Saturday, November 18, 2006

Speaking for the dead

Yesterday I gave a talk on my work in progress to our humanities research seminar, and since it was a pretty technical, specialist talk, I wanted to give an introduction that put it in a broader context, especially because I was speaking to a generalist audience, but also because the value of my work – why it should matter – has been much on my mind. Lately I’ve been feeling a little down about the worth of my work – my research in particular, but sometimes my teaching, too – and that has everything to do with the ways the current administration at my university has been treating those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences (or, for that matter, the pure sciences). I won’t get into specifics, but it’s gone way beyond the usual nonsense that humanities people have to put up with, to the extent that it’s been seriously affecting morale in these parts. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what the value of my work is, but not in some instrumentalist, utilitarian way. I think when you start to talk that way about education, it plays right into the hands of the technocrats who think the point of education is to give them a well-trained workforce and to meet their needs and their needs only.

This kind of talk is especially nerve-wracking for me, since it’s hard for a medievalist to justify her work on the basis of use-value and practical needs. Every now and then current events make the general public see the value of, say, a Crusades historian, but when one’s work is about a miscellaneous manuscript of anonymous saints’ lives and romances and allegorical poems, which was once owned by a London merchant who might have been “somebody” in the 15th century but is pretty much a “nobody” to the ages after, well then, you’ve got the kind of obscure-seeming project that’s just asking to be mocked by the utilitarian and instrumental thinkers. I mean, it’s not even about Chaucer or Arthurian romance – at least people have heard of those. And medievalists sometimes even get dismissed by their peers in their own disciplines for some of the same or other misguided reasons (as HeoCwaeth has talked about), so even if my university weren’t going out its way to make the humanists and social scientists in general feel like schmucks, I still wanted to contextualize my work for my general audience.

So here’s what I said.

Lately, honestly, I’ve been feeling kind of down about my work and its value; after all, it doesn’t save lives and it doesn’t make the world a better place. So what use is it? [note: spoken with some sarcasm – there’s a context here for my original audience]. If we ask students what the value of studying the past is, they say we can learn from the past or from those who study the past. And as I often tell my students, we can point to medieval origins of much of our contemporary world including the university and the liberal arts. But that’s using the past as means, and I’d rather study it as an end in itself, to give it its own integrity and dignity, rather than make all about what it says about me, us, now – that’s “presentism.” Moreover, that use of the past as means can be abused. The medieval origin or association of something can be used to denigrate it: “how medieval” versus the privilege and supposed progress of modernity. Or, it can be used as a fetishization of “tradition” to oppress and to maintain the status quo – as in the conservative cry to preserve “traditional marriage.”

So, of what “use” is the past? In my teaching narrative in my dossier, I wrote the following, and I deeply believe it: “I believe in the humanist, liberal arts ideal that deep, critical encounters with lives, literatures, cultures, discourses, and ways of thinking other than one’s own makes one a fuller, better human being. In that sense, I hope students will ‘use’ their experiences in English courses for the rest of their lives.” That certainly includes lives, etc. of the past. But that’s about the classroom – what about my research? Why does it matter?

Having thought much about this in recent months, I realized just last night that while my work may not save lives in any literal sense, neither does any other work except temporarily, because ultimately we all die. Thus, those of us who work on the past speak for the dead, either as individuals or as cultures. We are all mortal, and we share this mortality with all life on earth; but what makes humans distinct is that we can memorialize, represent, study, and remember the long dead – their culture, their art, their literature, their governments, their disasters and triumphs, their religions, their social practices, their lives – and we, like them, can leave our traces to be so remembered when we are dead. We all die. And so to speak for the dead is to speak for humanity, for the human condition itself, and it is also to be human.

