From Academic Freedom to Organizational Democracy

In his July 2015 Inside Higher Ed column, Christopher Newfield usefully notes that faculty have lost the ability to see academic freedom as a public relations problem. In a follow-up post, he proposes that “organizational democracy” will allow us to solve this problem. We agree with both posts, although as usual a lot depends on what “organizational democracy” might mean.

The ongoing unpleasantness in Wisconsin and its potential national ramifications provide the occasion for Newfield’s intervention. Instead of construing Wisconsin as a reminder that professorial labor requires special protection, Newfield proposes that we strive to discuss the future of work in general. The demand for extraordinary privileges only really wins the day, he observes, when addressed to an audience already “inside the academic consensus that the pursuit of truth requires intellectual freedom and professional self-governance.” It is reasonable to expect that, lacking such protections in their own work lives, most people would find themselves outside that consensus and thus “wouldn’t immediately see why empowering chancellors will hurt teaching or slow the pace of discovery.”

In addition to claiming a unique ability to speak truth to power, faculty (not only at Wisconsin) also tell themselves that the market for professorial talent demands tenure. Universities must guarantee it in order to compete with other universities, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Newfield observes that the size of the reserve labor pool currently willing to work without tenure undermines this pitch. More importantly, the competitiveness meme does not meet the challenges of our moment. “The U.S. doesn’t have a competitiveness disadvantage,” he writes, “it has a collaborative disadvantage, and universities are needed more than ever to develop new kinds of collaborative capabilities.” Developing those capacities presents an organizational and media relations challenge worth embracing.

Doing so requires unlearning the special status argument, which as Newfield suggests goes back to the earliest twentieth-century steps to institutionalize the notion of academic freedom in the U.S. One of the AAUP’s most durable claims, he explains, constructs “academic freedom as the great exception to the autocratic managerialism of American business life.” The 1915 Declaration that announced the AAUP as academic freedom’s advocate-in-chief indeed sought to distinguish faculty appointment from the relation of a “private employer to his employees.”

It equally, and even more emphatically, addressed the threat from the “tyranny of public opinion”:

The tendency of modern democracy is for men to think alike, to feel alike, and to speak alike. Any departure from the conventional standards is apt to be regarded with suspicion. Public opinion is at once the chief safeguard of a democracy, and the chief menace to the real liberty of the individual…. An inviolable refuge from such tyranny should be found in the university. It should be an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become a part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world.

At the core of the argument exempting faculty from the usual American work rules one finds a logic depicting the university an “inviolable refuge,” a redoubt shielded against groupthink, a bunker to protect the professors who would convince the nation to eat its fruits and vegetables. Selling the university was thus made congruent with selling potentially controversial (but good for you!) ideas. This was an explicitly elitist position in the professional mode: experts served a public that did not know its own best interest.

Once opened, such a logic of exception was renewed over the course of the twentieth century by august bodies including the US Supreme Court. In 1966, Justice Brennan declared in his majority opinion to Keyishian v Board of Regents that “our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned.” As Marjorie Heins points out on the AAUP’s blog, however, this principle has met difficulty in practice, and the AAUP counsel’s guidance on “The Current Legal Landscape” asserts that “the scope of the First Amendment right of academic freedom for professors remains unclear.”

Uncertain as a legal right, tenure succeeded as institutional policy, but later in the history of American academia than faculty may think. Despite AAUP successes in the 1910s and 20s, tenure protections remained mostly informal and dependant on the will of senior administration for much of the century. When Rice University surveyed policies at seventy-eight universities in 1935, it found that fewer than half had formal rules about tenure protection. Tenure was not a standard and ubiquitous feature of American higher education before the 1970s, Caitlin Rosenthal recounts. There are, Rosenthal explains, competing stories about how this came about. Lost in the usual history of professorial advocacy, she argues, is the ready acceptance by administrators of the institutional competition idea, with tenure chalked up as one of the “practical exigencies of recruiting and maintaining excellent faculties” (16).

Before faculty could assume that a “tenure line” would mean pretty much the same thing at any institution that advertised one, a rationale in which academic freedom benefited not only the faculty and (ultimately) the public but also the university needed to be established. Consider the landmark case of University of Wisconsin Professor Richard T. Ely. As commentators on current events including William Bowen and Eugene Tobin observe, the 1894 Ely case made Wisconsin a central example in chapter one of the American history of academic freedom that Governor Walker and company now hope to revise. In a column for The Nation, Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction Oliver Wells alleged that Ely, Director of the School of Economics, “believes in strikes and boycotts, justifying and encouraging the one while practicing the other.” Wells concluded that such propagation of “utopian, impractical, or pernicious doctrines” made Ely unfit for employment as a Wisconsin professor. The Regents appointed a committee to investigate and serve judgment. They not only found Ely innocent of the charges leveled against him, but also took the opportunity to question whether such allegations should have mattered to the university in the first place. Professors should be free, the Regents declared, “to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead.”

The Regents committee’s pronouncement, aka the Wisconsin Magna Carta, relied on the implication that such freedom would distinguish the state’s great university from other  workplaces. “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere,” the committee wrote, “we believe the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone truth can be found.” This past June, UW-Madison Chancellor Blank used the remark to sum up her article “Why State Lawmakers Must Support Tenure at Public Universities”–preached to a choir of Chronicle of Higher Education readers.

Trumpeting Badger faculty freedoms looked less defensive in 1894, when, according to the State Journal, the Regents committee provided the university with a successful publicity coup. “Incidentally if not inadvertently the report contains a résumé of the good work done at the university ever since the civil war,” the paper noted. “This handsome advertisement has been telegraphed all over the country.”

Advertisement itself rapidly became a Wisconsin tradition. Early in the new century, recount the historians Merle Curti and Vernon Carstensen, administrators enlisted the English Department to write bulletins conveying to newspapers “in an attractive way, the story of discoveries, inventions, and innovations” across campus (II: 90). “The aggressive businessman does not wait for the consumer…to purchase his articles,” declared Wisconsin President Charles R. Van Hise in his 1904 inaugural address. “Are we going to be less aggressive in education than we are in business?” In 1917, Wisconsin joined Yale, California, and Indiana to be among the first members of the American Association of College News Bureaus. That membership grew to 75 schools by the late 1920s.

Meanwhile, at Wisconsin and elsewhere, the faculty’s promotional duties were handed off to public relations professionals. In his 1928 Propaganda, no less a figure than public relations pioneer Edward Bernays recognized universities as early adopters (140). “It may surprise and shock some people,” revealed a columnist in the magazine Personality, “to be told that the oldest and most dignified seats of learning in America now hire press agents, just as railroad companies, fraternal organizations, moving picture producers and political parties retain them. It is nevertheless a fact” (qtd. in Propaganda 142). Working with societies like the National Education Association, Bernays noted, universities not only used publicity to promote themselves and their professors but also to redress more general concerns, like the prestige of teachers. Thus the work of promoting the public value of the university, which justified academic freedom, passed to salaried professionals who could not earn that freedom. By definition, these professionals could not remain within an academic cloister that shielded them from tyrannical public opinion but needed, as Bernays put it, to “interpret the public for the client” in order to be able to “interpret the client to the public” (Crystalizing 14).

With accelerating fervor after the 1970s normalization of tenure (and job market collapse), postsecondary institutions turned to non-tenure track faculty to perform essential teaching functions, and academic freedom was also used to mark the difference between these instructors and their tenure track peers. As widely cited National Center for Education Statistics numbers show, by 2009 non-tenure-track faculty constituted roughly 70% of the instructors employed by institutions of higher education. As Jennifer Ruth ably chronicles, our present tenure system distinguishes not only faculty from non-faculty professionals but also stratifies faculty into haves and have nots.

Particularly at the large public universities, the AAUP’s “isolated refuge” of 1915 now looks more like a social microcosm comprising, in addition to various ranks of teachers, researchers, and administrators, a campus police force, medical services, commercial “auxiliary enterprises,” groundskeeping and maintenance staff, and so on.

An organizational democracy in which all these university stakeholders participated would differ considerably from the currently prevailing forms of “faculty governance.”  Academic departments and their traditional extensions, e.g. the “faculty senate,” do not seem well positioned to join the rest of the campus workforce in discussions that might be called democratic. The habits of (relative) departmental autonomy in employment matters such as the hiring, merit evaluation, tenure, and promotion of in-field colleagues run bone deep, almost as deep, perhaps, as faculty isolation from Human Resources interaction with their nonexempt coworkers.

Force of habit so strongly connects “academic freedom” and departments today because the two forms grew up together: both are features of the uniquely American university that developed around the turn of the last century. As Louis Menand explains, tenure has worked to strengthen disciplinary and departmental balkanization, to protect sociology professors not only from administrative or public tyranny but also from the interference of physics professors. In their canonical 1955 The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, Richard Hofstadter and W. P. Metzger elaborate the danger that “in fighting on the line of intramural law…the temptation is to make academic freedom coterminous with the security of professors in the guild” (457). To shun that temptation, we do well to follow Newfield in thinking about “professor” as a job among others. Hofstadter and Metzger’s argument, however, suggests why that might be hard to do.

If, as Newfield observes, tenure-line faculty expect and enjoy “protection from the at-will employment practice of firing any employee without cause,” it is worth remembering that some non-faculty university employees have that protection too. The campus police might have union representation, for example, although it is likely to be different from faculty union representation (if they have it), which is also likely to be different from graduate student union representation (if they have it), and so forth. Most campuses will have detailed policies defining terms of probation, evaluation, and procedures for termination of nonunion, nonexempt employees. Expect where specific statutory provisions apply–for example, in the case of overtime rules or Family Medical Leave–policies and contracts define working conditions on most large campuses. In other words, campuses in general are more “for cause” than “at will” kinds of workplaces, in which some effort has gone into making it difficult to terminate employment based on administrative caprice.

We are definitely not suggesting that “for cause” projections work uniformly or well across our campuses. We are suggesting, rather, that a discussion of termination for cause involving all employees need not start from the habitual “have” and “have not” discussion currently surrounding tenure. It could, rather, begin from the assumptions that everyone is “special” in this division of labor because we all have different jobs and that no one deserves to be an “at will” employee.

Being in favor of “for cause” for everyone does not really explain the kind of division of labor that one might favor, however. It does not explain the institutional form in which organizational democracy might take place. More pointedly, holding out academic freedom as what Newfield calls a model for “general economic and social justice virtues” does not speak to deeply ingrained (departmentalized) academic commitments to “merit” and “talent” crucial to the faculty’s peer review, shared governance, and other workplace features that we might also like to defend.

If one wants to hold onto the value of faculty expertise, the observation that “professor” is a job like many others is as insufficient as it is necessary. From the beginnings of the American research university, the faculty’s job description has entailed producing potentially uncomfortable truths in the lab or classroom. We think it should continue to do so. But it is equally clear that the division of labor tasked with creating, maintaining, circulating, and implementing the truths faculty produce has changed considerably in the past century. Not only does the contemporary university employ more diverse types of professionals than its forebears imagined, but the mediasphere in which it addresses its publics is noisier, more diverse, and differently professionalized than it was when Wisconsin first promoted its Magna Carta. Newfield is right to point out that we should not expect old arguments to explain this new context. Thus, collaboration.

How best to collaborate then? And with whom? Certainly academic arrangements provide models (labs! committees!), but they are not the only ones. We share our organizational vernacular both with a more expansive set of co-workers than we typically acknowledge and with a more expansive set of institutions. In truth, the university holds no monopoly on labs, committees, departments, and classrooms. To collaborate effectively, we need to become conversant in a broader range of organizational forms and allow that we might learn from them as they might learn from us. Alan Liu makes one such suggestion, arguing persuasively beginning with his 2004 Laws of Cool that academics can learn things about project-based research from the world’s silicon valleys, alleys, and savannahs. The creative industries offer other models for project-based collaboration: Hollywood’s includes collective bargaining.

No matter how democratic the organizational scheme, it will require a media relations strategy.

In its early twentieth century invention, tenure as a public service endowed faculty with work protections that “the public” at large did not have. Pointing out that it still lacks them is not a great rallying cry. Far better to contend that anyone’s termination should have a justifiable cause. That would not only be a better public relations strategy but also require the faculty to better understand how the organizations that employ them work (a project to which Newfield has made a long string of notable contributions). It would be good for faculty to remember as well as explain that “sifting and winnowing” requires in practice many different kinds of labor from a broad spectrum of employees. This would of necessity require us to question the habit of equating “academic freedom” with departmental prerogative, to acknowledge that other types of organizations might offer interesting labor models, and to embrace the challenge of overcoming our national collaboration deficit.

The stakes of such engagement are indeed established by Governor Walker’s plan for the University of Wisconsin, as embodied in the statutory change singled out by the recent joint AAUP / AFT-Wisconsin statement on the matter. This change authorizes faculty layoffs due to “a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.” It lays the ground for the very decision-making it describes, moving tenure from statute to policy, empowering administrators to do away with programs at will, and creating the occasion for them to do so by cutting $250 million from the state’s allocation.

The combination justifiably commands attention. The question of who, if not senior administrators alone, should make decisions about “program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection” (not to mention innovation) has multiple stakeholders within the university and outside it.  If there is to be organizational democracy in the university (for starters), it will not deserve the name unless it can convincingly defend both the particular kinds of value that faculty produce and the division of labor in which they produce it.

Wisconsin Republicans may have accidentally supplied academic freedom with a new banner to replace the quaint “sifting and winnowing” of the “Magna Carta.” In 2014, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos proclaimed that he wanted the university to abandon research on “the ancient mating habits of whatever” in favor of research economically beneficial to the state. The rebuttal, of course, is not only that university research provides a tremendous economic benefit, but also that ancient mating habits are fascinating, that their study offers many practical applications in daily life, and that such study is potentially limitless, indeed extensible to “whatever.” What could be more worthy of a collaborative effort engaging the university in all its parts?

Works Cited (but not Linked)

Bernays, Edward L. Crystallizing Public Opinion. New. New York,: Boni and Liveright, 1934 [1923].

—–.  Propaganda. Liveright. 1928.

Curti, Merle; Carstensen, Vernon. The University of Wisconsin: A History: 1848-1925. 2 Vols. University of Wisconsin, 1949.

Hofstadter, Richard, and W. P. Metzger. The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. First Edition edition. Columbia University Press, 1955.

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

The Culture Wars Are Over: Debt Won

“Debt” has replaced “culture” as the concept structuring arguments about the humanities’ role in higher education. This is not bad news, inasmuch as debt encourages a sweeping reexamination of higher education’s value to students–not only what that value is, but also how to measure it, and how universities actually go about providing it.

During the reign of “culture,” discussion of higher education’s value was more narrowly conceived. Defenders and critics of the humanities tended to behave as if it could be assessed through careful attention to the syllabus. This was among the more depressing conclusions we reached in drafting a chapter on the 1980s and 90s for our book, “Mass Media U.” Turning to the turbulent academy of our youth in the spirit of mature reappraisal, we revisited aggressive defenses of the canon during the heyday of its decolonization and marvelled anew at the solution of having it both ways by “teaching the conflicts.”

A truly amazing amount of time and energy went into scolding English professors for what they were or were not teaching–amazing, because what they were or were not teaching was so largely beside the point when it came to consideration of how higher education was changing. In the period of the culture wars, a massive wave of program innovation reshaped every corner of campus and an increasing subdivision of labor rewrote the job description of “professor.” In the research university at century’s end, no one department’s curriculum could hope to succeed in doing much of anything to or for students, let alone “culture,” without forging alliances across campus.

Debt now challenges faculty to forego fighting among themselves over disciplinary turf and field-specific canons in favor of reminding themselves who, exactly, constitute the audiences for higher education. Faculty are called upon to pay renewed attention to facts such as:

  • the classroom is but a small part of the experience our institutions provide to students
  • there is a wide gulf separating students from the primary audience for our research
  • our students’ future employers are at least an indirect audience for our work

These are well established themes, to be sure, but they are given urgency by the figure of the debt-ridden student, who provides a nexus around which a whole host of systemic problems accrete: consumerism, helicopter parents, standardized testing and what it’s done to K-12, the cost of a bachelor’s degree amidst economic downturn, bad student financial aid policy, the rise of for-profit higher education, the proliferation of “global” satellite campuses, and investment in online education, just to name a few of the more prominent issues.

This shift from “culture” to “debt” was discernable in the 2013 “Summer of Humanities Debates,” which were so notably defensive about the return on investment in a humanities education. In round one, defense took the form of a familiar argument that the humanities’ social import could be found in their nonutility: they provided critical, generalist skills improving whole persons rather than narrow training designed to reduce individuals to immediately useful cogs in the machine. The idea was to stick up for arts and culture stuff that the pre-professional tracks dismissed as so much fluff: not worth funding, as North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory explained, unless it’s “going to get someone a job.” There was little infighting among those in the humanist camp as the conversation turned up CEOs able to endorse well-rounded liberal arts job seekers and actual data demonstrating that humanities degrees seemed to pay off in the long run (see, e.g., this article). As a result, in round two we got to celebrate the practicality of humanities training on the job market, as if this proved the value of impracticality established in round one.

As approaches to humanities’ evergreen “crises” go, this wasn’t so bad. It demonstrated some attention to the problem of how humanist pedagogies plug into the pervasive system of value mediated by money (because, you know, capitalism). And it didn’t fuss too much about the informational content transmitted by “the humanities” or “the liberal arts” (often misleadingly treated as synonyms).

