Crisis, Crisis, Crisis

Dear John,

The latest “stark appraisal” of humanities crisis comes from MLA president Michael Bérubé. According to this article in Chronicle of Higher Education, Bérubé recently pulled back the curtain for Graduate School Deans to show them the mess in their humanities departments and let them know that they better take action soon. Bérubé depicts a “seamless garment of crisis, in which, if you pull on any one thread, the entire thing unravels.” The dimensions of this garment are familiar: overproduction of graduate students, casualization of the professorate, and curricula that seem to exacerbate the glut of PhDs as opposed to preparing them for careers that will allow them to support families and repay loans.

Bérubé deserves praise for encouraging his audience to undertake a systematic appraisal. This is so despite the fact that one inevitable consequence of all this crisis talk is the conclusion–voiced by one commenter on the Bérubé piece–that the humanities are for suckers. If job prospects in academe are so bad, if humanities PhD’s are so irrelevant outside academe, if this really is no secret–haven’t you been reading The Chronicle for the last decade!–and if you decide to pursue a humanities PhD anyway, well then, you deserve the life of poverty and self-loathing to which you have consigned yourself. While those Humanities Garments may look mighty fine, closer inspection should have told you they would leave you naked and cold.

While we’ve still got our clothes on, let’s see if our efforts on this blog can add anything to the portrait of “humanities in crisis” The Chronicle promotes in its report. I think we might make two main points.

First, Humanities or English? According to the Humanities Indicators project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, English produces by far the most PhDs in the Humanities: 26.9% in 2007. The Indicators project includes History in the Humanities, and it is the nearest competitor of English, with 18.6% of the completions. Presumably, the English share would look even larger with History taken out. Clearly, trouble in English spells trouble for this sector as a whole. It still would be interesting to know if humanities disciplines other than English do a better or worse job of calibrating their curricula and enrollments to job placements inside and outside academe. We know why this question is so rarely asked. English has a long-standing, well-developed, and well-reported apparatus for tracking completions and job openings. The apparatus is sustained not only by its professional association, the MLA, but also by Federal data collection schemes like IPEDS, which, as I began to explain in a previous post, make it easier to know about “English” than “the Humanities” and the smaller divisions thereof. Moreover, as we discovered in our investigation of the Red Book (thread), English also has a well-established habit of speaking for the humanities in general. Still, it seems to me that enough information might be out there to begin to conduct a meaningful comparative analysis. One issue that analysis might consider is the problem of scale itself: is bigger better when one considers academic and non-academic placements for humanities PhD’s by discipline?

Second, alternatives exist. The Chronicle is probably reductive in reporting Bérubé to say that “there is little sense of what viable alternatives to academic employment might be” for humanities PhDs. We have some idea. Again, the Humanities Indicators project provides interesting data on the career paths of humanities PhD’s by discipline. It reports, for example, that about 38% of English PhDs completed since 1995 are employed outside post-secondary education. The biggest single chunk of these, 14.1%, are “Managers, Executives, Administrators” (i.e., probably not naked and cold). Bérubé’s right, I’m sure, in noting that humanities PhD curricula are not explicitly designed to produce managers. That they seem to do so all the same wants examination, not denial. David Laurence importantly observes in his analysis of Humanities Indicators data that the very idea of a “humanities workforce” that can be tracked and cultivated amounts to a major policy innovation. We’ve been arguing that the rhetorical opposition of “the humanities” to the culture industries, while sometimes effectively self-serving for the humanities disciplines, has long masked a common endeavor to manage populations by managing media. Seems like a good time for that argument.

Mark

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3 thoughts on “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis

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