The dead I’m speaking for today wouldn’t have needed me to speak for them when they were alive. I’m talking about wealthy, powerful aldermen of late medieval London – the kind of men who were sheriffs and mayors, or the sons of them and who loaned money to the crown. Indeed, they’d be a little baffled and bewildered to have a woman scholar speak for them. In their world I couldn’t have existed! But “Dead White European Men” need us to speak for them, too, because the dead can’t speak for themselves. And these particular “DWEMs” really haven’t had much said about them at all (only the briefest mentions in books dedicated to their social milieu) And the manuscript they’ve inscribed their names on, as they knew it, has also been overlooked – though certain of the earlier texts within it have gotten plenty of scholarly attention, just not together. Plus, the texts are anonymous – there’s no Chaucer or other named author here – and even rich merchants aren’t kings or other world historical figures, so their reading and cultural practices have only begun to be studied in recent decades.

As for why I’m interested in them, I’ve always been interested in the readers and audiences for texts as much as or more than I’ve been interested in their authors. After all, I’m a reader not an author (at least not in a literary sense) and I fell into literary study because of that. More and more, questions of how and what and why we read (or don’t read) interest me more than how X author wrote. I never really needed Roland Barthes to tell me that the author was dead or that a text’s meaning lies in its audience, its destination – though when I first read that essay in college, I thought “Yes! I’m not the only one! Maybe I’m not a freak!” So that’s what this project is about: about a particular manuscript’s “destination” in the 15th century and its audience with 15th century merchants whose names are on its final folio. But it’s also about those larger questions of how and what and why we read, and how reading produces meaning, how it produces culture, questions that I’m not the first to ask certainly, but which still have not been fully answered, for the dead or the living.

34 comments:

Ancarett said...

Wonderfully articulate as a statement of purpose. We speak for the dead, we try to do them justice in laying open their lives, their stories and the context which spawned them.

Bardiac said...

Damn, you're GOOD! I really like your stating that oh so obvious truth that we'll all die, because so much people seem to pretend that it's all about today, and don't see that today will be history pretty fast, and what we do won't necessarily weigh heavily with them unless we, too, respect the dead.

How'd your audience react?

Dr. Virago said...

Thanks you two!

And Bardiac, that's a good question -- they seemed to like it, since there was a lot of head-nodding, though the Q&A session was mostly about the specific project, of course. (There were about 10 more pages of text after this intro.) Our Islamic studies scholar brought up how the value of speaking about the ownership of texts for him is a question of stolen heritage and desired reparations -- manuscripts once owned by his grandfather, for instance, are now the property of English libraries and museums, who clearly saw the value in them or they wouldn't have taken them, but who also have questionable rights to them. So for him it's a question of personal history and inheritance. (And that caused me to wonder how my manuscript got from private mercantile hands into a bishop's library, after which it was donated to an Oxbridge library.)

But mostly we talked about the project itself, so I have to say I don't know for sure what they thought of intro. Bullock was there, and he liked it, but I think he's contractually obligated to say so! ;)

medieval woman said...

A very nice post, Dr. V - I totally agree with feelings of angst about how "useful" our work is!

BTW, our scholarly interests sound very similar (I'm working on readership of late medieval manuscripts as well - many of them are miscellanies) but not so similar as to be too close for comfort! :) I'd love to talk to you more about it if you're interested - drop me a line! (medievalwoman1@gmail.com)

Rob Barrett said...

This is where I always quote Homicide: Life on the Street:

Bayliss: Those guys are like a family. I have never, ever felt that in Homicide. We may be the best, the elite, but we are not a family.

Pembleton: Yes we are. But we're like a real family. Opinionated, argumentative, holding grudges, challenging each other. We push each other to be better than we are. That kind of thing doesn't happen at barbecues or ball games. It happens on the job where it's supposed to. Putting down a murder. The work itself is the most important thing. What we do is important. We speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves and you're not gonna ever find anything like that anywhere, not in LA, or patrolling the grounds at Disneyland.

Somehow Frank's quote describes medieval studies to me . . .

Dr. Virago said...

