Author Archives: mark

From Academic Freedom to Organizational Democracy

In his July 2015 Inside Higher Ed column, Christopher Newfield usefully notes that faculty have lost the ability to see academic freedom as a public relations problem. In a follow-up post, he proposes that “organizational democracy” will allow us to solve this problem. We agree with both posts, although as usual a lot depends on what “organizational democracy” might mean.

The ongoing unpleasantness in Wisconsin and its potential national ramifications provide the occasion for Newfield’s intervention. Instead of construing Wisconsin as a reminder that professorial labor requires special protection, Newfield proposes that we strive to discuss the future of work in general. The demand for extraordinary privileges only really wins the day, he observes, when addressed to an audience already “inside the academic consensus that the pursuit of truth requires intellectual freedom and professional self-governance.” It is reasonable to expect that, lacking such protections in their own work lives, most people would find themselves outside that consensus and thus “wouldn’t immediately see why empowering chancellors will hurt teaching or slow the pace of discovery.”

In addition to claiming a unique ability to speak truth to power, faculty (not only at Wisconsin) also tell themselves that the market for professorial talent demands tenure. Universities must guarantee it in order to compete with other universities, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Newfield observes that the size of the reserve labor pool currently willing to work without tenure undermines this pitch. More importantly, the competitiveness meme does not meet the challenges of our moment. “The U.S. doesn’t have a competitiveness disadvantage,” he writes, “it has a collaborative disadvantage, and universities are needed more than ever to develop new kinds of collaborative capabilities.” Developing those capacities presents an organizational and media relations challenge worth embracing.

Doing so requires unlearning the special status argument, which as Newfield suggests goes back to the earliest twentieth-century steps to institutionalize the notion of academic freedom in the U.S. One of the AAUP’s most durable claims, he explains, constructs “academic freedom as the great exception to the autocratic managerialism of American business life.” The 1915 Declaration that announced the AAUP as academic freedom’s advocate-in-chief indeed sought to distinguish faculty appointment from the relation of a “private employer to his employees.”

It equally, and even more emphatically, addressed the threat from the “tyranny of public opinion”:

The tendency of modern democracy is for men to think alike, to feel alike, and to speak alike. Any departure from the conventional standards is apt to be regarded with suspicion. Public opinion is at once the chief safeguard of a democracy, and the chief menace to the real liberty of the individual…. An inviolable refuge from such tyranny should be found in the university. It should be an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become a part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world.

At the core of the argument exempting faculty from the usual American work rules one finds a logic depicting the university an “inviolable refuge,” a redoubt shielded against groupthink, a bunker to protect the professors who would convince the nation to eat its fruits and vegetables. Selling the university was thus made congruent with selling potentially controversial (but good for you!) ideas. This was an explicitly elitist position in the professional mode: experts served a public that did not know its own best interest.

Once opened, such a logic of exception was renewed over the course of the twentieth century by august bodies including the US Supreme Court. In 1966, Justice Brennan declared in his majority opinion to Keyishian v Board of Regents that “our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned.” As Marjorie Heins points out on the AAUP’s blog, however, this principle has met difficulty in practice, and the AAUP counsel’s guidance on “The Current Legal Landscape” asserts that “the scope of the First Amendment right of academic freedom for professors remains unclear.”

Uncertain as a legal right, tenure succeeded as institutional policy, but later in the history of American academia than faculty may think. Despite AAUP successes in the 1910s and 20s, tenure protections remained mostly informal and dependant on the will of senior administration for much of the century. When Rice University surveyed policies at seventy-eight universities in 1935, it found that fewer than half had formal rules about tenure protection. Tenure was not a standard and ubiquitous feature of American higher education before the 1970s, Caitlin Rosenthal recounts. There are, Rosenthal explains, competing stories about how this came about. Lost in the usual history of professorial advocacy, she argues, is the ready acceptance by administrators of the institutional competition idea, with tenure chalked up as one of the “practical exigencies of recruiting and maintaining excellent faculties” (16).

Before faculty could assume that a “tenure line” would mean pretty much the same thing at any institution that advertised one, a rationale in which academic freedom benefited not only the faculty and (ultimately) the public but also the university needed to be established. Consider the landmark case of University of Wisconsin Professor Richard T. Ely. As commentators on current events including William Bowen and Eugene Tobin observe, the 1894 Ely case made Wisconsin a central example in chapter one of the American history of academic freedom that Governor Walker and company now hope to revise. In a column for The Nation, Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction Oliver Wells alleged that Ely, Director of the School of Economics, “believes in strikes and boycotts, justifying and encouraging the one while practicing the other.” Wells concluded that such propagation of “utopian, impractical, or pernicious doctrines” made Ely unfit for employment as a Wisconsin professor. The Regents appointed a committee to investigate and serve judgment. They not only found Ely innocent of the charges leveled against him, but also took the opportunity to question whether such allegations should have mattered to the university in the first place. Professors should be free, the Regents declared, “to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead.”

The Regents committee’s pronouncement, aka the Wisconsin Magna Carta, relied on the implication that such freedom would distinguish the state’s great university from other  workplaces. “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere,” the committee wrote, “we believe the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone truth can be found.” This past June, UW-Madison Chancellor Blank used the remark to sum up her article “Why State Lawmakers Must Support Tenure at Public Universities”–preached to a choir of Chronicle of Higher Education readers.

Trumpeting Badger faculty freedoms looked less defensive in 1894, when, according to the State Journal, the Regents committee provided the university with a successful publicity coup. “Incidentally if not inadvertently the report contains a résumé of the good work done at the university ever since the civil war,” the paper noted. “This handsome advertisement has been telegraphed all over the country.”

Advertisement itself rapidly became a Wisconsin tradition. Early in the new century, recount the historians Merle Curti and Vernon Carstensen, administrators enlisted the English Department to write bulletins conveying to newspapers “in an attractive way, the story of discoveries, inventions, and innovations” across campus (II: 90). “The aggressive businessman does not wait for the consumer…to purchase his articles,” declared Wisconsin President Charles R. Van Hise in his 1904 inaugural address. “Are we going to be less aggressive in education than we are in business?” In 1917, Wisconsin joined Yale, California, and Indiana to be among the first members of the American Association of College News Bureaus. That membership grew to 75 schools by the late 1920s.

Meanwhile, at Wisconsin and elsewhere, the faculty’s promotional duties were handed off to public relations professionals. In his 1928 Propaganda, no less a figure than public relations pioneer Edward Bernays recognized universities as early adopters (140). “It may surprise and shock some people,” revealed a columnist in the magazine Personality, “to be told that the oldest and most dignified seats of learning in America now hire press agents, just as railroad companies, fraternal organizations, moving picture producers and political parties retain them. It is nevertheless a fact” (qtd. in Propaganda 142). Working with societies like the National Education Association, Bernays noted, universities not only used publicity to promote themselves and their professors but also to redress more general concerns, like the prestige of teachers. Thus the work of promoting the public value of the university, which justified academic freedom, passed to salaried professionals who could not earn that freedom. By definition, these professionals could not remain within an academic cloister that shielded them from tyrannical public opinion but needed, as Bernays put it, to “interpret the public for the client” in order to be able to “interpret the client to the public” (Crystalizing 14).

