Monthly Archives: May 2012

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Moving On

Dear Mark,

I think we’ve reached the end of a couple of threads here.

First up, you wrote:

Objects don’t define practices. Practices define objects.
Academic disciplines and media industries are best though of as institutionalized practices.
For both sorts of institutionalized practice it matters that pictures aren’t words (even though, like with the 70s and 80s treatment of everything as “text,” there are often disavowals). You seem reluctant to agree. Why?

This, I agree with. No murky ontology. Practices define objects, and if we want to stop defining ourselves by reference to the objects we study, we must redefine our practices. At the risk, that is, of losing control over (including the definitions of and the distinctions among) those objects (pictures, texts, etc.).

Second:

We might want to devote some other posts to explaining what it means for a practice to be institutionalized.  It may be worth pointing out that since Robert Merton’s 1940 classic “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality” it has been clear that institutions cannot be adequately thought of as Weberian rationalizing machines, because they also train people to over-conform to their rules. Merton discovers that bureaucratic inefficiency is an effect of the very rules supposed to make institutions hyper-efficent.

This would be good to talk more about. Off the top of my head, I’d say that we lay the groundwork for this already, but that like Graff et al. we tend to rely on polemics about institutional practice rather than sociological studies of what happens in the classroom, etc. Do we need to think more about the latter? Or do I just need to get off the couch and read more of these classic works on bureaucracy you seem to know something about?

Third, part one:

I want to embrace the flattening gesture that puts us all in the market, while also registering that major differences of opinion exist within film and media studies on the question of “whether [we] should work with and within the culture industries.” Projects dedicated to using “new media” to promote participatory culture, like those of Sharon Daniel, have a different orientation than those working to bridge industry and academe under that banner of the Convergence Culture Consortium.

A different orientation, for sure, but they share a reluctance to reproduce the academic exceptionalism that makes university practice seem somehow outside the market while commercial practice is in it. For our purposes here, we need sometimes to be agnostic about these differences. I’m thinking of the laundry lists of “interesting things going on that are not business as usual” that we’ve been generating. Sometimes, however, we may want to privilege one or the other. On what grounds, for me, tbd.

Third, part two:

We should not lose sight of the fact that in the 20s and 30s “zealous engagement” with Hollywood often meant strident opposition to it. What I think we aim to describe is how culture industries and universities developed together as institutional fields that collaborated, competed, and often mirrored one another. It’s not for nothing that we talk about an academic “star system.”

Sure. It matters to us why Hollywood is being opposed, in addition. There’s a regulatory argument in most oppositional stances, I think we’ve found. Looking forward to the days of fewer individual academic stars, more star teams.

Lastly:

I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the mental picture of films and novels strutting about in mediation suits with that of a 3D chess match involving  objects, institutions, and disciplines in which Bazin squares off against Marshall McLuhan (they are both wearing Star Trek uniforms).

Oh now you hate all figuration. Whatever. Try this one on: both wearing Star Trek uniforms, but it’s all about rank. Who is the redshirt?

John

Profit and Form, Objects, Media

Dear John,

Ok, I’ll write about profit, but first I need to figure out what this paragraph means:

Some objects wear their mediation more lightly than others. But we cannot imagine that this variance resides anywhere except in the way that media have been institutionalized, can we? I take the (Bazinian?, not exclusively surely) point that there are properties of these objects that affect their mediation, but for our argument those properties must be significant largely for how they shape institutionalization and discipline.

I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the mental picture of films and novels strutting about in mediation suits with that of a 3D chess match involving  objects, institutions, and disciplines in which Bazin squares off against Marshall McLuhan (they are both wearing Star Trek uniforms).

My imagination wants to bulldoze all of this in favor of some straightforward propositions:

  • Objects don’t define practices. Practices define objects.
  • Academic disciplines and media industries are best though of as institutionalized practices.

For both sorts of institutionalized practice it matters that pictures aren’t words (even though, like with the 70s and 80s treatment of everything as “text,” there are often disavowals). You seem reluctant to agree. Why?

