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.

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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.




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.




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:

https://nces.ed.gov/programs/projections/projections2021/figures/figure_25.asp?referrer=list

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.




Harvard's "Mapping the Future" and Big Tent Humanities


Dear Mark,

This new Harvard report rejects the version of the humanities that welcomed you and me into the academy as graduate students in the 1990s, and that may be a good thing.

Back then, “theory” provided the means to turn humanities disciplines into very big tents, places where one felt emboldened to study just about anything. Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” departs from that recent past, offering instead an account of humanities disciplines organized around “Great Works,”  defined as “works whose transmission in our classrooms we consider vitally important” (33). It is possible to agree that this is a good idea even if canon building and list making seem to you the least interesting thing that humanities study can do. The reason? By dismantling the big tents (and especially turning away from big English), this report demands that we rethink interdisciplinary experiment as well as disciplinary curricula. The report would be even better at doing this, you rightly argue in your recent post, if the authors of “Mapping the Future” made any mention of twentieth-century humanities attention to mass media:

Exactly like their 1945 forebears [in the Redbook], these Harvard professors can only present “media” as an antagonist to the “high arts” that humanist properly study, or else as site of brave new experiments designed to bring “popular culture” into the conceptual space of “arts” they already know how to administer. For about a century, other humanists have wisely rejected these alternatives.

I agree with you, and think we’re pretty much on the same page when it comes to the strengths and weaknesses of the history of humanities study sketched by “Mapping the Future.” The report is oblivious about much that has happened in the twentieth century, but its tracking of what can persuasively be called humanist work from classical Greece through medieval Europe and the Renaissance right up to the founding of Art History as a discipline in the nineteenth century is impressive and vital. Our project to generate a 20th-century genealogy of the humanities ought to find allies in scholars capable of noting the significance of the 12th-century study of “modern fiction (Latin integumentum), along with the modern European vernaculars,” of the way 14th-century “Humanism dedicated itself to the cultivation of certain applied practices (e.g., rhetoric) deemed useful to ‘good government,’” and of a 19th-century “secular” university including “Comparative Literature and Linguistics…alongside classical philology” (12-15). It does not seem wrong to say that in this history managing cultural media is entwined with questions of managing populations, even if the Harvard authors don’t put matters quite in those terms.

They don’t put matters quite in those terms, however, and do not provide an alternative means for explaining how engagement with civic life follows from mastery of a canon. The report is premised on what, following Elaine Scarry, it calls “the simple truth that ‘the main work of the Humanities is to ensure that the [great] books are placed in the hands of each incoming wave of students and carried back out to sea’” (32-33). We submit that this “simple truth” is not a 12th century one but rather a 19th and mid-20th century way of thinking. It derives from and responds to the proliferation of mass media.

It may be that I’m just not a listmaker–I’m no more engaged by the process of deciding what books our PhD students need to know for their preliminary exams than I am in debating whether Federer belongs on the list of greatest tennis players ever. But it is hard not to conclude that limiting the impact of recent intellectual interventions to questions of what we analyze in our respective fields is, well, limiting.

As the profiles of our disciplines shrink, we might also turn to those works that magnify the discipline, sometimes known as the canon. That revisited canon would of course be duly enlarged in the light of gender, ethnic and geographical challenges made to the very notion of the canon since the 1970s. (No movement has so thoroughly and dynamically energized the Humanities as feminism, since the 1970s.) Every new work for which persuasive claims are made changes the very structure of the canon: as T. S. Eliot argued, with a new work, “something…happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it.” (32)

Russell Berman argues that the Harvard report is not interested in refighting culture wars, and that seems true to me. However, it is also worth observing that the report has absorbed a version of those wars in which what was truly at stake was objects of study rather than methods. What Berman finds bracing (“Bolder, however, than the rejection of departmental tunnel vision is the report’s call to revisit the canon.”), I find disappointing. Are we really at a moment when adding some extra books to our lists counts as bold?

Hard not to notice, moreover, that “Mapping the Future” fails to practice what it preaches: the salient cultural examples in this document are largely drawn from a hoary old collection of classical, Renaissance, and T.S. Eliot works.

Still, it does seem true that the humanities would be a different place if each unit within it were better defined by its media examples. The blurring of disciplinary boundaries that allowed one to read across media might be harder to accomplish if it was clearer that Comparative Literature had its examples and Film Studies had its examples and Art History had its examples and poaching was less easy than it could be when justified by a methodological ism. Theory could sometimes make it appear less important for scholars to discriminate between a poem and a movie and a painting. No more, the Harvard report might be read as saying.

If debates within English centered on questions about what works “we consider vitally important,” it would certainly be harder to conflate English study with Humanities study as a whole. Doing English would look incommensurate with being interdisciplinary, because disciplinary borders defined more emphatically by kinds of media examples would be harder to cross without knowing it. No more the presumption that because everything is a “text,” everything can be “read.”

If debates within English were limited to debates about canonicity, furthermore, it might be clearer that English is one small department among many others, rather than the biggest of big tents within the humanities.

When the report turns to the question of what interdisciplinary work would entail in this climate, method helpfully returns. Not, however, as a property of specific disciplines, mind you, but as a technique for moving among them. “In addition to permitting the combination of skills, interdisciplinarity, understood as a method, could be considered a skill in itself” (35). Leverage that skill, and you will see new things, be able to make new arguments about various cultural examples, and respond to changing conditions, the report suggests.

Allegiances among disciplines sometimes need to shift in order to tackle (or untangle) complex questions. Paradigm shifts or revolutions in human knowledge often came about owing to the consideration of questions or approaches that previously had been regarded as irrelevant to the understanding of any given body of material. (35)

Interdisciplinarity understood as method is the counterweight to disciplinarity associated with canonical examples. This formulation has benefits that the report only begins to perceive. It could have allowed “Mapping the Future” to offer a more persuasive account of feminism’s impact, not to mention all the other isms that altered humanities research in the second half of the twentieth century. These surely altered how we analyze our examples as much as what those examples were. From the standpoint of disciplinary distinction, however, this methodological impact was a major problem. The isms with their methods were stronger than the disciplines with their examples.

(As a sidebar, when I recently moderated a panel on interdisciplinarity at Davis, one of the matters the panelists discussed was precisely this question of whether method was the key to crossing disciplinary borders [so argued Mike Ziser, an Environmental Studies / 18th and 19th Century American Literature person] or whether examples were better at enabling dialog across disciplines defined by their methods [this was what Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, a historian on the panel described happening at a conference where scholars approached with their competing methods a particular sort of textile].)