As the summer of 2014 comes to a close, national attention seems drawn to an even broader picture, one focused on failed investment in undergraduates tout court. The reception of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep (now in its third week on The New York Times’ best seller list) has demonstrated that literate Americans can be roused by a critique of careerism when combined with ridicule of the Ivy League. Amazon reviewer Swish, a self-described “product of that elite education system in the early 2000s” declared that “this book has helped to bring me to life again, after the soul-crushing, or actually mostly just soul-forgetting experience of elite education.” As Deresiewicz bottom-lines it in a response to his critics: “The issue now is not that kids don’t or at least wouldn’t want to get a liberal education as well as a practical one…. The issue is that the rest of us don’t want to pay for it.” “Debt” offers a good enough shorthand for the whole ensemble of forces that have ended up burdening individual undergraduates with all manner of higher ed problems.

That meme has so taken over discussion that even John Oliver has gotten into the act, recently spending a quarter hour of Last Week Tonight on HBO castigating universities, the federal government, and above all for-profit higher ed for ripping off students. The Feds had their hearts in the right place back in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act into law and released what would become a flood of low-interest loan dollars to broaden educational access. Nowadays, however, Oliver describes Federal student loan policy as driven primarily by the lobbying efforts of for-profit education vendors. As for the students themselves, Oliver enthused, “You need to stop watching this show right now. You don’t have time for this. Get out there, and enjoy the fuck out of your college experience, because you may be paying for it for the rest of your life.”

The dangers of enjoying college and worrying about the future later are themselves the object of study in the latest book from sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Aspiring Adults Adrift points to “a fundamental failure in the higher education market,” according to Kevin Carey in The New York Times: “[W]hile employers can tell the difference between those who learned in college and those who were left academically adrift, the students themselves cannot.” A striking difference between student self-perception and the context revealed by sociological examination provides the book with its mainspring. “While almost one-quarter of the college graduates we studied were living back at home with their families two years after finishing college,” the authors discover, “a stunning 95 percent reported that their lives would be the same or better than those of their parents.” One suspects that reader Swish of might welcome this news less eagerly than she does Deresiewicz’s call to reawaken her soul. Nonetheless, Deresiewicz and Arum and Roksa describe similar terrains of academic disfunction.

For the sociologists, institutions of higher education have cultivated student misprision. “Rather than defining undergraduate experiences in a manner conducive to the development of young adults, institutions today have let themselves be defined by the preferences of undergraduates,” Arum and Roksa lament. Students look to their teachers for “external signals to evaluate their performance,” but find “those signals are quite weak, as decades of grade inflation have eroded the power of grades to signal academic accomplishment.” In their 2011 book, Academically Adrift, they summarized researcher George Kuh’s finding that a “disengagement compact” prevails on our campuses. Professors and students have, in effect, negotiated a situation in which relatively low levels of work by either party will suffice to earn relatively good grades. Both groups perceive that their time would be better spent elsewhere. On the faculty side, Arum and Roksa explain, this is not question of lassitude so much as an understandable response to changing student expectations, various demands on our time, emphasis on research in performance evaluation, and so forth.

Given that this situation is not only dire but systemically dire, it is surprising that Arum and Roksa offer but modest proposals for reform. To professors, they recommend more rigor in teaching and evaluation, as well as renewed emphasis on general skills (like critical thinking) and clearer assessment practices for specialized degree programs (educators in STEM and history shoot to the head of the class for identifying competencies that their majors should develop). To colleges and universities, they recommend fewer rock climbing walls and less stress on developing “interpersonal competencies, psychological well-being, and capacity for social adjustment.” The “cultivation of character, grit, perseverance, social obligation, and duty” would be better goals for extracurricular activities. The Breakfast Club is out; bring back John Wayne.

Arum and Roksa portray college as a massive optimism industry peddling the pretense of development without any of its substance. Yet rather than developing their critique across various social institutions after the fashion of disciplinary forebear C. Wright Mills (whom they favorably mention), they tailor “solutions” cut to the measure of achievable policy positions. Their prescriptions combine an emphasis on character-building (the job now primarily of student service professionals) with advocacy of performance-based assessment (which no one does terribly well or consistently, but the Federal government may soon mandate). They are among those urging us to abandon the nineteenth-century solution to the problem of administering knowledge, the Carnegie Unit or course credit hour, which made the elective system possible and rapidly grew to become a standard measure of student learning as well as faculty work time.

Arum and Roksa prefer measures like the nonprofit Council for Aid to Education’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which measures student “proficiency in critical thinking and written communication” by asking them to narrate responses to “real world” situations. This test confirms for the sociologists that students do not know what they are talking about when they claim to have learned in college–and neither do their professors. Arum and Roksa find no correlation between student self-assessment or grades and CLA numbers. But, they discover that lower CLA scores correlate to lower wage earning power and higher rates of un- and underemployment.

We are sympathetic to the quest for alternatives to the Carnegie Unit and the specious equivalencies it creates. We are less optimistic that healthy doses of Bildung and the CLA will address the problem of debt, which is less about whether students are learning what they think they’re learning than who can be convinced to pay for “college”–which has for more than a century been understood as a social experience as well as an educational one.

Relative inattention to that social dimension sometimes characterizes more radical calls for solutions to the student debt crisis, as in this Tedx talk from Nicholas Mirzoeff.  Obviously, the format constrains what can be said. Regardless, one is immediately struck by a certain disconnect between the higher education sector as envisioned in Mirzoeff’s explanation of the debt crisis and that imagined by the solution he proposes.

On the problem side, Mirzoeff directs our attention to “high tuition low endowment schools like NYU” which “could become the Bear Stearns and Lehmans of the tuition debt crisis.” Such schools may find themselves forced to dip lower into their applicant pools to find students (i.e., suckers) willing to bear the cost of running the whole operation. If this happens, these institutions would end up becoming “overpriced schools for undersmart kids” like, he suggests, Drew University. In this portrait, postsecondary ed looks like a diverse marketplace in which institutions strive to attract “the best” applicants, while parents and students seek “the best” schools, with all the complexity entailed in arriving at ideas about what is “the best.”

On the solution side, Mirzoeff proposes two kinds of schools. Publics, where tuition should be free, and privates, where he advocates the “Starbucks solution”: student customers should stay away from private colleges until they refocus their attention on the core business of education and stop selling the academic equivalent of tired Starbucks sandwiches and easy listening CDs.

There is an obvious problem with the analogy–one revealed particularly by Arum and Roksa–in that administrators, faculty, and students lack consensus on what a university’s core commodity is. Some of us think it’s “education,” others prefer to emphasize a holistic “student experience” that includes classroom education as a central, but certainly not the only, component. In other words, there’s a possibility that some of those Drew students are getting exactly the iced mocha frappuccino experience they’re after, in which case one wouldn’t necessarily count on the severity of the post-graduation comedown to discourage the behavior. This seems to be where Arum and Roksa come out on the question.

Free public higher education for everyone is an obviously supportable idea. As Mirzoeff notes it would entail a welcome reallocation of federal dollars from corporate welfare to public welfare. We wonder, however, whether such a path could avoid the pitfalls of Starbucks. Public higher ed is itself intensely stratified, encompassing a range of types of institutions, and a whole host of functions not directly related to classroom education (ahem, research).

The problem of who pays for higher ed is now, at publics and privates alike, a highly various and complex one in which a number of interests and audiences matter. As a lynchpin in the current solution, student debt is objectionable in that it displaces responsibility for the whole complex matter of finding a pathway through college toward a better life squarely on the shoulders of persons who, by definition, are ill-equipped to make that decision: undergraduates.

Just how a specific undergraduate experience will qualify a particular student for a life they might end up wanting is notoriously difficult to determine in advance. Debt financing ups the stakes while limiting students from changing course. It makes sense to describe student debt as part of a basic biopower risk management strategy now fully extended to higher education. Nonetheless, student debtors are not like mortgage-holding homeowners. It is far less possible for borrowers to appraise the value of the purchase in advance (as Arum and Roksa’s findings demonstrate). Still, the loan is secured not by any underlying asset but by the borrower’s future earnings (which the bank promises to garnish until the debt is paid). There is no “downsizing” your college education later on: repayment and death are the only ways to discharge the obligation.

Humanities professors have had plenty of practice arguing that, first, they uniquely provide a kind of educational value that cannot be reckoned in terms of earning power alone, and, second, that “liberal arts” approaches pay off in the long run because they offer a broader base that makes students more adaptable in changing times. The various rankings and measures being propagated to help students navigate the current debt crisis demonstrate the practical difficulty of sustaining either of these two arguments on behalf something called “the humanities.”

To pick just one example, consider a new study by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia that tracks graduates from 1992-93. It comes as no surprise to discover that engineers make more money, on average, than graduates with a degree in Visual and Performing Arts. But the study also notes that salaries range, sometimes considerably, within degree categories. It further notes that the range of degree categories themselves are making easy generalizations more difficult. (More than 800 individual flavors of baccalaureate degrees are currently tracked.) Although English language and literature/letters is an underperformer (as usual), the degree associated with the lowest wages is something called Family and consumer sciences/human sciences (CIP 19, to reference the instructional program code used by the National Center for Education Statistics). The gendered division of labor, or so one might infer, may be a more powerful determinant of income than particular degree pathways. In any case, “the humanities” is not among the options in Virginia or elsewhere. One must pick a more particular flavor. This study suggests, moreover, that students and parents should pay very close attention to the flavor they pick.

Traditional defenses of the humanities, we submit, are paralyzed in the face of this project of directing students to one major as opposed to some other. In the moment of doing so, they invariably cease to be defenses of “the humanities” and become arguments in favor a particular discipline (often the speaker’s) or else they resort to the chestnut that students should follow their interests (in which case, why not agronomy, business management, or physics?).

Nor have humanities professors succeeded in working out amongst themselves a division of labor capable of distributing important tasks across their disciplinary divisions, in the way that a biology degree might require certain competencies taught by the Chemistry Department or Computer Science might require completion of coursework in Mathematics. (Interestingly, we sometimes do better at this in PhD programs: humanities graduate programs at John’s school encourage students to secure the additional credential of a “Designated Emphasis,” a graduate minor in effect requiring coursework in a humanities subject area that resides outside the home department.)

Similarly, evidence suggests that “liberal arts” breadth is increasingly hard to come by amidst the array of approaches to “general education” on campus. Numbers from the Baccalaureate and Beyond survey crunched by the Academy of Arts & Sciences Humanities Indicators project suggest that undergraduates, overall, take more credits in the humanities than they do in the STEM disciplines. STEM and humanities students constitute barely overlapping audiences, however, with few majors in STEM disciplines pursuing humanities coursework beyond the core general ed requirements and vice versa. It’s all well and good to argue that “the humanities” should have a place in general education, but we have plainly not succeeded in fine-tuning this argument to a moment after gen ed has been reconceived in terms of distribution requirements scattered over an ever-increasing number of departments and across a wildly differentiated array of schools.

Here again “the humanities” as a rubric may be part of the problem. Do we really imagine that the history component of general ed should plug into biology in the same way as, say, the literary studies component plugs into sociology, or the media studies component connects with physics? Do any of these “humanities” disciplines need some quality that can be obtained equally well from chemistry, earth science, and math? Mixing up curricular divisions and giving them new names, as Mark’s university among others has done, helps a little by estranging the problem. But it does not go to the fundamental issue: how to assemble a puzzle composed less of general areas than a large number of highly particularized pieces.

For most students, help in assembling that puzzle and thereby making “the most” of their education comes not primarily from professors but from student services employees (some of whom are students themselves). The faculty in John’s department, for instance, have largely outsourced undergraduate advising to various Dean’s offices and to a highly capable advisor for English majors. This frees professors up for other kinds of service as well as for research, but it also mandates they think more about how to coordinate their curricular efforts with the counsel being offered by administrators–particular if they wish to articulate their courses with those offered by other parts of the university. Humanities professors can describe their classes as cultivating critically thinking citizen subjects all they want, but to actually do this in a systematic way, they need to collaborate with the administrative personnel empowered to direct students to courses emphasizing such skill–and not just any such courses, but those most likely to propagate “critical” effects across the rest of the student’s educational experience.

It is not enough to defend the humanities as if one size fit all. It is not enough, moreover, to speak of the humanities as if that category meant the same thing to every audience, to the students trying to satisfy distribution requirements and choose majors, to the student services professionals helping them do so, to the faculty in various departments shaping their disciplinary curricula in relation to offerings across campus, to the faculty committees and administrative staffers overseeing that process, to the sociologists correlating degree completions to salaries and standardized test results, to the policy makers turning sociological studies into talking points and governmental initiatives, to the comedians and columnists weighing in, to the students and parents who currently foot the bill.

Debt provides us with the chance to address these varied audiences and to perceive why such a varied address is necessary. Debt encompasses the whole student experience, including but not limited to the classroom. Debt, and the related metrics for measuring the “value added” by diverse majors and schools, reveals that a very wide array of disciplines are currently subsumable under the term “the humanities”: the referent is sometimes as narrow as “English” and sometimes as wide as “everything not STEM.”  Each has a place in the student experience that can, and should, be described in ways that relate the question of audience–who cares?–with the question of value–who pays?  By embracing the challenge posed by these two questions, we might hope to alter the complex and ethically dubious institutional situation that defers too much responsibility for figuring out college to students’ future selves.

We must engage a conversation about “the humanities” that is prepared to embrace the diversity of its approaches and audiences, even if this means that “the humanities” will disappear into all manner of discrete fields and new combinations. If we can’t do this, we might as well go back to the 80s, back to teaching conflicts in which we have a smaller and smaller part to play.


Summer Numbers: Reach and Share

Dear John,

I’ve been at the numbers again. Last summer, we heard a lot about the share of degrees the humanities had lost (crisis!) and weighed in among the voices of reason (not so much a crisis as interesting times). Now, I write to propose the concept of reach as a necessary compliment to measures of share. In this, I want to tack against the prevailing wind, which urges us to regroup by imagining the humanities as an ancient unity. An idealized past will not help us navigate our current institutions, which have been profoundly shaped by the proliferation of distinct instructional programs. In this particular, as in others we have noted, the American research university has more in common with twentieth-century mass media than it does with Plato’s Akedemia or Humboldt’s Universität. If we must concern ourselves with share, it makes sense also to borrow sibling concepts that are regularly used to measure media audiences. These include reach.

This effort has been partly inspired by Ben Schmidt, who has recently published an informative interactive visualization of degree share.

Schmidt’s graph encourages us to ask questions about the actual and potential audience for degree programs that other presentations of such data typically discourage.

It allows one to see how particular degrees are gendered and how this has changed  (or not) over time. It also allows one to choose several different metrics for degree share. One can look at the most common measure of share–percent of all baccalaureate degrees completed–but one can also view degree completions as a percentage of all 23 year olds. The latter measure is relevant because not completing a degree is also an option. If we are interested in what higher education does for our society, Schmidt argues here, we might more reasonably care about the proportion of young people receiving particular types of degrees than the proportion of baccalaureate degree earners choosing one  professional path as opposed to some other. Whether employment or civic life concerns us, it is ultimately more important what proportion of adults have training X than what percentage of recent graduates do.

On the other hand, if our concern is the narrower one of where dollars flow (or should flow) on campus, then to focus on share of completions makes some sense. This measure construes the “market” as students who will complete some program of study and encourages us to think of different degrees as competing for their attention. While I’m sure that everyone involved in higher education would profess the loftier goal of enrolling more students so as to educate as many young adults as possible, I think that most of us would also have to admit concern with the narrower question of whether the instructional programs we care about can grow in challenging times by competing for students likely to finish.

Share of completions could be likened to television “Channel Share”: “the share one channel has of all viewing for particular time period . . . calculated by dividing the channel’s average audience by the average audience of all channels.” As the Nielson glossary from which I’ve pulled these quotations points out, channel share “is held in higher esteem by networks than media buyers on a day to day basis and is only referred to by the latter group when apportioning budgets and evaluating a programme for sponsorship.”  Broadcasters care about how particular channels fare relative to each other. Advertisers care more about the proportion of a given demographic they can reach.

(Incidentally, the share of population measure Schmidt advocates resembles more closely the “rating” measure. For a neat explanation of the difference between rating and share, see media literacy expert Frank Baker’s page here.)

Calculations of channel share deal in averages because the audience fluctuates over day parts. National information about degree completions doesn’t work this way. Completions are measured yearly. The number of majors on offer has long surpassed the variety available in most cable TV packages. And, perhaps most tellingly, enrollments are not tracked by branches of knowledge, disciplines, or departments as we might spontaneously identify them. Rather, they are tracked by codes specifying instructional programs. Since 1985, the ever-expanding Classification of Instructional Programs taxonomy has identified degrees at postsecondary institutions in the US. (Need a CIP primer? Try this.)  To deal with this last set of complications, almost all renderings of “share” aggregate completions in different programs under rubrics that make vernacular sense. (It also helps if the terms chosen are short enough to fit easily on charts and graphs.)

Although it seems obvious to note, it bears underscoring that decisions made in aggregating data to calculate “share” complicate the conclusions one might draw from that measure.

