Take an Elective: Make Cardinal Newman Proud

Facing the close of the the first decade of the twenty-first century, those of us involved in higher education cannot help but admit that in some very important ways our system is broken. For students finishing graduate programs, the prospects of landing a traditional tenure-track position are slim (see the torrent of bad news from every discipline). For those already in traditional tenure track positions, the stakes for promotion are pinned on a system of academic publishing that is in financial collapse and that does a systematic disservice to mission of scholarly communication and exchange. Our academic societies are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with members openly begging for those organizations to provide them with convincing reasons to renew their memberships. And yet, when I look back to the moments in my own education that convinced me to pursue a career in academia, I have some hope for us going forward.

In the mid-1990s, I spent my undergraduate career in the College at Georgetown University, a place where the values of a liberal arts education were front and center. This environment provided me with an orientation with a number of benefits. A core curriculum demanded significant work in a variety of disciplines in the arts, sciences, and social sciences. I fulfilled many of those requirements in a two semester interdisciplinary seminar on 19th century revolutions that was grounded in Western European History, Literature, Philosophy, and Theology. I found myself quite at home with this liberal focus and chose an interdisciplinary major in American Studies, where I had the freedom to define my own academic path.

The Idea of a University

When asked for a cogent argument about the value of this type of liberal arts education, more often than not members of the faculty and administration at my institution would point to the classic text by John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1852 and 1858). Tasked with establishing a university for Catholics in Ireland, the Cardinal distilled his understanding of the university as a place for teaching, learning, and conversation where inquiry is pushed forward. Though Newman was focused on the undergraduate education of men by men, his insights hold import for all of us, including those of us with advanced degrees. In discussing the importance of exposing students to many perspectives, Newman argued:

the drift and meaning of a branch of knowledge varies with the company in which it is introduced to the student. If his reading is confined simply to one subject, however such division of labour may favour the advancement of a particular pursuit … certainly it has a tendency to contract his mind. If it is incorporated with others, it depends on those others as to the kind of influence which it exerts upon him….

It is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies which a University professes, even for the sake of the students; and, though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it resets, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom (100-101).

Thus, this effort to produce well-rounded human beings rather than intensely specialized practitioners appeared to have significant benefits for both the students and the faculty.

For me, as an undergraduate, it made the task of course selection, after the initial introduction to the various disciplines, an adventure every semester. The habits of mind created through a liberal education rendered the world wide open to serve the needs of my curiosity. I approached the task of reading course descriptions and making my selections with the unrestrained hopefulness that each class held the promise of a new frontier. Sometimes these choices tied back into my interdisciplinary focus, but sometimes they simply did not. Nonetheless, as Newman suggests, the juxtaposition of Modern Foreign Government with the History of the American South, Contemporary American Literature, and Religions of the African Diaspora helped me form an intellectual perspective that privileged the integration of a wide range of materials and questions. Meanwhile, my work at the Center for Electronic Projects in American Cultural Studies began to provide me with a set of digital skills that opened still more possibilities for envisioning scholarly work.

This attraction to making sense out of disparate data and approaching inquiry questions from many perspectives led me to pursue an interdisciplinary graduate degree in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. There I focused on methodological approaches from intellectual and cultural history, anthropology, religious studies, and a smattering of critical and cultural theory. Needless to say, this choice of graduate study did not appear to be the smartest career move, given that individuals with disciplinary degrees were and are having a hard enough time finding traditional employment in the academy. There is little room for those who do not fit neatly within established departmental boundaries. Yet, it seemed like the most logical fit for the way that I’d learned to think and approach the world of scholarly endeavors.

Digital Humanities

While I may not have set myself up for a traditional academic career path, the eclectic nature of my interests and my willingness to apply a wide range of interpretive frameworks to those interests helped me launch an ideal alternative academic career doing digital humanities work. I jumped at the opportunity to work at the Center for History and New Media in part because I suspected that I would find myself quickly bored with the typical research, teaching, and service expectations of a tenure track job. And in many ways, work in the digital humanities embodies the ideals of liberal education that Newman set out in the middle of the nineteenth century, because it calls for us to be at the crossroads of many conversations.