We might want to devote some other posts to explaining what it means for a practice to be institutionalized.  It may be worth pointing out that since Robert Merton’s 1940 classic “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality” it has been clear that institutions cannot be adequately thought of as Weberian rationalizing machines, because they also train people to over-conform to their rules. Merton discovers that bureaucratic inefficiency is an effect of the very rules supposed to make institutions hyper-efficent.

This knee-jerk anti-profit attitude is case of humanist over-conformity. Paul Jay and Gerald Graff say as much in the “Fear of Being Useful” piece we cite. Christopher Newfield, in Ivy and Industry, observes that this particular institutional structure has early 20th century roots in the (bad) bargain that founded the modern American University: administrators would attend to money matters; scholars would be “free” to think and write. I think it is fairly obvious that the terms of this bargain are shifting under the pressure of a much broader argument about what universities should do and how they should be funded. Over conforming to old habits will not serve us well. We want our students to get jobs; we’d like to keep ours; we’d like ours to make a difference. These are not exclusively “profit” propositions, but profit’s sure in ’em.

I’m not sure what to do with a couple of ideas in your last paragraph. There’s this one:

Film and new media scholars will doubtless feel closer to this problem of whether they should work with and within the culture industries than scholars of literature. Literature scholars should not feel so securely distanced from it, however.

I want to embrace the flattening gesture that puts us all in the market, while also registering that major differences of opinion exist within film and media studies on the question of “whether [we] should work with and within the culture industries.” Projects dedicated to using “new media” to promote participatory culture, like those of Sharon Daniel, have a different orientation than those working to bridge industry and academe under that banner of the Convergence Culture Consortium.

Then there’s this sentence:

The zealous engagement with Hollywood that we found so compelling in Grieveson, Wasson, Polan, and Decherney’s work on early film and film study can only appear as anathema today.

I think Grieveson, Wasson, Polan, Decherney et al. describe institution building arguments that configure still extant relationships among academic and industrial practices. (Although these relationships may be changing.) We should not lose sight of the fact that in the 20s and 30s “zealous engagement” with Hollywood often meant strident opposition to it. What I think we aim to describe is how culture industries and universities developed together as institutional fields that collaborated, competed, and often mirrored one another. It’s not for nothing that we talk about an academic “star system.”

Mark

 

 

Form, Objects, Media, and Profit

Dear Mark,

I don’t think that we need to do the realism thing, although you’ve never struck me as a person who was remotely afraid (to the contrary) of deep water. My invocation of realism was, allow me to say this as dismissively as possible, an example. Of, precisely, the challenge of thinking in inter-medial fashion. The only reason for us to care about realism would be if we thought its differences across media would tell us something about the changing inter-medial dynamics.

Some objects wear their mediation more lightly than others. But we cannot imagine that this variance resides anywhere except in the way that media have been institutionalized, can we? I take the (Bazinian?, not exclusively surely) point that there are properties of these objects that affect their mediation, but for our argument those properties must be significant largely for how they shape institutionalization and discipline.

You wrote,

I think our collaboration repeatedly demonstrates that my background in Film and Media Studies gives me something to say about about the problem of meditation that your background in English does not, and vice versa. This productive difference does have something to do with the fact that I’ve watched a lot of films and you’ve read a lot of novels. It ought to be possible to value this difference without perpetually reprising a love-hate relationship with these objects of study.

For other English types, it will be important that I’ve been reading 20th/21st C novels. Victorianists and 18th C scholars of the novel typically care more about mediation than contemporary fiction scholars and modernists do. In my experience the curiosity of the 18th C epistolary novel and Victorian seriality far more emphatically direct scholars to ask about relations among form, object, and media than even the experiments of modernism and postmodernism. Leave the novel for the lands of poetry and drama, you’ll find again this complex relation of form, object, media is rarely ignored. The novel, in short, is the problem, and the high profile of 20th C fiction in particular.

Which, given the still strong market for at least some novels, makes it odd that anyone could forget this point you reference from our work in progress:

This inter-medial encounter ought to remind us further that humanities objects are themselves moving targets produced and reproduced by nonacademic institutions.

Why is this not obvious?

Our account of how the humanities rose in status by retreating into the academy is surely part of the answer.

The fear of being useful is the affective remainder of the power plays associated with Leavis, Crowe, and Ransom, which legitimated criticism by retreating to the academy and, at the same time, complained that academics were not empowered to manage cultural reproduction.