True to form, Schmidt’s graph groups many hundreds of individual degree programs into a relatively small set of disciplinary areas with labels like “Art/Architecture,” “English and Literature,” “Life Sciences,” and “Social Service Professions.” No one actually majors in “Life Sciences,” for example, but rather in one of the score of individual degree programs contained in that category. These majors likely compete for enrollments with each other more keenly than they do with degree programs in “Art/Architecture.” Therefore, if one wants to understand which majors actually are attracting the attention of students likely to complete, the aggregate measure is not granular enough.

Why aggregate then? The issue is only partly one of legibility (clever graphic design could probably do something with the visual mush produced by plotting many hundreds of distinct degrees in a single time-series). Aggregation also smooths over problems created by variations in reporting and changes to the taxonomy over time. For example, it has for decades been possible to record degrees specifically in “Creative Writing” (23.1302), but programs offering creative writing as a track within an English degree will likely report those completions under 23.0101, the code for instructional programs in “English Language and Literatures, General.” Any given completion in 23.0101 might therefore represent degree work equivalent to a completion in 23.1302. Lumping together all completions in CIP family 23  sidesteps this issue. It won’t distinguish literature from creative writing degrees, but it also doesn’t introduce distinctions where there may be no difference.

Shifting distinctions present a related problem. Using a taxonomy that preceded CIP, the 1967-1969 HEGIS surveys record completions of business degrees in “Real Estate/Insurance,” for instance, but subsequent surveys define separate programs in “Real Estate” and “Insurance.” Or consider “Motion Picture Technology” introduced in the 1985 schema as CIP 10.0102. The degree has no precise match in the current (2010) schema, but CIP 10.0201, “Photographic and Film/Video Technology/Technician and Assistant” comes close. Aggregation obviates these “problems” of consistent measure.

Such problematic inconsistencies in the taxonomy used to track completions are precisely what should interest us.

In fact, they should probably interest us more than the “share” question, because they help us understand the institutional terrain generated by ever increasing specialization within the research university.  The raw numbers tell part of the story. At “research universities” broadly defined (see note), the 1967 HEGIS survey recorded awards in 187 distinct programs, whereas the 2011 IPEDS survey (its successor) recorded awards in 829 different fields. This dramatic increase in the number and variety of offerings disappears in time-series of aggregate degree share. But increase is not the only story.

Distinct degrees turn out to be very unevenly distributed across our institutions. How unevenly may be seen if we think about reach in addition to share.

In broadcast industries, “reach” is the percentage of a total target audience (for example, Households Using Television [HUT] or People Using Television [PUT]) exposed to programing at least once during a given period. Again, instructional programs differ from television programs in many ways–not least, in their duration. One could say, however, that the total number of baccalaureate completions provides a fair measure of the broad target audience (as share of completions numbers assume). As with cable television packages, there is great variety in the set of instructional programs on offer to students at any given institution. No single institution offers all the programs listed in the taxonomy. “Reach,” then, measures the percentage of students who could have chosen to finish a given program, because it was available at their institutions. The number of  potential students can be found by calculating the aggregate sum of completions at institutions awarding degrees in a given CIP. To arrive at reach, we divide this number by the aggregate sum of all completions.

Reach = ΣIC / ΣTC


IC  = Completions at institutions offering a given instructional program (e.g., 23.0101) at a specific level (e.g., BA first major)


TC = Total completions of degrees at that level at all institutions

Running the numbers for odd years from 1967 to 2011, one is immediately struck by the fact that average baccalaureate reach is very low. After 1985, it was 1% or less. That is to say, the vast majority of instructional programs have been available only to a very small proportion of students completing baccalaureate degrees at institutions offering PhDs (my sample).


As one would expect, this trend correlates with changes to the taxonomy that made it possible to record a greater variety of degrees. This graph shows the number of distinct programs in which baccalaureate completions were recorded.


The jumps in this chart line up with the plunges in reach. It seems that elaboration of HEGIS codes after 1970 was decisive, as was the introduction of the CIP schema in 1985. Revisions in 1990, 2000, and 2010 had a less dramatic, but still discernible effect. All of these revisions expanded the “menu” of degrees from which institutions could chose to record completions. (It’s worth noting, too, that several different flavors of “other” have always been on offer).

Whereas most majors reached few potential degree winners, a handful of programs reached almost all of them.

Only seven programs maintained a reach of more than 90% for the entire period, with an eighth, Biology/Biological Sciences, General leaping from the 9th percentile into the 10th in 1975 and then holding ground. In other words, whether you went to a small and specialized PhD granting institution or a gigantic university, you could expect to find someone majoring in one of these degrees.


These eight degrees, one might say, are the basic cable channels of higher education.  The fluctuations in reach are interesting, particularly when held up next to changes in the taxonomy, and someone much better at stats than I could probably figure out what proportion of these gains or losses could be attributed to taxonomic changes. The sharp drop in English from 1969 to 1971 clearly seems related to changes in the scheme, for example, but the decline of History presents a less clear-cut case. The main point, however, should be that for all practical purposes these degrees–and only these degrees, out of the more than 800 baccalaureate programs currently tracked–can be regarded as ubiquitous.

To put this in perspective, one might consider a sample of the kinds of degree that fall on the other end of the scale. Asian Bodywork Therapy (51.3502) had the lowest reach in 2011 (less than 1/1000th of a percent): one student completed a degree at one institution.  Here is a selection of degrees at or near the 2011 average reach of .72%:

  • Art Therapy/Therapist (51.2301) — .69% at twelve institutions
  • Forensic Chemistry  (40.0510) — .71% at four institutions
  • Biopsychology (30.1001) — .72% at eight institutions
  • Consumer Merchandising/Retailing Management (19.0203) — .74% at four institutions
  • Japanese Studies (05.0127) — .74% at five institutions
  • Library and Information Science (25.0101) — .75% at 4 institutions

This list suggests that institutional specialization explains the low average reach phenomenon. A hypothesis would be that institutions are trying to distinguish themselves from one another by “niche marketing” more specialized degrees. Some of these degrees (like Art Therapy or Library and Information Science) seem like graduate degrees offered at the undergraduate level, which might support the niche marketing hypothesis. Other programs, like Forensic Chemistry and Japanese Studies, look like they might be programmatic emphases more broadly available but often recorded, respectively, under Chemistry, General or East Asian Studies (which in 2011 had a respectable 10.9% reach). Here, the low average reach number could be indicating a pervasive dynamic of specialization not otherwise captured in the data. In either case, the reach number adds a level of complexity to the notion of student audience that measures of share typically erase.

(It would be possible to compute reach not in terms of student completions but in terms of the proportion of total institutions where specific programs are offered. This would require us to overlook, however, the fact that some institutions only graduate a handful of students while others graduate many thousands.)

If the reach measure can reveal institutional realities occluded by share, it can also provide a different vantage on the trends share identifies. 

It is common, for example, to equate degree share with “popularity.”  But a different way to consider what’s hot and what’s not might be to look for which programs are expanding or narrowing their reach. It seems to me (and here I must confess that I am an enthusiastic, but almost entirely self-educated “statistician”) that one could get a rough sense of this by looking at the standard deviation of the reach of particular majors (CIPs) over the time period. Greater than average standard deviation would mean that a particular program’s reach is changing faster than the norm.

The results are interesting.

Some of the highest standard deviations of reach can be found in degrees where specialization has overtaken more general approaches. For example, “Social Sciences, General” has seen its reach plummet from 70% in 1967 to 25% in 2011 (with a standard deviation well above the mean). “Sociology,” meanwhile, had a reach of over 87% in 2011 (with a standard deviation well below the mean). We know what’s going on here, right? Fewer institutions, and particularly fewer large universities, are offering the more general degree.

Other instances of relatively high standard deviation of reach pose different puzzles. What to make of the relationship between Computer and Information Sciences, General (11.0101) and Computer Science (11.0701)? Both have relatively high standard deviations, but for obviously different reasons.



These graphs are particularly interesting to think about in relation to Schmidt’s analysis of Computer Science share here. Schmidt points out that while women were relatively well represented in “Computer Science” (an aggregation) during its 1980s boom, they have become less well represented through each successive boom-bust cycle. In my sample for 1987, at or near the height of the first CS share peak, there were six different programs comprised in CIP family 11 (Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services), and completions looked this:



By 2011, CIP family 11 had grown considerably, like most CIP families. There were more completions overall, but fewer completions in each of its many majors:



Interestingly, the 2011 group does include a majority female degree program, Data Modeling/Warehousing and Database Administration (11.0802), first identified in the 2000 CIP revision, which had a respectable 2% reach in 2011, although the total number of actual majors is too small to show up at this scale. What stands out is the boom in Computer Science (11.0701), created in the 1990 CIP revision, which in 2011 had a 46% reach (.54% share) and was one of the majors in which women were least well represented. Schmidt’s graphs reveal a “field” (i.e., an aggregation of degree programs) that has masculinized itself over the past decades and thereby limited its growth potential. The reach numbers add specificity and, along with it, a sense of the unevenness of this phenomenon. They suggest that the rapid proliferation of one flavor of “Computer and Information Sciences”–the flavor known as 11.0701, which is strongly gendered–might claim credit for the trend. Again, analysis by experts could test this hunch.

But what of film and media studies, the discipline I’m always yammering on about?

In a previous post, I established that some degree programs faculty would probably identify as “film and media studies” are reported under 09.0102 “Mass Communications/Media Studies,” while others are reported under 50.0601 “Film/Cinema/Video Studies.” Still others, particularly at the undergraduate level, may be reported under 23.0101 “English Language and Literatures, General.” Both 09.0102 and 50.0601 were introduced in the 1985 CIP taxonomy, which followed a couple decades of growth in film studies not captured in this data.

Mass Communications/Media Studies expanded its reach the fastest, growing from from .1% (negligible share) in 1985 to 18.6% (.56% share) in 2011. Film/Cinema/Video Studies extended its reach from 5.8% (.04% share) to 20.9% (.21% share) of baccalaureate first major completions in that same period. Both exceed the mean standard deviation of reach. Basic cable channel English (23.0101) was far more steady. Its 2011 reach (92.69%) far exceeds the cumulative reach of 09.0102 and 50.0601 (almost 40% of graduating students), and its share–2.5% of all completions in my sample–reflects that much greater reach. Film and media studies’ relatively small share is unlikely to appear on any graph, except as part of one or several aggregations. If reach and share are both considered, it is not perhaps the fastest mover, but it certainly looks like a growth enterprise.

In summary, then, we need to think again about what the specialization and differentiation of fields has meant for postsecondary education. In the 1960s, Clark Kerr mulled the possibilities (and difficulties) of a research university that no longer had a singular mission or core set of concerns. Today, we are faced with a sector that has for decades proliferated such a wide range of degree programs in such an uneven distribution that it is unreasonable to assume that even very large and well established universities look like each other. This need not mean, however, that we are faced with a choice between (1) strictly local analysis of our home institutions and (2) national share numbers that erase meaningful differences. Measures of reach can help us to assess diversity. They ofter a resource not only for increasingly data-driven debates about investments and outcomes, but also for understanding the kinds of campuses we inhabit and therefore for imagining the kinds of campuses we might hope to inhabit in the future.


Note: “Research university” is not a category consistently available in the data. The current IPEDS survey offers various ways to specify institutional type, including Carnegie classifications. Using current data to classify institutions throughout the period 1967-2011, however, would obviate changes to an institution’s categorization and make it difficult to include completions at institutions that have closed. I have therefore focused my analysis on first major baccalaureate completions at institutions also offering the PhD, as that information is available for all years in my sample: odd years from 1967 through 2011, excluding 1983, for which no data is available. These institutions are arguably all “university like,” although some of them are very small and offer few degrees while others are huge public multiversities.



Collaboration is a fighting word in the humanities

Dear Mark,

On Friday May 9, I read this short paper (a love letter to collaboration really) at The Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work conference, the culminating event to mark three years of Mellon Foundation support for research on the humanities and work at the University of California Humanities Research Institute. I was on a panel chaired by David Theo Goldberg that also featured Tobias Warner from UC Davis and Irena Polic, Associate Director of the humanities institute at UC Santa Cruz.


Collaboration is a fighting word in the humanities. It sparks arguments concerning our work; concerning what makes us different from and similar to scientists and social scientists; concerning what “the humanities” contributes to the university, including our ability to “resist” whatever we take to be the dominant. And yet collaboration is neither new to humanists nor all that unusual. Even great and solitary geniuses rely upon librarians, editors, publishers, and, of course, other scholars. While such collaborators often show up in acknowledgements, we habitually exclude them from the humanist author-function. So long as this is the case, collaboration will continue to surprise and threaten us.

For those of us who like surprises,collaborative research is as challenging to get started as it is to sustain. This is one lesson of the research/working group I convened at UCHRI last fall.

The group’s structure encouraged examination of the relationship between single authored scholarship and more collaborative endeavor. All of us used UCHRI funding to pursue our own projects–which ranged from administrative tasks to dissertation writing to book publication. Concurrently, we researched and wrote together about humanities labor. There was a good deal of experience with collaboration in the group. One of us had done union organizing, another had been in the tech industry, a third was in a dean’s office, and so forth. We produced many words about humanities labor, using the platforms on which collaboration in our fields now typically relies (Google Drive and Plus, Zotero, Scalar and WordPress). Much of our writing was single authored, however, and assembling it after the fact is an ongoing work in progress. We will be left with what amounts to an edited anthology, a form of collaborative effort that leaves largely untouched the notion of the humanist as solo practitioner.

In short, we never began collaborating in a manner that one would avow as such. It proved impossible for us to privilege our collective work over the exigencies of existing commitments to projects of individual scholarship and career development. We were too well situated in institutional practices that required us to behave as individual actors to imagine what it might mean for this group to take on a professional life of its own. We were too good at critiquing the contemporary currency of collaboration–as an imposition derived from big science, as neoliberal administrative strategy, as import from Silicon Valley–to truly experiment with it.

It was disheartening to discover midway through the fall that the very first UCHRI residential group in 1988 faced comparable challenges. Its members convened to answer the question, “How Does Collaborative Research Work in the Humanities?” Then as now, “the call for collaboration” appeared “an adaptive response by humanists to a…changing cultural environment,” in the words of the 1988 convener, Riverside philosopher Bernd Magnus. The environment today is different in many respects. In 1988, threats came from “Bennett, Bloom, and Cheney,” as Magnus put it, where today humanists feel pressure from STEM and MOOCs and corporate-style administration. The way collaboration figures is comparable, however. It is still seen as a defensive move, a reaction to strange external forces impinging on tradition.

Yet collaboration also entails an abiding sense of novelty and excitement. In December, our group interviewed one of the youngest members of the 1988 UCHRI research project, Eduardo Cadava, who is now Professor of English and Master of Wilson College at Princeton University. Describing his own experiences collaborating led Cadava to pronounce: “Collaboration is a means of being unsettled.” Although he argued that there is more room for such interruption in the contemporary academy than in ‘88, Cadava observed a kind of institutional schizophrenia that complicates thinking about collaboration “as self-reflexively as we might.” Departments and disciplines demand that we see ourselves as solo authors, such that our relative merits may be judged. Our institutions assist us in reproducing this vision, and thereby help to pull us apart. These same institutions also push us towards collaboration, however, through centers and institutes as well as through grant programs that favor interdisciplinary projects.

The history of this institutional tendency, which simultaneously fosters and thwarts humanist collaboration, is the focus of the nominally “solo” work that brought me to UCHRI in the first place: a co-authored project with University of South Carolina film scholar Mark Garrett Cooper. In telling the story of the university as a mass media institution, we have chronicled a longstanding dynamic involving problem-solving teams of humanists (who come together to ask questions and conduct research) and organizational entities such as departments and disciplines (which exist to manage problems, to reproduce them in a way that makes clear the department’s continued need to exist). We enjoy Science and Technology Studies scholar Mario Biagioli’s evocation of a research model developing recently in science that organizes “practitioners around problems, not disciplines, in clusters that may be too short-lived to be institutionalized into departments or programs or to be given lasting disciplinary labels” (819). Humanists do this too, and particularly around projects related to mass media–think of the Bloomsbury Group, the Frankfurt School, and the Rockefeller Communications Seminar. But the sciences seem well ahead in carving out institutional spaces for reproducing their experiments. They do so through the academic unit called the lab, which “couples” graduate training with faculty research, Biagioli observes, leaving scientists not only with “more time to engage in collaborations” but also with a venue for mobilizing resources, including students, for research.

Humanists do not need labs to do collaborative work, of course (although some humanists enjoy them). And they may refer to the labs they need as “archives” or “libraries.” Regardless, Mark and I appreciate how the thought of the lab spurs us to imagine alternatives to our current arrangements, potentially allowing us to steer more deftly between the Scylla of defensive ghettoization and the Charybdis of overloaded service commitment to interdisciplinary programs and centers. It is not the only such model: UCHRI has also experimented with the notion of “the studio,” bringing together scholars and journalists to work on projects concerned with Religions in Diaspora. I got to witness these studios in action when they came together for a few days last fall. It was impossible to miss the variation in what counted as a studio project (making a film, running a web site, designing a curriculum), in studio structure (some had one PI, others more diffused authority), and in the audience the studios purported to address (UC students, documentary film goers, on-line consumers of news and commentary).

