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The Winter of Our Content

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Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Shakespeare’s Richard III, the king in the carpark, knew something about discontent, and something about the manipulation that only language makes possible.

Last time I checked, this isn’t 1485, and the humanities aren’t at their own Bosworth Field, but it’s remarkable to see how content has become a powerful term of art.

If you teach in the humanities, you might think that your courses offer students something rich (and possibly strange), a textured fabric of works, texts, methods, questions. Your lecture is dazzling, class discussion is fruitful. Ideas multiply.

Instructors may see themselves dedicated to inspiring, unlocking, enabling, daring, challenging, and other feats of pedagogical gerundification. So it’s a comedown to discover that what we’re really doing—at least in the deep but soulless eyes of the ascendant educational technocracy—is providing content. (My entry in the List of Unused Band Names: the Content Providers.)

For that matter, provide is a curious word for the matrix of interactions that are woven together when teacher, student, and subject meet. Lingua Franca readers may remember gender non-neutral days when a hard-working dad could be praised as a good provider. In contemporary bureau-speak, the word provider is more likely to be prefaced by such modifiers as content or health-care than by an adjective like good.

The pincer move of accountability systems and digital learning has had a powerful effect on the academic lexicon. Yes, we’ve learned a lot of new concepts and attached words to them, but some of the results aren’t happy. In academia, content seems to be a term no longer within our control. It’s become the flavorless flavor of the month, an apple of the eye of the administrative class (and I write as an administrator who teaches every term).

This is more than a question of quantitative versus nonquantitative disciplines, or of the different ways in which fields understand their goals and methods. It’s a broader issue, and not only an academic one.

The film critic A.O. Scott, of The New York Times, recently weighed in on Twitter: “I have to say the phrase ‘great content’ makes me almost physically ill. Used by people pretending to care about what they actually disdain.”

In a recent London Review of Books essay on German politics, Neal Ascherson writes about those critical of Angela Merkel’s vision, or rather what her critics perceive as its absence. A new German word has emerged—Entinhaltlichung—which Ascherson ruefully glosses for us as decontentification. The process of removing content?

In academia, it’s not content-as-substance that’s the problem. It’s content as a vapid substitute for complexity. There are days when some version of decontentification—dumping the word content overboard—is exactly what I’m in the mood for. I’d wager that for academics, the result would be (to pillage another term with its roots in the language of programming) lossless.

Shakespeare’s glorious son of York knew something about decontentification, nausea, loss, and disdain masquerading as objectivity.

We’ll have to wait to see if the winter of contemporary humanistic study is to enjoy a late spring.

 

Follow me on Twitter @WmGermano

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