Although I still like this formulation, I’ve been trying this out for a little while now on my colleagues, etc., and I don’t find that use is what galls them. Or so they say. What unsettles them is profit. I’ve been prodding you about this particular matter for a little while but you haven’t taken the bait. We like our objects to be worthless in exchange. Profitability when we refer to it makes a certain opaque point. Sometimes it testifies to significance, but rarely (ever?) analytic significance.

In our work in progress, we recognize the power of but are skeptical towards the Leavis / New Critical retreat into the academy and away from the market. We recognize the power of and tend to like the transdisciplinary efforts of mid-century anti-capitalists cum strange bedfellows Greenberg and Adorno/Horkheimer. I like having it both ways, and we do note that there’s no reason to be caught up in jazz-baiting or kitsch-hating when appreciating Greenberg/Adorno/Horkheimer efforts, as we put it, “to take in the whole picture of culture administration and explain how nominally opposed camps collude to maintain capitalism.” But it’s hard not to notice that Greenberg/Adorno/Horkheimer take different approaches than early century academics like Thrasher et al. who worked with and within the culture industries.

Film and new media scholars will doubtless feel closer to this problem of whether they should work with and within the culture industries than scholars of literature. Literature scholars should not feel so securely distanced from it, however. I think I told you about Amitav Ghosh’s presentation at the Novel conference in which he reminded a room full of academics that many writers write to make a living. There’s no escaping the filthy lucre. How are we to think about the way that humanities academics frame their relationship to it? The zealous engagement with Hollywood that we found so compelling in Grieveson, Wasson, Polan, and Decherney’s work on early film and film study can only appear as anathema today.

John

No More Precious Objects

Dear John,

A beautiful hypothesis and corollary!

Hypothesis: the question of what an object is subordinates the question of what an object does every time we stop asking questions about medium and mediation. I think it follows that in order for the humanities to reclaim an ability to talk about how its precious objects shape populations, the humanities needs to stop speaking about its objects as if they were precious.

I also appreciate the rebuke:

To the extent that your professional status in an English department hinges primarily on your intimate relationship to the object called cinema, there’s no more reason for any of your colleagues to worry about what it means to analyze a film than for the novel scholars among them to worry about what it means to analyze a poem.

It underscores a need to be careful. The problem, according to your hypothesis, lies in a kind essentialism, a subordination of being to doing and a consequent over-investment in “literature” or “film,” elevating objects over the social relations they mediate and enable. Since this assumption is  something like an unconscious of several (some? most? all?) humanities disciplines, it is very difficult to avoid reproducing. It gets reproduced, for example, in job descriptions, such that one might find oneself understood as “the film guy” before getting a chance to talk about what that might mean.

The need to avoid overvaluation of objects does not make it less important to understand the relationship between the being and doing of media. Media, forms, and genres do differ for each other. We try to embrace this when we write:

Read in tandem with the familiar histories of English, the  new histories of film and media suggest that the humanities have been interdisciplinary in something like the same way mass media have been “inter-medial,” achieving specificity by studying and distinguishing themselves amidst rival forms. This inter-medial encounter ought to remind us further that humanities objects are themselves moving targets produced and reproduced by nonacademic institutions.

I think our collaboration repeatedly demonstrates that my background in Film and Media Studies gives me something to say about about the problem of meditation that your background in English does not, and vice versa. This productive difference does have something to do with the fact that I’ve watched a lot of films and you’ve read a lot of novels. It ought to be possible to value this difference without perpetually reprising a love-hate relationship with these objects of study.

Yes, I think it’s safe to say that in film studies the problem of “realism” has been bound up with considerations of the nature of the medium, and specifically with the relationship between its indexical and iconic qualities. At great hazard of overgeneralization, I would say that the Bazinian line of argument has valued the being of the object over the doing of the medium. It would take some work to win this point, because Bazin yokes the being and doing together from the get-go. In any case, cinema’s indexical and iconic qualities make cinematic realism a different problem from that of the  “realist novel.” I understand that problem to center on the form’s capacity to symbolize social relationships (of class, of nation) given the requirement that it also tell narratives of personal growth and/or heterosexual romance. In the old days, appraising this capacity involved measuring novels against one version of another of the Marxist meta-narrative. These days scholars like you are teaching us to see realist fiction as one of a number of specialist discourses competing and collaborating to define and explain a changing world order. Correct me, please, if I am wrong.

