Combating Elitism Through Education

It’s midnight. I realize that I have no blog post ideas. I could analyze something, but that would take too much brain power. This is the time of the semester when every graduate student finds him/herself in an existential crisis. Thank God for the medieval section of the research library. When I am down, I browse the third and fifth floors of the library for medieval books. I found a secondary source on medieval interpretation for my medieval course. Medieval rhetoric is fascinating. I hope to make more posts about it in the future – when I’m more awake.

It doesn’t help that my 20th century course is all about existential novels. The French sure love their absurdist fiction. While browsing the shelves for a good monograph, I was reminded of why I decided to do this program. A couple of students recently defended their dissertations, which has also given me encouragement. I love attending Works in Progress sessions because I learn indirectly about the dissertation writing process. I am also consulting self-help books and articles more than ever before. I need reminding that it’s possible to climb the mountain of academia.

I’m glad that the month is almost over. I’m sure many of you are tired of reading me complain about various aspects of graduate school. But some days, I can only think about the most obscure topics. My mom asked me last weekend what I study. She has asked me before, but I usually change the subject. How can I explain what I do? I only realize that I have obscure, highly-abstract interests when I try to explain my studies to non-specialists. This time, I taught my mom about the Algerian War and the resulting Algerian independence from France.

I am reminded that most people don’t share my interests. It’s not their fault. I know and don’t know why I am interested in late medieval rhetoric. It clearly excites and motivates me. But if I can’t explain to others why it matters, then I have failed as an educator. Professors can be excellent scholars and poor educators. I have, unfortunately, had my share of bad professors.

Academia tends to be elitist. I don’t like admitting that because legislators often cite academic elitism as a reason to stop funding the Humanities. Scholarship isn’t the problem, though. Scholars do some interesting work, but they only publish for a very small group of people. They have to publish for a small group of people, otherwise they can’t get tenure. The elitist culture of Academia looks down on popular nonfiction and humanistic outreach. It’s better to write about obscure things in obscure journals.

I don’t think the Humanities are dying. The old model might be dying, but hopefully a more public model will replace it. In the future, when my mom asks what I’m learning, I will tell her. I may not be able to tell her everything. I may even make some generalizations. But through teaching, I will remind myself that what I am studying matters.

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