Labs and studios are potential sites for collaboration, not panaceas. At Davis, I am part of a lab whose members from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences work on video games and are currently reckoning with the limits of grant-funded research. Soft money interrupted our solo work in interesting ways and has helped us start, if not yet finish a number of projects. Even when we can secure it, however, such support comes at considerable labor cost–a lot of us now spend more time writing grants than conducting research. Money in the humanities and social sciences has historically flowed more via student credit hours than grants, which is part of why we have become convinced that we need a pedagogical experiment to complement our research experiments. Whether the lab can function in this respect is not yet clear, but we know that whatever curriculum we establish will need to radically supplement a departmental structure that tends to be inflexible in its relation to discipline. In contrast to the department, with its obligations of tenure, we want the lab to be a place that diverse researchers can be a part of so long as it interests them. Addressing this institutional challenge is, for us, inseparable from coming up with research projects in the first place.

“The Collaborator” can appear as much villain as hero. No one wants to be accused of being  the kind of humanist who just goes with the flow, thus abandoning the critical alterity we so often celebrate. Here especially, we need to reconsider our habits, because they are keeping us from identifying potentially interesting allies. Humanities PhD programs have long graduated students who go on to work in institutions far beyond university walls, for instance. Closer to home, the presence of PhD holders who administer and conduct research at humanities centers, in university libraries, and in labs begs us to reconsider the hyperbolic opposition between administration and faculty.

The difficulty humanists have reimagining research practices not only limits how we act in the university but also makes it more difficult to understand what our university labor can do. If we have tended to think of what makes humanities research cutting edge primarily in terms of its content, there are increasing incentives to emphasize its form. More forcefully, I have become convinced by my experiences at UCHRI, with Mark Cooper, and with the Davis lab that our present moment demands attention to the organization of humanist labor above all else. If we are unwilling to experiment more aggressively with the ways we conduct and disseminate our research, we should anticipate increasingly lonely intellectual lives.


If Computer Science Is our Friend, Can STEM be our Enemy?

In his recent blog post, “The Afterlife of the Humanities,” David Theo Goldberg thanks diverse colleagues for helping him understand current “challenges and changes facing the humanities, and the academy more generally.” Those challenges are both familiar and daunting. They include: “expanding managerialism and administrology, creeping professionalization and instrumentalization in career development, the public emphasis on STEM and the social disenchantment with the humanities.”

If STEM appears here as part of the increasingly hostile environment the humanities have to confront, this does not prevent Goldberg from singling out computer scientists as necessary for a humanities “afterlife.” Approving of the role computer scientists played in developing MOOC applications beyond “talking head videos,” Goldberg presents such applications as part of the larger project of innovation known as “the digital.” In the wake of this sea change, “our ways of relating, of critical commentary, our temporalities and modes of relation, the contrast between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ have all been profoundly affected.” Collaborations among humanists and computer scientists represent an academic vanguard riding (if not producing) this wave, generating all the while “new objects of analysis such as software studies, platform studies, screen studies, and gaming studies, cultural analytics, or production of and reflection on electronic literatures and poetry.” Thus the question: if computer science is our friend, can STEM be our enemy? (The answer is: no.)

Goldberg is obviously not alone in thinking of computer science as an ally for humanists. The University of California, Santa Cruz institutionalized that alliance with its B.S. in Computer Game Design, which “provides a rigorous education in computer science, in concert with a broad introduction to those aspects of art, music, narrative, digital media, and computer engineering most relevant to games.” Stanford, meanwhile, plans to offer new joint majors in Computer Science and, alternatively, Music or English. Through such means, proclaims Stanford English professor Nicholas Jenkins, “The worlds of the humanities and computer science are coming closer together.” Undergraduates in the University of Arizona’s School of Information Sciences, Technology, and Arts, may choose from either a B.S. in Information Science and Technology or a B.A. in Information Science and Arts, the later promoting itself as extending the idea of a “liberal arts education” because “In the Information Age, a well-educated citizen must understand the interrelatedness of information science, technology and arts.” Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication offers an array of programs including a B.S. in Computational Media that requires students to choose both a humanities and a computer science “thread.” Southern Methodist University offers a B.A. in Creative Computing which it describes as “a new, highly interdisciplinary major combining theory and methodology from computer science and engineering with aesthetic principles and creative practice from the arts.” And so on.

Again with the Science Wars?

Since all this activity flies in the face of the narrative that presents “STEM” as adversary of the “humanities,” it is worth wondering just how committed various parties are to continuing that fight.  The narrative paradigm was probably set by C. P. Snow’s 1959 “Two Cultures” lecture, although we would do well also to remember Laurence Veysey’s important contribution in his 1965 Emergence of the American University. Veysey characterized the university, from its late nineteenth century origins, as divided between arguments on behalf of useful research made by scientists and engineers and arguments on behalf of “culture” made by an unruly mob of humanist complainers.

In the 1990s, the two sides famously went to “war” over their differences. Developing a media relations strategy funded by the conservative Olin foundation and popularized by literary traditionalists in the “Culture Wars,” Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994) threw down a gauntlet happily picked up by the “academic left.” The editors of Social Text obligingly published the notorious Sokal hoax.

With an obstinance satisfying to only the dimwitted and/or bellicose, mainstream journalism of the day delighted in setting naively realist scientific epistemologies against caricatures of “postmodernist” ones. Thus was it proven that the two cultures remained irreconcilable.

Scholarship at the time and since has established that the supposed sides in this argument largely talked past one another. Explaining that there was really nothing to be learned about science and its study from the Sokal hoax, Andrew Ross hoped nonetheless “that the mutual embarrassment–for scientist and nonscientist commentators alike–will generate new and unforeseen kinds of dialog” (“Reflections on the Sokal Affair,” Social Text [1997] 50: 152). Mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg began publishing detailed chronicles of the intellectual laziness and sloppy argumentation that fueled the “Science Wars.” Meanwhile, Ullica Segersträle’s edited collection Beyond the Science Wars: The Missing Discourse About Science and Society (2000) provided an explanatory context for the often astonishing misrepresentations involved.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the general-public-facing literature of the “Science Wars” is just about the last place one should look for insight concerning how “scientists” and “humanists” really think about their prospects for working together.

It may be more surprising to learn, however, that these two sides and their respective cultures do not in fact exist as such.

Identities Only Public Relations Can Love

Science and Technology Studies (STS) veteran Steve Fuller usefully estranges the “two cultures” hypothesis in his contribution to the Segersträle collection. “If we are indeed witnessing a clash of disciplinary worldviews,” he asks, “why have so few humanists and social scientists rushed to the side of their colleges who make the natural sciences and technology their objects of study?” (186). His answer is that STS in fact descends not from the efforts of social scientists but from those of natural scientists, like C.P. Snow, who felt that scientists should better engage humanist approaches.

Fuller provides an illuminating genealogy of the “Science Wars” from this perspective, and his argument receives unacknowledged confirmation in John Guillory’s 2002 Critical Inquiry article on the Sokal affair. Guillory demonstrates that literary critics have a stake in the “two cultures” debate, but only if they can construe it as being all about them. The Sokal hoax “has less to tell us about the politics of science, or science studies,” he asserts, “than about the history of criticism” (471). Specifically, “because the antirealist position had achieved something close to the status of consensus in the literary academy, it did not have to be backed up by fully elaborated philosophical arguments, it could simply be stated” (475). Tidily sweeping several decades of relatively autonomous work in STS under the rug of the “literary academy’s” consensus, Guillory goes on to explain why a rigorous literary theory, purged of troubling influences from the social sciences, would not have left itself open to attacks on “cultural construction.” Construing the Sokal affair as the reproduction of “two cultures” requires stern reduction of “the humanities” to a disciplinarily limited problem set. Just so, Guillory lectures his audience, the only difference that really matters is between the “methodology of the sciences (observation, experiment, quantification) and the methodology of criticism (interpretation)” (498).

For Fuller, in contrast, the lesson to be learned from the “Science Wars” is that the sides have been drawn all wrong: “a more productive debate would realign the parties so that scientists and STSers who wish to protect the academy from the rest of society could stand on one side, while those who wish to use the academy as a vehicle for reforming society could stand on the other” (209). We agree: that debate would be more productive.

It is important to note that Fuller’s argument (published in 2000) precedes the moment when “STEM” leapt easily to academic lips (hard to date exactly, but sometime around the 2007 publication of the Congressionally commissioned report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, which uses the term, but not promiscuously). Although the rise of STEM clearly structures any number of arguments in the present, its very assemblage invites skepticism about “two cultures” thinking.

STEM betrays its essentially bureaucratic origins in grouping as “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” disciplines that otherwise think of themselves as distinct and often internally split between “basic” and “applied” orientations. No doubt, the rubric has recently served an important function for funders and policymakers–something of the scope of activity can be grasped via the STEMConnector–but it has done so precisely by bundling into one nation, as it were, what might otherwise seem a diverse archipelago.

(It is worth noting that the success of this effort has a precedent in the organization as “the humanities” of all those disciplines left out of the developing “natural” and “social” science areas of the 1930s.)

The internal diversity of STEM could hardly escape scientists. Computer scientists provide the case in point. Although undoubtedly part of the triumphant nation of STEM, computer scientists apparently still feel the need to establish that their science is one. In “The Science in Computer Science: The Computing Sciences in STEM Education” (Ubiquity March 2014 DOI: 10.1145/2590528.2590530), Paul Rosenbloom argues that “It is time to go beyond the straightforward conclusion that computer science is a respectable scientific discipline–such as physics or psychology–to the bolder conclusion that computing actually constitutes an entire domain of science. . . . The computing sciences are the equal of the physical, life and social sciences.” Rosenbloom locates this science’s distinction in its ability to understand “information and its transformation.” (Thanks to Duncan Buell for this reference.) Similar arguments were made in the 1970s, relatively early in the computer science enterprise (see, e.g., Wegner, Peter. “A View of Computer Science Education.” The American Mathematical Monthly 79.2 (1972): 168-179.)

With the complexity revealed by STEM in mind, we cannot entirely agree with James Clifford’s admirable effort in “The Greater Humanities” to recognize “an already-existing reality–overlapping assumptions, epistemologies, and methods” adding up to a “sprawling configuration of knowledge practices” uncontainable “by more narrowly defined disciplinary traditions” (2).

It is clear that underacknowledged affiliations exist among literature, history, linguistics, “all the ‘studies and interdisciplines,'” sociocultural anthropology, “embattled sectors of politics, economics, and psychology,” and “what we might call the ‘theoretical arts’–including theater arts, performance studies, film, and digital media.”  But we do not share Clifford’s desire to construe this assemblage as STEM’s “other half.” Much better, we think, to acknowledge that “STEM” is no more a monolith than “The Greater Humanities” would be.

We ask you, fellow humanist: do you really want to approach potential collaborators in CS as an ambassador from the proud empire of “Greater Humanities” in hopes of striking a grand bargain with the mighty people of STEM? Or, might you be better off trying to figure out whether you can have a shared conversation with various scientists, social scientists, and fellow humanists concerned with “information” and the ends to which it can be “transformed’? The organizing rubric of the “two cultures,” useful and probably essential for national policy debates and media campaigns, are–“Science Wars” style–more likely to thwart than encourage any decent conversation about what the university might do. Unlike the popular press, with its deeply ingrained habit of point-counter-point narration, academics really should be able to count past two.

This would seem especially to be urged by the fact that a great many of the “Greater Humanities”  fields in Clifford’s list did not exist when C.P. Snow first lamented the “two cultures.” Indeed a comparable disciplinary explosion in the sciences arguably made it necessary to provide a slogan uniting “science, technology, engineering, and math.” The disciplinary proliferation that produced STS alongside computer science, the “theoretical arts,” and, say, biomechanical engineering, points, again, to an institutional problem set all constituents of the contemporary research university share.

It’s All about Work

If there is any lingering truth to the two cultures model, it resides at the level of work practice. Where humanists largely insist on a single author (with all that entails for the fetishizing of genius that resides within a unique brain and body), research in the sciences and some wings of the social sciences involves far more various actors. These run the gamut from strictly hierarchical labs with a (more or less) charismatic leader as PI to crowdsourced experiments and fieldwork collaborations (replete with the possibility of native informants). Although humanists working in areas including STS or the history of anthropology are notable analysts and critics of these scholarly modes, they engage in them less often.

Humanists’ imaginations of what research looks like situates us in narrow disciplinary ways, as Mario Biagioli memorably argued in Critical Inquiry in 2009. The sciences are moving towards “organizing their practitioners around problems, not disciplines, in clusters that may be too short-lived to be institutionalized into departments or programs or to be given lasting disciplinary labels” (819).

For all that collaboration has become usual in certain corners of the humanities, it is still atypical for a humanist approaching a new project to begin by imagining what kind of cluster or team will be required. Instead, if the project demands skills the humanist does not possess, she will seek to learn them herself. This was certainly John’s approach when he decided to write a little bit about “failed states” and to do so read nothing but political science articles for the better part of a year. Mark notes that interdisciplinarity meant something very different when he was working in the University Libraries on a digital video repository. That project involved teamwork among variously equipped equipped experts brought together to engage a particular problem.

Precisely because it comes from science and the corporate sector, the project-based team is liable to provoke fears of contamination among humanists rigorously trained to believe their methods uniquely capable of “critique.” Yet collaboration can also provide an invigorating interruption to humanist business as usual. This is how English Professor Eduardo Cadava described it in an interview (with John’s Fall 2013 working group) about, among other things, his experience teaming up with photographers and museum curators. “If I can put it this way,” Cadava suggested, “collaboration should always also be about interrupting yourself. That’s part of what can happen with a collaboration is that you can be interrupted, and I think things can happen when you’re interrupted.” Teamwork has the virtue of shaking the solitary scholar out of habitual practice.

Collaborative programs that link computer science and humanist work ought to make both appear more various. They ought to remind us that STEM is no monolith, as we argue above, and they also ought to loosen the grip of the solitary humanist researcher. We would not mandate  teamwork in place of the solitary labors of  humanists or scientists. Our hope, rather, is that a broader range of practices might fall within the norm for humanist research. Nearly a century ago, John Dewey identified  “knowledge cooped up in private consciousness” as myth. The humanities remain too much in its thrall.

Which is not to say that humanists commitments to single-author publication are “merely” ideological. “The science model,” Biagioli argues, “is hardly applicable to the humanities because we usually decouple our research from the training of graduate students. Instead, some scientists’ teaching takes the form of running labs where they train graduate students while conducting their own research. Therefore, not only do they have more time to engage in collaborations but they can also mobilize more resources (such as their labs and graduate students) for such projects” (821n16).

Humanists do not need labs (although some enjoy them). And they may refer to the labs they do need as “libraries.” But the way labs “couple” graduate training with faculty research might spur us to imagine alternatives to our current arrangements, allowing us to steer more deftly between the Scylla of defensive ghettoization and the Charybdis of overloaded service commitment to interdisciplinary programs and centers.

We have had many occasions to flag the confusion of department with discipline on this work-in-progress blog. Persistent (and sometimes unconscious) efforts to make the one form fit the other produce a recurring stumbling block for humanist experimenters. For this reason, we enjoy Biagioli’s evocation of a research model that does not need a department-like structure in order to educate students. This proposition appeals particularly to those of us (like Mark) who find themselves in institutional situations where strongly departmentalized humanities disciplines (like English and History) limit the contributions that locally non-departmentalized disciplines (like Film and Media Studies) can make to graduate training (and thus the reproduction of “the humanities”).There is, to be sure, no shortage of support for “interdisciplinary” work among professors in established humanities departments, but the habits of disciplinary reproduction often leave little room in curricula for the development of alternative competencies.

Money in the humanities and social sciences has historically flowed more through tuition dollars than grants, which is part of why pedagogical experiments like those involving the construction of new joint majors between computer science and humanities departments is so appealing. But for these experiments to actually succeed in the longer term, they need to break down or radically supplement a departmental structure that tends to be inflexible in its relation to discipline. Once upon a time, humanities scholars sought to designate the seriousness of their enterprise by arguing that it rivaled the stringency of science. We suggest another kind of relationship, one less burdened by ressentiment. The lesson of the “Science Wars” should be that two cultures arguments do not serve us well at all, and that there is more to learn from the working friendships humanists are in the process of institutionalizing with computer scientists.


The 1960s Origins of the Academic Labor “Crisis”

Annual conventions and program revisions have made talk of graduate student education, labor, and cost particularly frothy in the last month or two. Interestingly, discussions of the graduate school mess are beginning to test the familiar narrative formula in which neoliberal administration + faculty complacency + lamentable economic events  = really bad times for freshly minted PhDs.  As a result, it has become newly possible to discern how growth strategies of the 1960s share responsibility for the current fix. The legendary campus radicals of ’68, it now seems necessary to recall, included graduate students who, as nominally temporary apprentices, assumed permanent responsibility for large chunks of the research university’s undergraduate curriculum.

Although they may not identify it as such, recent developments reveal this legacy when they expose the dependency of research specialization on graduate student labor. In December, for instance, Johns Hopkins joined the likes of Stanford and the CUNY Grad Center in recasting the funding model for PhDs by providing summer support and cutting down time to degree. To this increasingly common formula Hopkins adds the goal of chopping PhD enrollments by 25% over five years. “To compensate for fewer graduate students available to teach undergraduate course discussion sections,” Colleen Flaherty reported in Inside Higher Ed, “Hopkins plans to hire more teaching assistants with master’s degrees.” Graduate students joined faculty in protesting this approach, arguing that a “critical mass” is necessary for smaller graduate programs especially to stay alive. Debate about shrinking PhD programs at the MLA yielded similar concerns (as Scott Jaschik recounts). Looking past the familiar problem of too many PhDs or too few tenure track lines, this concern helps draw renewed attention to the long-standing dynamic in which graduate student labor provides a critical leg of the triangle connecting research specialization with undergraduate instruction. Beyond the balancing of professional inputs and outputs, fundamental departmental labor and instructional models are at issue.

