterfront. Snappy! I almost started humming “Anchors Aweigh.”