“Only connect”: A conversation with Ryan Claycomb about the WVU Humanities Center

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In March Ryan Claycomb, interim director of WVU’s new humanities center, talked with our director, Derek Krissoff, about university press publishing. Now it’s Ryan’s turn to discuss his work with the center—a vital part of the university’s intellectual landscape and an important press partner.

DK: WVU’s new humanities center arrives at a moment of particular anxiety about the role and future of the humanities. Do you see the center as arising from, or participating in, those debates in the wider world?

RC: I heard a talk by digital humanities and performance scholar Sarah Bay-Cheng recently. She had run a Google Ngram on the terms “crisis in the humanities” and “public humanities” to check their frequency. She noted that while the concept of “public humanities” certainly followed the coining of this apparent crisis, the idea that the humanities are in crisis has been in the air for fifty years. That’s about as long as the National Endowment for the Humanities has been in existence, as a matter of fact: a period that might be called a golden age of humanities scholarship! The peak in mentions of this crisis, furthermore, happened in 1990—before I even started as an undergraduate literature major—so any sense that this is a novel or timely concern isn’t really taking the long view.

Calling something a “crisis” is really just a way of noting that something is worthy of debate. Those who resent the humanities call it a crisis to imagine these fields as weak; those who love humanities thinking do so to fortify good will. It’s no accident that the 1990 peak happened in the middle of the so-called Culture Wars. And yet all the way along, scholars and students have been thinking inquisitively, open-mindedly, and rigorously about ideas, identities, events, and arts.

So insofar as our new center is invested in helping to focus the energies of a flourishing humanities ecosystem on our campus, it is only responding to the idea of a crisis because we are participating in all kinds of other vital, contested cultural conversations:

  • How does human culture participate in the way we exist in our natural surroundings (environmental humanities)?
  • How can focusing on human interactions in medical treatment improve how we care for one another (medical humanities)?
  • How does education in world languages, literatures, and arts help us better understand our newly interconnected world (global humanities)?
  • What does the culture of our region tell us about how best to grow and develop in our mountain place (Appalachian studies)?

These are the deep tissue questions of all of our front-page news, and the notion that considering these questions constitutes a “crisis” really only illustrates how high the stakes are.

DK: At the most fundamental level a center like yours seems to enable or generate conversations among faculty in different university departments. I wonder if you see benefits for others in the WVU and Morgantown communities—students, for example, or West Virginians outside the university.

RC: My personal motto for the Center is British novelist E.M. Forster’s phrase “only connect . . .” from his 1910 novel Howards End. So my short answer is yes, connecting scholars to one another is important, but no more than connecting humanities scholarship to our students and our community publics. It’s in our mission statement, in fact!

The longer answer is that while a first round of initiatives has been to network scholars on campus across university disciplines, that’s really just the initial set of activities. That has come in the form of interdisciplinary panels, grants for team projects, and networking events. But that’s really just a beginning in two different ways.

First, those activities directly and indirectly benefit students and the community. Our Reformation Matters symposium on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, held in conjunction with the history department, had an audience of 85, mostly undergraduates who were supplementing their classroom experiences in history, philosophy, and political science with content that went beyond what might be in the textbook. Our team grants this year were given to projects that benefitted the West Virginia and Regional History Center in the WVU Libraries, and another was for a research project on the benefits of creative writing and storytelling as part of HIV patients’ course of treatment. And our networking events are giving scholars informal opportunities to come together and discuss ways of collaborating that may well yield many different future possibilities of these types. These are positive public benefits that we’re already participating in.

But second, we’re also looking to expand in the coming year to even more directly connect our scholarly endeavors to the public benefit. We are hoping to make several of our Quality of Life lectures more accessible to the public through better advertising and more favorable scheduling, as well as by recording those talks and posting them as podcasts or videos. We’re taking on leadership of the Campus Read initiative, which last year provided programming with over 12,000 touches from students and community members. We’ve already held a workshop for scholars on doing public humanities, and I’m teaching a graduate course on the topic this fall. And we’re very excited that this fall, we’ll be starting a Community Affiliates program to help connect humanities researchers and institutions around the state to the networks we’re already developing on campus. I’m doing a couple of road trips this summer with WVU Press author and Appalachian music scholar Travis Stimeling to start meeting with some of those folks to get the ball rolling.

DK: Tell me about one of the events from the center’s first year of programming. I won’t ask you to pick favorites—just any one initiative that exemplifies the sort of work that you want the center to do, or, perhaps, that contained a germ of something you’d like to cultivate further.

RC: Well, not to butter you up (but totally to butter you up), I’ll point to our February launch event for Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. The panel of scholars from history, English, and geography that evening all brought unique and insightful perspectives to this beautifully republished text that highlighted an important and tragic moment in West Virginia history. Beyond that, it also gave us a chance to highlight the work of West Virginia writer Catherine Venable Moore, whose beautiful essay served as the introduction to the volume of Rukeyser’s poems. While it wasn’t our largest event of the year, I think the kinds of unexpected intellectual connections it helped draw, the way it connected our scholars (only one of whom usually focuses on regional topics) to West Virginia issues, and the way it drew people from all around the community made it something of a microcosm of the way that the whole center can operate and create valuable connections. Plus I got to hang out with you, Derek.

DK: Speaking of university presses: You’re a WVU faculty member who publishes books, but not (so far) with WVU Press. What do you get out of having a press attached to the university where you work?

RC: There’s the immediate value of the press as a real intellectual contributor to the campus’s intellectual climate . . . from readings by authors in Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods and The Book of the Dead, to the library’s exhibit of photographs from Alex and Andrew Lichtenstein’s beautiful Marked, Unmarked, Remembered. The addition of public historian Elizabeth Catte to the press’s editorial staff provided the connection to bring her to campus for our most successful event of the year, a collaboration with the David C. Hardesty Festival of Ideas that was intellectually invigorating and absolutely timely.

I think there are other ways in which the interplay between the press and our scholars through university publishing itself is valuable in helping to highlight our own university’s humanities strengths. I think the way that Travis’s work fits into the WVU Press’s list is one way, from his country music scholarship to the kinds of creative idea generation that is leading to his plans for a collection of scholarly essays on the concept of “opioid aesthetics,” which is yet another important connection to our local context. And more broadly, Stephanie Foote’s new book series Salvaging the Anthropocene is going to produce some extraordinarily exciting work.

The exchange ends up being really symbiotic—a way to bring the intellectual energy of the press’s new books to our campus, and a way to amplify the intellectual production at WVU to a much broader audience.

DK: Tell me about how your relationship to books, and reading more generally, has changed since you started in academe.

RC: Less than you’d think, actually. I took a book to the beach when I was a kid and I still do today. I read for pleasure with the great immersive gulps of text that I did when I was a kid. And instead of reading the nutritional information on the back of the cereal box at breakfast, now I read, well, the nutritional information on my cup of yogurt. So becoming an academic hasn’t changed the fact that I love to read, and I like to read books. It hasn’t ruined pleasure reading for me at all, though it perhaps has changed the sorts of things I’ll read. I’m less likely to read something that I think will be sexist or racist or exploitative, but it’s also opened up a world of books that aren’t any of those things.

What I think being in academe has done is that it has helped my reading not change as much as the advent of digital culture might have effected. Reading complex, rich, thick prose and poetry provides an important defense against the rapidly flitting demands on my attention offered by my smart phone and my laptop. Don’t get me wrong: I’m on Facebook and Twitter as much as the next person, but 30 minutes with a lovely novel at night before bed (right now, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian) or some poems at lunchtime (Mary Oliver, lately) feels like a balm from a digitally overexcited day.



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