Ah, to train a “humanities workforce.”

Dear Mark,

Your post on Michael Bérubé’s “seamless garment of crisis” talk at the Council of Graduate School’s annual meeting culminates for me a week of thinking about A) how out of touch the “woe is us” rhetoric has gotten and B) how exciting it is to be doing humanities administration right now.

I have a relatively small admin job compared to Bérubé’s, namely, directing graduate studies in my English department. Some weeks, however, all the big issues trickle down to the trenches.

In the past five days (or so), I’ve finished teaching the introduction to graduate studies class for our latest crop of first-year PhD students, watched the application numbers come in for next year, traded a flurry of emails with colleagues about one of the exams that we require of our students, prepared to mock interview students who have actual interviews scheduled at MLA, and noted with glee that the Stanford plan to overhaul humanities study (which we debated back in May [John’s post] [Mark’s post]) is an item on the agenda for a meeting of humanities grad studies directors on my campus in January.

These activities primed me for your “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis” post. From worries about a drop off in graduate school applications (which we in the humanities share with, among others, law schools) to the relative scarcity of the job market, it’s been a week for crisis thought. From the ambivalence of new graduates coming to grips with the idea that by entering a PhD program they are on a professional track to the ambivalence of faculty colleagues thinking about instrumentalizing their seminar offerings, it has also been a week when I have thought about how very far we are from being able to translate David Laurence’s notion of the “humanities workforce” into our discussions of program organization and curricula.

It is true, as you noted in May, that the Stanford plan risks fallaciously equating time to degree with “relevance” and, further, that it offers little suggestion of who is to regulate the increased numbers of newly minted PhDs a shorter time to degree might generate. What I continue to like about their approach is the demand that we regenerate our notion of what a humanities PhD can do by refashioning our training rituals. We won’t be able to wrap our heads around “humanities workforce,” it follows, if we can’t go so far as to question the legacy course and exam requirements that we’ve inherited. I’m not so naive as to imagine that simply changing the prelim will solve all our problems, but it seems equally unlikely that polemical research like the sort you and I are engaged in will have any force if it doesn’t translate into the curricular nitty gritty.

Your reiteration of what I take to be one of our main arguments over the course of this work in progress provides a case in point. You note 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.” Bérubé professes, as you note, to have “little sense of what viable alternatives to academic employment might be” for humanities PhDs. And you observe that a glance at the Humanities Resource Center’s online data could have filled him in that 14.1% of them are managers of some sort. A further 5.8% are media specialists of some kind. If we widen our focus just a bit in terms of degree and talk about college grads as well, the common endeavor of managing media looks even more alive and well among humanities grads, even if English professors have little sense of it. Laurence reports that (according to the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates) more humanities degree holders work as “artists, broadcasters, editors, public relations specialists, and writers” (735,500 or 13.6%) than work as elementary or secondary school teachers (640,600 or 11.8%).”

In a way, it’s hard to blame Bérubé for failing to anticipate that English professors are training media managers and managers more generally. As a native informant, I can tell you that I’ve never been in a curricular discussion in which we debated a course or exam based on its capacity to inculcate good management skills in our students. English is not alone in under-thinking its role in generating managers, but it may be that the text-based humanities disciplines are the most guilty of ignoring the work they do in reproducing media professionals. I’m not sure that the visual cultural people have as much trouble as the text folk, and thus don’t know if film studies for instance would be surprised at the way, as Laurence observes, “The concept of the humanities workforce makes visible the connection, too often obscured, between humanistic research and scholarship and development of a talent pool for the cultural sector of the economy, not excluding (although also not limited to) the business of producing popular culture.”

Laurence contends further, “Few academic humanists are accustomed to thinking of their research scholarship as specific examples that, cumulatively, function to keep alive the possibility of access to the cultural record and keep in good repair the tools, skills, and knowledges necessary to that access. Few are accustomed to recognizing how those tools, skills, and knowledges find application in cultural work and institutions beyond the academic.” Again, I agree with you that the conflation of English (and scholarship focused on texts) with the humanities more generally may blur this picture somewhat. I don’t hear as much obliviousness to these questions among my colleagues in technocultural studies and the like. But I do wonder, outside of the introduction to grad studies class for English PhDs I just taught, how awareness of the fact that we are training media managers might affect what I do in the classroom and what we do in our PhD exams.

How, I guess I’m wondering, should the novel fact that a “humanities workforce” exists alter our pedagogical practice? Asking this question seems a good way to shake off the paralyzing insistence that the humanities are about to unravel. In any case, it would give us something more productive to worry about than Bérubé’s insistence that nobody loves us, that “When we look at the academic-job market for humanists, we can’t avoid the conclusion that the value of the work we do … simply isn’t valued by very many people, on campus or off.”

John

 

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