My favorite thing about Chris Schaberg’s writing, which I’ve been devouring since the early airport books through the more recent Searching for the Anthropocene and the brand-new Pedagogy of the Depressed, is his combination of clarity and unassuming knowledge. He writes like an ideal version of a teacher, and since his latest few books have been very much thinking about the classroom, that voice comes through even more strongly. But he also writes with the low-key erudition that sparkles at the hotel bar during an academic conference, and sometimes also with the philosophical flash of a speculative fisherman, casting his lure into opacity.
The new book’s title riffs on Paulo Freire’s now half-century old Pedagogy of the Oppressed , and Schaberg’s focus is to a large extent on his students, his classes, and the strange overlapping educational crises we are living through in the early 21c, from the surge of smartphone attention-sucking devices in our classrooms, to his growing ambivalence about online education (about which he and I co-wrote a short Inside Higher Ed piece in 2018), and of course the spring 2020 rush into Zoomtopia, which continues to shape higher ed as Omicron rushes over our shores. Schaberg’s deep sympathy for his overworked, distracted, and — well — sometimes self-described depressed students spills out of the pages. His description of his “ungrading” practices, his efforts to celebrate and focus academic conversations whether in a classroom, on a campus lawn, or amid the black boxes of Zoomtopia, his negotiation of the Blackboard to Canvas transition (which my Uni also made during the time of Covid-19), and other of his pedagogical ideas and methods will be very useful for many of the teachers who will read this book.
I’m especially interested in his chapters on “Public Humanities” and “Environmental Humanities,” his debates about whether these two things are or should be the same thing, and his speculations about what either or both have to to with what, in many academic departments including mine, still goes by the intimidating name of “Critical Theory.”
Chris speaks about public humanities as a practitioner, both because he writes accessible (and short!) books and publishes widely in public or para-academic venues from Slate.com to Public Books to Inside Higher Ed, but especially because as co-creator (with Ian Bogost and Bloomsbury Publishing) of the amazing Object Lessons series, he’s been as responsible as anyone for expanding connections among inventive writing, deep knowledge, and more-than-academic audiences. I think a lot about these things, and also about how my own watery corner of speculations and thoughts, the blue humanities, might contribute to the mix.
[Full disclosure: I’ve seldom had as much fun on any book project as when I wrote Ocean for the Object Lessons series. It came out in March 2020, so the publicity was a bit muted and all events were trapped in Zoomtopia – but I love the series & think it’s one of the best things going these days.]
Two chapters in the new book dig into “Environmental Humanities?” and “Public Humanities?”, each chapter title bearing interrogatory punctuation that suggests these terms remain up for definition. That seems right — but the key point that I take from Schaberg is that these terms intersect. All environmental writing, even dense academic research, “takes on an importantly public dimension” (50). While the idea of “the humanities” has been to some extent academicized, and while I don’t think Schaberg wants to criticize academic research (and I certainly don’t), I take his point that “the humanities [are] supposed to be, I don’t know, about ordinary humans” (51). Putting on my academic hat, I suppose I might say that there’s nothing ordinary about being human, either today or historically, and of course the post-human in the post-humanities has been pressing against and restructuring what the human means for quite a long time. But the point that “environmental humanities is environmental disaster humanities, and as such it is public humanities” (53) seems exactly right to me. We need, as Chris’s examples from his classroom shows, to meet our students where they are, as much as we can.
The other key point that I love in Pedagogy of the Depressed is the focus on design as a key term for the public environmental humanities. The hero of this chapter, and one of my favorite stars in the contemporary public humanities landscape, is Alice Marwick, the brilliant book designer who has created the stunning look and feel of around 70 Object Lessons books so far. With typical verve, Chris connects Alice’s designs to Disney+’s The Mandalorian, and also to his collaborations with assorted public and para-academic publications. I’m always impressed with how closely he involves his students with these projects, and the way that he shows them what’s possible in the wide world of the 21c humanities.
So — read Pedagogy of the Depressed! It takes our challenges seriously, but I don’t think it’ll make you feel sad.