Do we really want to do this realism thing? The water will get deep quickly.

Mark

 

 

For Love of an Object

Dear Mark,

Your last post was a tour de force. And/but, we have ways of keeping any hint of ressentiment from creeping into our account of the renovation of English in the 70s / 80s. We have argued that film studies has and continues to contribute to its status as a minor discipline (attached to a major media) by reproducing an object-centered approach it borrowed from earlier, mid-century arguments about literature.

Quoting from our work in progress,

To be clear, cinema matters…because it institutionalized new practices and altered others, not because it has inherent value as a disciplinary object of study. To think of film studies in such object-centered terms is to treat it as an analog of the version of English invented in the middle of the twentieth century. Then, Ransom described the popularity of prose over poetry as a homicide in progress and urged critics to band together and intervene. Such New Critical crime prevention finds a peculiar echo in Yale film scholar Dudley Andrew’s 2009 defense of “the film object.”

To the extent that your professional status in an English department hinges primarily on your intimate relationship to the object called cinema, there’s no more reason for any of your colleagues to worry about what it means to analyze a film than for the novel scholars among them to worry about what it means to analyze a poem.

I agree it would be cool if “all this ‘extra’ non-literary and/or theoretical stuff” kicking around English departments turns out “to be a virus that will have entirely rewritten the code of English from within.” But I think we’d also like it to mean an end to film studies and any new media studies that declare their sovereignty by specifying a discipline-organizing object.

If we are to make the stakes of this absolutely clear, we need to concentrate on how the question of what a mass media object does got displaced by questions of what mass media objects are. The fact that English Departments don’t think they are still object-centered (because they are treating everything they encounter as text) is part of this story.

This essay by Joseph D. Anderson linked to on the “Bazinian, Neo-Bazinian, and Post-Bazinian Film Studies” entry from Film Studies for Free makes it sound like when it comes to thinking about realism in film, it’s all about the information-containing properties of the medium. Which makes me want to rehearse the distinction between medium and form you’ve persuaded me to pay better attention to. It also makes me want to observe how changes in what counts as medium tend to upset some film studies scholars as much as literary scholars (well, maybe not…but some film studies types talk about the crime of watching movies at home the way some literary scholars lament the kindlization of books). These changes are potentially upsetting in any number of ways, of course, but one of the key analytic reasons for distress may be that changes in medium make form seem less reassuringly stable. Or, because changes in mediation make it clear how easy it is to confuse the object’s form with the institutions and technologies involved in its reproduction.

Hypothesis: the question of what an object is subordinates the question of what an object does every time we stop asking questions about medium and mediation. I think it follows that in order for the humanities to reclaim an ability to talk about how its precious objects shape populations, the humanities needs to stop speaking about its objects as if they were precious.

John

On the Conflation of Humanities and English

John,

I think this is a major theme for us. I made a category. Setting the question of the literary object aside for just a moment, it needs to be said that English scholars (like Menand, e.g.) habitually promote this conflation and have done so for decades. It may at this point be unconscious.  There are many consequences. One is simply that there is better, more easily available data about English (and about the humanities from an English point of view), than any other humanities discipline. There is an entire cottage industry of English professors who mostly write about the profession. This is not really the case in Film and Media Studies–which certainly worries about the future of the field, the future of film, and the future of the world, but is not particularly obsessed with the future of the University or the humanities. For good or ill, we aim to change that.

If our project is against anything it is against the habit of English speaking for the humanities. One way we have of opposing it is by pointing out that English only got to think of itself this way by closing down early-twenieth-century engagements among academics and non-academics in various fields who were concerned, broadly speaking, with the problem of managing populations through media. “Hollywood” was an emblem of this problem, but it was not really media specific. Somewhere on this blog we need a thread for developing that strand of the argument.