As much as I’m intrigued by this division of labor, I repeat my complaint that the list making version of disciplinary activity is boring. That said, I am also convinced by arguments (made by, among others, you) that questions like What is film? are rightly understood as organizing disciplines and that to move among disciplines should mean considering the range of positions those questions engender. I sometimes miss the big tent that theory enabled with terms like “text” and “discourse,” but I readily acknowledge that using those terms as magic keys often leads to sloppy thinking. And I’ve certainly tried to keep the “What is” questions in the forefront of my mind as I engage in a project that deals with movies, video games, and novels in addition to position papers, surveys, maps, photographs, and other media associated with urban planning and urban studies.

Last thing I’ll say, which loops back to why the Harvard authors cannot just come out and agree that they are for our idea of training students to manage media as a way of managing populations. Yes, they’d have to read our blog to know that was our idea. This circumstantial detail aside, they would also have to agree that they were suggesting how to train a humanities workforce when they proposed their balancing act between the disciplinary curation of great works and the interdisciplinary “consideration of questions or approaches that previously had been regarded as irrelevant to the understanding of any given body of material.”

In this light, one might consider the interaction between the skills they recommend advertising to undergrads (and campus administrators) and their version of the midcentury project of molding citizen subjects. Although the authors of “Mapping the Future” describe their intervention as more modest than the Redbook (because they focus on the humanities instead of attacking general education), they reproduce a 1940s argument that the humanities help achieve “some stable understanding of the aim of life (e.g., the responsible citizen in a free society)” while enabling us to simultaneously consider “what the best way to characterize and cultivate such an aim might be” (24). This grand vision is supplemented by a more pragmatic notion of “the transferrable value of formal skills from university to the professional world beyond college”:

• the ability to absorb, analyze and interpret complex artifacts or texts, often of foreign provenance;

• the capacity to write intelligently, lucidly, and persuasively;

• the ability to participate effectively in deliberative conversation;

• the capacity to speak intelligently, lucidly and persuasively. (50)

Of course these are things we train our students to do (and we regularly proclaim as much when asked to justify our continued existence to various review and accrediting entities). But “Mapping the Future” seems so close to declaring something much more interesting, namely, that the work we do administering our disciplines and their examples within the academy might prepare us for work in cultural administration outside it. I’m struck yet again by how hard it is to take that last step. And how much clearer the necessity of doing so seems if one focuses on methods, how Humanists work, rather than on their privileged examples.




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

 




The Administrative Limits of Digital Humanities


Dear Mark,

While you’ve kept working on the stats, I’ve been mulling a couple of our “to do” items.

Item one: Katherine Hayles’s recent book How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Item two: the midcentury founding of Mass Communications, which caught my eye doing that earlier post on I.A. Richards. I decided to write about these two items together because each presents the project of ordering a motley array of scholarly experiments as an invitation to consider the relationship between academic research and administration.

For early Mass Communication, the managerial stakes were pretty explicit. Mass media were a crucial part of the war effort and academics were charged with understanding what propaganda could do. In Hayles’s account, the managerial challenges facing the Digital Humanities are dominated by a singular academic concern: how and whether digital humanists should mollify textual analysts in literature programs.

In the opening section of her book, Hayles presents the Digital Humanities as a reckoning with technogenesis. Mass media have changed in the last twenty years and humanists have a stake in understanding what those changes mean. The web in particular appears to have altered our relationship to media, causing us to pay attention in different ways than we used to. For some commentators, like Mark Bauerlein, such alteration amounts to a crisis for the humanities and for the populace. Kids today can only pay attention fleetingly. They cannot read deeply. As a result, the value of closely reading literature is largely lost on them.

Many digital humanists seek to sooth their alarmed colleagues. Hayles describes a posture of “assimilation,” which “extends existing scholarship into the digital realm” and “adopts an attitude of reassurance rather than confrontation” (45). Assimilationists include the journal Postmodern Culture, Willard McCarthy’s Humanities Computing and the Center for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College, London, as well as various efforts to build electronic editions of print texts. Assimilation means reconsidering “what reading is and how it works” and treating that as the chief puzzle posed by “the rich mixtures of words and images, sounds and animations, graphics and letters that constitute the environments of twenty-first century literacies” (78). If it is true that new technologies have brought about “cognitive and morphological changes in the brain,” that does not mean that deep engagement with literature is no longer desirable, Hayles assures her readers (11). “The NEA argues (and I of course agree) that literary reading is a good in itself,” she writes (55). But it is no good pretending that English professors and others will be able to persuade students to deeply engage with literature if they “are focused exclusively on print close reading,” she cautions (60). Instead, Hayles proposes “Comparative Media Studies,” defined as a set of “courses and curricula” devoted to assembling “reading modalities—close, hyper-, and machine—” and to preparing “students to understand the limitations and affordances of each” (11). In this program, literary scholars will be able to reflect on new media while reproducing their devotion to reading.

Not all digital humanists care as deeply about reading and literature as the assimilationists, Hayles notes. Its name notwithstanding, the School of Literature, Culture and Communication at Georgia Tech privileges cooperation with engineering and computer science departments, features digital media in its curriculum, and announces its interest in “the theoretical and practical foundation for careers as digital media researchers in academia and industry.” The LCC is more interested in “distinction” than “assimilation,” Hayles explains, and is less concerned with reading practices than with “new methodologies, new kinds of research questions, and the emergence of entirely new fields” (45).

Hayles’s account of assimilation and distinction requires her to ignore pre-digital humanities research that is not defined by textual analysis and close reading. Hayles portrays humanities scholars as capable of understanding visual media only as new and alien, as a disruptive surprise or excitingly dangerous supplement. It is only recently, she explains, that digital humanists turned “from a primary focus on text encoding, analysis, and searching to multimedia practices that explore the fusion of text-based humanities with film, sound, animation, graphics, and other multimodal practices across real, mixed, and virtual reality” (24). Hayles largely reproduces, in short, the reduction of the humanities to literary study that we’ve seen in a whole parade of “crisis of the humanities” arguments as well as in the midcentury education plan called the Harvard Redbook. Only by defining the “Traditional Humanities” as the literary and philosophical analysis of print is it possible to imagine that images come as a surprise to humanists or that the technical study undertaken at Georgia Tech’s LCC has a “less clear, more problematic, and generally undertheorized” relationship to humanities research (52). Certainly film and media professors have long been involved in thinking about technical processes and engineering problems–including but not limited to matters concerned with the chemical properties of film–even if they have not been making friends with computer scientists. The same could be said for any number of other kinds of humanists, especially perhaps those working with medieval and classical materials.

