If there’s not enough time, I could just cut to the chase: the scene is at risk without context.
As I write this segment of my blog entry, I’m on a train returning to New York City from a conference. Voices in the background unify into one murmur and whenever I look out the window with the silly hope of pausing on a frame, I see green foliage running, flashes of indecipherable station signs, a moment of cars going in the opposite direction. And now, I am reflecting on a roundtable discussion. My mind is a bit murky.
“Is there a war on the humanities?” This was the title of, and the question posed to, a roundtable discussion earlier this afternoon. While holding up a print version of The New York Times, the moderator began the session by referring to a recent scientific study on the social value of fiction. This prefaced the expressions of unease that later filled the room. The general sense of unease stemmed from the pressure for the humanities to define productivity in quantifiable, measurable, and instrumentalist terms. One of the speakers briefly discussed, I can’t recall his name at this moment, the pressing need to read for content, to browse for a reference. The value that was once placed on the practice of slow, immersive reading seems to be eroding.
Scenes are less meaningful without context. Because I taught classes scheduled in the evening and early morning, classes scheduled prior to and after the workday, I wonder often about the temporal contexts that affect scenes of learning and student performance. Like most CUNY students, my City College students frame their education around their work schedule and commute time. For each student, there’s a different set of stakes, a unique set of contexts, that shapes her/his performance. I can’t fully comprehend every set of stakes, but I appreciate when students attend class regularly with the desire to pause on an idea, in spite of temporal discomforts.
This student didn’t stick around after class to chat, nor was she a frequent office hours visitor. I remember the first time I read her writing. It was an essay where she brought together Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Italo Calvino’s essay, “Levels of Reality in Literature.” She’s a stunningly bold writer. She reappeared in my classroom a year after she wrote that paper. She registered late and arrived late to the second class of the semester. She maintained a taciturn presence. Writing assignments were turned in, hers were efficiently written; adequate. I couldn’t find the fearless voice.
Towards the end of the semester, she arrived to my office to complete an assigned recitation. She had to select lines from Paradise Lost, recite them from memory, and then discuss her understanding of those lines. Her boldness returned in a different form, through Satan’s soliloquy. She fumbled on one article but otherwise had delivered the lines perfectly, with verve. A discussion about those lines commenced, about Satan, about Milton’s experience with political defeat. I was impressed with her analysis of the lines and asked about her strategy for studying the lines. Tiredly she smiled at me, zipped up her jacket, and said that she had done it piecemeal. She made flashcards for her subway commutes and meditated on the lines during her shifts at work. “I’m working extra hours this semester,” she told me.
This made me wonder about the vocations that “[involve] both commitment and risk, boldness and vulnerability.”