June 5, 2015
Thanks to Marcus Conley, HMU Tutor and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, for today’s post.
Last week, I posted about my experience at the 2015 MLA Convention in Vancouver, British Columbia. I mentioned my interest in a talk on the King James Bible from Cynthia Wallace, and a talk on animal studies and George Eliot by Danielle Coriale. These were just two of many interesting presentations—ranging in subject from medieval studies to popular culture—that led me to reflect on my own work, and on the range of texts we work with here at Harrison Middleton University.
Naturally, not every presentation was amazing. A few turned out to be duds. Yet even when a talk failed to spark my interest, it rarely felt like a waste of time. There was something humbling about listening to an accomplished and passionate scholar speak to a room full of (mostly) interested people about a subject that I found unremarkable. My detachment from the topic was actually instructive. It reminded me that my own research interests, however engrossing they might be to me, are not an authoritative marker of what deserves attention.
It is easy, when pursuing a specific object of study, to forget that one’s work takes place against a vast and immensely diverse backdrop of other works, other ideas, and other minds. The interconnections and emergent patterns of this great backdrop are too numerous and too intricate ever to be fully comprehended by one individual, or even a multitude. There is always more work to be done, new ideas to discover, and it is important that we, as scholars, be exposed to more than just what we find immediately attractive.
We at Harrison Middleton University do most of our interaction at a distance, and we focus mainly on a traditional, Western canon of core texts. In both of these respects, we immerse ourselves in practices and assumptions that set us apart from the majority of scholars in the humanities. The “greats” that are so central to our work at HMU—great authors, great books, and the great conversation—are not the buzzwords they were in the mid-twentieth century, when Mortimer Adler and his intrepid corps of editors toiled away on the Great Books of the Western World. Flying the flag of the Western literary and philosophical canon nowadays can raise eyebrows among academics who are rightly suspicious of an author list so skewed toward rich European men. Though our studies at HMU draw from a centuries-long tradition, we are nonetheless situated in our own niche, both because of our focus on the so-called “greats” and because of our unique methods.
However, this does not, or at least it should not, place us in a position of isolation. We are essentially scholars of the humanities, and the work we do resonates with a very broad scope of inquiry. Attending the MLA Convention in Vancouver was a trenchant reminder to me of just how broad that scope really is. It also reminded me that, for all of our emphasis on what sets HMU apart, we are part of a field that is very much alive, and very populous. It is our job to listen to ideas from within and without the great books tradition, and the work we do is significant in both of these domains.
In his 1952 essay “The Great Conversation,” Robert Hutchins envisions what he calls “the Civilization of the Dialogue.” Describing this community, Hutchins writes, “Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined.” The Great Books collection is an effective way to package and promote a significant part of the great conversation, yet that conversation survives by remaining continually open to the contributions of thinkers from across the range of human experience.
My experience at the MLA only served to emphasize Hutchins’ implication, which is that the great conversation is not imprisoned within an exclusive collection of texts. Rather, as its name implies, the great conversation is an ongoing set of practices, an open-ended and inclusive endeavor. This endeavor has much to offer the broader field of the humanities, but it also depends upon that field, with all of its complexity, for its own vitality.
As students of the great books, we know that the most substantial works of Western culture reward multiple readings. They are virtually inexhaustible as a source of new insights. By the same token, though, we should also bear in mind that this complexity and depth is not locked up within a certain body of works. There is always new territory to discover, whether it is in a centuries-old philosophical essay or a brand new conference paper.
If you’d like to have a look at the full program from the 2015 MLA Convention, a PDF can be found here: http://www.mlajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1632/pmla.2014.129.5.issue
Information on next year’s convention, which will be held in Austin, Texas, can be found here: http://www.mla.org/convention
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