Medieval Woman -- Yes, we do need to have a confab! I've got to run now, but expect an e-mail from me in the next day or two!

Rob -- LOL! So, have you seen the new DVD box set of the series? It comes in a mini filing cabinet! I covet it intensely. And btw, I was actually, truly, thinking of Gil Grissom from CSI when I said we speak for the dead -- I'm pretty sure he's said that more than once. Gotta love those procedurals!

Karl Steel said...

DV: have you had a look at the discussion about the past and future at In the Middle? Much of what you're saying here intersects with our discussion over there. I have to run right now, but there's much in what you said that got me thinking about the dubious pastness of the past. We're speaking for the dead, sure, but we're also speaking about pasts that are still with us. They couldn't be meaningful otherwise.

At any rate, you should drop over there briefly, as JJC, Kofi, and Eileen can handle these issues much better than I can.

HeoCwaeth said...

Beautiful! Thank you. One gets so tired of folk demanding to know 'real-world' applications of one's work when what they generally want to know about are corporate applications.

Mythoclast said...

Thanks for this. I often toil with what makes an endeavour useful in life, and while your view isn't particularly cheerful? it's real and well, peaceful, I guess.

Dr. Virago said...

Mythoclast -- Well, my cheerful version is this: I study the past, and in particular, the Middle Ages, because it gives me pleasure. And what more could want from life than a job that gives you pleasure? That, to me, is the most *useful* view of the value of whatever it is one studies.

And also, I like fart jokes. :)

Ah, from the sublime to the silly!

HeoCwaeth - Exactly.

Karl -- Oh dear, this is where I have to admit how far behind I am in blog reading, especially those blogs that make me think hard. Last I looked at my Bloglines subscriptions, there were some 20+ posts at In the Middle that I hadn't read. But I should, because, in fact, I was thinking of you guys and what y'all might think of this post. Hmmm...I don't suppose Eileen would like this much, would she? But here's the thing: I don't think I was consigning the past to an irretrievable otherness. Rather, as part of memory -- which is, after all, what most of life consists of -- it is a living part of us. I just don't want to regard it solely in terms of its "usefulness" for the present -- as some kind of antiques store or curiosity shop out of which we recycle what we find valuable once again.

Maybe I should visit the discussion over there. But if Kofi, Eileen, and JJC have already contributed much, I fear it will take me days to take it all in, by which time the moment will have past. Or else, the conversation will become too consuming for me to handle the time and energy necessary for it -- that's what happened way back when Emile Blauche first "contributed" and I made one lame, anecdotal contribution, then everyone started talking about my comment and my supposed mental health (well, Emile did) and it freaked me out too much to come back into the conversation. Too much! Plus, I think those guys really only read one blog -- that one -- and so have time to devote to the conversation, whereas I have many blogs I need/want to catch up on. All of which is to say, you guys intimidate me a little bit.

Karl Steel said...

!! It's funny to be "you guys." I wish I read only one blog. I would have been done years ago. I hear you about the length of the conversations: I wish I could be as voluble as Eileen. As for Emile: well, uh, he's left. That particular tone isn't going to be at our blog anymore, so it's safe to come back!

Did you see the Stanley Fish piece in the Times a week ago or so about the untranslatability of what we do? It harmonizes with what you've said here, I think, and I drew on that piece, and yours, for a comment over at Heocwaeth's that, coincidentally, talks about the inexplicable, irreducible pleasure of our work.

Dr. Virago said...

Karl -- I know *you* read many, many blogs, but I think the others at In the Middle -- bloggers and commenters -- read fewer. In fact, I know Eileen was deeply suscpicious of the blogosphere until In the Middle. *Those* guys read a select group of blogs; but *you* guys all still intimidate me -- especially Eileen. She kind of scares me. And her associative way of thinking makes my head spin -- I just can't keep up. But it's good to hear Emile is gone for good -- I thought he still popped up every now and then -- though that original obnoxious conversation in which he claimed that *his* work as a trauma counselor was good and useful and ours was worthless certainly was resonating below the surface of my post here.

