We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Find using OpenURL

Rethinking How Humanities Think: Daring and "do / make / think"

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2012
pp. 89-113 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0006

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Whether the administrative organization of people in the humanities takes the form of a department of English, philosophy, history, or comparative literature, etc., in the modern university, humanistic disciplines continue to reflect the institution in which they reside, even as that institution submits them to "two cultures," "science wars," or corporatization. Neither disciplinary distinctiveness, group identity, nor solidarity within the humanities as a division protect these forms of inquiry and exchange against dominant institutional imperatives and incursions. As a traditional container for academic activity, departments contribute to what is increasingly becoming a black box nexus of activity around the individual players: the black box being a reduction of a complex process to simply its inputs and outputs with the box around process itself. That is to say, academics are deeply sensitive to administrative inputs, and these are manipulated to produce or bring about particular effects, or outputs. Inputs may encompass, for instance, faculty organization, salaries, teaching loads, or office allocations, while outputs can refer to the set of intellectual skills students acquire while completing a program, as well as advancements of knowledge through research (or in the corporate university, the mobile, skilled labour pools such subjects represent and the technologies they produce for markets). The problem, however, is what occurs within this black box: not simply what goes in and what comes out. The black box's metaphorical function excludes how our inputs lead to outputs by punctualizing the processes within it, yet this creates asymmetrical power relations among the stakeholders. The university becomes the metaphorical substitute for the human agents within it, and we begin to anthropomorphize the institution itself. However, if institutions confer identity by providing cohesion and systems of analogy, we cannot step outside of these institutional contexts in order to understand how the people within them contribute or take part. When we consider the role the university plays in our communities, how we struggle within the institution, or how the institution is changing its vital role in our transforming world, we must look in detail at the punctualized or black-boxed processes themselves. We, as the people within the institution, are vitally concerned with the human interactions, the struggles for employment, the success of our students, or simply the feelings of kinship toward those with whom we share a lifelong endeavour. The questions at issue in this article, then, are: what process and what institutional thinking do we discover when we open this black box, and how is the depunctualization of the relations within a department necessary for solidarity?

Institutions (do) Think

Do institutions think or do their personnel do the thinking? The question is uncomfortable for academics because of the potential for a human/ non-human division that implies centrally automated inputs and outputs devoid of agency and co-operation inside our black box. Yet the academy is surely about much more than comfort zones; it is or should be still about the embrace and interrogation of discomfort.

Mary Douglas, in How Institutions Think, denies that institutions and the agents within them are amenable to a unidirectional analysis. Rather than relying on agents to think for it, the institution powerfully shapes (without fully determining) the thinking of individuals within it by generating frameworks of relations and analogy. No single direction of influence is sufficient to account for self-sustaining institutions. This approach to the university, especially to those in the humanities, is unsettling; we tend to heroically pit individuals against institutions rather than seeing them as mutually constitutive and interdependent. From a less heroic or ritually oppositional vantage, we can be understood to think by virtue of the institutional frames we maintain by doing the thinking for which a university stands. Douglas's consideration of how institutions think moves us beyond typical concerns over what institutions think. Her provocation suggests that institutions think insofar as they enable analogy and calibrate meaning, and we belong to an institution insofar as we adopt this think, which creates solidarity and understanding among our peers: our academic community. This shifts our understanding of actor-academics thinking in the university because the metaphor of an anthropomorphic university thinking for itself is no longer acceptable. Instead, we realize that the university...

You must be logged in through an institution that subscribes to this journal or book to access the full text.


Shibboleth authentication is only available to registered institutions.

Project MUSE

For subscribing associations only.