Since we first started discussing our project, Mark, you’ve been annoyed at the reduction of the humanities to literary study. Hayles is clearly annoyed by it too, which is why she wishes that literary scholars would join her in Comparative Media Studies. But to the extent that she portrays media comparison as “reading” (“reading modalities—close, hyper-, and machine—,” as she puts it), I wonder how much of an advance this represents.

It should be said that managing the concerns of literary scholars “after the age of print” is not the only administrative concern in How We Think, even if it does dominate. Sandwiched in the middle of her book, Hayles pauses to describe an archival project focused on special collections of telegraph code books. She explains how the practices of sending and receiving code generated “a zone of indeterminacy…in which bodies seemed to take on some of the attributes of dematerialized information, and information seemed to take on the physicality of bodies” (147). This argument is science studies-esque, entirely reminiscent of Schivelbush and early Latour, and has almost nothing to do with literature.

Where other chapters in her book seek to manage technogenesis so as not to scare Bauerlein and co., Hayles’s chapter on telegraphy describes hyper-attention as “a positive adaptation that makes young people better suited to live in the information-intensive environments that are becoming ever more pervasive” (99). In this chapter, Hayles appears freed to move from the small to the large, from the “small percentage” of telegraphers and clerks who were “neurologically affected” by practices of sending and receiving code to the “wider effects…transmitted via the technological unconscious as business practices, military strategies, personal finances, and a host of other everyday concerns were transformed with the expectation of fast communication and the virtualization of commodities and money into information” (157). At no point were the stakes involved in the administration of these effects higher than in World War II, by which point “‘wireless telegraphy,’ or radio, had become the favored mode of communication” (155). Surveying the regulations and rules for coding during the war brings Hayles to her observation of just how far telegraphy had gone in facilitating an “historical shift,” one that anticipates our era “in which all kinds of communications are mediated by intelligent machines” (156-57).

You and I have been working for some time to figure out how and when literary study started playing the part that it plays in Hayles’s book. We used to argue that in the mid-twentieth century English solidified its hold on a core curriculum by opposing reading to viewing, the intellectual reflection of literary consumption to the contrastingly numbing reception of film, etc. My previous post on I.A. Richards suggests a more complicated dynamic, however. Richards helped position English at the center of the Harvard Redbook’s educational program and marginalized media study in the process, but at the same time he was also experimenting with film and TV as tools for mass education outside the academy. He received support from the Rockefeller Foundation as well as early public television.

My (admittedly superficial) research into the early days of Mass Communication in the 1930s and 40s suggests that such paradoxical allegiances were not unusual. Some of the most influential figures in that emerging field were English professors perfecting willing to stop behaving as if literature and reading were the center of their intellectual lives when they joined up with various interdisciplinary teams.

Rockefeller Foundation office John Marshall, who dreamed of a “genuinely democratic propaganda” and in 1936 first suggested that the foundation fund communications-related activities, was trained as a medievalist and taught in the Harvard English Department.

Wilbur Schramm, who organized the first Mass Communications PhD program at Iowa in 1943, had a PhD in English, a postdoc from the ACLS (in psychology), and from 1935 to 1942 directed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

For his part, Richards was ever so briefly part of the Rockefeller Foundation Communications Group organized by Marshall. According to Brett Gary, Richards departed after his fellow group members largely ignored two of his papers on semantics. His departure, Gary argues, happened at a moment when quantitative research was beginning to dominate the group’s activities.

The opposition between qualitative and quantitative analysis crops up in much of what I read on the early years of Mass Communications. Disciplinary historians believe it pinched English types like Richards and also University of Chicago sociologists, who were actively considering communications problems but whose qualitative methods meant they were largely left behind when Mass Communications on their campus started to emphasize the tabulation of surveys.

This split between quantitative and qualitative may have been real but to privilege it occludes the truly messy collaboration in communications research and policy that was going on both before and during the second World War. The Rockefeller Foundation appears to have led the way in bringing together disparate squads, “younger men with talent for these mediums,” as Marshall called them, “men interested primarily in education, literature, criticism, or in disseminating the findings of the social or natural sciences,” who wanted to engage in “relatively free experimentation.”

Jefferson Pooley and Elihu Katz see similarly motley group activity at Chicago, where sociology served as “heir to the rich but scattered reflections on communications and the media that characterized European thought. At Chicago, as in Europe, interests were broad: media professionals and media organizations, media as agents of social integration and deviance, media as contributors to a public sphere of participatory democracy, and media as implicated in social change and in the diffusion of ideas, opinions, and practices.”

Karin Wahl-Jorgenson describes the activities of short-lived inter-disciplinary committees at Chicago that were “meant to explore, conquer, and die,” “to tag onto particular research problems, linked to individuals’ interests or urgent questions of social import.”

Especially during the war, there were policy questions that ran through all of these experimental efforts.

Gary sums up: “Anxieties about the relation between democracy and new mass communication technologies linked the emergence of mass communication research as a scholarly field with the growth of the surveillance apparatus of the modern national security state. The contradictory imperatives of modern liberalism–its simultaneous commitment to and fear of the expansion of the modern state, with its information and opinion control apparatus–pervaded the debates of the first generation of communication researchers….” Rockefeller researchers worked with and against governmental officers prosecuting the war. Schramm was involved in Roosevelt’s radio addresses, including the fireside chats. And so forth. As the war went on, Gary recounts, Rockefeller communications group members “regularly returned to the question of whether their focus should be primarily scientific (reliably measuring effects) or administrative (servicing the state’s probable interests in public opinion control).”

Wahl-Jorgenssen titles her 2004 article on the early days of Mass Communication “How Not to Found a Field,” which seems just about right. The pods that were moving in and out of government, conducting research and shaping policy would have fit awkwardly in any department, and where Mass Communication codified itself around quantitative analysis the price paid for methodological coherence appears to have been the exclusion of a whole array of earlier contributors. If Marshall and Schramm seemed more or less ok leaving their English backgrounds behind, Richards clearly was not and the continentally-oriented sociologists at Chicago were not willing to forget their past expertise either. When Richards left, of course, he was no more homeless than the Chicago sociologists who went back to their usual corridors. There’s a familiar model here, albeit more familiar outside the humanities than inside them, of the research group or lab that does its business for a while and then disbands.