In any case, we argue that English empowered itself at mid-century not so much by abandoning the project of managing populations by managing media but by claiming knowledge of “literature” as the sure route to good management. We consider the two major flavors of this claim–Leavis and New Criticism.

Our story has tended to leap over the 70s and 80s in a rush to get to the present, but I think we have a rough idea of what happened in the moment Menand identifies as the pivot point. English extended its reach to “culture” (with a small “c”) and integrated new tools (“theory”) without abandoning the claim that what made English English was the specialized reading practice cultivated by the study of literary objects. There were any number of currents and countercurrents. It was a moment that enabled some clear thinking about the social function of the University of English within it, including approaches (e.g., Bledstein and Ohmann) inspiring our own. In this moment, it became possible for English to congratulate itself for being ecumenical, inclusive, and interdisciplinary when it talked about “texts” other than novels and poems.

An interesting example that just happens to linger on the internet is Bob Scholes’ 1989 “On Reading a Video Text.” Scholes demonstrates his visual literacy by mentioning in the first paragraph certain formal properties of visual materials (close-ups, slow motion, optical filters) and then proceeds to “read” a Budweisser commercial as a narrative and myth of Americanness (the influence of Barthes is clear). The piece belongs to the culture wars. Its explicit antagonists are William Bennett and E. D. Hirsh. Scholes is on the side of all right thinking people, who will recognize the power and importance of teaching students to be able to interpret commercials in this way. As model of “visual literacy,” however, the piece stinks. While Scholes calls attention to certain visual devices in its opening paragraph, he does not bother to explain how they might be relevant in conveying the narrative information he summarizes. He could have used the tool of Film Studies to do so. Scholes was at the time working alongside some of that discipline’s leading practitioners in Brown’s pioneering Modern Culture and Media Studies program (now department), which we can both claim as part of our scholarly DNA. In eschewing these tools, Scholes encouraged English professors and graduate students to imagine that they where not needed to engage Bennett-and-Hirch-defying materials. That was the genius of the approach. Non-literary material could be wedged into even the most conservative English curriculum. No revision of the requirements would be necessary.  This explains why I have been tenured in two English Departments without a PhD in English and why my colleagues in both of those departments have felt (sincerely, I think) that it is critically important for students to understand film–but not so important as to require coursework in Film and Media Studies as part of an English major. Non-literary examples proliferate in English courses, while arguments and interpretive methods developed by those who study film and media do not.

This is why our augment that English remains obsessed with defining its objects “is greeted with blank stares or opaque nods of the head,” as you put it. The obsession was reincarnated in the 70s as a promiscuous reading practice that could attach itself to anything text-like. This allowed English to claim extended reach without revising its basic architecture. Graduate students, for example, would still be trained to inhabit the same old nation and period specific categories of literary history while also doing something “extra” to question them. The inclusion of all this “extra” non-literary and/or theoretical stuff may turn out to be a virus that will have entirely rewritten the code of English from within. That could be cool. The problem is the blind spot it tends to create: English can think that it has engaged other disciplines whenever it succeeds in making the evidence of those disciplines look text-like.  This predisposes it to an incorporation model (English as the humanities) rather than a collaboration model (English as part of the humanities.)

What do you think of this story so far?

You asked about realist film. Where to start? As I think you know, the question of whether film is essentially realist is foundational to the discipline, although this “realism” is not the “realism” of the “realist novel.” The line of argument is continued in several recent publications including Opening Bazin, a collection of essays. The groovy Film Studies for Free blog would be happy to help you navigate Bazin scholarship. Although “neo-realsim” identifies a period, style, and ideological problem set; so far as I know “realist film” does not.

Mark

 

The Fallaciousness of Time to Degree plus the Conflation of Humanities and English

Dear Mark,

Wielding “fallacious” like the weapon it is, you wrote,

The rhetoric of “relevance” allows readers to imagine that nebulously defined social goods (“meaningful,” “productive,” “rewarding”) can be appraised by means of metrics like time to degree, job placements, and starting salaries. The equation is obviously fallacious. As numerous PhDs, JDs, and MBAs of our acquaintance will testify, one can complete one’s degree on time, immediately find a well paying job, and still not be engaged in activities one regards as particularly “meaningful,” “productive,” and “rewarding.” It has been the job of the humanities to consider such questions of value. They will undo themselves by treating job placement stats as equivalent types of questions. This doesn’t mean that humanities disciplines shouldn’t contemplate a shorter time to degree, just that they have to stick up for the difference between such metrics and questions of social value, lest they lose their professional distinction.

