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“Teachers and Researchers and Something Else”: Cooper and Marx Confront the Future of the Humanities

Mark Cooper (University of South Carolina) and John Marx’s (University of California Davis) lecture “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis: Big Media and the Humanities Workforce” represents part of their on-going collaborative project to “reappraise key arguments about higher education in light of media history.” As their title suggests, Cooper and Marx open their talk with the question: Have the humanities always been in crisis? If so, what makes this crisis different? They set out to analyze how today’s crisis qualitatively differs from the others and from there, explore how we can train our students (and ourselves) to inhabit the digital. Although they aim to find diagnostic solutions, they first work through the history of Film Studies, paying particular attention to the challenges film posed for the humanities, its disciplining into English, and the university’s efforts to define the role of media. Cooper and Marx work through this history because film stands as a prime exemplar of mass media; this conception of film as mass media slides into a contemporary digital mass media—a digital mass media for which traditional visions of the humanities prove inadequate. Accordingly, Cooper and Marx call for us all to envision the future of the humanities differently. With their bemoaning of “enough with the English Department,” it appears their vision of the digital humanities’ future is not in English disciplining. They, instead, urge universities to use humanities training in creative, marketable ways, increasing diversification and deliberately building a humanities workforce.

Speaking as a Ph.D. student in Film Studies/English, I find myself feeling uncomfortable with many of Cooper and Marx’s proposed solutions. Throughout the latter half of the lecture, I continually wondered what exactly they mean by workforce—where do they position professorial careers in this mystical marketplace? What about students who pursue humanities degrees for an intended future in academia? I do not plan to use my degree for something “marketable” (I want to teach) and I wonder where I fit into their schema. While sitting in the audience, I could not help but feel like I was not their intended audience. Yet, I ultimately have a certain sympathy for their project. While I find some of their solutions like “unifying culture and professional management” a bit clinical, it is difficult to say that other scholars offer better, more ideal answers to the crisis. Even if I do not share their perspective, their work provokes specific questions and productive conversations. In light of other critics who accept the humanities’ death, their project emerges from a place of optimism for the humanities’ future. While at times prescriptive, Cooper and Marx’s project seeks to understand the humanities as an integral part of the social and carve a space for the digital humanities in both the university and the marketplace.