And no, I think I missed that Fish piece. Is it still available online?

Karl Steel said...

I'm not sure Emile is gone for good, but he hasn't been around for weeks. I don't want to make any promises.

Boy, I really need to finish grading, but I couldn't leave well enough alone. The Fish piece ("always academicize") is on Fish's Times "Think Again" blog, and was available for the week that Times provided its Select content for free. Thankfully, can you believe it?, I found some blog that reprinted the whole thing.

Here's the meat:
The issue not explicitly raised in the comments but implied by many of them is the issue of justification. If the point of liberal arts education is what I say it is – to lay out the history and structure of political and ethical dilemmas without saying yes or no to any of the proposed courses of action – what is the yield that justifies the enormous expenditure of funds and energies? Beats me! I don’t think that the liberal arts can be justified and, furthermore, I believe that the demand for justification should be resisted because it is always the demand that you account for what you do in someone else’s terms, be they the terms of the state, or of the economy, or of the project of democracy. “Tell me, why should I as a businessman or a governor or a preacher of the Word, value what you do?” There is no answer to this question that does not involve preferring the values of the person who asks it to yours. The moment you acquiesce to the demand for justification, you have lost the game, because even if you succeed, what you will have done is acknowledge that your efforts are instrumental to some external purpose; and if you fail, as is more likely, you leave yourself open to the conclusion that what you do is really not needed. The spectacle of departments of French or Byzantine Studies or Classics attempting to demonstrate that the state or society or the world order benefits from their existence is embarrassing and pathetic. These and other programs are in decline not because they have failed to justify themselves, but because they have tried to.

The only self-respecting form justification could take is internal and circular. You value the activity because you like doing it and you like encouraging others to do it. Aside from that, there’s not much to say. Kathryn Jakacbin makes my point (inadvertently) when she observes that while “inquiry into the phenomena, their origins, extent, implications would be enlightening,” it would, if “untethered from a basic moral base also be weightless.” Just so! I’m saying that “weightless” is good, because “enlightening,” without any real-world payoff, is the business we’re in. And I would give the same reply to Andrea who is worried “that what we do as academics may be irrelevant to the active/political life.” Let’s hope so.
In a similar vein, John Dillinger (a great name) complains that, “As it is now, academia in the U.S. couldn’t be more depoliticized, and more irrelevant.” Would that were true, but read any big city newspaper and you will find endless stories about politicized classrooms, stories that would never have been written if teachers followed the injunction to always academicize. You know you’re doing your job if you have no comeback at all to the charge that, aside from the pleasures it offers you and your students, the academic study of materials and problems is absolutely useless.

J J Cohen said...

Hey! Who told you I don't read your blog? I read it faithfully. It's one of my all time favorites.

And as to speaking for the dead (brilliantly phrased, I thought) ... check out Kellie Robertson's ruminations on speaking with the living via the medieval: Futures of the Field. The two of you have much in common.

PS Eileen Joy scares me, too. But I love her anyway.

Dr. Virago said...

JJC wrote:
I read it faithfully. It's one of my all time favorites....check out Kellie Robertson's ruminations...The two of you have much in common.

PS Eileen Joy scares me, too. But I love her anyway.


I *heart* you, JJC. You just made my day!

But now I'm afraid Eileen's going to come over here and freak me out some more. Oh well -- probably good for me! :)

Karl -- yes, I *did* read that Fish piece after all. I think I forgot about it because I got way too caught up in reading the comments, which, as I recall, bummed me out. I need to go re-read that piece and this time ignore the comments -- thanks for reminding me of it.

Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Echoes of Greenblatt? Obviously, I'm a fan of that approach--and it also explains why I'm so comfortable around medievalists, as they seem intuitively sympathetic to this approach (although they're generally better at avoiding presentism).

Dr. Virago said...

Echoes of Greenblatt?

