Saturday, March 15, 2014


a toppled tree where an ocean was
by J J Cohen

I'm just back from a swift, spring break trip to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. And you know what? It was better than that other Miami, the always humid city that was not built atop what many millions of years ago was a vast inland sea.

I'm  lucky: I'm able to undertake a fair amount of travel to speak about my research. I've gained glimpses of how institutions in the US, Canada, and Europe work -- what they do right, what struggles people within them face, how humanists grapple with a landscape of perpetual reduction and struggle, what mechanisms scholars invent to thrive, what drives them to despair, how students and colleagues and junior faculty are treated and treat each other. I'm fascinated by the sheer variety of modes of making a life as intellectual, writer and teacher that have revealed themselves. Some colleges are adept at fostering internal community. Others put in place a reward system (typically a minimal reward system, but that's all it takes in times of scarcity) that encourages lonelier projects and a perpetual looking outwards for validation -- so that extramural funding, prestigious monographs, and national service trump anything that unfolds in classroom, department, or within the institution itself. I have not seen numerous models for balance. The individualism this reward system structurally encourages helps to explain why humanists do not typically possess a strong sense of shared endeavor. We too easily partition ourselves into disciplines, time periods, affinity groups, theory and theme.

My favorite scholarly visits are those in which I am out of my depth: say, on monsters at an art museum, a conference on francophone identity, a history-rich gathering to examine the trigger to Jewsish massacre in medieval York, a religious studies department interested in the premodern in a vast sense. More than anything else, though, I enjoy speaking to undergraduates who do not exactly know yet that they have much at stake in the topics I research. The work of translation -- of explaining with patience and passion why what we do matters -- has to be the work of the humanist now. Or else we are fucked. The future is a narrative we make.

I enjoyed my visit to Miami University because it provided me with a chance to perform some translation. Tobias Menely, who arranged the two days of my trip so perfectly (thank you Tobias!) invited me to speak to his senior seminar on apocalypse. The class was eager as I guided them through ambivalent medieval reflections upon the Deluge narrative in Genesis. Astute readers, they quickly realized the opening up of possibility that results from the Genesis account's being so fragmented, so full of small dissonances. The second half of the class was on zombies. They had read my "Grey" essay in Prismatic Ecology and were invited to question me about it. Here, too, they proved how astute they are when given something challenging (the figurative work of the monster) to meditate upon. Many of these students attended my lecture later in the day on "Geophilia," as did a variety of faculty. Speaking of a project so rooted in medieval materials and making it engaging to an audience with little investment there was, again, a challenge. After the talk some faculty lingered, including two poets, and we had a great, wide ranging conversation about the trigger to narrative beauty that stone provides, as well as a long discussion of fossil hunting. Dinner that night was with Anna Klosowska and Tobias at an excellent local restaurant, then drinks at nearby bar. At some point the three of us decided that we are going to institute an new MLA Committee on Shared Endeavor -- a project that would be about humanist commonality as well as interwoven dissent. Like all projects hatched near midnight it may or may not unfold.

Before I left for the airport I took a hike with Tobias, Margaret Rhonda and their dog through a fossil-rich wetlands. Having that hour or so to wander together was perfect: hiking is my favorite kind of thinking, and reaffirmed for me my hunch that the cultivation of para-academic spaces is essential to our intellectual as well as social well being.

One last thought. Next year marks my twentieth at the George Washington University: other than two years as an adjunct, it's the only institutional position I've held. Unlike many of my academic friends, I have not been an academic wanderer (even if I am able to build a fair amount of errantry into my job). I often wonder what it would be like to start over again: to have the chance to discover a new terrain, to forge a world with new materials, to inhabit another landscape. I can see the way in which that process has reinvigorated many people I know. I wonder what it would be like to begin again.

But I also realize how precious -- and rare -- the community I have at GW is, and I am happy to be home.


Anonymous said...

Speaking on behalf of Tobias' students from his senior seminar, we were honored to have had you come discuss Genesis and "Grey" with us. It was such an insightful discussion and your lecture on stone was fascinating. I hope Miami is lucky enough to have you back again soon. Thank you for everything - so glad to read that you had a wonderful time here.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It was my pleasure Caitlin. Thank you for posting!

Unknown said...

Hi, amazing blog! I love history and the information presented here is unique and informative.

I've been doing a lot of research about Colonial American Jewry, which has its roots in Spain and Portugal of the 15th century.

Would you be interested in a post about this period?

Viator said...

"The work of translation -- of explaining with patience and passion why what we do matters -- has to be the work of the humanist now. Or else we are fucked. The future is a narrative we make."

Nicely put, Jeffrey.