Vital Signs

Humanities and the Cutting Edge

There are whole afternoons when a part of me wishes I had paid more attention in Bio 100 because then I might have ended up in cancer research, where being on the cutting edge makes sense. But for better or worse, I settled on literary criticism, a "discipline" that wears inverted commas around its neck like an albatross. Granted, my field does not want for practitioners who know the buzzwords that will make a dean's eyes twinkle and that might even get the attention of a foundation: "discourse analysis" and the "social construction of reality," hegemony and hermeneutics. They are currently the coin of our little realm, but there's always the awful moment when even those who bandy them about must wonder if the people who wear the lab coats aren't snickering.

After all, what would be the point of cancer research that plodded along 20 years behind the curve, or chemistry experiments done without laser microscopes? Science that isn't "on the cutting edge"—which is to say, science that isn't up-to-date and progressive—just isn't, well, science. And I say this as a diabetic who knows that a cure isn't likely to come from my end of the faculty aisle.

Worse, professors in the hard sciences know—or at least seem to know—what they're about, so it's no wonder I can work myself into fits of jealousy when I think about how easy it must...

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