The short answer is: sometimes yes, sometimes no. Younger Greenblatt is preferable to Greenblatt these days. See, even there I prefer the past to the present and speak for the "dead." Heh heh.

Chester N. Scoville said...

This is exactly what I've long thought: the people of the past deserve our respect and care simply because, in essence, we'll be them one day.

Flavia said...

Okay, so it's true that I'm operating on 5 hours of sleep right now, but I have tears in my eyes reading this--it's so much what I believe about my own work. Thanks for sharing.

anhaga said...

Finally catching up on blog reading myself -- I was so impressed with this post, for its honesty and its resonance. and, to focus on more aesthetic things, its beauty:

We are all mortal, and we share this mortality with all life on earth; but what makes humans distinct is that we can memorialize, represent, study, and remember the long dead – their culture, their art, their literature, their governments, their disasters and triumphs, their religions, their social practices, their lives – and we, like them, can leave our traces to be so remembered when we are dead. We all die. And so to speak for the dead is to speak for humanity, for the human condition itself, and it is also to be human.

In some sense then, studying the past is always a present project -- presenting (in both ways) those who can no longer present themselves, and requiring all the care such a task suggests.

Dr. Virago said...

Thanks Flavia and Anhaga. (Oh no! I made Flavia cry!) And Anhaga, that's exactly what I was trying to suggest, that "studying the past is always a present project," even, in some sense, a social duty.

Virgo Sis said...

You made me cry, too, but for more personal reasons. Damn, you can write.

And I laughed at the Homicide:Life on the Street reference. If we choose each other's names for gift giving we can buy it for each other.

Eileen Joy said...

Here's the thing about the dead--rather than have you or anyone else for that matter "speak" for them, they would rather simply be . . . alive. To keep them alive, even through historical writing, is to risk the zombification of the dead [well, not really, literally, but I think Toni Morrison's book "Beloved" is *the* best cautionary tale on the subject--sometimes the dead need to stay really dead so that those in the present with psychic wounds rooted in the past can heal and go forward into the future].

Gee, am I *really* that scary?

And Dr. Virago, we read more blogs than you might think. I don't always have time to comment [mainly because, yes, I devote most of the time I have for blogging to writing comments just at In The Middle], but I do try to spend at least a couple of hours every week seeing what everyone is up to on the other blogs.

I'm not scary. Really I'm not.

Cheers, Eileen

Mythoclast said...

I just came across this [video recorded lecture] yesterday and it made me think of this post of yours. It isn't very new and you may have already seen it, but it's entertaining and trys to answer the "Why Study History" question.

http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~history/UGfreshmen.cgi

It's a lecture for freshmen.

Dr. Virago said...

Eileen -- If you keep bringing up zombies, you'll *definitely* scare me! :)

Seriously, I'm not entirely sure what you mean, but I'll take a stab at it. If by the zombification of the past, you mean those approaches that insist that we must and can only understand a work in its original context -- i.e., "old historicism" and also those conservative voices who think we academics "import" too much of our "present" concerns into the text -- then in no way do I want to participate in such zombification. I think we're on the same page there.

On some level, every text is in the present tense -- even those that claim to look back at the past -- since our experience of reading it is a present one. And I suppose every text and every trace of the past can speak for itself without needing me or anyone else to speak for it, thank you very much.

But not everyone hears the past speaking. So maybe our jobs are not so much to speak for the dead, but to help others hear the still living (?) -- to say, "Hey, listen -- someone is speaking and it's worth hearing."

Dr. Virago said...

And mythoclast -- I think I need Real Audio for that file, because I can't seem to open it at the moment.

emile blauche said...

Perhaps a refresher is in order, and so I quote myself:

“there are a great number of self-important literary scholars who labor under the illusion that their work somehow matters, that it can be translated into real social, political, or human action.”

“And for the record, since I haven't declared it in no uncertain terms: yes, I think therapeutic work, good therapeutic work, is real in ways and with a frequency that academic work rarely, rarely approaches.”

