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Mary Claypool Stranger than Fiction, or Do the Humanities Need a Wristwatch ?

As I began thinking about my remarks on Research in the Humanities : My Personal Questions, Doubts, and Aspirations, my greatest questions wereIs literature relevant in todays society? And by extension, is my interpretation of literature relevant to my colleagues, the field in general, and more importantly, the broader public?, my greatest doubt or worrythat university culture is beginning to think it isnt and that we may need to rethink the current model for scholarship, and my greatest aspirationto produce research that not only examines literature for literatures sake, but that also makes connections between the fictional and the personal, and in so doing reaches a broader audience. Marc Forsters Stranger than Fiction, aside from being just an incredible film, seems to represent all of my questions, doubts, and aspirations about research in the humanities on the screen. If you havent seen the movie, it is about Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who discovers one day that his life is being narrated by an omniscient Other. Upon hearing his death is imminent, Harold seeks the help of Professor Hilbert, an expert on literary theory. In an effort to determine where Harolds life narrative is going, Professor Hilbert devises a test, composed of questions like : Has anyone recently left any gifts outside your home? Anything. Gum, money, a large wooden horse and Are you the king of anything ? King of the lanes at the bowling alley, king of the trolls. I couldnt help but identify with the professor as he was conducting his interview. Not only was he overloaded with commitmentsteaching five courses, mentoring two doctoral candidates, and working at the faculty poolbut Harolds initial response was comparable to that of our students, and maybe even ourselves on occasion, as we ask questions about the literature we study. What do these questions have to do with anything ?

I am not the only one burdened with this uncertainty. In his blog for the New York Times, Think Again, Stanley Fish has been raising the same kinds of issues as he explores the uses of the humanities and discusses the shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty and the corresponding rise of adjuncts. He asks, What is the value of such work, why should anyone fund it, and why...does anyone do it ? Furthermore, at a panel entitled, Why Teach Literature Anyway? at the MLA Convention held in San Francisco, Walter Benn Michael echoed Fishs defeatist sentiment in his presentation, Maybe We Shouldnt. In his view, teaching literature at the university only perpetuates a system wherein rich, white kids are supposedly instilled with the values of social justice, and the poor remain perpetually on the margins. I cant help but feel a bit discouraged by comments like these as I turn toward the last third of my doctoral program and begin my own research in the humanities. What do MY research questions have to do with anything? Then I remember why I chose this career. Literature transformsif not the world around it (which I believe it can), then at least the readers who consume it. And what could be more important than thinking about who we are, why we are here, and how literature expresses, mirrors, and challenges these realities? In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson states, The imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life... fiction seeps quietly and continuously into reality (35). Stranger than Fiction takes this idea to the extreme, as Harold Cricks fate is determined by the whims of his narrator, Karen Eiffel. One of the most exciting moments of the film is when the two meeteach encountering the personal, the human in the Other. At this particular moment, the author grasps the dramatic repercussions of her craft on the main characterwho actually exists!while the heros vision of himself is forever altered as he meets the voice who has been recounting the mundane details of his life and is forced to contemplate how these details might

come to an end. Witness the transformative power of literature and literary theory. Indeed, we define ourselves with and against what we read, and this is what led me to my own research interests. For a long time, I could not articulate what it is about Francophone literature that draws me in. I identified completely with the narrator of Aim Csaires Cahier dun retour au pays natal, when he asks, Qui et quels nous sommes? Admirable question! (28), and then proceeds to articulate his identity, as he, not an external third party, sees it. As I read Henri Lopess Le Chercheur dAfriques, Anne Hberts Le Premier jardin, and Maryse Conds Desirada, the reasons became more and more clear. In each of these works, the authors combine the experience of adoption and the experience of colonization, and I encountered modalities of identity formation that I myself had experienced as an adoptee: anger at having been given an identity to cover or displace the one I had been born with, a desire to return home wherever that may be, and a recognition of a certain hybrid self that results from the experience. In her article, Adoption Narratives, Trauma, and Origins, Margaret Homans writes, Life stories of adopted people often have complex narrative lines, since to the already insurmountable difficulty of any human effort to know and fix ones origin is added the extra difficulty of lack of information about birth parents, date, place, and ...birth culture (4) Im still not sure what this means for post-colonial theory or for the field of Francophone literature, if anything, but I do know that there are inextricable links between colonization and adoption that I would like to explore. My readings have helped me to learn more about who I am and how I define myself, and if I can help my students to learn more about their own realities and the realities of othersthrough exposure to different literary texts, my work will have achieved its purpose. Of course, incorporating the personal in our research can be an immense challenge. Even

as I wrote this talk, I had a difficult time using the word I, and all formal writing guidelines were laid aside. For similar reasons, I am concerned that my dissertation topic will be discounted, or at least viewed as less rigorous, since it resonates with my own life experience. [Am I reading things into texts that arent there, simply because of a personal feeling I have?] Nevertheless, I cant help thinking that the academic profession, though it encourages a respectful distance from our personal experiences as humans and our separate objects of study, has at the same time become over-personalized, in that we find ourselves entrenched in our individual research projects. Are we, scholars, isolated in our libraries and archives, producing articles and books that will be read by a select few? Incorporating our personal experiences in our work is one way to connect with a broader public, as we think about how we encounter ourselves in literature. The meeting between Harold and his creator reminds us of the importance of encountering the personal in our work and also prompts us to consider a different model for scholarship in the humanities: collaboration, both with colleagues and community partners. The meeting between Harold and Karen results in an alternative ending to the story, completely changing the narrative; the fruit of our cooperation with colleagues and community partners could revitalize and redefine the field. [My point here is that research/scholarship in the humanities neednt be limited to publishing; it could/should also include innovative partnerships; perhaps the University needs to re-consider how tenure portfolios are evaluated and what constitutes solid academic contributions in the humanities] And this brings me to the wristwatch. Even though Karen Eiffel is in the business of writing books where the heroes dieso much so that her own research on how best to kill her protagonist includes visiting emergency rooms and envisioning horrible car accidents (not quite the same as our libraries/archives) when she encounters the personal, human side of the

character she has created, she rewrites her novels ending. It is in interacting with the protagonist himself that she fundamentally alters her writing : I dont want to totally ruin the movie for you, so Ill just say that a wristwatch a critical part of Harold Cricks calculating, number-obsessed identityultimately saves him. I am not asking whether or not the humanities can save usa question that Stanley Fish has already posed--and I agree with Wilfred McClay when he speaks of the value of the humanities. He writes : The distinctive task of the humanities, unlike the natural sciences and social sciences is to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them to something else : not to physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, and so on. My question instead has become: Do the humanities, or more pointedly does research in the humanities, need a wristwatch? If they do (and the Chronicle of Higher Education and Stanley Fish would have us think they do!), I would argue that integrating the personal in our research and encouraging more interaction with colleagues and the broader public could fundamentally alter our writing and perhaps even save us by revitalizing the field.