Planned Generalizations?

Disclaimer: As Chris points out below, Fitzpatrick addresses some of these issues in her conclusion. As per the prompt, this was an “in progress” post. I look forward to reading how she explains these issues in the conclusion. 

As someone who went from being a “lit” person to a “comp” person within a literature focused graduate program, I am perhaps hyper-aware of the differences between the two branches of English studies. That said, I do think these differences are significant enough that it is problematic to discuss lit and comp as if they were the same field with the same values and guiding principles. More troubling, is when we make generalized claims about “the humanities” as if we can say anything about this nebulous category that would equally apply to the various disciplines caught within the overgeneralized net.

When reading Fitzpatrick’s work, I found her tendency to overgeneralize about the humanities to distract from her otherwise compelling argument. This tendency was particularly irksome because Fitzpatrick herself notes the problems of such a generalization. When discussing the online journal Philica, she notes that “the site suffers from a too-general mode of organization; the ‘humanities’ as a whole . . . represents a single field” (40). Her phrasing (“suffers from”) and her use of scare quotes shows her resistance to discussing humanities as a category, yet it is this specific type of categorical organization that guides the rest of her argument.

I realize that my issue with this generalization sounds a bit nit-picky (which is a technical term), but I think that the issue I point to has larger ramifications in the applicability of her argument. For instance, when discussing the potential problems of empirical study, Fitzpatrick claims that “the values of the humanities are largely uncountable” (47). The importance of empirical studies within composition studies aside, what exactly are these “values of the humanities”? Do philosophy, history, and writing centers all share the same values? We could make broad claims about how they all work to better the interiority of students, but then are we saying that the sciences don’t do this?

I suppose my larger point is that I think Fitzpatrick’s argument is more relevant and urgent to some sub-fields of the humanities than it is to others. While Fitzpatrick claims that many disciplines need to rethink their cultural relevancy and work to combat the public disdain for their irrelevancy (13), I believe that this need is far more urgent for some divisions of the humanities than it is for others.

Some disciplines are on their way up, others are.. well, you see.

Moreover, I think that if Fitzpatrick had waded through some of these over-generalizations, her argument would have been able to include more practical solutions. While I found her argument to be very compelling (when applied to certain contexts), I found myself continually wondering about how realistic her ideas were. While I want to believe her that it would be possible to make reviewing a requirement for publication and that this would then lead to “greater diversity of opinion and a greater distribution of the labor” (47), in such general terms it comes across as a utopian dream and not a practical solution to a very real problem academia is facing.




3 thoughts on “Planned Generalizations?”

  1. Heather,

    I, too, had some reservations about how Fitzpatrick tends to generalize or what I’ll call utopianize. Even though she owns up to her utopian thinking in her conclusion, I don’t think that claiming ownership of it excuses it in the first place. My biggest issue with this thinking is her persistent calls to action, claiming we “need” to do this or we “must” do that but never following those claims with any kind of concrete solutions. And yes, she does assert how, at least in her last chapter, she doesn’t intend to be prescriptive, but at some point I’d love to know what these drastically different models, interfaces, and practices should look like, or at the very least to have some suggestions to add some level of solidification to all of this rethinking/reconceptualization we’re supposed to be doing.

  2. Heather,

    I very much agree with the problem you raise about Fitzpatrick’s invoked audience; lumping the humanities together glosses over the fact that some disciplines within the humanities (I’m looking at you, history!) do a much better job of “selling” themselves to the broader reading public and others are significantly more collaborative and, dare I say it? practical (composition/writing center studies).

    (P.S.: I mean “practical” as a compliment, not a putdown.)

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