With accelerating fervor after the 1970s normalization of tenure (and job market collapse), postsecondary institutions turned to non-tenure track faculty to perform essential teaching functions, and academic freedom was also used to mark the difference between these instructors and their tenure track peers. As widely cited National Center for Education Statistics numbers show, by 2009 non-tenure-track faculty constituted roughly 70% of the instructors employed by institutions of higher education. As Jennifer Ruth ably chronicles, our present tenure system distinguishes not only faculty from non-faculty professionals but also stratifies faculty into haves and have nots.

Particularly at the large public universities, the AAUP’s “isolated refuge” of 1915 now looks more like a social microcosm comprising, in addition to various ranks of teachers, researchers, and administrators, a campus police force, medical services, commercial “auxiliary enterprises,” groundskeeping and maintenance staff, and so on.

An organizational democracy in which all these university stakeholders participated would differ considerably from the currently prevailing forms of “faculty governance.”  Academic departments and their traditional extensions, e.g. the “faculty senate,” do not seem well positioned to join the rest of the campus workforce in discussions that might be called democratic. The habits of (relative) departmental autonomy in employment matters such as the hiring, merit evaluation, tenure, and promotion of in-field colleagues run bone deep, almost as deep, perhaps, as faculty isolation from Human Resources interaction with their nonexempt coworkers.

Force of habit so strongly connects “academic freedom” and departments today because the two forms grew up together: both are features of the uniquely American university that developed around the turn of the last century. As Louis Menand explains, tenure has worked to strengthen disciplinary and departmental balkanization, to protect sociology professors not only from administrative or public tyranny but also from the interference of physics professors. In their canonical 1955 The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, Richard Hofstadter and W. P. Metzger elaborate the danger that “in fighting on the line of intramural law…the temptation is to make academic freedom coterminous with the security of professors in the guild” (457). To shun that temptation, we do well to follow Newfield in thinking about “professor” as a job among others. Hofstadter and Metzger’s argument, however, suggests why that might be hard to do.

If, as Newfield observes, tenure-line faculty expect and enjoy “protection from the at-will employment practice of firing any employee without cause,” it is worth remembering that some non-faculty university employees have that protection too. The campus police might have union representation, for example, although it is likely to be different from faculty union representation (if they have it), which is also likely to be different from graduate student union representation (if they have it), and so forth. Most campuses will have detailed policies defining terms of probation, evaluation, and procedures for termination of nonunion, nonexempt employees. Expect where specific statutory provisions apply–for example, in the case of overtime rules or Family Medical Leave–policies and contracts define working conditions on most large campuses. In other words, campuses in general are more “for cause” than “at will” kinds of workplaces, in which some effort has gone into making it difficult to terminate employment based on administrative caprice.

We are definitely not suggesting that “for cause” projections work uniformly or well across our campuses. We are suggesting, rather, that a discussion of termination for cause involving all employees need not start from the habitual “have” and “have not” discussion currently surrounding tenure. It could, rather, begin from the assumptions that everyone is “special” in this division of labor because we all have different jobs and that no one deserves to be an “at will” employee.

Being in favor of “for cause” for everyone does not really explain the kind of division of labor that one might favor, however. It does not explain the institutional form in which organizational democracy might take place. More pointedly, holding out academic freedom as what Newfield calls a model for “general economic and social justice virtues” does not speak to deeply ingrained (departmentalized) academic commitments to “merit” and “talent” crucial to the faculty’s peer review, shared governance, and other workplace features that we might also like to defend.

If one wants to hold onto the value of faculty expertise, the observation that “professor” is a job like many others is as insufficient as it is necessary. From the beginnings of the American research university, the faculty’s job description has entailed producing potentially uncomfortable truths in the lab or classroom. We think it should continue to do so. But it is equally clear that the division of labor tasked with creating, maintaining, circulating, and implementing the truths faculty produce has changed considerably in the past century. Not only does the contemporary university employ more diverse types of professionals than its forebears imagined, but the mediasphere in which it addresses its publics is noisier, more diverse, and differently professionalized than it was when Wisconsin first promoted its Magna Carta. Newfield is right to point out that we should not expect old arguments to explain this new context. Thus, collaboration.

How best to collaborate then? And with whom? Certainly academic arrangements provide models (labs! committees!), but they are not the only ones. We share our organizational vernacular both with a more expansive set of co-workers than we typically acknowledge and with a more expansive set of institutions. In truth, the university holds no monopoly on labs, committees, departments, and classrooms. To collaborate effectively, we need to become conversant in a broader range of organizational forms and allow that we might learn from them as they might learn from us. Alan Liu makes one such suggestion, arguing persuasively beginning with his 2004 Laws of Cool that academics can learn things about project-based research from the world’s silicon valleys, alleys, and savannahs. The creative industries offer other models for project-based collaboration: Hollywood’s includes collective bargaining.

No matter how democratic the organizational scheme, it will require a media relations strategy.

In its early twentieth century invention, tenure as a public service endowed faculty with work protections that “the public” at large did not have. Pointing out that it still lacks them is not a great rallying cry. Far better to contend that anyone’s termination should have a justifiable cause. That would not only be a better public relations strategy but also require the faculty to better understand how the organizations that employ them work (a project to which Newfield has made a long string of notable contributions). It would be good for faculty to remember as well as explain that “sifting and winnowing” requires in practice many different kinds of labor from a broad spectrum of employees. This would of necessity require us to question the habit of equating “academic freedom” with departmental prerogative, to acknowledge that other types of organizations might offer interesting labor models, and to embrace the challenge of overcoming our national collaboration deficit.

The stakes of such engagement are indeed established by Governor Walker’s plan for the University of Wisconsin, as embodied in the statutory change singled out by the recent joint AAUP / AFT-Wisconsin statement on the matter. This change authorizes faculty layoffs due to “a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.” It lays the ground for the very decision-making it describes, moving tenure from statute to policy, empowering administrators to do away with programs at will, and creating the occasion for them to do so by cutting $250 million from the state’s allocation.

The combination justifiably commands attention. The question of who, if not senior administrators alone, should make decisions about “program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection” (not to mention innovation) has multiple stakeholders within the university and outside it.  If there is to be organizational democracy in the university (for starters), it will not deserve the name unless it can convincingly defend both the particular kinds of value that faculty produce and the division of labor in which they produce it.

Wisconsin Republicans may have accidentally supplied academic freedom with a new banner to replace the quaint “sifting and winnowing” of the “Magna Carta.” In 2014, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos proclaimed that he wanted the university to abandon research on “the ancient mating habits of whatever” in favor of research economically beneficial to the state. The rebuttal, of course, is not only that university research provides a tremendous economic benefit, but also that ancient mating habits are fascinating, that their study offers many practical applications in daily life, and that such study is potentially limitless, indeed extensible to “whatever.” What could be more worthy of a collaborative effort engaging the university in all its parts?

Works Cited (but not Linked)

Bernays, Edward L. Crystallizing Public Opinion. New. New York,: Boni and Liveright, 1934 [1923].

—–.  Propaganda. Liveright. 1928.

Curti, Merle; Carstensen, Vernon. The University of Wisconsin: A History: 1848-1925. 2 Vols. University of Wisconsin, 1949.

