Rethinking the Humanities


In 1990 I secured a commitment from the discretionary fund of the then Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Vice-President Research at the University of Saskatchewan, Jack Manns. There were three key features of this arrangement for which I gained approval. The Humanities Research Unit I proposed to establish would not be located in a single college but would develop collaborative relations with several. It would report to the Office of the Vice-President Research. And it would be funded from the university’s base budget. This arrangement allowed for a strategy of serving the traditional humanities community on campus while creating new collaborative communities on and off campus. Here was a way to advance the disciplinary and transdisciplinary agenda which Canadian universities were beginning to favour and to do so with some intellectual freedom and secure (if modest) resources. This was not the first attempt to “rethink” the humanities, nor has it been easy to keep this project going through various waves of institutional planning, prioritizing, branding, positioning, and forced migration from our long-term space in order to accommodate a Confucius Institute, but the Humanities Research Unit survives and prospers as a source of critique, debate, education, and learning on display and in progress, thanks to the co-direction provided by first Marie Battiste (Aboriginal Education) and Lynne Bell (Art and Art History) and by a range of supportive colleagues, students, and staff. From the outset, unit programming emphasized three key themes: threats and impediments, academic value, and decolonizing education. As these themes (and their variations here) attest, humanities work is always pursued on challenging terrain but with intellectual resources predominantly but not exclusively text-based and well fitted to engaging with and illuminating questions of pressing importance for scholars, students, institutions, and citizens. Over the years, the unit has approached each of the events it has solely or co-operatively sponsored as one more moment in a continuous process of remaking and reviewing the case for the humanities in contemporary Canada. And at the heart of this endeavour remains my home discipline of English Studies. As a disciplinary formation, English uses its compositional or training component and the global status of English as ‘the’ language of science and business to dominate French, Indigenous, and immigrant-heritage languages on campuses across the country where the profitable option is almost always the easiest sell. English still has numbers–of students and faculty–to its advantage relative to its sister disciplines, making for a positive budgetary presence and a sizeable political presence in areas of collegial governance. However, English as the humanities’ champion is also the instrumentalists’ greatest prize, the place into which almost all the humanities can be caused to retreat and gradually forego allegiance to their dark materials. A single omnibus department called Composition and Cultural Studies does not seem much of a stretch once omnibus budgeting arrives from Ottawa at a campus near you, if it is not there already. English represents hope and enhanced endangerment that comes with being one of the last dominoes standing in the current remaking of Canadian postsecondary institutions. How, then, does English live up to its role as a champion of the humanities in hard times, rather than serving as a conduit for further cynical compaction and immiseration of intellectual work? One answer to this question must surely be new forms of solidarity beyond the “narcissism of small differences” (Freud 199; see also Kolst0) and resource wars. And it is such a form of non-homogenizing, performative solidarity that this special issue seeks to model. Caveat auctor! In 1963 in France, in the middle of the theory ferment that has been read both as liberating and as endangering literary studies via the activities of Foucault, Derrida, Cixous, Irigaray, et al.