Tuesday, September 15, 2009

About GW and the Humanities

An undeniable fact: the humanities are strong at GW. The English and History departments alone have well over two hundred majors, each. Both departments have a long history of graduating distinguished alumni. Both possess world class faculty whose research has taken their disciplines in new directions. Both are well known for their excellence in teaching, their student satisfaction, their enduring alliances with their graduates and with the city we inhabit.

I've taught at GW for fifteen years. Early in my career I made peace with the fact that the institution's ardor for Washington DC has mainly to do with the current occupants of the White House and Congress. The city's history, culture, and arts have never seemed to merit the same enthusiasm at Rice Hall as has its politics. In some ways this relative lack of attention has been a good thing: the English Department, free from institutional micromanaging, has been quietly able to accomplish the things at which we excel. I'd like to think we've done a pretty good job. We've been greatly aided by our alumni. Donors like David Bruce Smith have enabled our resources to begin to match our ambitions. The philanthropy of the Wang family has been transformative. Just as importantly, the many alumni who give so generously to us each year have not only sustained us, but made possible endeavors that our institutionally allotted budget would never support.

GW is, understandably perhaps, a university obsessed with policy, with government. We have an abundance of political science majors who come here just for that reason. Our institutional vision statements therefore talk quite a bit about the bond between the city as a place where policy is made and the university as a participant in that process. This enthusiasm has frequently seemed to me to lack specifics, to be a kind of "being in love with being in love" -- a celebration of the fact that we happen to be located near the White House, but without a good number of concrete notions of the educational consequences that ought to follow from geographical proximity. Lately this policy-love has been joined with an enthusiasm for sustainability.

Don't get me wrong: policy and sustainability and participating in the governmental landscape of the city are of vital importance. But they are neither the beginning nor the end of DC's story, of GW's story. Look, for example, at this webpage on GW in the City. "Culture of Leadership" gets a great deal of press (opening sentence: "GW’s location at the center of the nation’s capital provides the University community with access to policymakers, political leaders and opinion makers"). "Center of Discovery and Enterprise" follows, but the description focuses only on research in the sciences. "Arts and Culture" follows with an anemic description of some performing venues that happen to be here. "Global Perspectives," which also could have foregrounded the humanities as an active part of the city (rather than a passive element of its landscape, a museum that one visits) states simply that "an awareness of global perspectives informs our educational enterprise." I do not know what that tangibly means.

Sometimes the institution seems to forget that among our neighbors in DC are the Folger Shakespeare Library, a pre-eminent archive of early modern materials. The White House is nearby; the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is nearer. Capitol Hill has two domes upon it: a big painted iron one over a seat government, and a smaller but more elegant dome atop the Thomas Jefferson building at the Library of Congress. Surely the quiet of the reading room here, with its unparalleled research resources, merits as much mention as the halls of the nearby Senate. What happens in Lafayette Park matters, but so does what happens at Busboys and Poets -- a space for the arts named after the African American poet Langston Hughes. African American literature and culture have made DC what it is. The English Department knows this. Where are Langston Hughes or Edward P. Jones in our GW in the City statement?

Now that our university has a PhD in English at its helm, might we finally speak in our GW vision statements and in our strategic plans and in our fundraising and in our articulations of the relationship between city and university of the importance of culture, history, the arts, the humanities? Can we really aspire to be "GW in the City" without understanding and forming alliances with the history, the literature, the research resources, and the arts of the District of Columbia?

The humanities explore human identity across time and culture. The humanities are about the past, the present, and the future of our being in the world: they are the study that ties us to what we have been, and maps what we can become. The humanities are already strong at GW. Isn't it about time we started boasting about that fact?


Elizabeth said...

Firstly, I cannot agree more.

As an English and Philosophy undergraduate student at Hood College, I decided to attend GWU for graduate school, but was undecided on what avenue of graduate study to pursue. My natural inclination was to go on to get an English graduate degree, but my father-- who knows the "reputation of GW"-- asked, "Why go to THAT school for an English degree?"

I decided to apply and enroll into the Anthropology program instead, with a focus in International Development.

It was (and IS) a great program, but I applied to it out of pressure to engage with the world of academia here in a very prescribed and specific way. After a year in that program, I am proud to say that I am now an English MA student, and loving every minute of it. It took me a year in a different graduate program to realize that I could change the world with literature, but I'm here now, and here to stay.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Nice post. I like what Stanford has done with their webpage. A forceful attempt to steer the conversation to what the Humanities can do.

simile1000 said...

How timely, and so spot on! I am having my students engage in the literary past and present of our fine city this semester. They are going to research and report on the lived experiences of writers and Washington. They'll find out where people like Langston Hughes or Edward P. Jones worked, lived, wrote, and so forth.

They'll venture out to see Fitzgerald's grave, or the 'real' Uncle Tom's Cabin. They might even interview current professors about Elizabeth Alexander or Julia Alvarez.

Also, they have a chance to find out more about Henry Adams or Frederick Douglass, people who did have a relationship to the politics and policy of our fair city.

I think that is something GW could and should say more about. Washington is a place of culture and the arts, and we all know that culture and arts have a lot of influence on the ways in which we structure the world at the level of policy.

Calder Stembel said...

I agree with your sentiments. GW has the potential to have a great liberal arts college if only the administration recognized DC's artistic offerings and stopped treating the humanities as second-class subjects. Good classes, programs, and professors exist, almost in defiance of GW's focus on politics.

I realized these problems by the end of my freshman year at GW, and wrote about them in The Hatchet: http://bit.ly/Wylsa

Malcolm said...

I am a D.Sc. graduate of the School of Engineering and Applied Science (1966) who has been auditing courses in the English Dept. The inspiring faculty deserve high recognition for bringing to students a deep appreciation of the value of literature. As Edward Bulwer-Lytton pointed out many years ago "The pen is mightier than the sword." Shelley reminded us that "the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Through literature we gain a better understanding of our humanity.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thank you, everyone! I could not agree more ... and yet every day seems to bring more new of research initiatives at GW that do not mention the Humanities at all.