The various Digital Humanities institutes and centers that Hayles describes in the first section of her book share something of this ad hoc feel as well as a recognizable desire to work with all sorts of strange bedfellows. “The Humanities Lab at Stanford University, formerly directed by Jeffrey Schnapp, modeled itself on ‘Big Science,’” Hayles recalls (34). Alan Liu at UC Santa Barbara asks students “to choose a literary work and treat it according to one or more of the research paradigms prevalent in other fields of study” (75). There is a “willingness” among many digital humanists, Hayles argues, to shed any “hermeneutic of suspicion…toward capitalism and corporations” and “reach out to funders (sometimes including commercial interests)” (41). Instead of departments, Hayles’s digital humanists want “flexible laboratory spaces in which teams can work collaboratively, as well as studio spaces with high-end technologies for production and implementation” (5).

In truth, the least interesting thing about the Digital Humanities in Hayles’s account is the need to manage its relationship to literature departments. Although I grasp why it is important for humanities professors and graduate students immersed in interdisciplinary collaboration to have home departments–just as it is important for scientists who join up on specific grants–it is frustrating, to say the least, that the narrow lens of literary study should so define how one values experimental humanities research.

Dipping into the history of Mass Communication teaches me that as recently as the 1940s the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation felt it entirely reasonable to empower a literary medievalist to organize media research that not only crossed disciplines but also got embroiled in governmental policy. Hayles’s book teaches me that conditions have changed notably since the 1940s. There is plenty of experiment in the humanities today, but to the extent that it must be obsessed with the purview of literary study, it seems hobbled, incapable of embracing the managerial challenges that mass media call forth.

John




I.A. Richards, Digital Humanist


Dear Mark,

Researching I.A. Richards was high on the to do list for a couple of reasons, you will recall.

First, because we needed to know more about a scholar who influenced those mid-century players we hold responsible for institutionalizing the conflation of English with the Humanities and erasing a half century of interaction among humanities professors and mass media experts in and outside the academy.

Second, because what we knew of his engagement with mass media made him appear a figure difficult to incorporate into Graff’s account of mid-century English. I’ve done a bit of poking around and can report that he both does and does not appear eccentric to Graff’s narrative, in which all early-twentieth-century roads lead to the New Criticism. His arguments were as vital to the Redbook’s opening salvo in the culture wars as they were to offering an alternative to its restrictive account of Humanities work.

Among the things I’ve learned about Richards is that he had his own TV show. His biographer John Paul Russo buries this tasty factoid deep in the footnotes, where he recounts that “The Sense of Poetry” ran from 1957-58 on WGBH and public stations across the country (786-87). Each episode, according to Russo, the show focused on a key poem from the Renaissance or Romanticism, which Richards explained in a manner that reproduced his classroom lectures for a national audience. Proto-MOOC, anyone?

This was no one off. Richards had a long and torrid relationship with mass media. He was as wary of its “sinister potentialities” (Russo 163) as he was convinced of its utility for education, mostly at the primary level. TV teaches English language, according to Richards, but not the kind of critical thinking that might be fostered in the university classroom. Except perhaps in this poetry TV show? Hard to tell. Russo does not appear to have watched it, although he notes two sources who have seen copies held at the PBS archives in DC and at Magdalene College at Cambridge. In a Boston Review column, Helen Vendler describes seeing the series on TV, and sums it up as a repetition of “parts of the undergraduate poetry course.” Intriguingly, Anne Sexton’s bio on The Poetry Foundation web page notes that although Sexton started writing as therapy, her composition took off after she saw on TV “I. A. Richards describing the form of a sonnet and I thought maybe I could do that. Oh, I was turned on. I wrote two or three a day for about a year.”

Even as he was doing TV, working on projects with Disney, and receiving support from the Payne Fund, Richards was giving talks and publishing essays that furthered what for him was a career-long critique of mass media institutions for producing “dehumanized social animals” instead of “self-controlled, self-judging, self-ruling men and women” (Russo 1989: 516). He does not appear to have thought of himself as collaborating with experts in Hollywood so much as saving mass media from Hollywood.

Richards personified, or so it seems, the split that we have understood historically. 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 you describe as organizing the English department and its discontents from the mid-1940s onward.

Harpham asserts that the Harvard Redbook’s account of English and the Humanities “betrays the undoubted influence” of Richards, “an iconoclast and polemicist, not to mention a newcomer to the country” who nonetheless succeeded in remaking the academy (Humanities 157-58). What the Redbook presents as consensus about what an English Department should do is, Harpham argues, really a condensed version of Richards’s iconoclastic program to exclude the extratextual in the study of literature and to promote close reading modeled in class by a charismatic professor. This “perfectly contradicts” the Redbook’s emphasis on “heritage,” Harpham observes, even if it supports the Redbook’s conviction that academic authority can “awaken” students (159-60).

What Harpham sees as a contradiction looks less like one if we understand the Redbook as attempting, in your words, “to administer what counts as common culture by setting its touchstones in Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, etc.” Richards’s English provides the Redbook with a concise, easily reproducible curriculum as well as a compelling pedagogical style.

As part of a larger campaign to make the university (and the Humanities reduced to the English Department) central to the administration of culture, disdain for the main competition is understandable. Opposition to Hollywood makes as much sense in Richards’s career as it does in the Redbook’s coda. What distinguishes Richards from many of his academic brethren, however, is the experience he had working with Hollywood as well as working against it.

In the coda entitled “New Media of Education,” the Redbook authors express their conviction that mass media (especially advertising) degrades language and requires “the greatest words” to serve “mean or trivial purposes” (266). This seems to have been Richards’s position pretty consistently. In Practical Criticism (1930), he argues that

Nine-tenths, at the least, of the ideas and the annexed emotional responses that are passed on by the cinema, the press, friends and relatives, teachers, the clergy . . . to an average child of this century are judged by the standards of poetry crude and vague rather than subtle or appropriate. (248)

The problem is the mass as much as the media:

A very simple application of the theory of communication shows…that any very widespread diffusion of ideas and responses tends towards standardisation, towards a levelling down.

Fortunately, poetry can save us.

As our chief means by which subtle ideas and responses may be communicated, poetry…is, at least, the most important repository of our standards.