You’re clearly right. I am thinking about time to degree adjustments as a potentially salutary shock that would require us to engage in the kind of curricular overhaul that for whatever reason the crushing job market has demanded. I agree that nothing necessarily follows from it. I love the simplicity of the thought, “flood the market.” It may smack of desperation, in fact it surely does, but it would force so many issues. I realize that this may be a kind of exacerbate the crisis thinking, for better and worse. I may have too much of a soft spot for “jolts,” as you call them.

You also wrote about Menand’s story concerning what happened in the 1970s to the humanities/English,

Note the indicative collapse of the difference between “humanities” and “English.” Note also that disciplinary hyperspecialization increases the number of credentialed professionals while decreasing their market value and interest to undergraduates. We think that–despite the culture wars–this is because English was obsessed with defining its object rather than explaining what its object does. Right? What changes about this picture once other humanities disciplines are admitted to it?

There are two big questions here.

Re: the first, English was and remains obsessed with defining its objects. And yet, I find that this argument or ours is greeted with blank stares or opaque nods of the head. Maybe because some wings of English think they are so over any concern with literary objects, maybe because these matters of what an object is and what it does don’t seem distinct? I think, for instance, about the current wave of interest in realist novels, which comes from different quarters but seems to hinge on the supposed critical potential of this particular breed of print fiction.

Re: the second, Is there a comparable concern with, and can you even say this, realist film? I’m new enough in video game studies not to have a firm grasp on the status of realism in that field (although I do know that nothing says “artsy” like 8-bit graphics).

John

Links

Dear Mark,

A few relevant recent links that we may or may not want to think more about.

From Remaking the University, an update on the ongoing UC transformation, with this point of departure, “There is a large and growing literature about why the privatization of public goods reduces access (drinking water, electricity, education) and raises costs.” Given our interest in collaboration among experts in Hollywood and academe in the early part of the twentieth century, and given further our interest in the way that ANT, STS, and new media studies of various kinds are forging links among businesses and academic fields and initiatives, I want us to have a line on the status of such terms as privatization, public goods, and more generally for profit and non-profit.

Here’s another link that draws out the need for a position on that public/private matter, from the Chronicle, via 4humanities, “The Humanities and the Corporate World: Dedicated Deep Thinkers.” About the humanities as the source of corporate idea types.

Lastly, also from 4humanities about a Chronicle piece, this one regarding humanities types working with engineers at UVA: “The Changing Humanities: UVA’s Praxis Program.”

John

Not everything is institutionalized via time to degree

Dear John,

Requiring a five year PhD would certainly prove consequential for the humanities disciplines. Would it make them more “relevant” as the Stanford authors claim?

I’m not exactly clear what that term means in context. Clearly, the authors think that relevance equals employment outside the university. There is also an assertion of what humanities PhD’s should be relevant to: “an increasingly global and cosmopolitan 21st century society.”  And, as you point out, departments are asked to redesign “curricula to prepare PhD’s for a diverse array of meaningful, socially productive and personally rewarding careers within and outside the academy.”  The rhetoric of “relevance” allows readers to imagine that nebulously defined social goods (“meaningful,” “productive,” “rewarding”)  can be appraised by means of metrics like time to degree, job placements, and starting salaries. The equation is obviously fallacious. As numerous PhDs, JDs, and MBAs of our acquaintance will testify, one can complete one’s degree on time, immediately find a well paying job, and still not be engaged in activities one regards as particularly “meaningful,” “productive,” and “rewarding.” It has been the job of the humanities to consider such questions of value. They will undo themselves by treating job placement stats as equivalent types of questions. This doesn’t mean that humanities disciplines shouldn’t contemplate a shorter time to degree, just that they have to stick up for the difference between such metrics and questions of social value, lest they lose their professional distinction.

Would the five year PhD encourage humanities disciplines to refocus on questions of social value by requiring them to pay more attention to the professional world outside their boarders?  Maybe. It could be a productive jolt, and the parts of the disciplines in which we seem to be most interested may be poised to take advantage of  it.

