Private Pain, Public Humanities: Critical University Studies and Composition

This is the talk I gave at the Critical University Studies Friday Forum at The Graduate Center , CUNY on Friday October 20th.

I’ll open my talk with something participatory. If that’s upsetting to you (as it would be to me) I promise it will be over in 3 minutes. Going around are index cards where I’ll ask you to respond to a prompt I use to open every class I teach at Lehman.

Very briefly, describe the most recent thing you read or wrote—this could be the text you are sending right now, the Facebook post you are reading now, it doesn’t matter. What did that writing or that reading DO for you? Now please take one more minute to share this with someone sitting next to you.

Many of you do a version of this kind of active learning technique because you’re innovative teachers. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the pedagogies created out of the New York City Writing Project or Writing Across the Curriculum programs or critical teaching or digital humanities/digital rhetoric initiatives. I have learned almost everything about teaching from these interventions into university learning.

But let me start with full disclosure: the reason I do this sort of participatory, “flipped classroom” thing has embarrassingly little to do with a good pedagogy.

I do it to alleviate pain. I mean the radically, critically important moment of pain that comes from teaching—from that encounter with others. It’s the daily (or Tues, Thur, Fri for me) nervousness and energy that happen in the moments right before I step into the classroom, those moments of truth when I think “well, can I do it…again? Can I face them—will they face me?”

I’ve been having these moments of truth, these moments of pain and connection for nearly 20 years. If you’re just starting out as a teacher or about to become one, let me assure you:  it never gets easier.

But it does get more interesting. And more important. That is, if we believe, as I do, that “the great mistake” of our time is the privatization of higher learning. The “great mistake” is Chris Newfield’s phrase from his recent book The Great Mistake. Here he argues that the nation gave up its most essential resource—mass intelligence for a mass democracy—when it gave up on public higher education. He wants a return to investment in public higher education, with monies and with commitment. Here is one of his most eloquent and expansive definitions of the “great mistake” and his hope for public higher education to reclaim its place in the nation’s democratic ideals:

 We face many policy obstacles, but I found in my travels around the country that we face more fundamentally a loss of confidence and vision. I became most concerned about privatization as an ethos. To bend the term somewhat, I have been concerned about the weakened character of the collective practice of higher education that separates us emotionally and psychologically from the public vision of full participation in higher learning across all economic and racial groups.

Newfield’s book is forward looking. But the ideas buttressing it are as old as the humanities and certainly as old as the general education revolution of mid-twentieth century. He argues that “creativity” fueled the federal government’s financial commitment to mass higher education in the post World War II period and quotes from the famous 1945 Harvard report on general education, General Education in a Free Society, which ignited curricular reform across the country. The report saw universities as the beacon of democracy, in that they

reflect two characteristic facets of democracy: the one, its creativity, sprung from the self-trust of its members; the other, its exposure to discord and even to fundamental divergence of standards precisely because of this creativity, the source of its strength (my emphasis).

Creativity, discord, collectivity, and self-trust: these old, abstract humanistic values translated into real reform in the last century and can again. Indeed the general education curricular overhaul that Newfield celebrates served our department, English, quite well—increasing funding for scholarship in literary studies and encouraging unprecedented growth in research and majors.  It’s good to be reminded of this national interest in the humanities, in public higher education, and in English departments.

But today I want to remind us of another legacy of the mid-twentieth century general education curricular overhaul. The humanities’ boom was, often, composition’s bust. I don’t mean writing courses were cut. In fact, first year composition courses exploded in this period and required “basic writing” became nearly universal at the undergraduate level. I mean composition was cut off from this national vision of creativity—marginalized as preparatory courses for the real content that happens in theory or critique—anywhere but here. Literary studies and reading became synonymous with these “public good” values—creativity, collectivity, self-trust. And “basic” writing became the preparation for those values.

That too was a great mistake.

But we don’t have to repeat it. If Critical University Studies is going to embark on a new vision for higher education, if it’s going to be critical but also creative about public higher education, we at CUNY and, in particular, we writing scholars and teachers, might ask how our students could be part of the content of the new creative nation.

Which gets me back to the index cards that began this talk. I asked you to record semi-private moments of pain or uncertainty or simple acknowledgment of this moment, of our encounter. In my classes, these presentist, self-exposing moments happen every week, all semester until we’ve collected hundreds of them. For the final project students read through these cards, choose at least two from each student in the class, and then create a digital map, superimposing their reflections onto the official representations of the course—my syllabus, excerpts from the reading, passages from their writing.

This is just one step moving us from private pain to public good. I’m sure we can think of many others.

Thank you.


About Jessica Yood

I am an Associate Professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Composition and Rhetoric is my primary field and research into the history and emerging role of writing in our contemporary culture continues to broaden my definition of this discipline. Work for my book project takes me into the history of literary criticism in America, complexity theories, the culture wars and the intellectual crises of the 1990s, and the enduring complexity of first-year writing and writers.
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