Herein lies the contest: mass media standardize, poetry upholds standards. Poetry bucks the tendency of massification where Hollywood embraces it. The classroom recaptures an earlier era “when man lived in small communities, talking or reading, on the whole, only about things belonging to his own culture” (339). The teaching of poetry counters the effects of “heterogeneity,” which brings with it a degradation of language: “for all kinds of utterances our performances, both as speakers (or writers) and listeners (or readers), are worse than those of persons of similar natural ability, leisure and reflection a few generations ago” (339-40). The need to salvage common culture by tying it to the elevated language of poetry becomes ever more vital as, in Richards’s words, “world communications, through the wireless and otherwise, improve” (Practical (340). Technology answers heterogeneity with standardization, poetry with standards. It is hard for Richards to imagine that anyone would prefer the former technique of population management to the latter, were they capable of thinking it through.

Still, in the 1950s Richards was convinced that poetry was losing:

all the cultures everywhere would be replaced by artifacts–advertisement, pulps, comics, soap opera and screen entertainment, televised or direct–the familiar threat to the new leisure–the leisure from which it seemed, not so very long ago, so much might be hoped. And we must fear that the resistances and defenses our culture puts up at all levels–mass education, popularization, scholarly toil, research and museum-mindedness–will with the best intentions merely join in the attack, destroying the culture from within as the sales and production pressures converge on it from without. (Russo 163, 516)

This passage from Richards’s book Speculative Instruments hints at alternative uses for mass media even while lamenting entertainment’s effects. During WWII, even as the Redbook was in the works, Richards was working hard to generate such alternatives. He assembled films to further his “Basic” approach to teaching English and visited Disney in 1942 to learn how to draw cartoons. According to his biographer, press coverage of these encounters earned Richards scorn back at Harvard (436). Russo identifies the Payne Fund and for a time the Rockefeller Foundation as supporters but relates that “English departments turned their backs on him, and departments of communication and film studies were ten or twenty years in the future” (437). Decherney lists Richards as one of the participants in the Rockefeller Foundation “Communication Seminar”, which met for ten months during the war, producing during that time “thirty working papers that they hoped would both aid in the creation of an empirical method for calculating the effects of mass media and, at the same time, pave the way for a ‘genuinely democratic propaganda'” (Hollywood 147). (I’ve gathered some materials on this early phase of communications research and I think I remember you saying you knew someone who’d spent time looking into this seminar?)

In an essay published in 1947, Richards recounted his experiments with Disney and outlined principles for using film as a teaching tool. “This is not,” he wrote, “a matter of first designing a course and then, somehow, translating it into film. Film is too potent a medium for that. It shapes what it handles–in elementary subject matters, above all” (English 1). Film has this pedagogical power, he contended in 1968, because it is so tied to our senses. “Our two senses, eye and ear, must be used together if the teaching needed is to be developed,” he declared. “The most capable channels for such teaching are film, film-strip, tape, records, picture text, TV–modern media, extant or to be–computer-handled” (Design 3). Here as in the Redbook, Richards argued that the sensory impact of film made it best for elementary teaching. “The chief success of sound-motion teaching hitherto has probably been in vocational rather than in general subjects” (Redbook 263).

Richards sought to recruit film and mass media for an educational division of labor. Film and TV would help students acquire basic skills. Literature, especially poetry, would help them to think critically. “The critical reading of poetry is an arduous discipline,” he wrote in Practical Criticism.

But, equally, the immense extension of our capacities that follows a summoning of our resources is made plain. The lesson of all criticism is that we have nothing to rely upon in making our choices but ourselves. The lesson of good poetry se&ms to be that, when we have understood it, in the degree in which we can order ourselves, we need nothing more. (Practical 351)

Richards promoted poetry analysis as self-governance in his scholarship (and in the Redbook), while his teaching style relied on spectacle reminiscent of cinema. Vendler describes the following scene at Harvard:

The room was totally dark. The undergraduates were thereby prevented from doing their calculus homework, writing each other notes, or indeed taking notes on what Richards said, all admirable results. On a screen up front, high and very large, were projected, by a slide projector, the words of a poem–always, without exception, a great poem. (Richards never condescended to students.) The poem appeared a stanza or so at a time. Richards stood below the screen, his back to us, a long pointer in his hand. We saw the back of his head, and its halo of floating white hair. He was not interested–at that moment–in us; he was absorbed in the poem, as, it was expected, we should be. (We had scarcely any choice, since, in the dark, it was our only possible object of attention.) The large words took on an aura they cannot possess on the page–“as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on the screen.”

Poetry requires the technological supplement of screen projection to acquire aura. Although I hesitate to make too much of this, Vendler’s account does perfectly capture what otherwise might appear contradictory parts of Richards’s relationship to mass media. Against Hollywood but a lover of screens. Suspicious of TV but producer of educational programming that anticipates the likes of Sesame Street (Vendler makes this observation in her column). His late book Design for escape; world education through modern media capture both positions. “A new, severe, and most exacting puritanism of purpose is needed to keep the distracting temptations of these media at bay,” Richards wrote, giving voice to the ivory tower opposition to Hollywood entertainment (20). But on the same page he regrets opposition from within Hollywood to academic meddlers like himself who wish to advise and reform Hollywood practice. “TV-expertize is more variously sustained and afflicted with ‘Ah, we insiders know better!’ than perhaps any other specialty” (20).

Richards had a far more complicated engagement with media than did the mid-century English professors he influenced.
As Terry Eagleton puts it in Literary Theory, “”Whereas Leavis waged war on the technologico-Benthamites, Richards tried to beat them at their own game” (45). Harvard did not want anything to do with his technological experiments, says Russo. He had lots of takers outside the academy, however, including a longstanding relationship with WGBH. In addition to his star turn in “The Sense of Poetry,” he co-produced with his longtime collaborator Christine Gibson a 36-episode run of “English Through Television” and starred as Socrates in the 1964 program “Why So, Socrates?” (Russo 453, 485).

Richards had no interest in keeping safe distance from the mass media institutions he wanted to critique. I don’t think this makes him a hero in our story, by any means. However, the consistency of his engagement and the lack of postwar academic interest in his mass media work does provide a kind of test case for our hypothesis that the culture wars required obliviousness to past and ongoing interaction between Hollywood and the Humanities.

Richards appears to have wanted to understand how Hollywood did what it did so that he could appropriate and retool its means for pedagogical ends. This reminds me of nothing more than contemporary efforts to turn video games into educational tools. Whatever one thinks of such efforts, they are very different from the culture war habit of attacking mass media institutions from a position securely outside them. Through his work on the Redbook and his scholarship on poetry, Richards may have helped start the culture wars, but he also offered an alternative to its restrictive definition of the Humanities.