Hofstadter, Richard, and W. P. Metzger. The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. First Edition edition. Columbia University Press, 1955.

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

The Culture Wars Are Over: Debt Won

“Debt” has replaced “culture” as the concept structuring arguments about the humanities’ role in higher education. This is not bad news, inasmuch as debt encourages a sweeping reexamination of higher education’s value to students–not only what that value is, but also how to measure it, and how universities actually go about providing it.

During the reign of “culture,” discussion of higher education’s value was more narrowly conceived. Defenders and critics of the humanities tended to behave as if it could be assessed through careful attention to the syllabus. This was among the more depressing conclusions we reached in drafting a chapter on the 1980s and 90s for our book, “Mass Media U.” Turning to the turbulent academy of our youth in the spirit of mature reappraisal, we revisited aggressive defenses of the canon during the heyday of its decolonization and marvelled anew at the solution of having it both ways by “teaching the conflicts.”

A truly amazing amount of time and energy went into scolding English professors for what they were or were not teaching–amazing, because what they were or were not teaching was so largely beside the point when it came to consideration of how higher education was changing. In the period of the culture wars, a massive wave of program innovation reshaped every corner of campus and an increasing subdivision of labor rewrote the job description of “professor.” In the research university at century’s end, no one department’s curriculum could hope to succeed in doing much of anything to or for students, let alone “culture,” without forging alliances across campus.

Debt now challenges faculty to forego fighting among themselves over disciplinary turf and field-specific canons in favor of reminding themselves who, exactly, constitute the audiences for higher education. Faculty are called upon to pay renewed attention to facts such as:

  • the classroom is but a small part of the experience our institutions provide to students
  • there is a wide gulf separating students from the primary audience for our research
  • our students’ future employers are at least an indirect audience for our work

These are well established themes, to be sure, but they are given urgency by the figure of the debt-ridden student, who provides a nexus around which a whole host of systemic problems accrete: consumerism, helicopter parents, standardized testing and what it’s done to K-12, the cost of a bachelor’s degree amidst economic downturn, bad student financial aid policy, the rise of for-profit higher education, the proliferation of “global” satellite campuses, and investment in online education, just to name a few of the more prominent issues.

This shift from “culture” to “debt” was discernable in the 2013 “Summer of Humanities Debates,” which were so notably defensive about the return on investment in a humanities education. In round one, defense took the form of a familiar argument that the humanities’ social import could be found in their nonutility: they provided critical, generalist skills improving whole persons rather than narrow training designed to reduce individuals to immediately useful cogs in the machine. The idea was to stick up for arts and culture stuff that the pre-professional tracks dismissed as so much fluff: not worth funding, as North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory explained, unless it’s “going to get someone a job.” There was little infighting among those in the humanist camp as the conversation turned up CEOs able to endorse well-rounded liberal arts job seekers and actual data demonstrating that humanities degrees seemed to pay off in the long run (see, e.g., this article). As a result, in round two we got to celebrate the practicality of humanities training on the job market, as if this proved the value of impracticality established in round one.

As approaches to humanities’ evergreen “crises” go, this wasn’t so bad. It demonstrated some attention to the problem of how humanist pedagogies plug into the pervasive system of value mediated by money (because, you know, capitalism). And it didn’t fuss too much about the informational content transmitted by “the humanities” or “the liberal arts” (often misleadingly treated as synonyms).

As the summer of 2014 comes to a close, national attention seems drawn to an even broader picture, one focused on failed investment in undergraduates tout court. The reception of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep (now in its third week on The New York Times’ best seller list) has demonstrated that literate Americans can be roused by a critique of careerism when combined with ridicule of the Ivy League. Amazon reviewer Swish, a self-described “product of that elite education system in the early 2000s” declared that “this book has helped to bring me to life again, after the soul-crushing, or actually mostly just soul-forgetting experience of elite education.” As Deresiewicz bottom-lines it in a response to his critics: “The issue now is not that kids don’t or at least wouldn’t want to get a liberal education as well as a practical one…. The issue is that the rest of us don’t want to pay for it.” “Debt” offers a good enough shorthand for the whole ensemble of forces that have ended up burdening individual undergraduates with all manner of higher ed problems.

That meme has so taken over discussion that even John Oliver has gotten into the act, recently spending a quarter hour of Last Week Tonight on HBO castigating universities, the federal government, and above all for-profit higher ed for ripping off students. The Feds had their hearts in the right place back in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act into law and released what would become a flood of low-interest loan dollars to broaden educational access. Nowadays, however, Oliver describes Federal student loan policy as driven primarily by the lobbying efforts of for-profit education vendors. As for the students themselves, Oliver enthused, “You need to stop watching this show right now. You don’t have time for this. Get out there, and enjoy the fuck out of your college experience, because you may be paying for it for the rest of your life.”

The dangers of enjoying college and worrying about the future later are themselves the object of study in the latest book from sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Aspiring Adults Adrift points to “a fundamental failure in the higher education market,” according to Kevin Carey in The New York Times: “[W]hile employers can tell the difference between those who learned in college and those who were left academically adrift, the students themselves cannot.” A striking difference between student self-perception and the context revealed by sociological examination provides the book with its mainspring. “While almost one-quarter of the college graduates we studied were living back at home with their families two years after finishing college,” the authors discover, “a stunning 95 percent reported that their lives would be the same or better than those of their parents.” One suspects that reader Swish of might welcome this news less eagerly than she does Deresiewicz’s call to reawaken her soul. Nonetheless, Deresiewicz and Arum and Roksa describe similar terrains of academic disfunction.

For the sociologists, institutions of higher education have cultivated student misprision. “Rather than defining undergraduate experiences in a manner conducive to the development of young adults, institutions today have let themselves be defined by the preferences of undergraduates,” Arum and Roksa lament. Students look to their teachers for “external signals to evaluate their performance,” but find “those signals are quite weak, as decades of grade inflation have eroded the power of grades to signal academic accomplishment.” In their 2011 book, Academically Adrift, they summarized researcher George Kuh’s finding that a “disengagement compact” prevails on our campuses. Professors and students have, in effect, negotiated a situation in which relatively low levels of work by either party will suffice to earn relatively good grades. Both groups perceive that their time would be better spent elsewhere. On the faculty side, Arum and Roksa explain, this is not question of lassitude so much as an understandable response to changing student expectations, various demands on our time, emphasis on research in performance evaluation, and so forth.

Given that this situation is not only dire but systemically dire, it is surprising that Arum and Roksa offer but modest proposals for reform. To professors, they recommend more rigor in teaching and evaluation, as well as renewed emphasis on general skills (like critical thinking) and clearer assessment practices for specialized degree programs (educators in STEM and history shoot to the head of the class for identifying competencies that their majors should develop). To colleges and universities, they recommend fewer rock climbing walls and less stress on developing “interpersonal competencies, psychological well-being, and capacity for social adjustment.” The “cultivation of character, grit, perseverance, social obligation, and duty” would be better goals for extracurricular activities. The Breakfast Club is out; bring back John Wayne.

