Grounding the Humanities

A “regional” humanities abandons academia’s tepid globalism, and confronts local oppressions like prisons, schools, housing, and the police.

I. The Ends of Mourning

The parking lot at our university’s recreation center is built over a burial ground, on land stolen from the Coast Miwok people. The exhumed remains have been reburied at a site specified by Native American observers. Still, that stretch of black asphalt on the Western edge of campus materializes a palimpsest: a scene of mourning effaced by the modern university as persistence that isn’t disrupted. How do we reckon with this site of mourning, which insistently refutes the university’s claim to the land? How do we reckon with a humanities that has ignored the land—and the communities, histories, and geographies that shape it?

In the last decade, “reckoning” literature in higher education has become a genre on its own. In the wake of groundbreaking studies, such as Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivory (2013), American colleges and universities have had to acknowledge, for the first time, their culpability in institutionalizing and profiting from slavery. Varying responses at major institutions have captured the national spotlight and spurred fierce debate.

However, we center a less spectacular, more local reckoning, that is, at our private, regional university in the Bay Area. In so doing, we seek to emphasize the affordances of community-based labors that attend intimately to place. Such labors, we argue, undergird the practice of emplaced—or what we call “regional”—humanities, which extends beyond the moment of reckoning and into deeper, relational work between persons and communities. This could take many forms, but should involve aligning curriculum, scholarship, and craft with the experiences of local, marginalized communities and their invisibilized histories of resistance. It would mean, as well, confronting oppressions enacted by structures and institutions that are contiguous with the space of the university: prisons, schools, de facto segregated housing, the police.

This work is on a frequency different from the removal of statues and renaming of buildings commemorating racist historical figures on campuses, especially in the South. It is also distinct from large scale, institutionally driven efforts aimed at reconciliation that garner widespread public attention.

Instead, what we sketch out here is a conceptual framework to guide humanities that respond to place rather than property and that incrementally unmake the university as a settler colonial institution. These on-the-ground humanities embrace the so-called “crisis” or “end” of the academic humanities—as mourned in disciplines like English, classics, and religion—recognizing that they were never meant for most people in the first place.

As a beginning, we suggest that the humanities reclaim the language of regionalism from higher education. Such language can articulate how to open the humanities at the university to other humanities that already exist, but—like the burial ground—just outside the gates.


II. Regional Humanities

Today, “regional” designates institutions that level access to higher education by preparing students for the vocational needs of local economies. Sometimes called “people’s universities,” they serve diverse demographics, including first-generation students, those from rural areas, and students of color. Approximately forty percent of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) qualify as regional. Regional schools may tend toward the vocational. Even so, it is at the most elite schools, as Benjamin Schmidt has reported, that the steepest decline in the humanities has occurred. Regional universities have seen less of a drop.

Meanwhile, the data shows that enrollment in fields like ethnic studies, especially at HBCUs, remains robust. And, as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) reported in 2019, “humanities activities” remain high in American society and especially in communities of color, while perceptions of the academic humanities remain negative.

This should tell us something. The pandemic may seem to herald the decline of regional schools, but it is regionalism, conceptually, that might open a way toward more sustainable humanities in higher education.

It may be helpful to recall contradictions implicit to the “regional,” beginning with an etymology that registers the gated property of a landed gentry. From the Latin regio for “district,” a medieval “region” demarcated a parcel of land overseen by a lord in service of a king and his kingdom. “Region,” thus, twins hierarchy and territory at its terminological origin, carrying through to a Lockean formulation of the human as, first and foremost, a property owner. Further, as Rinaldo Walcott argues in his polemic against property, protecting plantations in the British Caribbean colonies originated modern policing. Walcott exposes how this logic of dispossession still shapes anti-Black social relations today. The disparagement of the “regional” in higher education, ironically, resonates the medieval ethos of the propertied elite, as well as the manifold extractions of racial capitalism.

The elitism endemic to higher education relegates regional institutions to the margins, because they are made to carry the stigma of vocationalism: a targeted devaluation of blue-collar and domestic forms of labor. As Lisa Lowe has argued, as universities became more ethnically diverse, vocational programming segregated the university’s production of racialized workers from the cultivation of “cultured” subjects via the Eurocentric humanities.

The traditional small liberal-arts college (SLAC)—Mary B. Marcy, the former president of our own private regional university, straightforwardly pointed out—was “built for middle- and upper-class white students.” And its primary attributes were humanistic: “classic texts, close reading,” and brick-and-mortar “libraries, museums, and performing arts venues,” out of which many colleges sprang.

The infrastructure of the academic humanities, in a word, perpetuated narrow, colonialist worldings. And, yet, these worlds still serve as the measure for an ideal liberal-arts education.

At the same time, elite institutions smooth over their complicity in colonialist worlding by championing tepid globalism and glib cosmopolitanism. Their efforts often cast the regional as the illiberal other. From “global” programming to subsuming difference under the umbrella of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the tactics of liberal conciliation and reputation management are now common in higher education.

Such tactics echo the ultimately marginalizing methods that “included”—and then cordoned off—radical, anti-colonial renovations to the humanities, which students at San Francisco State University demanded in the 1960s. Such liberal inclusionary efforts in higher education, especially those from the metropoles, are cast self-righteously against an antagonized, and, purportedly isolated regionalism that abets the worst impulses of American society: religious extremism and white nationalism, for example. This polarity, consequently, renders invisible possibilities for more salutary humanities.

How do we reckon with a humanities that has ignored the land—and the communities, histories, and geographies that shape it?