John




5. Before and After Mass Culture as "Ominous External Force"


Dear Mark,

On to your point 5. My comments below itemize several of the questions I have concerning how to think about what the Red Book does to mass culture and what mass culture does to higher ed.

5. The Red Book is symptomatically silent on the subject of mass culture as a competing unifier. The issue comes up briefly in the final pages: “The press, radio, photography, television–our progressive disembodiment–and indeed all increased means of mass communication have their dangers too.” The authors seem particularly concerned about advertising: “‘In a world of strife, there is peace in beer.’ That slogan was no invention of a satirist. It adorned many a newspaper in the days before Pearl Harbor and is but one example, less harmful through its very fatuousness, of the modes of attack to which mass communication exposes standards in all fields. Against them we can only oppose general education at all levels” (266). Apparently, effective opposition won’t require knowledge of the adversary, since there is no place whatsoever for “mass communications” in general education as Harvard imagines it. What a difference from the situation before the war! Then, the problem of “mass culture,” how to learn from and about it, was absolutely central to considerations of the problem of democracy (e.g., in the Lippmann-Dewey debate) and the university both. Again, more research is needed, but this seems like a representative example of a familliar configuration: a particular notion of English Literature is elevated as isomorphic with the humanities, which are also, in the same stroke, clearly distinguished from the social sciences (which include history) and the sciences (which include math); mass culture appears as an ominous external force with which general education competes to unify the nation.

Before the Red Book authors turn to the dangers of mass culture upon which you focus, please remember that they also briefly imagine the pedagogical possibilities of visual mass media.

…the needed boost to conventional texts may come through an extension and supplementing of them by films and television. In both there is much experimenting and postulate searching in progress. For their more sustained enterprises–language teaching and continuous courses of study–films and television alike require printed matter designed to have a live relation to the sound-motion presentation. The challenge to the text is given when the screen ceases to be a mere illustration or adornment to the language and becomes the equal or superior means of communication. (262-63)

There’s more after this passage as the authors glance at the problem of print v. visual mediation and as they mull the supplementing of textbook based course materials in vocational v. “general subjects.” Note especially their citation of the Commission on Motion Pictures in Education regarding the use of visual media in training for war (as debates over video games today suggest, this particular educational question is evergreen) (263). And note the conventional wisdom that films (I don’t think they mean only documentary or “educational” films) “can present a theme, biographic, historic, or moral, with a massiveness of impact” (264).

Two observations about this treatment:

One, the Red Book authors do not appear to intend supplement in the Derridean sense, although it is hard to read their use of the term in any other way.

Two, there is little implication that one might actually study mass media, instead of using it to amplifying textbooks, etc. We are not to imagine that professors might find in visual mass culture new teachable “examples,” to use Ralph Berry’s term from an earlier thread on this blog.

In order to treat mass media this way, as having a limited experimental role in the classroom, as antithetical to the sorts of examples featured in general education, as (you put it) “an ominous external force with which general education competes to unify the nation,” one has to completely forget the early-century debates about including mass media in great books curricula and the like. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, I read this as willful forgetting (can the Red Book authors really be ignorant of the fact that “experimenting” with mass culture in the classroom had been going on for several decades?).

If not willful, then purposeful forgetting. If English literature, which was itself so recently an “experimental” contributor to university curricula, is to appear so foundational to the humanities in the Red Book, it must need a more youthful, insurgent media against which to compare itself. (Flurry of footnotes concerning the transatlantic genealogy of this move: to the Leavisite strategy of presenting literature as a defense against [American] mass culture, to the efforts of British educators like John Churton Collins trying to get English courses out of the extension schools and into the universities at the turn of the 20th century, etc.)

By ignoring the past, the Red Book predicts the future. Its rhetoric anticipates later 20th century conventional wisdom that film and media studies is an insurgency. Even as they have established a firm footing in universities around the world, mass media bizarrely remain a dangerous supplement: “The Lady Gaga-fication of Higher Ed” is a real and present danger (at your University of South Carolina no less!). The way scary Gaga featured in the recent UVA debacle suggests there is a richly textured politics involved in distinguishing good from bad new media. Wherein good equals MOOC and bad equals Gaga? Or vice versa. For all that both MOOCs and Gaga appear shocking and novel to some, the contest between them reworks old promises and fears. We only make the mistake of thinking that massification in its various forms (massification of the media we study, of the pedagogy we practice, etc.) is a novelty when we forget the history of higher ed, treat Harvard rather than the early-twentieth-century extension programs as the true innovators of humanities study, and behave as if mass media are newcomers to the university.

One of the things we must understand better, and you direct us to this as well in your 5., is the way mass culture means very different things across the disciplines. “English Literature is elevated as isomorphic with the humanities,” you write, “which are also, in the same stroke, clearly distinguished from the social sciences (which include history) and the sciences (which include math).” Distinguished in part, perhaps, by how they greet mass culture and treat its potential to disrupt teaching and research. The story of the relationship between the humanities and mass media is not the same as that between English and mass media, clearly, but neither is it the same as that between history or sociology and mass media. (Another footnote flurry.)

I want to find a way to get from Red Book / mass culture to the Digital Humanities part of our argument, and in lieu of patiently detailing the logical links leading from one to the other (which, don’t doubt me, I can provide and will surely do so forthwith), please enjoy this rhetorical leap.

It can sometimes seem as though the Digital Humanities discussion reproduces the habit of elevating English, making it stand in for the humanities more generally, and in so doing reinforcing the centrality of a curriculum devoid of most mass cultural materials (novels excluded). This despite the more easily massified media in which DH traffics. This despite the sense that English is a place where anyone can study anything.

Piece of evidence the first: Matthew G. Kirshenbaum’s essay in the 2010 ADE Bulletin entitled “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?

Towards the end of his essay, Kirshenbaum sums up in six points “why English departments have historically been hospitable settings” for DH work. All six points have interest. Two seem to me absolutely antithetical, and in a familiar way.

First, after numeric input, text has been by far the most tractable data type for computers to manipulate. Unlike images, audio, video, and so on, there is a long tradition of text-based data processing that was within the capabilities of even some of the earliest computer systems and that has for decades fed research in fields like stylistics, linguistics, and author attribution studies, all heavily associated with English departments.

Fifth is the openness of English departments to cultural studies, where computers and other objects of digital material culture become the centerpiece of analysis. (60)

So good to have it both ways. DH is no more a threat to English as usual than was cultural studies, nor should DH make English the least bit worried by the presence of other D media in other wings of the H.

