I had been home from my summer field work for about 24 hours when I found myself in our yard, cleaning up branches from a major summer thunderstorm. For the next five or six days, I watched pick-up trucks full of fallen limbs, brush, and other debris transport their crumpled cargos to the local green-waste disposal site. As if on pilgrimage, I filled my 2003 Ford F-150 up with branches as well and hauled them out of my yard. In times like this, I appreciated the utility of the American half-ton pick-up truck and celebrated their ubiquity in my small town in North Dakota.
I recognize, of course, that owning a gas-guzzling, pollution-pushing V8 is not a popular position. Trucks are inefficient vehicles in the best of circumstances. The get miserable gas milage, their size and weight is unnecessary for grocery store runs, the daily commute, or finding parking in a crowded Starbucks. In fact, even in a truck friendly town like Grand Forks, North Dakota, my truck can be awkward in our bustling downtown, and this inconvenience offers a daily temptation to contribute to sprawl by running my errands at a big box store with correspondingly big parking lots. Even as they tempt you to drive further for convenience, they don’t reward the trip by being particularly fun to drive, they don’t typically involve the latest and greatest in automotive technology, and, even as trucks become more luxurious, they continue to privilege durability and utility above creature comforts. This practical demeanor comes through in the design language of trucks which embodies a kind of hyper masculinity and brute strength in the face of an increasingly complex world. In sum, they’re as boring and inefficient as they are ubiquitous even with the widespread availability of parts and accessories to customize these vehicles. Even with their banal vulgarity people become attached to trucks. I am to mine.
The reason for this attachment is hard to understand, but recently I’ve come to wonder whether it stems from the willingness of truck owners to take on part of the collective guilt in society in the name of a kind of situational utility. When it comes time to move, collect that big purchase at a local store, load up on mulch, buy wood for rebuilding a deck, or any other of the endless suburban class chores that characterize middle class life, the neighbor’s truck becomes a community resource. After a big storm, few would doubt the utility of the truck and value of local truck owners to their neighbors and their community. When hurricane Harvey caused disastrous flooding in Houston, the media celebrated, perhaps only a bit ironically, the generosity of monster and lifted-truck owners who brought their absurd vehicles to the rescue of beleaguered suburbanites, who invariably drive lesser vehicles or hybrids. Truck drivers have become scapegoats for their communities filling their outsized and outmoded trucks with storm debris, consumer goods, and supplies for home repair, while still leaving room for the burden of a community’s guilt.
As a university professor, in the humanities, at a state university, I’m pretty comfortable as a scapegoat. I already hold a position that is unpopular among a sizable part of the population (although probably the same part of the population who also own more than their share of trucks). In contrast to the noble truck, in the absence of crisis, faculty in the humanities are politely ignored and, at worst, seen by critics as a harmless concession to tradition, and, at best, a useful way to prepare students for the complexities of everyday life. During times of financial or ideological crisis, however, humanities faculty become the scapegoats for perceived problems in higher education or, more broadly, the profligacy of obsolete public institutions that peddle in useless factoids or convoluted theorizing of limited practical value.
As I sweated my way through cleaning up after the storm, I wondered whether faculty in the humanities and truck owners could find some common ground in how graciously they bore the burdens of social approbation and appreciation, but maybe we already do.