Arum and Roksa portray college as a massive optimism industry peddling the pretense of development without any of its substance. Yet rather than developing their critique across various social institutions after the fashion of disciplinary forebear C. Wright Mills (whom they favorably mention), they tailor “solutions” cut to the measure of achievable policy positions. Their prescriptions combine an emphasis on character-building (the job now primarily of student service professionals) with advocacy of performance-based assessment (which no one does terribly well or consistently, but the Federal government may soon mandate). They are among those urging us to abandon the nineteenth-century solution to the problem of administering knowledge, the Carnegie Unit or course credit hour, which made the elective system possible and rapidly grew to become a standard measure of student learning as well as faculty work time.

Arum and Roksa prefer measures like the nonprofit Council for Aid to Education’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which measures student “proficiency in critical thinking and written communication” by asking them to narrate responses to “real world” situations. This test confirms for the sociologists that students do not know what they are talking about when they claim to have learned in college–and neither do their professors. Arum and Roksa find no correlation between student self-assessment or grades and CLA numbers. But, they discover that lower CLA scores correlate to lower wage earning power and higher rates of un- and underemployment.

We are sympathetic to the quest for alternatives to the Carnegie Unit and the specious equivalencies it creates. We are less optimistic that healthy doses of Bildung and the CLA will address the problem of debt, which is less about whether students are learning what they think they’re learning than who can be convinced to pay for “college”–which has for more than a century been understood as a social experience as well as an educational one.

Relative inattention to that social dimension sometimes characterizes more radical calls for solutions to the student debt crisis, as in this Tedx talk from Nicholas Mirzoeff.  Obviously, the format constrains what can be said. Regardless, one is immediately struck by a certain disconnect between the higher education sector as envisioned in Mirzoeff’s explanation of the debt crisis and that imagined by the solution he proposes.

On the problem side, Mirzoeff directs our attention to “high tuition low endowment schools like NYU” which “could become the Bear Stearns and Lehmans of the tuition debt crisis.” Such schools may find themselves forced to dip lower into their applicant pools to find students (i.e., suckers) willing to bear the cost of running the whole operation. If this happens, these institutions would end up becoming “overpriced schools for undersmart kids” like, he suggests, Drew University. In this portrait, postsecondary ed looks like a diverse marketplace in which institutions strive to attract “the best” applicants, while parents and students seek “the best” schools, with all the complexity entailed in arriving at ideas about what is “the best.”

On the solution side, Mirzoeff proposes two kinds of schools. Publics, where tuition should be free, and privates, where he advocates the “Starbucks solution”: student customers should stay away from private colleges until they refocus their attention on the core business of education and stop selling the academic equivalent of tired Starbucks sandwiches and easy listening CDs.

There is an obvious problem with the analogy–one revealed particularly by Arum and Roksa–in that administrators, faculty, and students lack consensus on what a university’s core commodity is. Some of us think it’s “education,” others prefer to emphasize a holistic “student experience” that includes classroom education as a central, but certainly not the only, component. In other words, there’s a possibility that some of those Drew students are getting exactly the iced mocha frappuccino experience they’re after, in which case one wouldn’t necessarily count on the severity of the post-graduation comedown to discourage the behavior. This seems to be where Arum and Roksa come out on the question.

Free public higher education for everyone is an obviously supportable idea. As Mirzoeff notes it would entail a welcome reallocation of federal dollars from corporate welfare to public welfare. We wonder, however, whether such a path could avoid the pitfalls of Starbucks. Public higher ed is itself intensely stratified, encompassing a range of types of institutions, and a whole host of functions not directly related to classroom education (ahem, research).

The problem of who pays for higher ed is now, at publics and privates alike, a highly various and complex one in which a number of interests and audiences matter. As a lynchpin in the current solution, student debt is objectionable in that it displaces responsibility for the whole complex matter of finding a pathway through college toward a better life squarely on the shoulders of persons who, by definition, are ill-equipped to make that decision: undergraduates.

Just how a specific undergraduate experience will qualify a particular student for a life they might end up wanting is notoriously difficult to determine in advance. Debt financing ups the stakes while limiting students from changing course. It makes sense to describe student debt as part of a basic biopower risk management strategy now fully extended to higher education. Nonetheless, student debtors are not like mortgage-holding homeowners. It is far less possible for borrowers to appraise the value of the purchase in advance (as Arum and Roksa’s findings demonstrate). Still, the loan is secured not by any underlying asset but by the borrower’s future earnings (which the bank promises to garnish until the debt is paid). There is no “downsizing” your college education later on: repayment and death are the only ways to discharge the obligation.

Humanities professors have had plenty of practice arguing that, first, they uniquely provide a kind of educational value that cannot be reckoned in terms of earning power alone, and, second, that “liberal arts” approaches pay off in the long run because they offer a broader base that makes students more adaptable in changing times. The various rankings and measures being propagated to help students navigate the current debt crisis demonstrate the practical difficulty of sustaining either of these two arguments on behalf something called “the humanities.”

To pick just one example, consider a new study by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia that tracks graduates from 1992-93. It comes as no surprise to discover that engineers make more money, on average, than graduates with a degree in Visual and Performing Arts. But the study also notes that salaries range, sometimes considerably, within degree categories. It further notes that the range of degree categories themselves are making easy generalizations more difficult. (More than 800 individual flavors of baccalaureate degrees are currently tracked.) Although English language and literature/letters is an underperformer (as usual), the degree associated with the lowest wages is something called Family and consumer sciences/human sciences (CIP 19, to reference the instructional program code used by the National Center for Education Statistics). The gendered division of labor, or so one might infer, may be a more powerful determinant of income than particular degree pathways. In any case, “the humanities” is not among the options in Virginia or elsewhere. One must pick a more particular flavor. This study suggests, moreover, that students and parents should pay very close attention to the flavor they pick.

Traditional defenses of the humanities, we submit, are paralyzed in the face of this project of directing students to one major as opposed to some other. In the moment of doing so, they invariably cease to be defenses of “the humanities” and become arguments in favor a particular discipline (often the speaker’s) or else they resort to the chestnut that students should follow their interests (in which case, why not agronomy, business management, or physics?).

Nor have humanities professors succeeded in working out amongst themselves a division of labor capable of distributing important tasks across their disciplinary divisions, in the way that a biology degree might require certain competencies taught by the Chemistry Department or Computer Science might require completion of coursework in Mathematics. (Interestingly, we sometimes do better at this in PhD programs: humanities graduate programs at John’s school encourage students to secure the additional credential of a “Designated Emphasis,” a graduate minor in effect requiring coursework in a humanities subject area that resides outside the home department.)

Similarly, evidence suggests that “liberal arts” breadth is increasingly hard to come by amidst the array of approaches to “general education” on campus. Numbers from the Baccalaureate and Beyond survey crunched by the Academy of Arts & Sciences Humanities Indicators project suggest that undergraduates, overall, take more credits in the humanities than they do in the STEM disciplines. STEM and humanities students constitute barely overlapping audiences, however, with few majors in STEM disciplines pursuing humanities coursework beyond the core general ed requirements and vice versa. It’s all well and good to argue that “the humanities” should have a place in general education, but we have plainly not succeeded in fine-tuning this argument to a moment after gen ed has been reconceived in terms of distribution requirements scattered over an ever-increasing number of departments and across a wildly differentiated array of schools.