“there are those who get worked up about doing something that is needed, might make a difference, is radical, is bold, is political, has effects outside the classroom or the department, but they remain mired in a sterile language, a narrow field of scholars whom they read and cite, and an even narrower field of associates with whom they bitch about the academy and dream of doing something real. Those folks carry, as I see it, a bigger burden …. I will hold them to a higher standard.”

You will note that nowhere have I claimed that what you “do” is worthless. It could have great value—and that’s up to you.

I have urged walking the ethical walk rather than more/mere talking the ethical talk.

Most scholars, like JJC, will hide behind scholarly language because, I suspect, they are somewhere aware of the deep ways that reality will always exceed, and thereby elude, the tiny verbal mirrors they hold up. When they content themselves with Gerald of Wales for the umpteenth time or chafe when it is pointed out that what they call a job search is nothing more than mirror hunger, I find it hard to take them seriously as humanists.

Dr. Virago said...

Emile, since you're now in my space and not in someone else's, I'll say what I've been wanting to say for months: I find it deeply ironic that someone as rude and combative and condescending as you present yourself in your comments, and who seeks out the virtual company of those whom he clearly disdains, keeps talking about ethics. If ethics is how we treat each other, that includes conversation and correspondence, here and elsewhere, and you show yourself to be poor at it. Perhaps *you* should learn to walk the ethical walk.

Now go away unless you have something to say about my blog and my posts, and can do so with respect. If you're going to continue to come here just to pick a fight with or over JJC to work out whatever traumatic, unresolved history you have with him, don't bother -- I'll just delete your comments.

My blog, my rules. Deal with it.

emile blauche said...

There is nothing ironic about my comments: they are spoken with passion and a commitment to forms of communication that are designed to be a corrective to the anemic love-fests that are de rigueur in academia.

Be careful that what you read as my disdain isn't your own, concealed (barely) under a tone of academic sincerity.

emile blauche said...

On your post concerning "speaking for the dead": I like what you've said, and, as you no doubt realize, there are many ways that a medievalist might justify her work that extend beyond memorialization. I will offering some of those ways in my talk at the Zoo. I hope you will attend. One of the questions that I beleive should precede the actual work of justification is simply "Why do I (the medievalist) feel the need to justify my work?" IN other words, it is worth inquiring into what specific pressures exist that are compelling such justifying or, as I might be inclined to put it, such testifying. Is it, e.g., sufficient to point to top-down pressures from administrations or from lateral pressures from other disciplines such as economics or sociology? I wonder about that, and am trying to think more broadly about the position of the humanist in a society that appears to have lost touch with some of its conceptual and practical roots. And so I think of Szilard, C. Wright Mills, Fromm, Maslow, Rogers, et alia.

Dr. Virago said...

Emile - those are indeed interesting questions and issues. Thank you for that. I only just now saw this comment and I'm packing for the holiday weekend -- leaving first thing in the morning -- so I'll have to ruminate on the road and maybe pick up the issue of "ways that a medievalist might justify her work" in future posts, if that's OK with you. (I was planning on doing something like that anyway.)

Happy Thanksgiving.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I realise that I'm way behind on this, and that as an outsider to the US academic blogosphere my comments may be of little interest. But I followed a link and ended up here, blue pill style, and there were things being said I resonated with.

I very much like the idea of speaking for the dead, on a personal level, but I'm not sure I'd use it myself. Emile asked, I think, why academics feel the need to justify our work, as if he expects us to own up to acute personal insecurity. Well, I'll do that and fine, but there are other pressures too. I don't know how true this is in the USA, but in the UK, a great deal of university funding still comes, one way or another, from the state. The big research councils, in sciences and humanities alike, are charitable organisations mostly funded from tax revenue. So occasionally I will get someone in a pub or whatever, who's found out what I do, asking me, "why is what you do worth my paying for?" And the reason I struggle to justify my work is that in that conversation, I want to have a good answer. Not just to avoid embarassment, but because I want that person to go away less likely to protest about wasting tax money on irrelevant ivory-tower research. If too many people protest about it the politicians will get the idea that supporting humanities cuts is a vote-winner. So it's political as well as personal.

