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Why Humanists Read Their Papers

I’d always wondered about this. Some years ago, I was invited by one of my colleagues to attend an American Studies conference on campus. When I went to his paper session, I was aghast–here was this talented, enthusiastic, master-of-multiple-technologies standing at the lectern, head bowed, reading a paper out loud. What’s more, the program that afternoon was filled with scores of other historians, literary scholars and theorists all doing the same thing.

Cathy Davidson’s contents that the practice isn’t just a bad habit, but rather, is the result of “deep epistemological assumptions about how we know and what is worth knowing.”

First, what the scientific method is to scientists, what such things as standard deviation are to statisticians and quantifying social scientists, rhetoric and logic are to humanists…Every humanist endures years of writing long papers and having them corrected not just for their content but for the micro-logics of each new twist and turn of the argument. Critics who challenge one another often do so based on small differentiations among big ideas. Often, in our field, we seemingly agree with one another on a whole list of major convictions and assumptions–but that doesn’t seem to prevent us from going at one another with both barrels over some logical mis-step.

For the humanist, the argument is the core of the discipline–taking on an importance that those of us who labor in the “professional schools” will probably never comprehend. Carefully crafted arguments are important to me, but only as a method for stimulating or bringing about some sort of action–an improvement of practice.

It is, admittedly, very difficult to listen to a densely packed essay, with many twists and turns, with a thesis,and then a deliberate modification of that thesis, and then generalizations that account for both the thesis and its exemptions…And when someone is reading a densely argued paper there are really only two things one, as a member of the audience, can do: listen atttentively (honing one’s interpretive and critical skills) . . . or fall asleep!

This is a great reminder of how dramatically different the teaching and learning perspectives are among our various disciplines. Our approaches to pedagogy have to be as rich and varied as the disciplines we support.