A related insight comes from recent historical analyses of job market trends. For instance, the statistician known as Adjunct Nate Silver looks at PhDs in the famously beleaguered field of German. Starting from 1960-61, he notes, “the number of Ph.D.s earned each year tripled by 1966-67, and doubled again by 1972-73.” Grad student enrollments went up in part to address the demand for professors predicted by growing undergraduate enrollments, but undergraduate growth was not nearly fast enough to keep pace with the proliferation of PhDs: “Between fall 1959 and fall 1969, total [undergraduate] enrollments jumped from 3.6 million to over 8 million. But a jump of 120% in enrollments didn’t in itself call for an increase of over 500% in the number of Ph.D.s in German.”  The sense of a job market collapse in the 1970s was created not by economic contraction, Adjunct Nate concludes, but by the hyperactive PhD creation of the 1960s, combined with ill-conceived changes in the way the MLA advertised positions (or the lack thereof). After the late 60s boom and bust, the market was relatively stable for the next 30 years, with departments cranking out new German professors in numbers roughly proportional to positions advertised. Only after 2008 does a dramatic shift in this pattern occur, due a steep decline in the number of available tenure track lines.

As Adjunct Nate Silver points out, the period from around 1960 to the present is not simply a chapter in the history of the academic job market. Rather, it is the history of the academic job market, at least for key humanities disciplines. As Marc Bousquet has also observed (in How the University Works), the 1960s were the period that invented the apparatus of national searches for faculty lines that allows and encourages us to perceive this labor market as one. The MLA introduced the conference-based “Job Mart” in 1955 in an effort to replace the old-boy network as the primary hiring mechanism (“Hello, Professor Jones? Professor Smith here. We’re hiring. Send over your brightest boy in Romanticism, won’t you?”).  In 1969, the Job Mart system “‘broke down’ because the problem ‘was now one of locating jobs rather than candidates'” (Association of Departments of English qtd. in Bousquet 192). The MLA’s notorious Job Information List replaced it.

There is more to the 1960s labor story, however, than an increase in the number (and variety) of PhDs and the development of new mechanisms for marketing them. This was the period that made graduate student teaching assistants essential functionaries of research university departments.

In a 1967 Administrative Science Quarterly special issue devoted to “Universities as Organizations,” research professor of sociology Robert Dubin and research assistant Frederic Beisse argued that 1960s student activism had its principal source in the position and function of graduate assistants (“The Assistant: Academic Subaltern”). The TAs were led to revolt due to a fundamental organizational “disjunction”: they had been given the teaching responsibilities of faculty without corresponding legitimation of their authority and perquisites to carry them out (522). The authors provide an historical trend analysis involving ratios of students to faculty and teaching assistants. In this way, they demonstrate that public research universities turned to graduate students to accommodate massive enrollment growth in the 50s and 60s.

In describing increasing reliance on TAs as part of the overall growth strategy characteristic of the university during the period of booming faculty employment, confident welfare state administration, and ascendant left intellectuals, Dubin and Beisse provide an alternative etiology for the well publicized troubles of late twentieth and early twenty-first century graduate students.

In the late 90s, academic humanists began to see reliance on graduate student instructors as part of the “causualization” of the academic workforce, a centerpiece of neoliberal administrative strategies that overwhelmed higher education in the wake of the 1970s economic crises. Graduate student exploitation, on this view, was the flip side of heavy-handed administration that, in the name of budget control, also constrained the growth and authority of tenure-line faculty.

In contrast, Dubin and Beisse diagnose increased use of TAs as reprising a familiar pattern in professional divisions of labor. In their view, the phenomenon illustrated a generally accepted principle:

Whenever there is pressure on an established occupation or profession to provide more services, and the demand cannot be met through normal expansion of the supply of certified experts, then portions of the skill will be shifted, by a division of labor, to lower skilled and lower status work colleagues. (545)

They offer, for example, the devolution of skills in medicine “from doctor to registered nurse to practical nurse to aide, or from doctor to technician” (545). This pattern is so obvious, according to the Dubin and Beisse, that we should marvel at the ability of faculty, administrators, and graduate students to avoid acknowledging that they were in the process of creating a new occupational class and deskilling undergraduate teaching. They sidestepped the issue through the idea of “apprenticeship.” By understanding graduate student teaching as a temporary state leading to mature participation in the profession, 60s faculty and administrators could pretend that the division of labor had not changed and hope that graduate students would outgrow their rebelliousness.

“The collective action of the sort employed by the assistants at Berkeley, while effective, is the antithesis of professional behavior,” Dubin and Beisse caution. “The long-term effects may be to produce a generation of professors whose notions of professional behavior and decorum differ sharply from those of the present generation” (546). While seeing the power of graduate student unionization, they have greater hope that undergraduate dissatisfaction will force change. Perhaps undergraduate complaints about the quality of TA-led classes would prompt administrators to reverse the trend and force faculty back into classrooms.

That did not happen. Graduate student unions succeeded at a range of public universities in the 1970s. On private campuses, however, the National Labor Relations Board refused to recognize graduate students as employees who could form unions before the year 2000. In all types of research institutions, TAs remain essential to staffing undergraduate curricula. The view of their work as apprenticeships has proven remarkably durable. It survived even the 1990s bait-and-switch that established the graduate student labor crisis as a humanities problem. In 1989, the infamous Bowen Report, “Prospect for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences,” suggested that retirements and enrollment growth would create “a substantial excess demand for faculty.” As a result, a susceptible proportion of college graduates (including us) were encouraged to pursue PhDs in the humanities. Report author William G. Bowen, however, had neglected to take the growing reliance on part-time workers into account (as Denise Magner explains here.) When the demand he predicted failed to materialize, many aspirants found themselves prepared for jobs that did not exist. Calls to reform graduate education and employment practices became increasingly urgent.

“It is time to say, bluntly, that graduate education is losing its moral foundation,” Cary Nelson and Michael Bérubé declared in 1995 (Higher Education Under Fire 20). In light of the flat job market for English PhDs, the proposition that graduate teaching assistantships were actually apprenticeships was in peril. Rather, it increasingly seemed that poorly compensated graduate student teachers were propping up a bankrupt system, which valued research productivity over teaching. In order to maintain their privileges, humanities professors were willing to throw their graduate students under the bus. English was in a particularly perilous position according to Nelson and Bérubé, because it had been singled out in 1980s and 90s attacks on “theory” and “political correctness.” It offered the popular press, state legislators, and university administrators a convenient scapegoat for the phenomenon of non-teaching faculty that was, in truth, much more pronounced in the sciences. Where Dubin and Beisse imagine political pressure from undergraduates might bring graduate exploitation to an end, Nelson and Bérubé hope that heightened awareness from faculty and administrators will solve the crisis. Failing to generate a groundswell of substantive “top-down” reforms, the authors soon gave their full-throated support to reenergized graduate student unionization efforts.

Meanwhile, professional associations in the period tended to double-down on the idea of apprenticeship and to respond to the plight of graduate students through (mostly ineffective) efforts to defend tenure (Doe and Palmquist). The perceived problem was not that faculty and administrators had grown accustomed to a division of labor that relied on a “subaltern” class of professionals, but rather that administrators had figured out how to control costs by shifting instruction to non-tenure earning lines. If Nelson and Bérubé saw in this dynamic a moral crisis for the humanities, other commentators like Bousquet discerned an epochal political-economic shift arising, in part, from the failures of “Fordist” management in the 1960s. Bousquet described “flexible faculty” as “just one dimension” in a post-Fordist mutation “of the university into an efficient and thoroughly accountable environment through which streaming education can be made available in the way that information is delivered: just in time, on demand, in spasms synchronized to the work rhythm of student labor on the shop floor” (44). Here, the TA provides a bellwether for the university’s sinister new project to fuel an even more alienating form of capitalism though the one-two punch of workforce realignment (causualization) and ideological warfare (informationalization). 

Eschewing apocalyptic pronouncements for the comfortable neutrality of bureaucratic prose, no less an authority than the National Center for Education Statistics was, by 2009, prepared to certify the workforce realignment part of this narrative. That year, the Digest reported a 59% increase in the number of part-time faculty and a 48% percent increase in graduate assistant employees between 1997 and 2007. It also reported a corresponding decline in the percentage of faculty with tenure from 56% in 1993-94 to 49% in 2007-08 (270). In addition to indicating that the university had blazed a trail into a terrifying new era, the trend was also susceptible to description as a new type of management challenge. To address this “new normal,” commentators of various stripes maintain, faculty need to be more willing to organize, and humanities PhDs need missions other than traditional faculty appointments (see, e.g, this in the New York Times). One important variation on this theme asks us to embrace the reality that the PhD already credentials graduates for jobs outside academe, a conclusion confirmed by a recent study by the American Historical Association.

Dubin and Beisse’s largely forgotten 1967 argument suggests that insistence on the relative novelty of the trend may be one reason graduate education and employment seem so difficult to reform. When they interpret the shift of undergraduate instructional responsibility to graduate student TAs as a predictable outcome of the university’s rapid postwar growth, they beg the question: How is it that this new division of labor could sustain the American research university for decades while continuing to appear temporary and illegitimate?

Read in tandem with Dubin and Beisse, Nelson and Bérubé’s 1995 account provides a kind of answer. In contrast to their forebears, Nelson and Bérubé do not associate reliance on TAs with the “deskilling” of undergraduate instruction. The authors are struck, rather, by the ever-increasing demands placed on educators of all sorts, and note that newly minted PhDs find themselves required to publish more to land a job than many professors would have been expected to produce in their entire careers in the 1970s. Nonetheless, like Dubin and Beisse in 1967, they expect their colleagues to bristle at the impolite admission that a less prestigious and well-compensated professional class exists. “For decades American universities have fostered a kind of idiot savant academic culture,” they observe. “Faculty members maintain expertise in their disciplines but remain mostly ignorant about how the university works” (Nelson and Bérubé 25). Who among us has not, on occasion, felt compelled to bemoan the ignorance of their coworkers? The particular ignorance at issue here, however, is the habitual sort. It is shared, to some extent, by those who would dispel it.

When Dubin and Beisse and Nelson and Bérubé chide their colleagues, they insinuate that the faculty have been irresponsible or incapable caretakers, unable or unwilling to shelter their charges from administrative zeal to contain costs while increasing student enrollments. What Dubin and Beisse know about professionalism or Nelson and Bérubé know about class analysis does not keep them from recapitulating the very apprenticeship model that their arguments show to be outmoded.

In myriad ways, undergraduate instruction after the 1960s stopped idealizing this kind of relationship between teacher and student. Increasingly, undergraduates were treated as mature economic agents. At a relatively young age, they were expected to make life-changing choices regarding institutions, programs of study, and levels of debt obligation with a cool eye to the project of securing themselves a future. Professors and other experts would guide their choices, but not assume responsibility for their outcomes. Perhaps largely because of graduate education’s critical role in disciplinary reproduction, however, professors retained the habit of imagining graduate students as charges in need of paternalistic care. While we do not seek a more callous professoriate, it seems this habit may have thwarted full cognizance of the division of labor responsible for producing and employing the vast majority of professors, graduate students, adjuncts, and administrators currently working in American higher ed. 

It is not as if the faculty don’t know their graduate students are employees. Rather, the problem is that they treat them as students first and employees second. What would happen if we reversed this, and treated them first and foremost as (fellow) employees? Bousquet argues that neoliberal administrative rhetoric considers graduate students rational actors while neoliberal administrative behavior reduces them to waste. To address this, he contends that graduate students should shake off their false consciousness and organize. A similar appeal rings through recent writing about adjunct labor and, as Sue Doe and Mike Palmquist observe in the ADE Bulletin, academic professional organizations are increasingly endorsing this approach. These efforts represent a turn towards incorporating graduates in the humanities as part of a workforce, and as such are well worth supporting. Still, it remains striking how much they lag behind the 1960s emergence of the problem they seek to address. As Dubin and Beisse point out, the graduate students began organizing when universities used their labor to supplement the professoriate, while disavowing this new division of professional labor. The narratives currently revising our understanding of the university’s recent past should take care not to repeat that disavowal.


The Geography of Humanities PhDs

Dear John,

While you’ve been convening your think tank, I’ve been engaged in a secret project. Surprise!

Did you ever wonder where (in the US) humanities PhDs are made?

Turns out English PhDs are made everywhere, which comes as little surprise–although a major caveat about what that means exactly below.

Less self-evidently, the maps I’ve generated reveal something of the way universities have been distinguishing themselves by supporting additional PhD programs, such as Film Studies, Religion, and Rhetoric.

It turns out to be remarkably easy, if a bit time consuming, to produce maps of this kind of thing using Google’s Fusion Tables. I simply downloaded the relevant data from the NCES IPEDS Data Center, selected  PhD “first” major completions from it, and then uploaded those to Fusion Tables as a csv file. Google’s platform allows one to merge in other data–like the IPEDS information about institutional characteristics that includes the geographical coordinates of reporting institutions. It also allows one to filter and summarize the data in basic ways. It’s not possible to save merged, summarized, or filtered data within Google directly, so any serious manipulation requires a process of downloading and the re-uploading the tables one creates. Once the geo-coordinates are in there, Fusion Tables can make a variety of simple maps, and one can combine them using the Fusion Tables Layer Wizard. After learning a bit about how to add Javascript to posts on our little site here–it’s not perfect!–I can present:

2012 Total PhDs by State and Institution.


Click around in it! If it gets confused, refresh your browser.

It turns out, no surprise, that a map of English PhDs looks similar.

2012 English PhDs by State and Institution.



What’s with Alaska? You’d think they’d be readers up there. In any case, English PhDs are minted pretty much all over the country and in roughly the same proportions as all PhDs. By “English PhDs” I mean those degrees counted in the two digit CIP 23, so it includes the creative writers and the rhetoric and composition scholars. (Readers wanting a crash course in CIPs can look at my post here.)

Now it gets interesting. It won’t surprise you that I next made this map of Film Studies PhDs (CIP 50.0601).

2012 Film Studies PhDs by State and Institution.



Many prominent PhD programs are notably absent here. To try to figure out why, I did some emailing around to colleagues and promptly discovered that most faculty members, even those who have held administrative positions as chairs or directors, have no clue how their institutions report degrees in their fields. This is all decided above, or at least beyond, the department level. Reaching the helpful people in Brown University’s Office of Institutional Research, I discovered that their Modern Culture and Media Studies PhD reports under 09.0102 or “Mass Communication/Media Studies” in CIP09 for Communications, which is not typically included in national aggregations for humanities degrees. PhDs in 09.0102 look like this:

2012 Media Studies PhDs by State and Institution.



This is interesting in that it clearly counts programs, like Brown’s, whose graduates think of themselves as Film and Media Studies scholars, while also counting programs, like the one at the University of South Carolina, in Communications proper. The two groups don’t mix as much as we should–we attend different professional conferences, for example. In combination, then, the two maps reveal confusion about how to count “Film and Media Studies” in that similar programs are being counted under different numbers. But they also suggest some kind of clarity in that no institution counts completions in both.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be the case that institutions have decided to support either the more social scientific approach of Mass Communications or the more humanistic approach of Film and Media Studies. Six of the nine institutions producing PhDs under 50.0601 also report PhDs in the “09” Communications area–so they do both even though none of these six reported PhDs under both 50.0601 and 09.0102 specifically. It seems that among those making the selection these two CIPs are seen as alternatives to one another: pick one and place the degree in “humanities”; pick the other and define it as “communications.” The “error,” if we want to call it that, tends to be in the second direction. That is, programs that would probably not think of themselves as “mass communications” are being grouped in that way, but the reverse is unlikely to occur. There is some regional specificity to the pattern, since of the three schools that have 50.0601 PhDs and 09 PhDs but no 09.0102 PhDs, two, UCLA and UC Berkeley, are in the higher education mega-state of California.

It bears emphasizing that the two maps combined certainly underreport Film and Media Studies PhDs–major programs at NYU and UT Austin don’t show up in either list, for instance, and I’ve been unable to figure out how they are reported.

Of course, even if we mentally combine the two maps we get nothing like the saturation coverage of English. But that merged map might look kinda sorta like that of another relatively small humanities area, Religion/Religious Studies (CIP 38.0201).

2012 Religion PhDs by State and Institution.



With some intriguing differences, both Religion and Film/Media show concentration in the upper Midwest, in the South, New England, Texas, and California (can’t get that Dead Kennedys song outta my head, you know the one). These are areas that also show the heaviest concentrations in the totals map with which we started. The big ed states are big no matter which PhD you look at. Since the Religion map is less filled-in, one could see this as the geography of a system that has historically seen PhDs in English and History as foundational “must haves.” Institutions added other PhDs as they grew, but more selectively. Notably, there’s not all that much institutional overlap between Religion and Film/Media. Of the thirty-eight institutions reporting PhDs in Religion, only eight show up on either the Film or the Media map. So one could say that institutions have chosen to invest in some humanities “extras” and not others.