That is also why I wouldn't use the `speaking for the dead angle', though; I doubt it would convince that person in the pub. And to an extent I agree with whomever was quoting John Dillinger that once we start the justification battle we've already lost, if we foolishly hoist a utilitarian standard. This is the same reason why I always protest at history being described as a social science.

Because, let's face it, what we do is an arts subject. Its only purpose is itself. It's worth doing because it's interesting, and learning is good. There is also the idea that what someone ordinary did in the tenth century is no less important than what someone of the same stamp does now; less relevant, perhaps, if by `relevant' we mean immediately utilisable for profit, but just as important, because they felt it was. Basically, once someone accepts at all that what other people do is worthy of interest, that includes people in the past as much as people of the present, surely? And that's how I spin it.

The other thing I found thought-provoking in these comments was the idea of leaving the dead alone out of respect. Archaeologists might have more to grasp on here, and I've always been faintly bothered by burial archaeology even though the data is really useful. For myself, though, the sources I use were generated by the living, while they still were (though sometimes it's the living dealing with the dead--I suppose you can say the same of burial, even). There's nothing zombifying about looking in on a living person living their life, even if they are dead by the time we do it.

Of course we have to try and disconnect at least partly from our own thought-worlds to appreciate theirs. Not entirely, or we suspend the ability to appreciate it for ourselves I think, and just become robotic editors. And we can't ever bring them fully `to life' because we don't have either the data or the ability. But we can't completely represent the living either, so I don't really see this as a reason to stop trying, just because it'll never be perfect.

Maybe I have the wrong end of the stick with that comment. And I've certainly said enough so I'll stop. Thanks for having me.

Dr. Virago said...

Jonathan, thank you for you long and thoughtful comment. Since this is an old post, I doubt others will join the conversation, but I thought I'd respond to some of your points.

In the US, only about 10% of higher ed funding comes from tax money, and if someone brings up the "why should my money pay for you," I first very kindly point that out. But if I were in your shoes, I'd talk about teaching more than my research, and then talk about how my research makes me a better, more knowledgable teacher. And in that case, I could justify what I teach in utilitarian ways, since I train public school teachers, among others, and Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are on our state's curriculum. But I could also talk about how thinking about new concepts and thinking in new ways -- for example, thinking about hearing stories read or recited out loud, rather than reading them silently to yourself, and what different that makes cognitively as well as socially -- is good exercise for creative thinking, no matter what occupation you go into. And so, Mr. Pub's tax money pays for me to encourage students to use their brains more creatively, which is good for business, entertainment, industry, science, etc. (If Mr. Pub liked sport at all -- as he very well might -- I might use a "cross-training" metaphor. Swimming and running and weight-lifting are good for football players even though what they get paid to do is play football. English literature, likewise, is good for business and engineering majors.) And then I'd say something about how my research makes me a better teacher -- and just how *interesting* and *cool* it is.

I wouldn't give them this "speaking for the dead" talk. I think here, I was thinking more about justifying what I do to other academics, to those in our own world who wonder what the point is of something that's not applied. And I gave a talk this weekend using part of this, but it was to a group of professionals -- academics, lawyers, doctors, industry leaders, etc. -- who were already predisposed to valuing the liberal arts in general.

On a silly side note, if the bloke in the pub were a goth, he might dig the "speaking for the dead" tactic. :)

Jonathan Jarrett said...

That's a good point, and it might have occurred to me if I were currently teaching :-) This is due next year however so I'll be able to hold my head up better then.

I know of medievalist goths, even in the UK, but they're mostly archaeologists. Burial archaeologists in fact. Funny that innit? :-)