by Alex Valente
This is not another defence of the Humanities as a subject worthy of study, funding, support.
This is not a defence of creative writing as a subject worthy of teaching, practising, support.
This is not a way to convince myself that teaching English Literature at a higher education institution in the UK is a career worth pursuing. Though maybe it is, maybe it is all of those.
This is not, in any way, a researched piece. The editors have allowed me to voice my thoughts on the matter because I wanted to say something about it.
I am an associate tutor at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. In the other half of my academic life, I am a PhD student in literary translation. Despite their obvious overlap, despite my inability to access one without the other at this stage in my career, the two are in constant tension, at times even full-on conflict. Time dedicated to teaching (preparation, admin, marking, tutorials, emails, office hours, meetings – and teaching itself) is taken away from my research. Without my research position, I would not be allowed to teach. Without teaching experience, my research alone will not get me a ‘stable’ academic position.
Why bother with my work, why bother with universities, why bother with the humanities as an entity with a capital letter or an acronym in its orbit?
What is the allure of such a career, especially in this climate of shunning the Humanities, clamping down on international outlooks, outright claiming we are irrelevant, useless, and barely more than a pastime? As do quite a few other PhD students, I have my doubts. As do early career academics, established lecturers and researchers, and retiring professors. In my case, they tend to hit over my self-imposed breaks – a necessary requirement to maintain some clarity and purpose for my research – and have returned, cackling and hand-wringing, during this winter. Why do I bother? I research and translate comics. I translate poetry. I write about comics, poetry and translation. Have I had anything published? No, not really. Could I survive outside of academia right now? Probably, but also probably not. So why bother? Why bother with my work, why bother with universities, why bother with the humanities as an entity with a capital letter or an acronym in its orbit?
Eventually, inevitably, fortunately, I always find myself answering my own question. And it’s the same answer, the same reason, that got me into this career in the first place: I will be teaching new minds, new scholars, new critics. Members of society who will need to learn thinking skills, creativity, perspective, context, analysis, and questioning.
Questioning the canons, through reading and syllabus. Questioning the theories, through discussions and seminars. Questioning the critics, through their own arguments in essays and exams. Questioning why we set essays, exams, seminars, reading lists in the first place.
There is a quote I am fond of repeating to self-doubting students in essay-induced panic moments, and one that, for my sins, I cannot accurately source. It states that yes, science can indeed tell you how to clone a dinosaur, but the humanities will tell you why that may not be a good idea.* Ideas is what teaching is all about. Dead people’s ideas, established ideas, dangerous ideas, uncomfortable ideas, how to form ideas, new ideas, ideas of equality, of social justice, of challenge. Ideas that question all of the above and more. Ideas that will make this post, my teaching, my research probably entirely irrelevant one day. Somehow, ideas that I will have contributed to form.
And, while I’m at it, I will make a case for translation and its visibility (because, to borrow a well used slogan in my circles, who actually wrote that Dante Alighieri book you read in English?), and a case for comics, and a case for Young Adult fiction and children’s literature and picture books, and a case for Disney films as a teaching tool. And you’ll be welcome to question my choices, because I’m not saying, I’m never saying I have all the right answers, approaches or methods.
I’m not saying I can do all of this, but I’ll try my best. Again.
*Note: I do not think the quote is accurate, indicative of either field or even good. I do not agree with its misrepresentation of STEM subjects, nor with its defensive tone. But it’s a fun thing to keep in my pocket, and gets a smile from sleep-deprived, panicking first years during seminars and tutorials.