Of course, this might all look very different if Film and Media Studies were counted in a consistent way. But on the other hand, English and History might look look more like Media and Religion were subfield emphases broken out. Here, for example, is 23.1304, “Rhetoric and Composition.”

2012 Rhetoric PhDs by State and Institution.



Many schools offering PhDs in this discipline probably report them under the more general English CIP 23.0101–probably some Film Studies PhDs are reported that way too! In any case, they will appear in an aggregation of CIP 23. But what if they didn’t. In other words, if we freed our tabulation from the sedimented idea that “English” names a disciplinary and institutional unity and distinguished the various emphases and flavors lumped under that heading, would it any longer appear to have the kind of saturation it does in the second map above? Clearly our classification schemes (and to some extent our institutionalized imaginations) have been built on the English-and-History-first-then-humanities-“extras” model. But the drift of PhD programs over the last two or four decades has arguably been in the more selective direction indicated by the Film, Media, and Religion maps. To compete for students and distinction, institutions have sought to distinguish their particular strengths and flavors of degrees among offerings nationwide. It’s probably impossible to wrest a map that would show that mosaic from the available data, maybe with a bit more table time…



I. A. Richards’s Failed MOOC

An odd, rumpled little man with oversized glasses sits behind a desk. Looking up from his papers into the camera, he invites us to consider what “sense of poetry” might mean. What “sense” might poetry make? How might we “sense” it?  A feeling for poetry, we are assured, will be important to understanding it, although it is impossible, at the outset, to know exactly how. Through eight half-hour episodes, the burden of conveying both feeling and meaning falls heavily on the talking head’s distinctive Oxbridge voice. The program avails itself of few other resources to make poetry sensible.

Although he has a certain retro charm, “Professor and Lowell Television Lecturer at Harvard University” I. A. Richards could not be called a dynamic performer. He gets little help from the camera: its relentless medium close-up is interrupted only by the text of poems Richards reads at length, which scroll in white characters down a black screen. On rare but memorable occasions, Richards offers a chart, a device also employed in his classroom lectures at Harvard (the Crimson references his “famous diagrammatic slides” on May 11, 1964.)

I. A. Richards in Sense of PoetryDiagram from Sense of Poetry

The program’s vococentrism is partly the point. In episode six, which discusses Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Richards explains that “Poetry, like music, is a sound art.” Hearing this, one cannot help but wonder whether Sense of Poetry might have worked better in its radio rebroadcast, where Richards’s memorable diction for favored terms like “beauty” would not have competed for attention with his unruly hair and cramped visage. No getting around it: however important the subject matter, this is not good television. Our admiration for public media notwithstanding, had we been living in Boston in 1957, we would almost certainly have turned the dial from Sense of Poetry on WGBH (Channel 2) to NBC’s Dragnet on WBZ (Channel 4).

Produced by Lewis Barlow, who went on to have a long career in television, Sense of Poetry and its sequel Wrath of Achilles belong to a pioneering set of televised lectures featuring professors from a range of disciplines. Funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, the lectures were organized by the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council, of which WGBH, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard, MIT, and other major area colleges and universities were members. Richards’s lectures represent a historical conjuncture, like ours, in which major philanthropic, cultural, and educational institutions united in efforts to use a young, but rapidly maturing medium to broaden educational access.

If today’s digital humanities appear strikingly innovative, this is in part because we have forgotten their precedents. As we have noted repeatedly on this blog, a long history of humanities research and teaching across media presage more contemporary efforts. Thanks to generous funding from the Mellon Foundation designed to improve digital access to historical public television, we have had the opportunity to conduct archival research at WGBH-Boston on one largely unacknowledged precedent for the MOOC, namely, 1950s and 60s mass education efforts on TV.

In the WGBH archives, we were able to view televised lectures on psychology, science, and art aired in the same years as Richards’s shows. Many of these shows will soon be available online. We found the science and art series notably more televisual in style than Richards’s poetry appreciation class. The art program Open House, for example, took advantage of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which had been wired and lit for television broadcasting by 1956. In this show, the camera is free to guide the viewer’s attention by roaming the surface of the artworks being described–a technique now termed the “Ken Burns effect.”  Of all the shows we watched, Of Science and Scientists clearly had the biggest budget. Its episodes used stock footage to illustrate key points, employed a cast of scientists as opposed to a single lecturer, and staged dynamic lab experiments to punctuate the professors’ explanations. In their formal conventions, the art and science shows struck us as extending traditions of educational filmmaking and, rough as these early programs were at times, anticipating PBS staples like NOVA.

Richards’s programing in contrast looks like a televisual dead end, an immature or ill-conceived vision of what the medium could do for education. True, Wrath of Achilles (based on Richards’s abridged translation of The Iliad) makes a concession to visuality by deploying Greek sculptures as “springboards for the imagination.” Yet little effort is made to dynamize the statues. They appear not as three dimensional objects but rather as still slides projected alongside Richards’s talking head. Moreover, Richards reliance on handheld notes, which required him regularly to look down from the camera, differed notably from the practice evident on other shows, which used cue cards held offscreen. Although our research has yielded no conclusive explanation for this distinctly leaden visual style, it is easy to imagine that constraints of time, budget, and imagination conspired with Richards’s principled commitment to the spoken word.

Despite all this, Richards earned a primetime slot, got not one but two programs on the air with WGBH, and in so doing furthered his longstanding ambition to use mass media to teach. His shows were kinescoped to allow recirculation on the fledgling National Education Television network (ancestor to PBS), suggesting a broad possible audience. The information NET provided its distribution centers touts Richards’s “background and insight,” as well as his “dramatic flair” (“Individual Program Data”). That said, our search thus far has yielded no concrete evidence of showings outside Boston.

Notably, the NET bulletin also identifies Richards as “co-director of Language Research, Inc., producers of French Through Television.” Although we haven’t seen this show, WGBH was certainly involved in its production and aired 159 half-hour broadcasts in its first year of television broadcasting (September 1956 – August 1957).

Educational programs devoted to literature, and poetry specifically, were not uncommon at this time. In its first year, WGBH-TV devoted more than one-hundred and eleven program hours to literature, 8% of the total. “Linguistics” programs, like French Through Television, accounted for 7% of the total hours, and the most common type of programming, news, accounted for 23%. One-third of the literature programs that first year were produced by WGBH itself, and these included From Shakespeare to Auden, The Poet Speaks, and Poetry in the Great Hall. WGBH-FM had previously broadcast poetry programs, so presumably these shows developed strategies that worked on the radio. We didn’t have the opportunity to watch the other poetry programs, however, and cannot appraise their similarity to Richards’s televised appreciation lectures. Harvard provided no other “Lowell Television Lecturers” from its English Department, but this may have been because Ford Foundation support for faculty release time was limited and soon ran out (Lowell Institute).

What seem in retrospect to be failings of Richards’s TV programs–their visual poverty, lack of imitators, and dubious distribution–only deepen our interest in the conundrum identified in John’s post on Richards and elaborated in our article forthcoming in differences.

What sense to make of the fact that Richards derides mass media, often in hyperbolic terms, while also working seriously to produce it?

John proposed that “Richards personified” a historical divide: “His very practice of working with and against Hollywood is what we presented in the Redbook’s wake, after which engagement with Hollywood was replaced by the set of oppositions (Unity/Difference, Humanities values/Commercial values) that [organized] the English department and its discontents from the mid-1940s onward.” Richards’s two WGBH series confirm that hypothesis. Moreover, from the broader field of view suggested by the Boston station’s collaboration with Harvard and other institutions, we can see just how overhyped the English-centered narrative has become. The terrain of humanist media experiment in the late 50s and 60s was so much richer than the story of comfortable New Critical hegemony suggests.

Richards’s career both affirms this hegemony and complicates it. Three decades before his work with WGBH, he established what would become a New Critical conceit. In Practical Criticism (1929), he argued that “mechanical inventions, with their social effects, and a too sudden diffusion of indigestible ideas, are disturbing throughout the world the whole order of human mentality, that our minds are, as it were, becoming of an inferior shape–thin, brittle and patchy, rather than controllable and coherent” (320). To this familiar problem–for what mass medium has failed to prompt comparable complaints that it stupefies and disturbs its users?–Richards offers a now-familiar solution: “Poetry, the unique, linguistic instrument by which our minds have ordered their thoughts, emotions, desires . . . in the past” offers “the most serviceable” means to right our thinking in the present (320).

A decade after his work for WGBH, Richards argued that TV was the best available means for building global education in English. In Design for Escape (1968), he declared that “the most capable channels for such teaching are film, film-strip, tape, records, picture text, TV–modern media, extant or to be–computer-handled” (3). He cautioned, however, that a “new, severe, and most exacting puritanism of purpose” would be required “to keep the distracting temptations of these media at bay” and to counter TV’s “powerful sedative action” (20). Retrospectively, the WGBH shows do seem like they might have resulted from a “puritanism of purpose.” Perhaps the severity of Richards’s tone is best understood as an attempt to steer between the Scylla of distraction and the Charybdis of sedation.

The situation in 1968 is clearly complicated by the fact that Richards denounces the very medium he deems “most capable”: “Who in the habit of watching much current TV,” he asks, “or of studying typical devotees under the spell and the expectations it has taught them to bring to it, can feel any great upsurge of hope when TV is mentioned as a major instructional force?” (19). In phrasing his rhetorical question, Richards makes an interesting distinction between skeptics “in the habit of watching” television and the “typical devotees” enchanted by it. For the question to make sense, the group of skeptical viewers must include both himself and his readers–habitues familiar enough with the medium to lament its devotees’ educational prospects. So what was Richards watching in ‘68? Who knows? Perhaps his guilty pleasures included Star Trek, finishing its second season that spring, or the long-running Gunsmoke, which had been on since ‘55 and was completing its second season in color.

Regardless of what he was actually watching, Richards’s conviction that television would be good for us only if it could be something else recalls early-century efforts to develop film as an art form. Around the time Richards was inveighing against mechanical reproduction in Practical Criticism, imagist poet H.D. and her Pool Group collaborators were at work on their landmark avant-garde feature film Borderline (1930). Like so many modernists of the interwar period, the Pool Group’s hostility to mainstream commercial cinema inspired calls for greater attention to the distinct possibilities of different media forms. They did not mean to save poetry from film, but to explore the expressive possibilities of each medium through their work in the other. Similarly, although more devoted to instruction than poetic expression, educational filmmakers had by 1930 developed stylistically distinct films for classroom use as well as a system for distributing them (see Orgeron, et al. and Achland and Wasson). In contrast to these efforts to expand what media can be and do, Richards insists upon prophylaxis; either poetry counteracts mass media’s mental derangement (1929) or, if media are to provide privileged pathways for literary education (1968), their naturally seductive tendencies must be controlled by a sternly literary super-ego.

Just as Richards’s 1929 approach eschewed modernist engagement with mass media, his 1968 approach eschewed new waves of televisual experiment. One example of such experiment, the artists’ collective cum think tank Raindance Corporation was founded 1969. Though its journal Radical Software and how-to manual Guerrilla Television, this organization promoted a host of activist video and television projects bridging educational institutions and community groups. Richards can perhaps be forgiven inattention to these upstarts. Their artistic, political, and scholarly predilections seem so very different from his own. Still, the example of Practical Criticism suggests that disinterest in media experiments outside poetry (or after Pound) characterized Richards’s entire career. He seems supremely confident in his ability, first, to make sweeping pronouncements about audiovisual mass media and, second, to evaluate them primarily by assessing their capacity to transmit selected literary accomplishments of prior epochs.

Should we take up a position prepared for us by the interminable cultural wars and caricature this Richards along with the sort of English departments that he helped found? It would be easy to do so. He plays the part of the literary traditionalist so well: the appeal to timeless truths transmitted from Plato through Keats to You, the Student; the insistence that the sense of great poems may be discovered simply by listening, really listening to them (in circumstances carefully controlled through professorial selection and guidance); and, of course, the conviction that civilization will fall if we don’t all learn Homer.

In the seventh episode of Wrath of Achilles, Richards challenges viewers to appreciate that Homer has historical relevance beyond its stature as great poetry: “These nightmare horrors, however ancient The Iliad may be, are with and in us today.” He cautions that we must remember what the epic tells us about who we “most deeply are” because “We’ll help men in the future best if we don’t forget ourselves.” By long conditioned reflex, our inner voices cry out: “What do you mean ‘we’? If it’s abiding human themes you’re after, why insist on The Iliad and not . . . fill in the blank, but Kurosawa’s 1958 The Hidden Fortress comes to mind? And honestly, must ‘we’ search out in our depths truths manifest on the page?” Enough: we will never be Platonists, and these obsessions of Richards’s are not what most concerns us. We are happy to affirm that poems have value and to agree that The Iliad is worth contemplating. We are eager to engage arguments about when, where, and how “the human” may be discovered. We just think poetry, as a form, no more nor less interesting than any other. No form of human expression simply transmits content; each informs it. Media make sense differently. We wish Richards could have discovered this and avoided tying himself up in knots, treating TV both as poetry’s enemy and its instrument of salvation, if only the professors could learn to control the technology’s contaminating power.

Thus we prefer a different Richards, a bona fide media experimenter whom we also like to imagine as a closeted Trekkie. This Richards failed productively. By providing negative examples, his televised lectures helped clarify what educational programs would become.

For the next decade, Harvard and WGBH continued to collaborate, producing a variety of shows, among them for-credit course programming under the aegis of the Commission on Extension Courses, a cooperative open-enrollment effort led by Harvard but also involving the other institutions comprised in the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council. The first TV courses for college credit were offered in the fall of 1959: European Imperialism, taught by Harvard history professor Robert G. Albion and A Study of Revolutions, by Harvard history professor Crane Brinton. Students taking these courses for credit were “expected to attend occasional conferences and the final examination” (Commission 21-22). Throughout the 60s the Commission on Extension Courses continued to use television to expand the audience for its general education program. Brinton’s course, for example, was offered on Polaris submarines as part of an arrangement with the U.S. Navy (“Atom Submarine’s”). From this start Harvard and WGBH would build PACE (Program for Afloat College Education), a two-year degree that would record 6,000 registrations for forty courses by the time it ended in 1972 (Shinagel 223).

Meanwhile, WGBH became more interested in drawing larger audiences to its programs. Although the station shared with Harvard an investment in producing television that improved audiences while also attracting them, it was increasingly clear where the institutions’ audiences and broader programming goals diverged. In order to preserve Channel 2 for shows addressing a more sizable audience, WGBH in 1966 began planning to move its K-12 educational programing, “The 21 inch Classroom,” to its new UHF channel (Glick). Technical difficulties delayed Channel 44 until 1967 (Lowell Institute). By the fall of 1968, however, WGBH was offering the Commission on Extension Courses four half-hour segments of prime time on the UHF channel at no cost in order to move the taped lectures off Channel 2.  As WGBH General Manager Hartford N. Gunn, Jr. explained in a letter to Harvard’s Reginald H. Phelps, Chairman of the Commission on Extension Courses, the station had already scheduled the cultural events show On the Scene, the demonstration program Exploring the Crafts, and the appreciation program Meet the Arts for 7:00-7:30 time slots, where Louis Lyons and Bob Baram’s news programs had already seen ratings boosts of 50%. Lyons, curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism from 1939 to his retirement from Harvard in 1964, had pioneered televised news criticism and commentary with his show the Press and the People in 1958.

Although much of the programing from the 1960s is not available, the documentation we have seen suggests that Harvard’s for-credit shows continued the ultra-low-budget “taped lecture” approach, while WGBH’s public affairs, how-to, and cultural interest shows developed the genres and styles that have grown familiar to viewers of public television. In November of 1969, the premiere of Sesame Street began a new chapter in televisual education. Supported by the two-year old Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Ford Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation, the well budgeted show drew upon a decade’s worth of experience in TV education to build a new audience: preschoolers. Indicatively, it called upon Harvard psychology professor Gerald S. Lesser not as a talking head but rather as an advisor behind the scenes. Serendipitously, at some point in the 1970s (we haven’t been able to determine exactly when) Richards’s former producer Lewis Barlow worked on the show.

By negative example, we are arguing, Sense of Poetry and Wrath of Achilles assisted in the discovery of what U.S. public television would be. If Richards failed to set a New Critical approach to Romantic poetry on the path that lead from Press and the People and Of Science and Scientists to the The NewsHour, NOVA, and Sesame Street, the fault may lie partly in his appropriation of a communications model developed by Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver’s 1949 Mathematical Theory of Communication. The introduction to the book Wrath of Achilles (1950), concludes with Richards’s port of this influential approach, complete with a diagram. In the model, information has a “source” (“Homer” with all the uncertainty that entails), passes through a “transmitter” (Richards), takes form in a “signal” (the printed word), which necessarily involves the incorporation of “noise,” before finding a “receiver” (“certain subsystems . . . in you”), and “destination” (your consciousness, a mystery comparable to “Homer”). Richards trusts poetry to get the message through, despite the attendant noise (25).

Richards’s interest in this type of approach almost certainly precedes the framework appropriated from mid-century information theory. His pioneering 1920s survey research for Practical Criticism, for example, demonstrated that students weren’t interpreting great literature in the ways their professors expected them to, and called for new (noise-canceling?) pedagogies to correct the problem. “That the one and only goal of all critical endeavours, of all interpretation, appreciation, exhortation, praise or abuse, is improvement in communication may seem an exaggeration. But in practice it is so,” wrote Richards (11). In any case, the signal/noise metaphor stuck. He references this communications model and repeats his hope that the signal will be received in Sense of Poetry episode five, the second of two installments devoted to Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden.”

