Depending on one’s viewpoint, I am either in an enviable place or completely insane as a doctoral student in English Literature. The short version of a long story is that I have done everything backwards in my career, so entering the Ivory Tower, I had published books, teaching experience, etc., but no Ph.D. So, now after a career in communications, I find myself as a grad student once again. It is a necessary step to move from permanent Instructor to a tenure-track position.
On the plus side, there are interesting intersections between what I learn in English and the public relations classes I teach. Before I started taking classes, I would never have thought that English lit theory would add to my thinking about PR. Recently, however, we looked at a New York Times blog, “Will the Humanities Save Us” by Stanley Fish, a celebrated English professor and provocateur.
The essay linked to above is both oddly alluring, indirect, and ultimately frustrating. An example is one of Fish’s final paragraphs:
“Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by ‘do’ is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.”
I am intrigued by Fish’s willingness to admit that the humanities exist for their own good and the pleasure they give, although he is fully aware of the assault against the humanities by education bureaucrats and others who would do away with the liberal arts in general. I decided to look at another Fish article, from a collection English as a Discipline: Or, is there a Plot in this Play? edited by James C. Raymond.
In “Them We Burn: Violence and Conviction in the English Department,” Fish argues for English to reclaim its ownership “taking care of verbs and adjectives,” rather than engage in the multidisciplinary tasks (Fish cites “cultural studies” as one example) that critics rail against when examining what these departments bring to higher education (161).
Instead, Fish says, “It is a requirement, then, for the respectability of an enterprise that it be, or at least be able to present itself (which is even more important) as, distinctive” (162). The point, for English departments to find success — just as I would argue for public relations professionals to distinguish themselves from other would-be “communicators” across an organization — is to be distinct and champion that distinctness.
Fish exclaims, “A practice only acquires identity by not being other practices, by representing itself as not doing everything, but as doing one thing in such a way as to have a society habitually look to it for specific performance.” More importantly, for the argument in favor of public relations within the organization, “When the hard outlines of a practice are blurred by a map that brings into relief its affiliations, borrowings, lendings, and overlappings with other practices, those affiliations, rather than anything specific to the practice, are what become visible” [emphasis mine] (169).
From one perspective, this argument for public relations might seem odd coming from me, particularly if you read Bill Sledzik’s fine blog and my stab at a rebuttal. But, Fish’s idea about what space a discipline should claim provides great clarity.
My idealistic viewpoint is that integrated communications means each part of the marketing mix works together toward common organizational objectives. In the business world, this does not happen often enough because the respective directors of PR, Marketing, and Advertising/Creative pursue their own agendas without much, if any, interaction.
From Fish, I realize that PR professionals need to trumpet their distinctiveness and more actively carve out what it is that we do so exceedingly well, like broker relationships between organizations and the seemingly endless number of interested parties, or stakeholders, all around them.
Given the PR profession’s manic inferiority complex, constantly bickering over definitions of what PR is and is not, and whether or not executive’s value it, I am not sure how one would go about making its distinctiveness known. Maybe such an attempt means blowing up everything about the profession and starting from scratch. Perhaps, as Fish also suggests about English, it necessitates PR’s demise, hoping that an eventual rebirth will occur (if a world without PR serves as a catalyst for recognizing its value).
What do you think?