Here again “the humanities” as a rubric may be part of the problem. Do we really imagine that the history component of general ed should plug into biology in the same way as, say, the literary studies component plugs into sociology, or the media studies component connects with physics? Do any of these “humanities” disciplines need some quality that can be obtained equally well from chemistry, earth science, and math? Mixing up curricular divisions and giving them new names, as Mark’s university among others has done, helps a little by estranging the problem. But it does not go to the fundamental issue: how to assemble a puzzle composed less of general areas than a large number of highly particularized pieces.

For most students, help in assembling that puzzle and thereby making “the most” of their education comes not primarily from professors but from student services employees (some of whom are students themselves). The faculty in John’s department, for instance, have largely outsourced undergraduate advising to various Dean’s offices and to a highly capable advisor for English majors. This frees professors up for other kinds of service as well as for research, but it also mandates they think more about how to coordinate their curricular efforts with the counsel being offered by administrators–particular if they wish to articulate their courses with those offered by other parts of the university. Humanities professors can describe their classes as cultivating critically thinking citizen subjects all they want, but to actually do this in a systematic way, they need to collaborate with the administrative personnel empowered to direct students to courses emphasizing such skill–and not just any such courses, but those most likely to propagate “critical” effects across the rest of the student’s educational experience.

It is not enough to defend the humanities as if one size fit all. It is not enough, moreover, to speak of the humanities as if that category meant the same thing to every audience, to the students trying to satisfy distribution requirements and choose majors, to the student services professionals helping them do so, to the faculty in various departments shaping their disciplinary curricula in relation to offerings across campus, to the faculty committees and administrative staffers overseeing that process, to the sociologists correlating degree completions to salaries and standardized test results, to the policy makers turning sociological studies into talking points and governmental initiatives, to the comedians and columnists weighing in, to the students and parents who currently foot the bill.

Debt provides us with the chance to address these varied audiences and to perceive why such a varied address is necessary. Debt encompasses the whole student experience, including but not limited to the classroom. Debt, and the related metrics for measuring the “value added” by diverse majors and schools, reveals that a very wide array of disciplines are currently subsumable under the term “the humanities”: the referent is sometimes as narrow as “English” and sometimes as wide as “everything not STEM.”  Each has a place in the student experience that can, and should, be described in ways that relate the question of audience–who cares?–with the question of value–who pays?  By embracing the challenge posed by these two questions, we might hope to alter the complex and ethically dubious institutional situation that defers too much responsibility for figuring out college to students’ future selves.

We must engage a conversation about “the humanities” that is prepared to embrace the diversity of its approaches and audiences, even if this means that “the humanities” will disappear into all manner of discrete fields and new combinations. If we can’t do this, we might as well go back to the 80s, back to teaching conflicts in which we have a smaller and smaller part to play.

Summer Numbers: Reach and Share

Dear John,

I’ve been at the numbers again. Last summer, we heard a lot about the share of degrees the humanities had lost (crisis!) and weighed in among the voices of reason (not so much a crisis as interesting times). Now, I write to propose the concept of reach as a necessary compliment to measures of share. In this, I want to tack against the prevailing wind, which urges us to regroup by imagining the humanities as an ancient unity. An idealized past will not help us navigate our current institutions, which have been profoundly shaped by the proliferation of distinct instructional programs. In this particular, as in others we have noted, the American research university has more in common with twentieth-century mass media than it does with Plato’s Akedemia or Humboldt’s Universität. If we must concern ourselves with share, it makes sense also to borrow sibling concepts that are regularly used to measure media audiences. These include reach.

This effort has been partly inspired by Ben Schmidt, who has recently published an informative interactive visualization of degree share.

Schmidt’s graph encourages us to ask questions about the actual and potential audience for degree programs that other presentations of such data typically discourage.

It allows one to see how particular degrees are gendered and how this has changed  (or not) over time. It also allows one to choose several different metrics for degree share. One can look at the most common measure of share–percent of all baccalaureate degrees completed–but one can also view degree completions as a percentage of all 23 year olds. The latter measure is relevant because not completing a degree is also an option. If we are interested in what higher education does for our society, Schmidt argues here, we might more reasonably care about the proportion of young people receiving particular types of degrees than the proportion of baccalaureate degree earners choosing one  professional path as opposed to some other. Whether employment or civic life concerns us, it is ultimately more important what proportion of adults have training X than what percentage of recent graduates do.

On the other hand, if our concern is the narrower one of where dollars flow (or should flow) on campus, then to focus on share of completions makes some sense. This measure construes the “market” as students who will complete some program of study and encourages us to think of different degrees as competing for their attention. While I’m sure that everyone involved in higher education would profess the loftier goal of enrolling more students so as to educate as many young adults as possible, I think that most of us would also have to admit concern with the narrower question of whether the instructional programs we care about can grow in challenging times by competing for students likely to finish.

Share of completions could be likened to television “Channel Share”: “the share one channel has of all viewing for particular time period . . . calculated by dividing the channel’s average audience by the average audience of all channels.” As the Nielson glossary from which I’ve pulled these quotations points out, channel share “is held in higher esteem by networks than media buyers on a day to day basis and is only referred to by the latter group when apportioning budgets and evaluating a programme for sponsorship.”  Broadcasters care about how particular channels fare relative to each other. Advertisers care more about the proportion of a given demographic they can reach.

(Incidentally, the share of population measure Schmidt advocates resembles more closely the “rating” measure. For a neat explanation of the difference between rating and share, see media literacy expert Frank Baker’s page here.)

Calculations of channel share deal in averages because the audience fluctuates over day parts. National information about degree completions doesn’t work this way. Completions are measured yearly. The number of majors on offer has long surpassed the variety available in most cable TV packages. And, perhaps most tellingly, enrollments are not tracked by branches of knowledge, disciplines, or departments as we might spontaneously identify them. Rather, they are tracked by codes specifying instructional programs. Since 1985, the ever-expanding Classification of Instructional Programs taxonomy has identified degrees at postsecondary institutions in the US. (Need a CIP primer? Try this.)  To deal with this last set of complications, almost all renderings of “share” aggregate completions in different programs under rubrics that make vernacular sense. (It also helps if the terms chosen are short enough to fit easily on charts and graphs.)

Although it seems obvious to note, it bears underscoring that decisions made in aggregating data to calculate “share” complicate the conclusions one might draw from that measure.

True to form, Schmidt’s graph groups many hundreds of individual degree programs into a relatively small set of disciplinary areas with labels like “Art/Architecture,” “English and Literature,” “Life Sciences,” and “Social Service Professions.” No one actually majors in “Life Sciences,” for example, but rather in one of the score of individual degree programs contained in that category. These majors likely compete for enrollments with each other more keenly than they do with degree programs in “Art/Architecture.” Therefore, if one wants to understand which majors actually are attracting the attention of students likely to complete, the aggregate measure is not granular enough.

Why aggregate then? The issue is only partly one of legibility (clever graphic design could probably do something with the visual mush produced by plotting many hundreds of distinct degrees in a single time-series). Aggregation also smooths over problems created by variations in reporting and changes to the taxonomy over time. For example, it has for decades been possible to record degrees specifically in “Creative Writing” (23.1302), but programs offering creative writing as a track within an English degree will likely report those completions under 23.0101, the code for instructional programs in “English Language and Literatures, General.” Any given completion in 23.0101 might therefore represent degree work equivalent to a completion in 23.1302. Lumping together all completions in CIP family 23  sidesteps this issue. It won’t distinguish literature from creative writing degrees, but it also doesn’t introduce distinctions where there may be no difference.

