Ezra Cornell, a generous man concerned deeply about his country and its culture, when he created his eponymous university in 1868 said, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”
Professors at Cornell (my grad school alma mater and partial source of rent) have stretched old Ezra’s words to the limit. How? The “English department will begin offering a new concentration in cultural studies to English majors. The concentration will allow students to study different mediums and forms of culture, including literature, film, the Internet and music in terms of ‘historical, social, and political contexts’.”
That’s the problem with words, isn’t it? People are apt to interpret them too freely. This is why lawyers give over their lives to writing nauseatingly precise contracts. Failing to specify what “pay in full” means in less than three pages ensures some clown will find a loophole.
Old Ezra—and academia in general—now has to suffer the consequences of failing to be exact in what he meant by “any study.” For Cornell will indeed offer Bachelor’s of Arts in “English” with concentrations in the study of news anchors’ hairdos.
“The field of cultural studies examines how culture makes a difference in how we live, and how differences in how we live make culture,” Prof. Debra Fried, English, said in an e-mail. “If you take an active interest in how any form of culture shapes your response to everyday life, you’re already beginning to think and question as cultural studies invites you to do.”
Hey, cultural studies has issued invitations! It would be boorish to turn it (them?) down. Thus, “English” majors who opt for the concentration may “study nearly anything that impacts society and the cultures of different regions and time periods.”
Examples include “comparing Ithaca’s coffee shops to how a ‘news anchor’s hairdo and clothing can contribute subtly to how the news is ‘spun’ on a TV news report,’ Fried said.” The emphasis is added to be ensure readers don’t miss the hairdos.
Parenthetically, Ithaca (by my memory) has about three or four coffee shops: applying scholarly rigor to them won’t take long.
Anyway, why put in all those long hours studying engineering, when you could write a thesis on how the transgendered interact with their iPhones in coffee shops?
Why indeed? Word is out: students are “excited ” and are already lining up to enter the program. How will Cornell be able to handle the influx?
To start, two new professors were hired: Jane Juffer, a specialist in “Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies” and ex-Director of Penn State’s “Director, Latina/o Studies Initiative,” and Grant Farred, a specialist in “Africana Studies” and presenter of the talk “Yao Now: The New Racism in the Age of Globalization.”
Juffer will teach “Theories of Popular Culture”, which she says is often “perceived to be unworthy of academic study.” This is false, she claims, because popular culture is important “for the production of both pleasure and politics.” (She neglected displeasure.)
She’ll explore “television, film, the porn industry, baseball, popular music, and Starbucks coffee shops.” And she’ll ask, “what feelings of desire, pleasure, fear, and disgust does popular culture generate?” Anybody have an answer for that one?
The popular “Food, Gender, Culture” course will also count towards the new concentration. The catalog says, “In addition to nourishing the body, food operates as a cultural system that produces and reflects group and individual identities.”
Food also—you knew this was coming!—helps “shape our sense of gender, race, sexual orientation”. Makes you think about “carrot cake” in a while new way, doesn’t it?
Where else can you earn credit for asking, “How do factors such as gender, class, race, and religion shape the foods we eat and the circumstances in which we eat them? How do writers use the language of food to explore issues such as gender, sexuality, class, and race?”
It’s unclear whether the important course “Body as Text: Pleasure and Danger” will be an elective. Did you know that we ” experience our bodies as so much a part of who we are that we take them for granted”? It’s true. “This class looks at how the idea of ‘the body’ gets constructed over time…[and] What makes bodies pleasurable and dangerous?”
To discover these important matters, the films “Freaks” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” will be screened.
The best news is that students will largely be spared the horrors of actual reading. Do you have any idea how much time it takes to read a book? That time could be much better spent remarking on the hairstyles and sexual proclivities of reality show contestants and their relation to racist salad bars (my proposed thesis).