And, yet, “region” encodes a fidelity to place, which could signal a capaciously plural humanities grounded in the thickness of relation. If we disidentify regionalism from the tired terms of mainstream politics, we might instead urge its intellectual commitment to place toward interrelation, while leaving behind hierarchy and territory. If we disavow the proprietary logic of the parcel and its disastrous colonial futures, we might instead perceive an ecosystem—“eco” from the Greek oikos for “home”—and all of its emplaced inhabitants. The “region” becomes the local site from which we engage competing claims of different humanities.

Our aim in highlighting the regional is not to lay claim to another iteration of the so-called “plus-humanities” (e.g., public humanities, digital humanities, medical humanities, etc.), though we acknowledge that these humanities potentiate different conversations on what the humanities can do in the world. What we intend is broader in scope and has been around even before the advent of the university: humanities based in pluralism, struggle, and relationality. These would include, for instance, such long-standing practices as oraliture and movement, craft and ephemera, cookery and land enculturation that were long regarded as unworthy of scholarly attention.

Such humanities evade disciplinarity and center multiple histories of craft, inquiry, and critique grounded in places’ overlapping claims, and because they differ from place to place, we cannot be prescriptive in terms of methodology, materials, or curriculum. We employ the term “regional” as conceptual rather than programmatic, with hopes that such framing can point us toward how universities might begin to support more grounded humanities. A research institution in a metropolitan area might support local artists calling attention to the urban apartheid in which it participates and benefits. An elite, private SLAC in a rural area might foster narrative exchanges between the university community and locals who have a different relationship to a shared place.

How can we renovate our institutions to center this work, rather than manage it away with the one-two punch of liberalist inclusion and subsequent marginalization? As we argue—from our own emplacement, perhaps surprisingly, as scholars in traditional fields, Shakespeare and Victorian literature—such management represents a failure of imagination. It is a reformist’s refusal to acknowledge that the academic humanities could be any different than how they began.


III. Where We Land

Let us return to the Miwok burial, where we started. Efforts at public acknowledgment have been led by the Marin Shakespeare Company, a theater troupe that mounts annual productions of Shakespeare’s plays in our campus’s outdoor amphitheater. Because of the inadequacy—and worse, settler performativity—of land acknowledgment, the company has questioned how to reckon with place in a way that minds what Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd has called “incommensurable” geography. Incommensurability signals how place actualizes “distances and sutures of [state] recognitions and belongings, melancholy and grief.” Our campus’s specific geography converges, for instance, histories of the Miwok, Catholic Spanish mission, trans-Pacific migration, and African American shipbuilding in the Second World War. These convergences speak to the ways in which different forms of colonialism have brought disparate subjugated peoples to Indigenous land.

What does it mean, then, to work through the thickness of historical connection and disconnection in a present-day staging of Caliban, played by a Latino actor, atop Miwok grounds occupied by the university, with the attentiveness to regionalism that Byrd suggests? As a beginning, academics might partner with the cast and crew to make explicit the incommensurability of place through performance that enacts how conflicts and affiliations coalesce in racialized bodies, and how such embodiments reanimate—and struggle with—a Shakespearean text in a new time and place.

Regional schools are uniquely poised to lead this renovation of the humanities. And this is not only because of their obvious inextricability from place but also because students arrive from that place’s surroundings.

Our students, demographically, are 71 percent non-white and 23 percent first generation. When they take “Shakespeare for Social Justice”—a course wherein they study Shakespearean theater alongside incarcerated actors at nearby San Quentin Prison—we, as faculty, have had to keep in mind that many of our students know firsthand what it means to live in over-policed communities, adjacent if not coextensive with prison. At regional universities, students are often emplaced in ways that faculty, recruited from elsewhere, may not recognize.

Regional humanities at the university must be responsive to students’ local knowledge and modes of humanistic making (e.g., content creation, online activism, gaming, community formation), too often overlooked by the academic humanities. A new emplaced humanities would encourage students to engage from where they are—the places they live, have lived, and left behind—while always recognizing that our histories have necessarily made our co-habitations inharmonious.

When reading literature, say, by “dead white men,” academics must tolerate the transformations that “our” Shakespeare (or Milton, or Austen, or Dickens) will inevitably undergo, when we redistribute attention to a text’s unintended readers. Likewise, it is vital that students feel free to undo the presumed innocence and wholeness of a text, and to make it something else, rather than to read it with weary reverence. In allowing different exegetes, adapters, and creators a hand in shaping our humanities, we are not just “saving” the humanities; we are, belatedly, extending them.


Stop Defending the Humanities

By Simon During

It should be clear that the “we” of this essay are not saying, “scrap the canon,” nor are we advocating that we keep it intact, nor are we saying that we shouldn’t make more room for minority literatures (we should). We can do it all, because the humanities are not a matter of territory.

Our training as Filipino and Chinese American scholars in fields that have been built and maintained by white scholars has pressured us to think more keenly about emplacement in the ways we have discussed. All of these circumstances have inspired us to teach and read British literature in the place where we have landed, and it is this place that has called us to read outside the lines of our fields (to “undiscipline,” as one of us has argued elsewhere) to reveal what “the humanities” have been complicit in worlding.

The academic humanities may be narrow, but it might help to remember that everything we put out into the world shapes and reshapes that world. If the academic humanities will not recognize the stakes of emplacement—plural humanities, accessible right where we are—then we might consider where else we should be doing our work.


This article was commissioned by Carolyn Devericon

Featured Image: Dominican University of California, photograph by Runner1928 / Wikipedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)