Shifting distinctions present a related problem. Using a taxonomy that preceded CIP, the 1967-1969 HEGIS surveys record completions of business degrees in “Real Estate/Insurance,” for instance, but subsequent surveys define separate programs in “Real Estate” and “Insurance.” Or consider “Motion Picture Technology” introduced in the 1985 schema as CIP 10.0102. The degree has no precise match in the current (2010) schema, but CIP 10.0201, “Photographic and Film/Video Technology/Technician and Assistant” comes close. Aggregation obviates these “problems” of consistent measure.

Such problematic inconsistencies in the taxonomy used to track completions are precisely what should interest us.

In fact, they should probably interest us more than the “share” question, because they help us understand the institutional terrain generated by ever increasing specialization within the research university.  The raw numbers tell part of the story. At “research universities” broadly defined (see note), the 1967 HEGIS survey recorded awards in 187 distinct programs, whereas the 2011 IPEDS survey (its successor) recorded awards in 829 different fields. This dramatic increase in the number and variety of offerings disappears in time-series of aggregate degree share. But increase is not the only story.

Distinct degrees turn out to be very unevenly distributed across our institutions. How unevenly may be seen if we think about reach in addition to share.

In broadcast industries, “reach” is the percentage of a total target audience (for example, Households Using Television [HUT] or People Using Television [PUT]) exposed to programing at least once during a given period. Again, instructional programs differ from television programs in many ways–not least, in their duration. One could say, however, that the total number of baccalaureate completions provides a fair measure of the broad target audience (as share of completions numbers assume). As with cable television packages, there is great variety in the set of instructional programs on offer to students at any given institution. No single institution offers all the programs listed in the taxonomy. “Reach,” then, measures the percentage of students who could have chosen to finish a given program, because it was available at their institutions. The number of  potential students can be found by calculating the aggregate sum of completions at institutions awarding degrees in a given CIP. To arrive at reach, we divide this number by the aggregate sum of all completions.

Reach = ΣIC / ΣTC


IC  = Completions at institutions offering a given instructional program (e.g., 23.0101) at a specific level (e.g., BA first major)


TC = Total completions of degrees at that level at all institutions

Running the numbers for odd years from 1967 to 2011, one is immediately struck by the fact that average baccalaureate reach is very low. After 1985, it was 1% or less. That is to say, the vast majority of instructional programs have been available only to a very small proportion of students completing baccalaureate degrees at institutions offering PhDs (my sample).


As one would expect, this trend correlates with changes to the taxonomy that made it possible to record a greater variety of degrees. This graph shows the number of distinct programs in which baccalaureate completions were recorded.


The jumps in this chart line up with the plunges in reach. It seems that elaboration of HEGIS codes after 1970 was decisive, as was the introduction of the CIP schema in 1985. Revisions in 1990, 2000, and 2010 had a less dramatic, but still discernible effect. All of these revisions expanded the “menu” of degrees from which institutions could chose to record completions. (It’s worth noting, too, that several different flavors of “other” have always been on offer).

Whereas most majors reached few potential degree winners, a handful of programs reached almost all of them.

Only seven programs maintained a reach of more than 90% for the entire period, with an eighth, Biology/Biological Sciences, General leaping from the 9th percentile into the 10th in 1975 and then holding ground. In other words, whether you went to a small and specialized PhD granting institution or a gigantic university, you could expect to find someone majoring in one of these degrees.


These eight degrees, one might say, are the basic cable channels of higher education.  The fluctuations in reach are interesting, particularly when held up next to changes in the taxonomy, and someone much better at stats than I could probably figure out what proportion of these gains or losses could be attributed to taxonomic changes. The sharp drop in English from 1969 to 1971 clearly seems related to changes in the scheme, for example, but the decline of History presents a less clear-cut case. The main point, however, should be that for all practical purposes these degrees–and only these degrees, out of the more than 800 baccalaureate programs currently tracked–can be regarded as ubiquitous.

To put this in perspective, one might consider a sample of the kinds of degree that fall on the other end of the scale. Asian Bodywork Therapy (51.3502) had the lowest reach in 2011 (less than 1/1000th of a percent): one student completed a degree at one institution.  Here is a selection of degrees at or near the 2011 average reach of .72%:

  • Art Therapy/Therapist (51.2301) — .69% at twelve institutions
  • Forensic Chemistry  (40.0510) — .71% at four institutions
  • Biopsychology (30.1001) — .72% at eight institutions
  • Consumer Merchandising/Retailing Management (19.0203) — .74% at four institutions
  • Japanese Studies (05.0127) — .74% at five institutions
  • Library and Information Science (25.0101) — .75% at 4 institutions

This list suggests that institutional specialization explains the low average reach phenomenon. A hypothesis would be that institutions are trying to distinguish themselves from one another by “niche marketing” more specialized degrees. Some of these degrees (like Art Therapy or Library and Information Science) seem like graduate degrees offered at the undergraduate level, which might support the niche marketing hypothesis. Other programs, like Forensic Chemistry and Japanese Studies, look like they might be programmatic emphases more broadly available but often recorded, respectively, under Chemistry, General or East Asian Studies (which in 2011 had a respectable 10.9% reach). Here, the low average reach number could be indicating a pervasive dynamic of specialization not otherwise captured in the data. In either case, the reach number adds a level of complexity to the notion of student audience that measures of share typically erase.

(It would be possible to compute reach not in terms of student completions but in terms of the proportion of total institutions where specific programs are offered. This would require us to overlook, however, the fact that some institutions only graduate a handful of students while others graduate many thousands.)

If the reach measure can reveal institutional realities occluded by share, it can also provide a different vantage on the trends share identifies. 

It is common, for example, to equate degree share with “popularity.”  But a different way to consider what’s hot and what’s not might be to look for which programs are expanding or narrowing their reach. It seems to me (and here I must confess that I am an enthusiastic, but almost entirely self-educated “statistician”) that one could get a rough sense of this by looking at the standard deviation of the reach of particular majors (CIPs) over the time period. Greater than average standard deviation would mean that a particular program’s reach is changing faster than the norm.

The results are interesting.

Some of the highest standard deviations of reach can be found in degrees where specialization has overtaken more general approaches. For example, “Social Sciences, General” has seen its reach plummet from 70% in 1967 to 25% in 2011 (with a standard deviation well above the mean). “Sociology,” meanwhile, had a reach of over 87% in 2011 (with a standard deviation well below the mean). We know what’s going on here, right? Fewer institutions, and particularly fewer large universities, are offering the more general degree.

Other instances of relatively high standard deviation of reach pose different puzzles. What to make of the relationship between Computer and Information Sciences, General (11.0101) and Computer Science (11.0701)? Both have relatively high standard deviations, but for obviously different reasons.



