The Return of the Professor

Cathedral in Bayeux

Cathedral in Bayeux

I pulled something in my neck the other day.  I didn’t notice the pain then, but now I am balanced in our cat hair-covered recliner with a heating pad behind my neck and my computer on my lap.  This is fine, for the moment, and I’m sure it will be better soon. Being still able to type is good because I certainly have a lot to do in the next week or so – in less than two weeks, I’ll be back in the classroom, teaching an art history survey class at a nearby community college.  I have a syllabus to finish off, some reading to do, and some lecture notes to write. 

I’m excited!  It’s fair to say that I didn’t realize how excited I would be to go back into the classroom until it began to seem like it would happen.  A friend put me in touch with the department—she heard they’d lost an adjunct lecturer to a sudden move, and she happened to know an Art History Ph.D. (me!) who could handle such a class.  This has little effect on my day job at the museum, for the most part, it’s additional and outside hours that I would not normally be working, so while I will soon number among the contingent faculty of the world, it’s not quite the same as relying on piecing classes together.

I finished my dissertation three and a half years ago.  After that, I took a FULL break, cut the cord, barely thought about my dissertation or trying to publish anything until last year when a call for papers came up that was too good to pass up, even if it meant finding the money for a trip to Europe.  I came home from the conference a little frustrated—it seemed like people were only just coming to conclusions that I had come to literal years ago now.  I had a greater sense of what it would mean to have my scholarship out in the world because I believe that it’s true that no one has replicated my work since.  As I think about that conference experience, and as new opportunities present themselves, I’ve been thinking more about trying to publish parts of my dissertation.  With a few years distance, I have better sense of what I want from academia and perhaps what it can give me in return. 

And with this distance, and the opportunity to return to the classroom, comes the hope that my years away from academia working directly with museums and nonprofits, places where humanities majors apply their skills, will help me be a better educator.  If I have a better sense of what my scholarship could mean, I am also more able to make case for why it’s important for students to study art history.  I know what skills they learn from art history because I have had to deconstruct those skills myself, repackaging my knowledge and experience over and over to get the jobs that I cobble together to get to the point of having a CAREER.  (I have thoughts about the recent Twitter feeds exploring the twists and turns of careers after leaving academic. I have thoughts about the notion of having careers.)

When I was in the classroom while I was still in grad school, especially when I was teaching expository writing, I tried to be deliberate in explaining why I demanded they do an exercise over again or why it was so important for them to see one thing or another in the text—there is always a reason. A lot of academics, especially, are bad at this. They replace the idea that people deserve a justification of how they spend their time with the belief that certain things are inherently worth knowing and require no justification.  That may be true.  It may also be true that knowing why they are supposed to learn something enables people to take it further into their minds and hearts.  So here’s to a new semester, my first proper semester in three and a half years, and here’s to art history!  Hopefully my neck heals enough, soon enough, to make those lecture notes as interesting as I know they can be.

Humor and Public Intellectualism

The Atlantic recently published an article entitled “How Comedians Became Public Intellectuals,” which suggests that, as people like Amy Schumer, John Oliver, and others have become more political, they have ascended beyond just making jokes to creating salient cultural commentary.  The article, on the whole, probably seems like common knowledge to anyone who has been regularly watching The Daily Show for years, but it hangs the proposed shift of comedians into public intellectuals on the power of the internet.  As more people share Amy Schumer’s sketches or John Oliver’s rants on facebook and they go viral, they become part of mainstream conversation, and as the author Megan Garber declares, comedians have become the “intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment.”

I am a person who follows comedy pretty closely—I watch The Daily Show and The Nightly Show, gut out every episode of Saturday Night Live, try to keep up with stand-up specials, listen to Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, and so on.  Comedy appeals to me as a sort of alchemical science, and I enjoy hearing its respected technicians explain their philosophies on constructing their acts or writing their shows.  Many of the funniest people I respect most view themselves as writers more than anything else and express a level of professionalism that belies the spontaneity of their stage personas.  I’ve listened to Tina Fey’s audio book six or seven times.  I like comedians who make political points and skillfully negotiate thorny social issues in ways that social commentators cannot.  See, for example, Chris Rock’s recent profile in Rolling Stone.