Theories of mediation reject the transmitter-as-encoder, receiver-as-decoder communications model, and instead emphasize the noisy “signal” as the source. Doing so makes it possible to investigate the social and semiotic relations different forms of mediation afford. From this point of view (ours), it is a mistake to think of The Iliad as a “message” that has to defy noise-inducting encoding in order to be properly received. It is also a recipe for bad TV, since it requires one to treat that medium as an enemy, a vehicle whose properties must be resisted rather than exploited. In transposing his lecture style from classroom to television studio, Richards behaves as if trying to demediate his programming content, the better to distill its Platonic essence. Instead of making poetry a television sensation, he professed a more modest (but recognizably paradoxical) aim of preserving its sense.

It is impossible for us not to regret this approach, however much we admire Richards’s experimental efforts. His media innovation would be easier to champion if he were willing to compare television with the printed page rather presenting the former as a noisy channel for the latter. Because he cannot think in terms of the media experiments he conducts, his efforts have many of the same flaws we find in contemporary MOOCs, which treat the TED talk as if it were state of the art.

Which brings us to Richards’s successors. The 1970s witnessed a dramatic expansion of Harvard’s extension program. In 1971, it added a two-year Associate of Arts degree track with a more vocational orientation. With the retirement of Phelps in 1975, the enterprise was reorganized and a new Dean, Michael Shinagel, appointed. Harvard Extension withdrew from the Commission on Extension Courses consortium and began developing an array of graduate programs. Its distributed learning component went online as early as 1984, when the Teleteaching Project used Annenberg Foundation funding to develop a calculus course that could be offered by computer modem (Shinagel 177). It only makes sense, given their long-standing support of distance education, that Harvard and MIT would in 2012 announce edX, an effort to provide quality education for free worldwide over the internet. Many of the questions being asked by participants in the MOOC debate have precedents in late 50s educational television. Professors, students, administrators, investors, and interested observers want to know: What kinds of classes will work in the form? How will it be possible to certify completion and grant credit, to preserve the brand of elite institutions while marketing increased access to them, to generate a sustainable funding model? These questions are pressing, but the answers often appear to miss the mark in much the same way that Richards’s shows did. The lecture form, albeit with new and improved equivalents of “diagramatic slides” has leapt from the classroom to the computer screen. It can be found on YouTube, iTunes U, Udacity, Coursera, and their competitors.

MOOC innovation will not look like a hyperlinked version of the traditional classroom, nor will it resemble a PBS show.

At some point in the not-too-distant  future, mainstream “Massive Open Online Courses” will remind us of how thoroughly NOVA, Sesame Street, and Guerrilla TV reformulated “education” for the medium of television. These initiatives did not assume TV to be just another delivery system for the same old content. As a result, they ended up creating new types of educational experiences and new audiences to go along with them. To do this at scale required new institutions, like WGBH, the CPB, and the Children’s Television Workshop. Professors certainly contributed to these institutions, and continue to participate in their activities today (one notes, for instance, that even humanists get a hearing on The NewsHour). Academics do not control what goes on at PBS, however, any more than they manage affairs at NBC. As such we can add public television to a list of institutions where humanists work collaboratively but without the kind of autonomy generally privileged in the humanities wing of the academy.

Although MOOCs have not yet arrived at their Sesame Street moment, experiments in developing the form are well underway. Players like Udacity, edX, and Coursera have invested heavily in the format of short prerecorded lectures supplemented by quizzes. As we are writing in September 2013, the Udacity home page touts an Intro to Physics taught by Andy Brown, who, while lounging in what appears to be his backyard, entices students by promising they can “Study physics abroad in Europe — virtually! Learn the basics of physics on location in Italy, the Netherlands and the UK, by answering some of the discipline’s major questions from over the last 2000 years.” (As yet, Udacity offers no humanities courses. Funders: we would like to announce our interest in developing an overview of global media culture and feel that extensive location shooting worldwide would really make this work. Please contact us for a proposal.) Overall, the MOOC format seems to be figuring out how to reconcile television tropes such as location shooting, fun demos, and talking-head interviews with segments of prerecorded lectures and various approaches to algorithmically-mediated evaluation and teacher-student interaction.

Redesigning the classroom experience in ways that do not simply reproduce unidirectional models from educational film and television remains a challenge. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Georgia Tech professor Karen Head reports that in teaching a writing composition MOOC her team “found our pedagogical choices hindered by the course-delivery platform we were required to use . . . Too many decisions about platform functionality seem to be arbitrary, or made by people who may be excellent programmers but, I suspect, have never been teachers.” Head usefully calls attention to a central division of labor issue–who gets to say what the software will do?–while also foregrounding the kind of failure that might, like Richards’s programs, generate more innovation. “Despite the challenges,” Head writes, “being part of the early process of testing new pedagogical approaches was instructive” because it promises to abet efforts for “integrating new technologies into our traditional classes.” Such integration will no doubt continue to occur (Computing and Engineering Dean Jonathan Tapson predicts that we are 10 years out from the moment when MOOCs actually vie with “traditional classes”), but humanists like Head also may find themselves well positioned to help develop entirely new forms of education, perhaps for types of audiences they have not yet imagined.

It will be difficult to talk intelligently about such innovation if commentators in and outside the academy think of digital media as (noisy) vectors for existing educational material and goals.  The first lesson of Richards’s failure should be that media matters, and matters as a form, technology, and institution. The internet no more qualifies as a new delivery system for the same old content than television did. Both ought to encourage us to value experiments with form such as, to pick just one example, Alexandra Juhasz and Anne Balsamo’s feminist DOOC, or Distributed Open Collaborative Course (which has been covered here, here, and here.)

The second lesson of Richard’s failure, then, is that we must reject the story of the humanities that requires us to imagine the English department as the central pillar of general education. Although we are still accumulating evidence, it seems pretty clear that history and art history, for example, found it easier than literary criticism to contribute to educational television. In any case, there was much more going on in the humanities at mid-century than New Criticism and there was much more going on in humanities television than The Wrath of Achilles. So much more, in fact, that the predominance of English departments in internet-age accounts of the humanities can only appear self-serving.

Finally, the media savvy cannot afford to think in terms of academia vs. culture industries or to strongly oppose scholarship to journalistic or documentary work. Questions about who will decide what to do with MOOCs are vital and, at the moment, relatively open to a wide range of administrators, faculty, students, entrepreneurs, and policy makers. Online ed seems to be in a moment more like television education’s 1966 than its 1957. It is clear who many of the players in online education will be, but a counterpart to the Children’s Television Workshop has not emerged. This is why educational television in the decade following Richards’s WGBH shows holds so much interest. Despite his often hostile stance toward the medium, Richards clearly felt it was important to join a debate about TV’s future. And yet his sweeping antagonism can only have placed him at a disadvantage when it came to working with the increasingly professionalised individuals who produced television. It is worth learning from this mistake. Conspiratorial collaboration, rather than “puritanism of purpose,” strikes us as the appropriate attitude.

–Mark Cooper and John Marx

Special thanks to Allison Pekel, Leah Weisse, and Karen Cariani of the WGBH Archives and to Rachael Stoeltje of the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive.

Works Cited but not Linked

Acland, Charles R., and Haidee Wasson. Useful Cinema. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
“Atom Submarine’s Crew To Become ‘Harvard Men’.” Herald Tribune 2 Sept. 1960. Clipping. WGBH Archives. f. 287823
Commission on Extension Courses. University Extension Courses: Fiftieth Anniversary Program 1959-60. 1959. WGBH Archives. f.287823.
Glick, Edwin Leonard. WGBH-TV: The First Ten Years (1955-65). Ann Arbor: dissertation, 1970.
Homer. The Wrath of Achilles: The Iliad of Homer. I. A. Richards, trans.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1950.
“Individual Program Data: The Sense of Poetry.” Educational Television and Radio Center, 20 Feb. 1958. Indiana University Libraries Film Archive.
Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council  and WGBH Educational Foundation Annual Reports 1956-1966. WGBH Archives. 
Orgeron, Devin, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible. Learning with the Lights Off : Educational Film in the United States. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
 Phelps, Reginald H.  Letter  to Hartford Gunn. 31 July 1968. WGBH Archives f.349421. 
Richards, I. A. Design for Escape: World Education Through Modern Media. New York,: Harcourt, 1968.
—–.  Practical Criticism. London: Kegan Paul, 1930.
Shinagel, Michael. “The Gates Unbarred”: A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910-2009.  Cambridge, Mass: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2009. 

Specialization is not the problem

Last month, a cloud of doom shadowed the humanities: it seemed that undergraduates were turning away in droves. No longer. Having more carefully examined the numbers, participants in “the summer of humanities debates” have discovered there actually was no alarming decline in undergraduate humanities degrees.

This discovery has not brought an end to crisis talk, however. Instead, one senses a shift in target from undergraduate curricula to graduate education and a constellation of issues surrounding expert status, including the nebulous issue of reputation. The humanities lack respect, commentators fear, and scholarly emphasis on research specialization is largely to blame.

To make such a claim, we argue, is to confuse the problem of specialization with that of audience. As all students of media should know, knowledge cannot be controlled from its point of production. Colleges and universities provide specialized training of ever-increasing variety. They should not behave as if any discipline, or narrow set of disciplines, could secure a general education for all comers. Nor, in practice, do they. Yet discussion of the humanities crisis continues to strike that chord for a broader audience.

Michael Bérubé’s recent Chronicle of Higher Education column provides the exemplary pivot in this summer’s debates. After making clear that there is no degree problem, Bérubé reengages an earlier description of crisis:

There is indeed a crisis in the humanities. I have said as much in this very space: It is a crisis in graduate education, in prestige, in funds, and most broadly, in legitimation. But it is not a crisis of undergraduate enrollment.

Bérubé attributes the “crisis of legitimation,” in part, to misleading and alarmist rhetoric about falling numbers, which he rightly perceives as an alibi: “the real lament is almost always about recent intellectual and curricular developments in the humanities, and the enrollment numbers are little more than a pretext for jeremiads.” The “recent developments” he has in mind are, in truth, not so recent. They are familiar terms from the culture wars–“Theory, race/gender/class/sexuality, jargon, popular culture”–which, as Bérubé gleefully insinuates, probably increased undergraduate interest in the humanities during the 1980s rather than the reverse.

They also diversified the humanities: Bérubé rightly marvels at the breadth and variety depicted in contemporary NCES data and at the “underacknowledged” growth of the Visual and Performing Arts.

Disdain for such diversity characterizes the jeremiads that Bérubé derides. Mark Bauerlein laments “the diminishing status of the humanities” and attributes this trajectory to “professors who can’t penetrate the narrow careerism of freshmen; administrators who foster a utilitarian outlook on education; an adversarial, social-critique curriculum that turns students off; an excessive focus on research.” Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal proffers the reductio ad absurdum of this position by arguing that training and research in literature (which here predictably stands in for the humanities as a whole) is entirely beside the point. “Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods,” Siegel declares: “Literature requires only that you be human.” Readers hoping to ferret out the program of postsecondary education that led Siegel to this preposterous conclusion should consult his article.

Robin Wilson’s recent Chronicle column (requires subscription), “Humanities Scholars See Declining Prestige, Not a Lack of Interest” synthesizes the contention that a crisis of “legitimacy” derives from humanists’ specializations. In Bérubé’s version of the legitimation crisis, there’s plenty of blame to go around–the English department shares it with administrators and culture warriors. But Wilson is happy to stack up Bérubé, Bauerlein, and numerous other experts to focus blame on the alleged inability of humanists to engage a general audience.

Bauerlein supplies Wilson’s argument with its keystone:

“Can you find me a dean who is going to come into the office and say, ‘I am really, really proud of what our English professors are doing with their research, and I want to send them to talk to alumni groups about their latest books’?” Mr. Bauerlein asks. “There is no audience for humanities research, no consumption, no measure of impact anymore.”

Do not be distracted, gentle reader, by the manifold wrongness of this statement.

Never mind the retrograde conflation of “English professors” with “humanities research”–your institution may not be publicizing the efforts of faculty members working in Arabic, say, or Theater.

Never mind that when Bauerlein says “English professors” he cannot possibly mean those creative writers who teach in English departments and find their latest books splashed across university home pages.

Never mind that deans ready to trumpet the works of their humanists actually do exist or that measures of “impact” have multiplied as quickly as the requirement that scholars demonstrate it.

Never mind all that, but do notice that Bauerlein’s hyperbole makes a valid point: much of contemporary humanist research is not addressed to “alumni groups.”

This hardly makes our scholarship unique. Much of the research that goes on across any university is equally opaque to donors: everyone from the astrophysicist to the zoologist has reason to observe that what seems like crucial scholarship within a discipline can look esoteric from without.

Demonstrating the value of scholarship for non-specialist audiences requires effort, and in many cases pitching professorial research entails more effort than faculty, deans, development officers, press agents, and alumni organizations are willing to commit.

These various parties are nowhere in the framing of the problem provided by Wilson, and for good reason: to foreground the range of mediators involved in presenting scholarship to general audiences directs attention away from “the humanities” toward a wider and more complicated array of institutions and actors.

Whatever else a crisis of “legitimacy” does, it typically keeps the focus narrowly on “us,” the humanists, and in a manner that rewards a readership drawn in by the recent coverage of humanities crisis. “If there is no decline,” this readership might wonder, “then what’s the fuss?” Answer: trouble of another sort–decline in “prestige, not interest.” Begin the next round!

The imagined community of readers for a Chronicle article like Wilson’s is larger and more diverse than the “narrowly careerist” undergraduates of Bauerlein’s lament. Teachers and their students may well read her article, or Siegel’s in the Wall Street Journal, or David Brooks’s work in the New York Times, but they are not singled out. For these writers to successfully address their broad audiences, they need to provide a common reference point. “Crisis” does that work, generating the minimally shared grounding that enables Wilson and other writers, editors, newspapers and periodicals to rehearse a recognizable theme. In disagreeing with the way Wilson’s article presents “the crisis,” we too agree to reproduce this theme.

Those familiar with the past century of humanities work on mediation (or language, or form) should find it easy enough to follow our reasoning here. Bauerlein, Bérubé, our humble selves, and all the rest may succeed in convincing particular readers of this or that, but as a group we are not well understood as engaged in persuasion, communication, or conversation. Rather, we map terrain, demarcate limits, establish some facts as settled and other as open for contestation. This process revises how “the humanities” get discussed in the venues where they get discussed. All of us who engage in such labor are genre workers, busily renovating the plots, dramatis personae, and mise-en-scene of the “humanities” that can be assumed when one sits down next to a reader of the Wall Street Journal.

The ability to do this genre work has very little to do with research specialization. People trained as journalists, literature professors, and biologists are all equally capable of revising and reproducing the theme of “the humanities in crisis.” But, of course, not every capable individual is equally well positioned to intervene. The ability to update the genre has a good deal to do with processes beyond any individual’s control–institutional sanction, editorial selection, good timing, and so on. Working across institutional boundaries and sectors only amplifies the layers of mediation between any writer’s particular contribution and substantial changes to what any writer can assume her readership knows.

Precisely because mediation is involved, the problem of “general” versus “specialized” education is much better understood from the vantage point of consumption rather than knowledge production. Students enrolled in “Introduction to Film and Media” classes, readers of Cinema Journal, and viewers of The Daily Show are not only different audiences but different kinds of audiences. Different rules structure performances in these different domains, which means that research results–whether settled facts or challenging new interpretations–require different presentations in these different fora. That difference is determined not by what the researcher knows but by what the audience is imagined to know.

Notably, the audience imagined by “humanities in crises” coverage in the Chronicle and the major daily papers does not assume consensus about the content of “general education,” but does assume that the humanities’ mission is to anchor such a program. One frequently encounters claims that humanities education should enhance common culture, improve quality of life, and nurture an ability to engage in other than instrumental social transactions. One rarely meets consensus on what students should be reading, viewing, or listening to in pursuit of these aims–a problem sure to come up in any specialist discussion. As conducted in the press, the “generalization” vs. “specialization” debate largely emphasizes the social function humanities education is supposed to perform, rather than its content or methods.

True, conservative commentators are happy to dictate a reading list. Their champion listmaker is probably E. D. Hirsch, who has provided concerned parents a year-by-year syllabus from kindergarten on. The receivability of Hirsch’s initiative for a broad readership, and its marginality within professional scholarly practice, underscores a key assumption of the “humanities crisis” genre, namely, that “general education” will produce common culture through exposure to common works.

In the Chronicle et al., the logic of “great books” needs no explanation. “Great books” (or paintings, movies, plays, symphonies, etc.) tell readers they are in the presence of a humanist argument in the same way that song and dance numbers let audiences know they are watching a musical. At issue is not only the value of particular works, but also the type of knowledge and pleasure that circulates around and through them. The ability to talk about works others recognize as “great” is liable to make just about anyone feel smart.

Even those participants in the “crisis” debates who would never endorse a great books curriculum may be tempted to let its logic stand, rather than risk undermining its built-in case for the humanities’ redeeming social value.