These graphs are particularly interesting to think about in relation to Schmidt’s analysis of Computer Science share here. Schmidt points out that while women were relatively well represented in “Computer Science” (an aggregation) during its 1980s boom, they have become less well represented through each successive boom-bust cycle. In my sample for 1987, at or near the height of the first CS share peak, there were six different programs comprised in CIP family 11 (Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services), and completions looked this:



By 2011, CIP family 11 had grown considerably, like most CIP families. There were more completions overall, but fewer completions in each of its many majors:



Interestingly, the 2011 group does include a majority female degree program, Data Modeling/Warehousing and Database Administration (11.0802), first identified in the 2000 CIP revision, which had a respectable 2% reach in 2011, although the total number of actual majors is too small to show up at this scale. What stands out is the boom in Computer Science (11.0701), created in the 1990 CIP revision, which in 2011 had a 46% reach (.54% share) and was one of the majors in which women were least well represented. Schmidt’s graphs reveal a “field” (i.e., an aggregation of degree programs) that has masculinized itself over the past decades and thereby limited its growth potential. The reach numbers add specificity and, along with it, a sense of the unevenness of this phenomenon. They suggest that the rapid proliferation of one flavor of “Computer and Information Sciences”–the flavor known as 11.0701, which is strongly gendered–might claim credit for the trend. Again, analysis by experts could test this hunch.

But what of film and media studies, the discipline I’m always yammering on about?

In a previous post, I established that some degree programs faculty would probably identify as “film and media studies” are reported under 09.0102 “Mass Communications/Media Studies,” while others are reported under 50.0601 “Film/Cinema/Video Studies.” Still others, particularly at the undergraduate level, may be reported under 23.0101 “English Language and Literatures, General.” Both 09.0102 and 50.0601 were introduced in the 1985 CIP taxonomy, which followed a couple decades of growth in film studies not captured in this data.

Mass Communications/Media Studies expanded its reach the fastest, growing from from .1% (negligible share) in 1985 to 18.6% (.56% share) in 2011. Film/Cinema/Video Studies extended its reach from 5.8% (.04% share) to 20.9% (.21% share) of baccalaureate first major completions in that same period. Both exceed the mean standard deviation of reach. Basic cable channel English (23.0101) was far more steady. Its 2011 reach (92.69%) far exceeds the cumulative reach of 09.0102 and 50.0601 (almost 40% of graduating students), and its share–2.5% of all completions in my sample–reflects that much greater reach. Film and media studies’ relatively small share is unlikely to appear on any graph, except as part of one or several aggregations. If reach and share are both considered, it is not perhaps the fastest mover, but it certainly looks like a growth enterprise.

In summary, then, we need to think again about what the specialization and differentiation of fields has meant for postsecondary education. In the 1960s, Clark Kerr mulled the possibilities (and difficulties) of a research university that no longer had a singular mission or core set of concerns. Today, we are faced with a sector that has for decades proliferated such a wide range of degree programs in such an uneven distribution that it is unreasonable to assume that even very large and well established universities look like each other. This need not mean, however, that we are faced with a choice between (1) strictly local analysis of our home institutions and (2) national share numbers that erase meaningful differences. Measures of reach can help us to assess diversity. They ofter a resource not only for increasingly data-driven debates about investments and outcomes, but also for understanding the kinds of campuses we inhabit and therefore for imagining the kinds of campuses we might hope to inhabit in the future.


Note: “Research university” is not a category consistently available in the data. The current IPEDS survey offers various ways to specify institutional type, including Carnegie classifications. Using current data to classify institutions throughout the period 1967-2011, however, would obviate changes to an institution’s categorization and make it difficult to include completions at institutions that have closed. I have therefore focused my analysis on first major baccalaureate completions at institutions also offering the PhD, as that information is available for all years in my sample: odd years from 1967 through 2011, excluding 1983, for which no data is available. These institutions are arguably all “university like,” although some of them are very small and offer few degrees while others are huge public multiversities.


If Computer Science Is our Friend, Can STEM be our Enemy?

In his recent blog post, “The Afterlife of the Humanities,” David Theo Goldberg thanks diverse colleagues for helping him understand current “challenges and changes facing the humanities, and the academy more generally.” Those challenges are both familiar and daunting. They include: “expanding managerialism and administrology, creeping professionalization and instrumentalization in career development, the public emphasis on STEM and the social disenchantment with the humanities.”

If STEM appears here as part of the increasingly hostile environment the humanities have to confront, this does not prevent Goldberg from singling out computer scientists as necessary for a humanities “afterlife.” Approving of the role computer scientists played in developing MOOC applications beyond “talking head videos,” Goldberg presents such applications as part of the larger project of innovation known as “the digital.” In the wake of this sea change, “our ways of relating, of critical commentary, our temporalities and modes of relation, the contrast between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ have all been profoundly affected.” Collaborations among humanists and computer scientists represent an academic vanguard riding (if not producing) this wave, generating all the while “new objects of analysis such as software studies, platform studies, screen studies, and gaming studies, cultural analytics, or production of and reflection on electronic literatures and poetry.” Thus the question: if computer science is our friend, can STEM be our enemy? (The answer is: no.)

Goldberg is obviously not alone in thinking of computer science as an ally for humanists. The University of California, Santa Cruz institutionalized that alliance with its B.S. in Computer Game Design, which “provides a rigorous education in computer science, in concert with a broad introduction to those aspects of art, music, narrative, digital media, and computer engineering most relevant to games.” Stanford, meanwhile, plans to offer new joint majors in Computer Science and, alternatively, Music or English. Through such means, proclaims Stanford English professor Nicholas Jenkins, “The worlds of the humanities and computer science are coming closer together.” Undergraduates in the University of Arizona’s School of Information Sciences, Technology, and Arts, may choose from either a B.S. in Information Science and Technology or a B.A. in Information Science and Arts, the later promoting itself as extending the idea of a “liberal arts education” because “In the Information Age, a well-educated citizen must understand the interrelatedness of information science, technology and arts.” Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication offers an array of programs including a B.S. in Computational Media that requires students to choose both a humanities and a computer science “thread.” Southern Methodist University offers a B.A. in Creative Computing which it describes as “a new, highly interdisciplinary major combining theory and methodology from computer science and engineering with aesthetic principles and creative practice from the arts.” And so on.

Again with the Science Wars?

Since all this activity flies in the face of the narrative that presents “STEM” as adversary of the “humanities,” it is worth wondering just how committed various parties are to continuing that fight.  The narrative paradigm was probably set by C. P. Snow’s 1959 “Two Cultures” lecture, although we would do well also to remember Laurence Veysey’s important contribution in his 1965 Emergence of the American University. Veysey characterized the university, from its late nineteenth century origins, as divided between arguments on behalf of useful research made by scientists and engineers and arguments on behalf of “culture” made by an unruly mob of humanist complainers.

In the 1990s, the two sides famously went to “war” over their differences. Developing a media relations strategy funded by the conservative Olin foundation and popularized by literary traditionalists in the “Culture Wars,” Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994) threw down a gauntlet happily picked up by the “academic left.” The editors of Social Text obligingly published the notorious Sokal hoax.

With an obstinance satisfying to only the dimwitted and/or bellicose, mainstream journalism of the day delighted in setting naively realist scientific epistemologies against caricatures of “postmodernist” ones. Thus was it proven that the two cultures remained irreconcilable.