Would such an effort necessarily expand job opportunities for humanities PhDs and thus secure the positions of those who train them? I have doubts.

We might consider why the strategy of reducing PhD output did not work. I think we have both found Marc Bousquet persuasive on this question:

shrinking the supply wasn’t working, and could never work, because administrations retain total control of the “demand” for labor—in many disciplines, administrations are perfectly willing to use faculty without doctorates. For that matter, a lot of the work formerly done by faculty is done by persons without an MA or, increasingly, without a BA. In the absence of meaningful regulation, studying the academic labor system as a “market” in tenure-track jobs has little validity.

In different ways, both the Stanford authors and Menand sidestep Bousquest’s challenge to about the entire academic labor system (as opposed to the faculty “job market”). Stanford simply treats as a matter of fact that only a fraction of Humanities PhD’s will secure tenure track jobs without going into the whys and wherefores. Menand encourages his readers to imagine that English professors control admission to their profession in the same way that doctors and lawyers do, whereas there are significant differences in the ways these professions and institutional fields are organized and regulated. (There is no scholarly equivalent of the Bar Association, for example.) Both the Stanford authors and Menand invite us to imagine an ever-larger pool of  humanists credentialed to move across a porous border between academe and industry. Who will regulate this flow and thereby set the market value for humanities PhDs?  It seems likely that humanities PhDs themselves might not have that much to say about it.

I have a lot more to say about this, but I’m going to stop to call attention to another matter.

You left to me the task of pointing out the most important part of Menand’s article (from the point of view of our project). Apologies in advance for the lengthy quote:

The hinge whereby things swung into their present alignment, the ledge of the cliff, is located somewhere around 1970. That is when a shift in the nature of the Ph.D. occurred. The shift was the consequence of a bad synchronicity, one of those historical pincer effects where one trend intersects with its opposite, when an upward curve meets a downward curve. One arm of the pincer has to do with the increased professionalization of academic work, the conversion of the professoriate into a group of people who were more likely to identify with their disciplines than with their campuses. This had two, contradictory effects on the Ph.D.: it raised and lowered the value of the degree at the same time. The value was raised because when institutions began prizing research above teaching and service, the dissertation changed from a kind of final term paper into the first draft of a scholarly monograph. The dissertation became more difficult to write because more hung on its success, and the increased pressure to produce an ultimately publishable work increased, in turn, the time to achieving a degree. That was a change from the faculty point of view. It enhanced the selectivity of the profession.

The change from the institutional point of view, though, had the opposite effect. In order to raise the prominence of research in their institutional profile, schools began adding doctoral programs. Between 1945 and 1975, the number of American undergraduates increased 500 percent, but the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900 percent. On the one hand, a doctorate was harder to get; on the other, it became less valuable because the market began to be flooded with Ph.D.s.

This fact registered after 1970, when the rapid expansion of American higher education abruptly slowed to a crawl, depositing on generational shores a huge tenured faculty and too many doctoral programs churning out Ph.D.s. The year 1970 is also the point from which we can trace the decline in the proportion of students majoring in liberal-arts fields, and, within that decline, a proportionally larger decline in undergraduates majoring in the humanities. In 1970-71, English departments awarded 64,342 bachelor’s degrees; that represented 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, including those awarded in non-liberal-arts fields, such as business. The only liberal-arts category that awarded more degrees than English was history and social science, a category that combines several disciplines. Thirty years later, in 2000-01, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all fields was 50 percent higher than in 1970-71, but the number of degrees in English was down both in absolute numbers—from 64,342 to 51,419—and as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, from 7.6 percent to around 4 percent.

Note the indicative collapse of the difference between “humanities” and “English.” Note also that disciplinary hyperspecialization increases the number of credentialed professionals while decreasing their market value and interest to undergraduates. We think that–despite the culture wars–this is because English was obsessed with defining its object rather than explaining what its object does. Right? What changes about this picture once other humanities disciplines are admitted to it?

Mark

 

 

What is Institutionalized via Time to Degree?

Dear Mark,

I want to table for the moment one thing you noted and follow up (obliquely perhaps) on another.