First, current work in the digital humanities guarantees that we have access to the tools that make many methodological approaches not only possible, but relatively easy. In the last five years, we have made great strides in creating software platforms that allow scholars to engage in sophisticated geo-spatial, temporal, textual, visual, computational, and quantitative analyses. The increasing separation of structured data from operational interfaces also means that a scholar can frequently bring many of these perspectives to bear on a single corpus of data at the same time. Even more promising is that these platforms provide the possibility that other scholars can access the same data and the same tools to pursue new questions and create new models of critical inquiry.

Second, because the end products of digital humanities work are so varied in comparison to a print journal article or a traditional print monograph, we have a chance to make new modes of thinking integral to our daily work practice. Work for the web often calls for critical thinking about design, and the ways that visual rhetoric can facilitate a scholarly argument. Just like the process of creating a digital story, the act of designing (or helping to design) a website provides a powerful opportunity for scholars to step outside of the conventions of academic prose in a way that surfaces important insights that may otherwise be obscured by the traditional forms. Similarly, one does not have to be a proficient web developer to appreciate the ways that carefully constructed information architecture is a vehicle for scholarly arguments, or to recognize the elegant logic of code. Intimate involvement in the design and building of digital humanities projects allows scholars to participate in alternative ways of knowing, and to grow in a deep understanding of how those projects fully embody scholarly arguments.

Finally, digital work can be a deeply collaborative venture. As the Hacking the Academy collection and unconferences like THATCamp demonstrate, that collaboration does not necessarily need to be the kind that involves frequent face to face meetings. Though John Henry Newman was convinced that the University could only succeed if it was a physical place of community, we have come to know that the extended community of digital humanities scholars makes it possible for us all to shape one another through our thinking, writing, and production of digital work. Of course, some of us have the good fortune to work in centers and labs that are structured on the understanding that our work can proceed only with the input of a team of designers, developers, and content experts. Both of these types of collaborations result in a work that moves our collective understanding forward because it builds upon a host of different gifts, talents, insights, and proficiencies.

Take an Elective

On a given day, digital humanists in alternative jobs make up only a small percentage of the academy. Nonetheless, that work provides some models for how we might return to the core values of scholarly inquiry and exchange that should be at the heart of our work. If we are to consider how we might change the practices of the academy to help us begin to move past a place of systemic dysfunction, we have to propose solutions that seem realistic to both junior and senior faculty in more traditional positions. In that spirit, I have a small proposal for both junior and senior scholars: take an elective of your own design. Embrace eclecticism, and give yourself permission to dedicate some percentage of your week to learning or investigating something completely new, in the service of having more intellectual fun.

I suggest that everyone remember what it felt like to take an elective that truly excited you—remember the joy of doing something just because it was fun and challenging, in and of itself. Perhaps this is a scholarly version of Google’s 80/20 Rule, where employees get one day a week to work on their own projects. But since as academics we are mostly self-directed, I’m suggesting that this time be dedicated to moving beyond the the core forms of individual work that are the benchmarks of disciplinary promotion and tenure. Consider a new methodological approach. Produce work that takes a non-traditional form. Work with colleagues from other disciplines. Then, step forward and proclaim the results as being central to the future health and welfare of the academy. This elective work has the potential to enlarge the way that we think about and evaluate scholarship. Thus, it can remind the academy as a whole that value of our work is not that it results in a monograph or a bevy of articles in major scholarly journals, but that it opens up new lines of inquiry and pushes our collective understanding of the world forward.

Take an elective: make Cardinal Newman proud.

About Sharon Leon

Sharon M. Leon is Director of Public Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and Associate Professor of History at George Mason University. Her research interests include the history of religion in the U.S., especially Roman Catholicism, history of science and twentieth century cultural history. She received her bachelor's degree from Georgetown University and her doctorate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota in 2004. Her first book, An Image of God: the Catholic Struggle with Eugenics, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013.
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