Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 51-65
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Envisioning the Humanities in a Digital Age
Cathy N. Davidson
Staging a conversation between humanists and social scientists in an international setting requires us to reconsider some basic questions that motivate both intellectual areas: Where am I? What is the nature of the space in which I am standing? From what position do I speak and to whom? These questions of location, perspective, and cross-referentiality are key to the humanities in the global, digital, corporate university. They are given a different weight and emphasis when engaged by scholars working across disciplinary, linguistic, and national divides. As we move continually between North and South American optics, between traditions in the humanities and the social sciences, and between the local knowledges of the two universities hosting this conference—Duke and Di Tella—we must negotiate a variety of issues, texts, and subtexts. Any conversation that operates between two or more universities, countries, cultures, disciplinary traditions, and institutions necessitates that each participant be constantly aware of his or her own positioning. And the importance of such exchanges is that, if we are attentive enough to the particularities of the platform from which we speak—the specificities that contribute to our assumptions and theories—it may help us to locate ourselves with new precision vis-à-vis one another. The metaphor I'm envisioning for our international colloquium is the Global Positioning Device (GPD): one feeds in the coordinates of where one is and where one hopes to end up, and the GPD (in this case, our colloquium) helps one stay on track. Because the information communicated by the GPD is relative to the location of one's car, it offers a correction if you stray off course and gives new information [End Page 51] as you come closer to your destination. That is the best one can hope from an international colloquium. If all goes well, one ends up at a different place from where one began.
Many of my own comments are based on my experience as the first occupant of what may be the United States' most “postmodern” administrative position, in some ways the exemplification of the issues we will be discussing about creating programs (and, in particular, humanities programs) in the new global university. I often find myself both inhabiting this position and analyzing it as an interesting “object of study.” As will be immediately clear to the social scientists among us, such a pronouncement places me squarely in that vexed and much commented on position of the “participant observer.” Nevertheless, since you have graciously accorded me the honor of presenting the opening paper at our gathering, instead of uttering anything like a definitive pronouncement, what I would like to do is present a series of questions, problems, or propositions that seem to be at the heart of our cross-cutting discussion centering on the potentialities and problems of teaching the humanities in this particular moment in the history of education.
Being a Vice Provost in the Age of “Noah's Arc”
Outside academe and even within, most of us have no idea what a provost is. It is a term we are constantly defining not only for our students but for our faculty as well. The dictionary (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 9th ed.) tells us only that it is “a high administrative officer, as of a university.” Different universities in the United States define the position differently. I do not know if there is any equivalent position in Argentina. At Duke, the provost is the university's chief academic officer, a kind of “Überdean” who presides over all of the eight schools as well as programs that operate between and among those schools: the College of Arts and Sciences, the medical, nursing, law, engineering, divinity, and business schools plus a school of the environment. The provost is responsible for making sure all of the university's different schools, academic programs, and facilities sustain their excellence (crudely quantified in national rankings) while at same time meeting...