Humanities on the Edge Preview: John Durham Peters
Photo Credit: Bill Manning
In preparation for the upcoming Humanities on the Edge Lecture by John Durham Peters, the A. Craig Professor in the Department of Communication and Professor of International Studies at the University of Iowa, this post will review a previous lecture entitled, “‘What is Knowledge For’ and What Does Communications Have to do With It?” The lecture was given at the 100th Annual Convention of the National Communication Association in Chicago in 2014.
From the outset, Dr. Peters admits to having “been a skeptic or dissident about professionalized knowledge, including the very idea of a discipline of communication studies.” He then advised for members to “consider [his lecture] a minority report from one who has spent his life hanging around and thinking about universities.” Indeed, Dr. Peters comments on his family’s long association with academia and a certain nostalgia he experiences when considering the myriad idealized university settings.
Peters recounts the symptoms of the current state of crisis within universities. His clarity on these familiar issues bears repeating: “The problems are well known: we face the erosion of tenure-track positions and the implosion of management models and accounting systems that increase transparency but not necessarily intelligence. Transparency, like visibility, is a trap! Diminished funding leads to increased tuition fees, the aggressive pursuit of international student dollars, and a shift of general education courses to community colleges, which risks weakening the core humanities curriculum.”
But he also appreciates and even advocates for the quirky natures inherent to the denizens of any university department: “We all know the empire-builder. The self-promoter who just may have written a detailed Wikipedia entry about his or her contributions to scholarship. The mother earth therapist. . . . The mentor-tormentor. The child-nouveau-grooveau dude. . . . The glossolaliac theory-spinner” and others. Though he claims that any connection to real individuals is coincidental, I cannot help but wonder what his reception was upon his return to the University of Iowa following this lecture.
Peters brings up these characters to help frame his central question, which deals with the location of knowledge. In other words, can all knowledge reside in any university? Of course not, the main reason being that humanity cannot possibly know all that is knowable. There are, according to Peters, two domains of knowledge that surpass the current collective ability of humanity: 1) “the domain of all that is yet to be known”; and 2) “the domain of what once has been known.” In regard to the second point, I am reminded of a statement by Neil deGrasse Tyson about future knowledge of the cosmos in an ever-expanding universe. To paraphrase, we can see and understand more about the heavens now than millions of years in the future. We should, therefore, record what we know now to help future generations. Knowledge is necessarily connected to materiality. Peters cites the Rosetta Stone and Albert Einstein’s arguments about the importance of pencil and paper as an expression of knowledge to help support this claim. However, there remains a problem of how knowledge is materially stored and those tasked with recording and interpreting it.
To further complicate matters, Peters points to what appears on the surface to be an obvious problem, but one that does, in fact, severely complicate matters. This problem, which certainly would come as a surprise to some of my graduate student colleagues, deals with the mortality of the human species, of which academics are reluctant members. Our mortality limits our ability to know, to inquire, and to understand. Consequently, knowledge remains in a perpetual state of flux. He argues specifically that “knowledge is time-bound.” When I read this part of the lecture, I was reminded of reading and then teaching Rachel Maddow’s Drift. In her critique of American military policy, she reveals the fact that the scientists who constructed the geometrically stacked nuclear materials in our aging Intercontinental Ballistic Missile stockpile have all retired, and many have died. At present, new engineers are working to even understand the notes left by those earlier scientists, much less address material problems with the weapons of mass destruction. The horrifying implications of this reality are almost incomprehensible.
In regard to general knowledge, Peters both finds suspect and recounts the production of new knowledge. He states emphatically that “it is one thing to produce knowledge that is new to everyone, and another to produce knowledge that is new to someone,” the first being a near impossibility. That being said, being first is the name of the academic game. There are no silver and bronze prizes. Conversely, “In teaching and learning . . . there is no loss in being second or the billionth person to know.”
The real problem for Peters, at least the way I am following his line of thought, is the academic model that demands new or recently-made-new productions of knowledge required for tenure and promotion committees. He explains that “by adopting the guild-model of peer-review as the standard of truth, academic professionalism in the decades around 1900 secured an autonomous space for inquiry, relatively immune to the meddling of church, state, and market.” The results of this shift have yielded mixed results. For example, the guild-model can encourage “the highest standards of truth-seeking.” (If I am to be honest, my deconstructionist indoctrination makes me bristle slightly at the word truth in any argument concerning academia.) On the negative side, the production of knowledge in a peer-review environment caters to an ever-narrowing and specific group of individuals as opposed to existing for the benefit of the human species overall. Since specialization is needed to battle our mortality, this kind of professionalization was inevitable.
Peters ends his lecture by drawing attention to what he perceives to be the problematic divide between science and literature. Considering the demographic of his audience (people with a vested interest in the field of Communication Studies), it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that he makes a call to action: “Knowledge of the world in all its strangeness is our business, and communication studies could be a place for a fresh confluence of what we have called humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and the arts.”
In spite of some complaints, which are perhaps just minor critiques that I could make about Peters’s arguments, I can certainly get behind another of his main points, which is the call for universities to refocus on the undergraduate classroom as a site of improving the human condition. Further, he advocates for his colleagues to avoid the pitfalls of complaining ad nauseam about the cast of usual suspects from administration to corporate interests to state lawmakers and instead to revitalize his field: “As communication scholars we have been too lazy, too unambitious, to untrue to the grandeur inherent in out subject matter, too ready to talk to each other and too slow to harvest knowledge from everywhere.”
I admit that I enjoyed reading this lecture and the optimism it contained. But it does not lift my spirits. In my travels through the academy in the last decade, I keep noticing and wondering why so many academics seem so intent on playing the game they complain so much about. And as much as my deconstructionist indoctrination makes me suspicious of Peters’s return in the final paragraphs to a rhetoric of truth, my Marxist training makes me wonder if this inwardly-focused critique isn’t actually another example of academics getting played. I wonder if the time and effort it would take to build better communication between material knowledge and humanity wouldn’t be put to better use organizing and taking back the university altogether, and doing so with coercive measures if necessary. I believe such concerns should be addressed, especially in an era when members of the academia are given guidelines about how to teach students in the classroom who are armed with handguns. Most would agree that universities, if not in a crisis, are at least at a crossroads. The NCAA model, where college athletics have become unpaid training camps for professional sports, continues to creep into a university paradigm wherein a bachelor’s degree is a form of paid training for American business, except that the prospective employee now assumes massive debt for the privilege. It is a reverse patronage paradigm where loyalty is garnered because a paycheck is required to make the student loan payments. In that regard, I am more than willing to listen to any individual who conceives of knowledge as a worthy endeavor dealing with the improvement of our world and offers ways of returning to that undertaking, which is certainly at the core of Peters’s operation.
But back to the task at hand, I am excited to hear what he has to say in his Humanities on the Edge lecture. Peters’s clear rhetorical style should make his ideas and concerns imminently accessible to his audience in the Sheldon Museum on March 31, 2016, at 5:30pm. His upcoming lecture is entitled, “Do Clouds Have Meaning? On the Relation between Media and Nature.” Based on my reading of a previous lecture by Dr. Peters, I can predict an engaging and thought-provoking evening.