The point to table:

Public Culture has been fairly unusual in allowing images to share conceptual space with arguments (as opposed to being objects that prose necessarily interprets).

I think this is vital for us, and thinking across media this way is something I want to talk more about. How does Public Culture do it? What does it mean that they do it and others do not? Etc.

The point to follow up:

To intervene on these questions requires not simply identifying and defending alternatives but actually institutionalizing them, which means learning to work with engineers and policy wonks.

Institutionalizing without identifying alternatives for what intellectual practice (for us most specifically humanities intellectual practice) should look like might not be a non-starter though. Certainly, you and I think we need to understand why it is important to talk to engineers, policy wonks, experts from other disciplines, and even professionals involved in profit-making businesses. (The latter sort of collaboration has been anathema for humanities types for a goodly while. Along with the images item above, I’d like us to think more about why exactly.) But how to do this? What institutional carrots and sticks are available?

What about time to degree, which is probably the primary way we humanists currently talk about the viability of the PhD in the humanities?

Consider “The Future of the Humanities PhD at  Stanford,” which got blurbed in an article on Inside Higher Ed this week called “The Radical New Humanities Ph.D.” (a couple of days after it was published this piece remains high up on the site’s most read list).

The professors behind the Stanford statement argue that they are in a position to overhaul the PhD because they have the financial and cultural capital to do so. No doubt. They are guided by these two goals:

1. Rationalizing the investment (on the part of students and the university), by reducing time to degree (TTD).

2. Redesigning graduate curricula to prepare PhD’s for a diverse array of meaningful, socially productive and personally rewarding careers within and outside the academy.

Almost all of the proposal document concentrates on 1., leaving 2. to departments. The proposal requests more secure year-round funding so that students can be students full time during the summer months, mandates times for various sorts of exams (comprehensive exams by the 3rd year, for instance), and asks departments to involve themselves in “serious” review of students completing their second year of course work to decide who goes forward and who gets a terminal MA.

Although in its goal of 5 years to degree for PhD students the proposal does not deviate that far from the perhaps more usual 6 year goal at all sorts of other universities, the proposal does break ground in the way it devalues (by taking time away from) the dissertation. The report suggests that “prestigious” dissertation fellowships have kept Stanford students around for longer than five years, and that such money should be shifted to the full-time, 12 month funding plan that would make pre-dissertation work more robust. What that pre-diss work shall be and the form the dissertation produced in a shorter time shall take will be determined at the level of the department.

In response to the question, “Can and should the humanities PhD remain centrally relevant – at Stanford, in the academy, and in an increasingly global and cosmopolitan 21st century society?” The proposal answers, yes, and it will take less time in school to achieve this relevance too. Or, yes, and the way to make sure is to get students their degrees faster.

This is Louis Menand’s argument too. He observes that humanities programs spend more time training their PhD students than the sciences and social sciences, and concludes as a result:

What is clear is that students who spend eight or nine years in graduate school are being seriously over-trained for the jobs that are available….

The moral of the story that the numbers tell once seemed straightforward: if there are fewer jobs for people with Ph.D.s, then universities should stop giving so many Ph.D.s—by making it harder to get into a Ph.D. program (reducing the number of entrants) or harder to get through (reducing the number of graduates). But this has not worked. Possibly the story has a different moral, which is that there should be a lot more Ph.D.s, and they should be much easier to get….

If Ph.D. programs were determinate in length—if getting a Ph.D. were like getting a law degree—then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having.

I wonder whether such a relatively simple matter as shortening time to degree might have even more radical effects. Or, I wonder if there is a way to ensure that shortening time to degree makes it impossible to reproduce a discipline like English in its current form.

How could tightening time to degree be helped to lead students (and their professors) to engage in different kinds of research and especially in more collaborative research? Since we would no longer provide time for every student to write a book of their own, what would encourage us to help them start working together more? Would shortened time to degree require fields with higher bars of entry (because they have language requirements, archival practices that are difficult to acquire, etc.) to rethink their fashion of mandating all participants in a field have all the skills instead of distributing those skills across a team?

What do you think about this small step towards institutionalizing a different sort of intellectual practice?

John