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).


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