Breakin’ down the Big Thinking…so you don’t have to! (Pt. 1)

The wonderfully named 2012 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences “Scholarship for an Uncertain World” took place last week. Thousands of nattily-attired scholars and students from universities across Canada could be spotted wandering uncertainly along the tree-lined, goose-soiled pavements of Wilfrid Laurier and the University of Waterloo. In addition to hundreds of panel sessions discussing everything from “Euclidean Geometry in Two Medieval Islamic Encyclopedias” to “Adirondack Food Culture Through the Ages,” the gathering featured a juicy slate of “Big Thinking” lectures. Words in Place (henceforth WIP) provides our blog-followers with predigested versions of the BTs, under the Age of PowerPoint assumption that Big Thinking goes down best when chunked into Small Thoughts.


Big Thinker: Sidonie Smith on the Future of the Humanities. She is the Martha Guernsey Colby Collegiate Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and was the 2010 President of the Modern Language Association of America.

Her lecture is  available at

Signature move: the air quote

Obligatory props to Canada: “You’re such an enlightened neighbor to us…I was so glad to get into Canada after being in the United States during this political season.”

Devil’s Dictionary entries: knowledge ecologies; flexible collaboration; oxygenation of dissertation; sort-of publishing; sustainable humanities; collaboratories

The gist: Government is cutting off investment in higher ed. Huge knowledge “deficits” are the downside. Upside: new relationships of collaboration between institutions worldwide, new forms of academic knowledge production, are now possible. The digital revolution creates new opportunities and challenges for humanist education. Virtual universities and courses can expand minds under carefully thought-out, ethical conditions—we can truly extend education to more people. Digital, interconnected libraries will create a global Library of Alexandria. Business as usual (i.e., books as usual) won’t cut it. Scholars have to understand they are living in a “bookish” world now, which means books appear in many forms, traditional paper books being only one output mode. Bookishness means scholars should not be afraid to explore new ways of creating and disseminating their research and insights. They’ll find there are many more possibilities for communicating their ideas to a wider readership if they stop focusing on the standard book-length monograph, which is usually printed in batches of 400 and winds up on the stacks in a musty old library. This is an “invisibility cost” scholars pay for publishing in the old-fashioned way. Instead, open access publication, Creative Commons licensing, open courseware, and so forth can help scholars get their work out to more people than ever before.

The say it ain’t so moment: The PhD dissertation may fade in importance, replaced by something Smith did not have time to explain. In any case, the bad old dissertation is tied up with the “fetishization” of the one current model of academic success: the tenure-track job at a Research 1 institution. But today’s PhDs may end up in all sorts of other jobs, so departments need to prepare them for careers in business, government, and so on.

The upshot: Smith wants a new business model for the humanities, one that acknowledges the bottom-line realities of the economic environment in which the humanities are already hard-pressed to exist.

X-factor: During the talk a radio tuned to a baseball game could be heard faintly throughout the auditorium. Turned out to be the translator muttering in his “soundproof” hood.

BT rating (/5):


2 responses to “Breakin’ down the Big Thinking…so you don’t have to! (Pt. 1)

  1. Fraser Easton

    The transition begins. . . .

    Welcome, WIP, for taking up the challenge of this important blog, and thanks, Lady English Professor, for pioneering it.

    To readers of the blog: what do you think if this post? What do you like about the blog so far?

  2. Gord Higginson

    I love this blog. Very good to hear about everything that is happening, recent conferences and especially about faculty and graduate student research. WIP actually helps me with both my job and my hobbies–gives me information for books to watch out for! Keep up the news about research developments!

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