The last few times that I taught college courses I joked to my friends that the bulk of my class prep came in the form of listening to George Carlin’s stand-up albums.  Or rather, I think they thought that I was joking, and I was not.  What I actually did was listen to his stand-up while going over my notes before class, rehearsing the things I intended to say directly to my students, marking places for improvisation and noting potential objections that I’d need to anticipate.   I’ve always loved George Carlin above all because his best work functions like a good writer must.  Smart and incisive, he seems to scan the available ideas on the subjects that interest him or confuse him, and he locates his humor in the places where the available information fails to align.  Demonstrating logic serves as the core of his humor; he made his listeners laugh at themselves because any other option would be silly.

With all of that in mind, I’m interested in this article because it has appeared during a time when the definition of “public intellectual” is up for debate.  Academics active in social media or blogging have recently suffered the pitfalls of the lack of clarity in this definition, with their qualifications and even their jobs called into question over ideas they posted, with varying levels of care, on Twitter or other platforms.  Comics have long been subject to a similar level of scrutiny, with many seeking to draw controversy that will, perhaps, draw many more followers to their material.  However, the difference between comics and scholars remains that many do still brush off sketches and bits as “just jokes” when the content pushes limits or turns racy—where scholars supposedly engage in “serious” work, comics have room to play. 

So it’s important to note this fusion of comedy to intellectualism, and praise the fact that these new, more diverse, more astute faces have replaced the yokel-ish humor of a Larry the Cable Guy or a Jeff Foxworthy that dominated mainstream perceptions of comedy not too long ago.  Allying humor with politics allows social movements (ahem, feminism) frequently decried as humorless to more readily dispel the negative stereotypes that hold them back.  However, I’m concerned that no such positive protection extends to academic commentators presenting truth-based arguments in the name of being public intellectuals. 

If, as The Atlantic’s article posits, the shift toward viewing comedians as public intellectuals means that jokes are no longer only dismissed as such, intellectuals—specifically university professors—have no equivalent leeway.  This paradigm is fine while people like Amy Schumer and John Oliver use their powers for good instead of evil, but I wonder what could happen if scholars learned more from comedians.  Earlier today I saw an article that described how Aziz Ansari, best known for Parks and Recreation, is collaborating with a sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, on a book about how technology affects contemporary romance.  I’m not sure how about this as a potential trend, but it’s worth asking what it says about how we view comics and scholars alike when their collaboration alters the results of research. 

Mission Statement

What lay on the pillow was a charnel-house, a heap of pus and blood, a shovelful of putrid flesh. The pustules had invaded the whole face, so that one pock touched the next… A large red crust, starting on one side of the cheeks was invading the mouth, twisting it into a terrible grin. And all around this grotesque and horrible mask of death, the hair, the beautiful hair, still blazed like sunlight and flowed in a stream of gold…It was as if the poison she had picked up in the gutters, from the carcasses left there by the roadside, that ferment with which she had poisoned a whole people, had now risen to her face and rotted it.
— Emile Zola, Nana (1880)

This quote served to open my doctoral dissertation, which considered depictions of the human body produced by a particular French painter in the 1860s.  It proved meaningful to me as I began to formulate my research project because it proposes a clear connection between the physical body and the more abstract political bodies of a nation, and it does so as part of a writer’s commentary on his society.  This kind of connection is not uncommon—the “body politic” often surfaces as an expression capable of addressing the complexity of modern nations by liking them to the unknowable corporeal practices of the human body. 

However, beyond these political metaphors, artists of all media draw on the consequences of their movements through the world being defined by the size, shape, color, gender, etc. of the body they inhabit.  These representations of bodies participate in forming different types of knowledge and in forwarding various conversations.  They may serve as entertainment in television or film, create new frames of reference for fashion and accessories, or perhaps draw medicine and science into dialogue with more mainstream conversations. In this respect, the nineteenth-century France of Emile Zola is not that different that the twenty-first-century world that we inhabit.

In the course of earning my Ph.D., I gained fluency in discussing how the body is represented in artistic media.  I have learned how history and theory might be used to pose questions that clarify and expand our views of what and how these media can produce meaning.  Though this site will, eventually, serve as an outpost for my professional writing portfolio, I want to use this blog to present commentary on the ways that our culture interacts with art and/or the body and the ways in which audiences consume them.