Piece of evidence the second: Andrew Prescott’s July 2012 lecture to the Digital Humanities Summer School, Oxford University entitled “Making the Digital Human: Anxieties, Possibilities, Challenges.”

Although Prescott indicates that he subscribes “to a point of view which sees Super Mario or Coronation Street or Shrek as just as culturally interesting and significant as Ovid and Chaucer,” when it comes to DH projects that get funding and get done, there’s more Ovid than Corrie.

For all the rhetoric about digital technologies changing the humanities, the overwhelming picture presented by the activities of digital humanities centres in Great Britain is that they are busily engaged in turning back the intellectual clock and reinstating a view of the humanities appropriate to the 1950s which would have gladdened the heart of Ronald Crane.

(Crane’s 1967 The Idea of the Humanities has material for us, btw. Some juicy excerpts here.)

At Prescott’s King’s College London,

Of the 88 content creation projects listed, only 8 are concerned in any way with anything that happened after 1850. The overwhelming majority – some 57 projects – deal with subjects from before 1600, and indeed most of them are concerned with the earliest periods, before 1100. The geographical focus of most of the projects are on the classical world and western Europe. The figures that loom largest are standard cultural icons: Ovid, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Jane Austen, Chopin. This is an old-style humanities, dressed out in bright new clothes for the digital age.

Only Chopin (maybe Ovid) likely would be left off the list of literary works at the heart of the Red Book English curriculum.

How to remedy the situation? Prescott’s answer:

We might start by seeking closer contact with our colleagues in Cultural and Media Studies. There is a huge body of scholarship on digital cultures with which we engage only patchily and which offers us powerful critical frameworks in articulating our own scholarly programme.

English is “open” to cultural studies, as Kirshenbaum says, and certainly thinks of itself as less overtly antagonistic to mass culture today, but you and I would clearly agree with Prescott that English engages with media studies scholarship and media studies scholars “patchily.”

Compare this program to History, or the version of what DH means for that discipline offered by Roy Rosenzweig, who begins his influential essay “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past” by asking how future historians will grapple with the complex itinerary of Evil Bert.

Please forgive this longish quote that you probably already know:

In 1996, Dino Ignacio, a twenty-two-year-old Filipino web designer, created Bert Is Evil (“brought to you by the letter H and the CIA”), which became a cult favorite among early tourists on the World Wide Web. Two years later, Bert Is Evil won a “Webby” as the “best weird site.” Fan and “mirror” sites appeared with some embellishing on the “Bert Is Evil” theme. After the bombing of the U. S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, sites in the Netherlands and Canada paired Bert with Osama bin Laden.

This image made a further global leap after September 11. When Mostafa Kamal, the production manager of a print shop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, needed some images of bin Laden for anti-American posters, he apparently entered the phrase “Osama bin Laden” in Google’s image search engine. The Osama and Bert duo was among the top hits. “Sesame Street” being less popular in Bangladesh than in the Philippines, Kamal thought the picture a nice addition to an Osama collage. But when this transnational circuit of imagery made its way back to more Sesame Street–friendly parts of the world via a Reuters photo of anti-American demonstrators, a storm of indignation erupted. Children’s Television Workshop, the show’s producers, threatened legal action. On October 11, 2001, a nervous Ignacio pushed the delete key, imploring “all fans [sic] and mirror site hosts of ‘Bert is Evil’ to stop the spread of this site too.”

Ignacio’s sudden deletion of Bert should capture our interest as historians since it dramatically illustrates the fragility of evidence in the digital era. If Ignacio had published his satire in a book or magazine, it would sit on thousands of library shelves rather than having a more fugitive existence as magnetic impulses on a web server. Although some historians might object that the Bert Is Evil web site is of little historical significance, even traditional historians should worry about what the digital era might mean for the historical record. U. S. government records, for example, are being lost on a daily basis. Although most government agencies started using e-mail and word processing in the mid-1980s, the National Archives still does not require that digital records be retained in that form, and governmental employees profess confusion over whether they should be preserving electronic files. 3 Future historians may be unable to ascertain not only whether Bert is evil, but also which undersecretaries of defense were evil, or at least favored the concepts of the “evil empire” or the “axis of evil.” Not only are ephemera like “Bert” and government records made vulnerable by digitization, but so are traditional works—books, journals, and film—that are increasingly being born digitally. As yet, no one has figured out how to ensure that the digital present will be available to the future’s historians.

Nearly everything about historical research appears to be put into question for Rosenzweig by digitization. That Bert would be an object of study for political historians, that preserving the archive becomes a very different matter if you’re talking about evil Bert instead of a 16th century manuscript, that there are experts on Bert who do not have tenure-track jobs, etc. “The struggle to incorporate the possibilities of new technology into the ancient practice of history has led, most importantly, to questioning the basic goals and methods of our craft.” You sometimes still hear such things said about DH in English, but I’d say less so than you used to. Rosenzweig’s essay was published in 2003, but it is difficult to imagine how the lid would have been put back on in the years since. Mass culture and digital technology conspire to alter History in ways that they seem not to have altered English?

As a bit of a side bar, I desperately want to correlate this kind of interdisciplinary comparison to your hypothesis about the abiding hierarchy among humanities departments. In your last post you wrote:

Surely it must be possible to get some comparative numbers on the sizes of humanities departments and programs for, say, the last 75 years. I suspect these numbers will show that the growth in areas like Women’s Studies, Southern Studies, and African-American Studies was accompanied by an increase in the size of English departments (and thus their institutional importance). If, as I also suspect, growth in these areas made English relatively larger than, say, Art History or Comparative Literature, than many of the organizational dynamics of the humanities can be thought of as problems of scale.

Scale is important to Rosenzweig too and might lead us back once again to questions about neoliberal higher ed and its MOOCs, about what Jacques Berlinerblau calls “engaged humanism” in a recent Chronicle column, and to a bunch of other issues we’ve been kicking around for a while.

English has more resources than many humanities departments and tends to have bigger departments, so it can fund more graduate students getting PhDs in the study of, for instance, video games than other smaller departments. The paradox being, this neither appears to alter the status of literature within English curricula (especially undergraduate) nor the status of English within the humanities. That’s one scale, the scale of the department and the humanities division.