It is fundamental category error, however, to assume that the rules for writing popular humanities arguments should also govern humanities research and curriculum design. If professional humanists learned nothing else from the culture wars, we should have learned that contemporary culture is far too various and complex to be controlled by a syllabus.  Contemporary humanities research offers a number of sophisticated ways of explaining not only what cultures past and present value, but also how those values have been contested and altered. This variety should not worry us: managing and explaining it is part of what we have to offer students and professionals in other disciplines. Nor should we flinch from contests over the content of “general education.” Where selection is required, debate should flourish.

What should worry us is the paranoid control fantasy that the “legitimacy crisis” layers over the “general education” narrative. It is bad for us to imagine that our problems could be solved by presenting a more homogenous front. This is a mid-century fantasy. It belongs to a moment when it was possible to imagine the uniformity of both the American college age population and the audience for mass media. A moment before, Ben Schmidt has recently reminded us, significant numbers of women began entering professional fields and the pre-professional programs that provided training in them. A moment before, furthermore, a whole range of demographic shifts diversified university student populations and an array of programs organized around geographic and demographic areas of study reoriented the university towards the problem of difference. It was precisely in response to such developments that conservative journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, and professors reanimated midcentury rhetoric in the 1980s.

Before it looked like a hostile reaction to academe, the dream of uniformity led the authors of 1945’s Harvard Redbook to envision the entire US education system–kindergarten through graduate school–as an alternative to the threat presented by mass culture’s organizing power. The secret to doing so was to standardize what was taught, especially at lower levels, and to thus answer the competing process of homogenization that was happening via network television. It is important to remember that Harvard never bought this program. The Truman administration picked up some of the Redbook’s recommendations, and important policy discussions certainly reflected its approach. Nonetheless, 1960s and 70s changes to academic funding such as the Pell grant program had more sweeping effects on the university than anyone’s plan for general education reform.

Just like network television, the idea of general education lives on largely as a reminder of how different the world is today. Professors and education administrators work in multiversities whose organizational structure is designed to reproduce specialization. Students get their introduction to this structure when they begin to think about their degrees, and they will continue to inhabit the problem of specialization when they graduate.

The authors of this spring’s Harvard report “Mapping the Future” are right to observe that humanists ought to be thinking about the place of their curricula in this context. For the authors of this report, the transition from high school humanities to college humanities at Harvard seems particularly in need of consideration: “Over the last 8 years,” the authors of the report write, “more than half of students who as pre-Freshmen indicate an intention to concentrate in a Humanities concentration end up in a different division” (8). Students have more choices at college that in high school, and humanities professors can always do more to explain the relation between the two. Likewise, they face an increasingly complex and important task in explaining how the choices students make in college prepare them for futures that include work.

These days students need less help understanding “common culture” than they do appraising the relation among specialized sorts of study and specialized sorts of labor. Life affords many opportunities to reflect on the groups to which one belongs; fewer opportunities to evaluate competing ways of understanding such groups. “Citizenship,” the shibboleth of Cold War educational policy debates, is liable to seem a different kind of activity for students in Political Science, Journalism, Economics, and English literature classes. Accordingly, the work of managing the media relations, party organization, policy formation, and campaign strategy through which citizenship can be enacted falls to experts in various fields. Citizens, students, and professors alike confront the problem of relating the proliferation of specializations within the academy to an increasingly differentiated world of work.

The problem of specialization looks different at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but its urgency is apparent for both. For undergraduates, who should be encouraged to explore a diversity of specializations, the primary challenge lies in selecting among them. For graduate students, who have already chosen, the primary challenge lies in understanding the professional paths afforded by that choice. There are options other than academic careers. Although Stanford’s proposal to require graduate students in the humanities to choose whether they are training to become scholars or something else may not be the best approach, it has the merit of admitting up front that, as with undergraduate degrees, not all PhD candidates in a particular program are training for the same kinds of jobs.

Professional humanists are not specifically trained to address a general public, although it is certainly true that they can cultivate that skill. What allows Bauerlein or Brooks or Siegel to write their journalistic commentary is not mastery of Shakespeare, but rather rhetorical training that might be acquired in any major that privileges argumentative writing, many of which are in the humanities.

Op-Ed commentators are specialists. Their specialization does not keep them from addressing their audiences, but rather enables it. Any specialization can lay claim to general conversation once connected with that audience. Narrowness did not prevent Jacques Derrida from becoming a celebrity, although neither was Derrida’s celebrity entirely of his own making. The public intellectual, like the Op-Ed columnist or the Hollywood actor, succeeds not by virtue of personal talent alone but by dint of a system of relations that gives that talent an audience. (David Shumway was right to call the academic version of this a star system [requires subscription]). Humanities programs train the managers and editors and scriptwriters and many of the other experts who participate in the reproduction of such star systems as much as they train the specialists who become stars.

The humanities are not outside contemporary networks of experts, in other words, but very much participants in, contributors to, and sometimes managers of them. Professional humanists participate in meritocracy, whether they want to or not.

Meritocracy should not be confused with elitism. It dreams not of enduring power but of provisional authority. Merit is situational. It favors talent but rewards competence. It ranks, but also standardizes. A properly functioning meritocracy should be less obsessed with identifying “excellence” than with improving ordinary performance. It should care more about the aggregate than the outliers. It should worry more about the results it produces than how well it is loved.

It would be good for professional humanists to nurture their meritocratic fantasies. But to do so, they will need to give up the midcentury dream of a standardized “general education” that required academics to disavow their role in shaping the very mass culture they opposed.

The academic humanities launch students into a division of labor. If this seems a controversial assertion, it is because it cuts against the generic argument. Like a good guy in a black hat, it runs counter to the popular case for the humanities’ value. Focusing on the undergraduate experience, this case assumes that exposure to great works will generate common culture. It wants to give humanists the job of preparing students not for work but for citizenship, life, or what-have-you. Universities no longer work this way, if indeed they ever did.

Put differently, one might say that if general education requirements prepare students for “life,” they do so by acquainting them with a variety of specialized knowledges–many of which start from incommensurable premises. Concentration in a major confers some form of credentialed expertise–a specialization. We do no service to general ed students, undergraduate majors, and graduate students when we deny the existence of this differential training. Regretting our specializations is not the way to improve our reputations on campus or in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Instead, we need to be clear about how our specializations enable humanities students to go to work. With others.


Humanists: do not panic about your declining market share.

One frequently hears that the humanities in particular and the “liberal arts” in general are in decline. That’s not accurate, as we’ve joined the likes of James English and David Laurence in arguing here and here.

In this post, we investigate the statistical measure that underwrites this pernicious bit of conventional wisdom. In so doing, we make a discovery that helps explain why the narrative of humanities decline has such widespread appeal. The story of decline is also a disavowal of structural change to U.S. higher education involving massive growth in both number of students and the number of degrees in which they can enroll.

Recently, Chronicle of Higher Education blogger Jeff Selingo joined the crowd in proclaiming that liberal arts’ market share has been taken over by “practical degrees in vocational fields.” He writes,

The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in traditional arts-and-sciences fields (English, mathematics, biology) peaked in the late 1960s, when about half of all degrees awarded were in those disciplines. Today, such majors account for about a quarter of degrees, as students have fled to practical degrees in vocational fields, such as business and communications or, more recently, sports management and computer-game design.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a chart that emphatically illustrates this version of events.

This chart and the contention it illustrates are misleading. They depend on emphasizing percentage of degrees awarded. This particular measure is deceptive in two key ways.

First, percentage of degrees renders invisible the effects of the post-WWII boom in postsecondary education.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 1959-60 there were 392,440 bachelor’s degrees conferred in the U.S. By 2010-11 that number had ballooned to 1,715,913.
The GI Bill, the Pell Grant, and the growth of large state institutions have all driven up the number of students who complete college. The numbers of students majoring in the humanities have risen as well, but this fact gets lost when one only cares about share.

The very Humanities Indicators Project data that the Wall Street Journal excerpts and repackages to produce its alarming downward curve also shows the difference between what happens when one tabulates share of degrees versus degrees overall.

This presentation of the period in question shows both the downward trending percentage and the upward trend in absolute numbers. The latter, obviously, disappears if one only looks at percentage.

Because it renders overall growth invisible, Ben Schmidt explains,

“[P]ercentage of all degrees” is a strange denominator. Taking into account the massive changes in the American university since the Second World War, it’s the resilience of the humanities that should be surprising. If you care about humanistic education, you shouldn’t be worrying about market share inside the university. You should care about the whole population.

Consider the whole population, Schmidt notes, and you will be able to observe that “we give out far more population-normalized degrees in the humanities now than we did in the 1950s or the 1980s.”

To measure the share of degrees without considering the growing number of degrees overall is to ignore how rapid and sustained growth restructured postsecondary education.

The difference between the “NSF” and “CIP” curves in the above chart provides a clue about the quality of this restructuring. Although both measures ultimately rely on the same survey data, they employ different methods of aggregation to measure “the humanities.” As the Humanities Indicators project explains in a note “The utility of the NSF system for the purposes of the Humanities Indicators (HI) is limited” because it does not “include in its tally those degrees conferred in the areas of musicology, art history, film studies, and drama history/criticism,” or, further, “archeology, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, and Holocaust studies.”

Here is a problem every statistician trying to measure “the humanities” must face: What to include? What to exclude? Because there are no government numbers for the humanities as a whole, one must actively decide which parts of the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) to count. There is no way to discover humanities share, in other words, without either asking an array of potentially fractious questions or making a set of questionable assumptions.

It is vital to observe that the problem has only become more complicated in recent decades, as the number of degrees offered by universities and colleges has itself grown substantially.

This is the second way percentage of all degrees is misleading: higher education now engages in a slew of activities it wasn’t even thinking about in the 1950s, and this fact has had huge effects on what counts as “the humanities.”

At midcentury, as Schmidt notes, English, History, Philosophy, and the languages were big players at many schools. Now, although the old core departments remain large ones in most U.S. universities, these legacy degrees face stiff competition not only from majors in social science, STEM, and business, but also from the range of majors that compose a much wider contemporary spectrum of humanities study.

Since the late 1960s, the rise of African and African American Studies, Women’s and Gender and Sexuality Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano/a Studies, Film Studies, and myriad other degrees have created many more choices for undergraduates. Although the survey data does not in itself explain why students choose one degree rather than another, it seems reasonable to conclude that legacy degrees have lost some of their share to these majors, which are likely to be counted as part of the “arts and humanities” (again, depending on the method of aggregation). If the present trends continue, it is possible to imagine a vibrant and expanding “humanities” in which English, History, and Philosophy (for example) have increasingly smaller shares. In any case, the fate of the humanities is not isomorphic with the completion shares of its most established disciplines.

In 1966, the Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS) encouraged institutions to report on 399 degree programs, around 60 of which (or about 15%) could be called “arts and humanities” (including history). In 2010, revisions to the CIP brought the total number of reportable programs to 1733, of which “arts and humanities” degrees (including history) numbered around 230 (or about 13%). Instructional programs newly added to the 2010 classification included, for example, Military History, Music Technology, Children’s and Adolescent Literature, and Disability Studies. Importantly, not every instructional program necessarily awards a bachelor’s degree. The complexity of the scheme also testifies to a postsecondary sector offering increasingly multifarious degrees and certificates.

In such a crowded academy, it is impossible for ANY single degree program to retain the shares that History or English could have claimed midcentury. What has happened is not decline, therefore, but increased differentiation.

This transformation may be likened to the changes proliferating channels and distribution systems brought to television: instead of a handful of networks and local stations, now a viewer may choose from hundreds of channels, not to mention YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, and all of the various streams both licit and illicit through which “TV” gets consumed. The share of any particular network can only decline in this context, but such decline fails to capture the structural shift.

In one respect, at least, universities and colleges have less to worry about than television producers. Some 90% of U.S. households already had TVs by 1962, which means that although Americans continue to watch more television the room for growth is clearly limited. There may be more upside to bachelor’s degrees: NCES expects significant continued growth through 2021:

If degree share provides a misleading measure because it erases the dramatic change and expansion of postsecondary education, one might well ask why that number proves so important for commentators ranging from Harvard faculty to The Wall Street Journal, Chronicle bloggers, and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

The answer can be gleaned from what degree share leaves out, namely that bachelor’s completions are not qualitatively equal, but rather participate in reproducing a professional division of labor that is in some measure meritocratic.

In place of an argument over meritocracy, the decline narrative sets a drama of popularity. It asks us to fret over why students stopped asking “the humanities” to the prom when we should be thinking through the changes that have made diverse humanities disciplines attractive to upwards of 1.5 million undergraduates in the last decade alone. Those changes shape possibilities for students, scholars, and policy makers alike.

The decline narrative needs humanities degrees to appear “unpopular” in order to construe student disinterest as a symptom that commentators can diagnose and remedy. The most common diagnoses these days fault the humanities for being economically impractical or for having lost touch with their lofty mission as a transmitter of core values. Sometimes both.

These two explanations often go hand-in-hand even though they might appear contradictory. If humanities degrees are impractical it follows they could do better if more practically inclined. If humanities degrees have lost touch because they no longer “cultivate the human core” that David Brooks joins D.H. Lawrence in imagining as “‘the dark vast forest,’” then they could regain their former status by keeping practical matters (including politics) at arms length.

Contradictory claims can cohabitate because they share a blind spot. Decline mongers cannot see, or refuse to avow, that humanities degrees contribute expertise to a particular kind of society that needs it, one organized by and through such professionally administered institutions as universities and television networks.

Humanists must know that their teaching contributes to such a society. Even so, since the middle of the twentieth century (at least) many humanists have prefered to explain the value of their endeavor by embracing the project of producing citizens. With this stated goal, the humanities profess to flatten hierarchy and educate everyone while simultaneously generating relatively scarce expert credentials and reproducing meritocracy.

At midcentury, the Redbook explicitly treated these as contradictory aims that institutional practice should work to reconcile. The report recently issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences attempts the same juggling act, but less successfully. Unlike its accompanying promotional video, in which humanist learning promises truth and flowers to all comers, the lengthy report, entitled “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation,” makes no bones about its administrative brief.

The Academy’s expert panel rhetorical asks:

“Who will lead America into a bright future?”

Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials
and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history. We must prepare ourselves and invest in the next generation to be these enlightened leaders. (2)

Who would begrudge the humanities an opportunity to make such well-rounded citizens, creative workers, worldly security experts, and consensus-oriented politicians? In making these aims appear commensurate, however, the report defers essential questions about where and how to “invest in the next generation.” Should creative workers be the priority, for example, or would focus on those types distract us from the need to produce more diplomats? Is this alternative the same as a choice between funding “the arts” or “languages”–a disciplinary difference that disappears within “the humanities,” but one that would be extremely relevant for institutions, where faculty and students do not inhabit “the humanities” but rather particular disciplines and departments. Of course, this is not necessarily an either-or choice, but it is the type of choice students, faculty, and administrators face. The rhetoric of decline is built to bracket off such details in service of providing a common defence. But is it a defense of a university anyone now actually inhabits?

The difficult work of creating an effective sense of common cause among disciplines well accustomed to competing with one another for scarce resources will require a more realistic acknowledgement of their institutional differences. It is not clear, for example, that the difference between “the humanities” and “the social sciences” looks as stark from the point of view of  Women’s Studies, Media Studies, and Anthropology as it does from the point of view of English, Art History, and Philosophy. Nor does it seem likely that the challenge of explaining the value of “the humanities” looks the same in all these fields. The critically important problem of this juncture, it seems to us, is how to coordinating activities of  humanist experts not well accustomed to collaborating with specialists in other fields.

The most encouraging parts of the Academy report avoid building a defensive wall around “the humanities,” and look instead to initiatives that enlist different types of experts in common projects. The report seeks to “bring humanists and social scientists together with physical and biological scientists and engineers to address major global challenges such as the provision of clean air and water, food, health, energy, universal education, human rights, and the assurance of physical safety” (43-44).

This sort of collaboration would be revelatory, we agree, but it makes no sense absence a clarified vision for humanities specializations and realistic appraisal of the tremendous work required to make such collaboration actually occur.

The report contends that humanists and social scientists are particularly well-situated to consider

• The ethical questions attending the adoption of new technologies;
• The social conditions that provide context for international policy decisions regarding the environment, global health, and human rights; and
• The cultural differences that aid or hinder global security. (44)

All true. But which humanists? And how? Unless one believes that a superficial understanding of ethics, technology, society, human rights, and world cultures is enough, there is a need to ask what combinations of degrees would be most helpful. That there’s more to expert knowledge than narrowly specialist pursuit is self-evident, but humanists will struggle to figure out what version of meritocratic society they want if they ignore the significance of their specializations. And administrators will mistake what “the humanities” have to offer if they continue to focus only on the larger legacy degrees.

Focus on market share obscures such vital questions about how the humanities changed as they increased in numbers of graduates and specializations. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences says it does not want to retreat to the “idealized past” of general education (34). Still, it relies on a narrative of decline in which we have fallen from a past when a few easily corralled disciplines–English, Philosophy, Languages, and History–enjoyed a popularity they now lack. The report acknowledges the fact of meritocratic specialization, but it shuns the challenge of reconciling this fact with lofty rhetoric of a generally “human” (i.e. national) improvement. We must do better. If we agree that investment in humanist postsecondary education makes the world a better place, we need an account that explains how an increasing array of specializations can be expected to satisfy that end.