Another, the scale of the classroom, seems much more threatening to English. We have yet to fully unpack this problem to our liking, is my sense, but I consider it important that we figure out how to do so. English professors have historically delivered their vital texts to students in lecture halls and discussion classes. Some of these are big, but none as big as the MOOCs get. Scale here has something to do with pedagogy (and testing), but it also has to do with prestige. Our literary “examples” circulate in particular ways within prestige granting as well as degree awarding institutions. Jefferson and Jackson redux. The problem, again, for the Red Book of how to scale a kind of teaching that seems most at home in places like Harvard. As Carlo Salerno puts it in Inside Higher Ed, “Our higher education system needs MOOCs to provide credentials in order for students to find it worthwhile to invest the effort, yet colleges can’t afford to provide MOOC credentials without sacrificing prestige, giving up control of the quality of the students who take their courses and running the risk of eventually diluting the value of their education brand in the eyes of the labor market.”

Before the Red Book, the MOOCs of the day were the extension programs, which in the British examples described by Alexandra Lawrie (“Browning in Hackney,” TLS January 20 2012: 14-15) anticipated their on-line brethren in allowing students to make the choice of whether they were interested only in listening to lectures or also in writing papers and seeking a credential.

In the Lent 1892 course in Lewisham on “Great Novelists of the Nineteenth Century,” taught by John A. Hobson, for example, fifty of the 100-strong audience at his lectures stayed for the class, yet only an average of twelve submitted papers to be marked each week. (14)

In extension classes as in MOOCs, there is a need to rethink the correlation between material studied and demographics served that is every bit as challenging as the Jacksonian/Jeffersonian debate stages in the Red Book. We should not take the Red Book as THE model for the university, the prevalence of competing models from the 1890s to the 2010s suggest, any more than we should take the Red Book’s version of the humanities as the ideal.

Today, Berlinerblau wants “engaged humanists who know less and communicate better,” while Rosenzweig imagines that new technology might democratize history in a fashion reminiscent of its early-twentieth-century mode, in which “the vision and membership of the American Historical Association–embracing archivists, local historians, and ‘amateurs’ as well as university scholars–was considerably broader than it later became.” Both the masses and mass culture (even Evil Bert) could find a home at the AHA, but we need not think that the hierarchy within the AHA was entirely flattened as a result. For this reason, democratize is perhaps the wrong word to use. Instead, the shifting sands of governmentality.

John




4. Endorsing your Thesis


Dear Mark,

So next up in our 5-point investigation into the Harvard Redbook aka General Education in a Free Society would be your fourth item:

4. In defining the humanities as a key component of general eduction, the Red Book privileges the study of English literature. In the section on high schools, for example, the humanities look more far more strongly balkanized by area than the social sciences and sciences. Math, chemistry, biology, appear as a distinct subject areas, but we move with relative ease from a paragraphs describing chemistry and biology courses to those laying out math courses. Under the humanities, we have strongly separated sections for: English, defined in New Critical terms as not history or politics but “the works themselves,” conveyors of a unifying heritage, and clearly the heart of the matter; Foreign Languages, which may or may not be a humanities endeavor depending on whether the languages are treated as communication “tools” or as aides in appreciating English as a language; and Arts, the appreciation of which is felt to be enriching in a vague, emotional way.  In the section on Harvard, great English language books receive similar emphasis in the proposed new core curriculum. The authors voice a number of assumptions about what English Literature is and does that want further examination. I think we need to look, too, to the composition of the Committee whose report this is (Ivor Richards is the English professor on it). And we need poke around a little bit in the literature to determine whether the Harvard folks are voicing an established consensus about English or are attempting to institutionalize a new orthodoxy. This has the ring to me, however, of a representative example. Thesis: in 1945, but not 1935, educators could treat  ”English Literature,” understood as the study of great works apart from their history and context, as if it were the essence of “the humanities.”

I think that you mostly propose a research agenda here rather than the need to fine-tune our rhetoric, which has I think largely been what’s wanted on the other items thus far. I know that these are not entirely separate enterprises, as your eagerness to make 3. about your Lippmann-Dewey argument in Love Rules suggests.

Pending new evidence, therefore, I hereby endorse your hypothesis that “in 1945, but not 1935, educators could treat ‘English Literature,’ understood as the study of great works apart from their history and context, as if it were the essence of ‘the humanities.’

Where would this new evidence come from?

I think we’ve read most of the pertinent accounts of the period and know what we think about Graff, et al. (We tend to think they are as guilty of reducing the humanities to English as the 1945 educators to whom you refer.)

It is probably time to sit down and (re)read Practical Criticism, and plug that in to what we already know and argue about Leavis.

Like Leavis, Richards loses the local institutional battle but wins the war, Harpham notes in The Humanities and the Dream of America: most of the Redbook’s recommendations were rejected by Harvard faculty, “including the idea of requiring a course on the humanities, the course Richards had been teaching as an elective: Humanities 1A ‘Sources of Our Common Thought: Homer, The Old Testament, and Plato'” (161). What to make of this fact, given the impact Harpham also thinks the Redbook had on humanities programs more generally. What too, given your thesis, to make of Richards’s sense of a humanities capacious enough to include classical Greek epic and philosophy as well as the Bible, not limited to “English literature” at all? One place to look to answer these questions would be Higher Education for American Democracy, aka “The Truman Report,” published in 1947, which replayed arguments codified in the Redbook. Another might be New Critical writing that talked about how they distinguished their sometimes more restrictive version of the humanities (more English, I’d say) from that of Richards.

There’s another question to ask here, namely, How long after 1945 do we think your hypothesis holds? Harpham recommends a couple of 1964 documents we might look at: J.H. Plumb’s Crisis in the Humanities and the ACLS Commission on the Humanities. These might help with our sense that we lose the thread a little bit in the 50s and 60s before feeling like we know what’s happening again by the 1980s.

Another way to think about your hypothesis would be to remember what we know of the contraction and expansion in “English” curricula during the second half of the twentieth century. We think, as your hypothesis suggests, that in 1945 the English curriculum had contracted from the experimental (and in today’s terms inter-disciplinary) courses of the 1910s and 20s, and that as it contracted it paradoxically came to stand in for the humanities as a whole. How does your hypothesis allow us to think about 1960s-80s debates concerning the hold of great English books on undergraduate education. Such things as “theory and context” obviously do their part to shake things up in English even as English loses its centrality in the humanities. Sort of. Internal to English, we still often compose syllabi made up of, exactly, great books and their literary competitors. My guess is that if you look at Gen Ed requirements for many schools such surveys are still treated as central to if less exclusively the heart of humanities study.

In sum, I believe that your hypothesis points to an argument we know how to make, but we need to do a little bit more reading to ensure we’re right.

Your point 5. is the mass culture point. I’m eager to move on and talk about that.

What do you think?

John