Scholarship at the time and since has established that the supposed sides in this argument largely talked past one another. Explaining that there was really nothing to be learned about science and its study from the Sokal hoax, Andrew Ross hoped nonetheless “that the mutual embarrassment–for scientist and nonscientist commentators alike–will generate new and unforeseen kinds of dialog” (“Reflections on the Sokal Affair,” Social Text [1997] 50: 152). Mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg began publishing detailed chronicles of the intellectual laziness and sloppy argumentation that fueled the “Science Wars.” Meanwhile, Ullica Segersträle’s edited collection Beyond the Science Wars: The Missing Discourse About Science and Society (2000) provided an explanatory context for the often astonishing misrepresentations involved.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the general-public-facing literature of the “Science Wars” is just about the last place one should look for insight concerning how “scientists” and “humanists” really think about their prospects for working together.

It may be more surprising to learn, however, that these two sides and their respective cultures do not in fact exist as such.

Identities Only Public Relations Can Love

Science and Technology Studies (STS) veteran Steve Fuller usefully estranges the “two cultures” hypothesis in his contribution to the Segersträle collection. “If we are indeed witnessing a clash of disciplinary worldviews,” he asks, “why have so few humanists and social scientists rushed to the side of their colleges who make the natural sciences and technology their objects of study?” (186). His answer is that STS in fact descends not from the efforts of social scientists but from those of natural scientists, like C.P. Snow, who felt that scientists should better engage humanist approaches.

Fuller provides an illuminating genealogy of the “Science Wars” from this perspective, and his argument receives unacknowledged confirmation in John Guillory’s 2002 Critical Inquiry article on the Sokal affair. Guillory demonstrates that literary critics have a stake in the “two cultures” debate, but only if they can construe it as being all about them. The Sokal hoax “has less to tell us about the politics of science, or science studies,” he asserts, “than about the history of criticism” (471). Specifically, “because the antirealist position had achieved something close to the status of consensus in the literary academy, it did not have to be backed up by fully elaborated philosophical arguments, it could simply be stated” (475). Tidily sweeping several decades of relatively autonomous work in STS under the rug of the “literary academy’s” consensus, Guillory goes on to explain why a rigorous literary theory, purged of troubling influences from the social sciences, would not have left itself open to attacks on “cultural construction.” Construing the Sokal affair as the reproduction of “two cultures” requires stern reduction of “the humanities” to a disciplinarily limited problem set. Just so, Guillory lectures his audience, the only difference that really matters is between the “methodology of the sciences (observation, experiment, quantification) and the methodology of criticism (interpretation)” (498).

For Fuller, in contrast, the lesson to be learned from the “Science Wars” is that the sides have been drawn all wrong: “a more productive debate would realign the parties so that scientists and STSers who wish to protect the academy from the rest of society could stand on one side, while those who wish to use the academy as a vehicle for reforming society could stand on the other” (209). We agree: that debate would be more productive.

It is important to note that Fuller’s argument (published in 2000) precedes the moment when “STEM” leapt easily to academic lips (hard to date exactly, but sometime around the 2007 publication of the Congressionally commissioned report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, which uses the term, but not promiscuously). Although the rise of STEM clearly structures any number of arguments in the present, its very assemblage invites skepticism about “two cultures” thinking.

STEM betrays its essentially bureaucratic origins in grouping as “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” disciplines that otherwise think of themselves as distinct and often internally split between “basic” and “applied” orientations. No doubt, the rubric has recently served an important function for funders and policymakers–something of the scope of activity can be grasped via the STEMConnector–but it has done so precisely by bundling into one nation, as it were, what might otherwise seem a diverse archipelago.

(It is worth noting that the success of this effort has a precedent in the organization as “the humanities” of all those disciplines left out of the developing “natural” and “social” science areas of the 1930s.)

The internal diversity of STEM could hardly escape scientists. Computer scientists provide the case in point. Although undoubtedly part of the triumphant nation of STEM, computer scientists apparently still feel the need to establish that their science is one. In “The Science in Computer Science: The Computing Sciences in STEM Education” (Ubiquity March 2014 DOI: 10.1145/2590528.2590530), Paul Rosenbloom argues that “It is time to go beyond the straightforward conclusion that computer science is a respectable scientific discipline–such as physics or psychology–to the bolder conclusion that computing actually constitutes an entire domain of science. . . . The computing sciences are the equal of the physical, life and social sciences.” Rosenbloom locates this science’s distinction in its ability to understand “information and its transformation.” (Thanks to Duncan Buell for this reference.) Similar arguments were made in the 1970s, relatively early in the computer science enterprise (see, e.g., Wegner, Peter. “A View of Computer Science Education.” The American Mathematical Monthly 79.2 (1972): 168-179.)

With the complexity revealed by STEM in mind, we cannot entirely agree with James Clifford’s admirable effort in “The Greater Humanities” to recognize “an already-existing reality–overlapping assumptions, epistemologies, and methods” adding up to a “sprawling configuration of knowledge practices” uncontainable “by more narrowly defined disciplinary traditions” (2).

It is clear that underacknowledged affiliations exist among literature, history, linguistics, “all the ‘studies and interdisciplines,'” sociocultural anthropology, “embattled sectors of politics, economics, and psychology,” and “what we might call the ‘theoretical arts’–including theater arts, performance studies, film, and digital media.”  But we do not share Clifford’s desire to construe this assemblage as STEM’s “other half.” Much better, we think, to acknowledge that “STEM” is no more a monolith than “The Greater Humanities” would be.

We ask you, fellow humanist: do you really want to approach potential collaborators in CS as an ambassador from the proud empire of “Greater Humanities” in hopes of striking a grand bargain with the mighty people of STEM? Or, might you be better off trying to figure out whether you can have a shared conversation with various scientists, social scientists, and fellow humanists concerned with “information” and the ends to which it can be “transformed’? The organizing rubric of the “two cultures,” useful and probably essential for national policy debates and media campaigns, are–“Science Wars” style–more likely to thwart than encourage any decent conversation about what the university might do. Unlike the popular press, with its deeply ingrained habit of point-counter-point narration, academics really should be able to count past two.

This would seem especially to be urged by the fact that a great many of the “Greater Humanities”  fields in Clifford’s list did not exist when C.P. Snow first lamented the “two cultures.” Indeed a comparable disciplinary explosion in the sciences arguably made it necessary to provide a slogan uniting “science, technology, engineering, and math.” The disciplinary proliferation that produced STS alongside computer science, the “theoretical arts,” and, say, biomechanical engineering, points, again, to an institutional problem set all constituents of the contemporary research university share.

It’s All about Work

If there is any lingering truth to the two cultures model, it resides at the level of work practice. Where humanists largely insist on a single author (with all that entails for the fetishizing of genius that resides within a unique brain and body), research in the sciences and some wings of the social sciences involves far more various actors. These run the gamut from strictly hierarchical labs with a (more or less) charismatic leader as PI to crowdsourced experiments and fieldwork collaborations (replete with the possibility of native informants). Although humanists working in areas including STS or the history of anthropology are notable analysts and critics of these scholarly modes, they engage in them less often.

Humanists’ imaginations of what research looks like situates us in narrow disciplinary ways, as Mario Biagioli memorably argued in Critical Inquiry in 2009. The sciences are moving towards “organizing their 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).

For all that collaboration has become usual in certain corners of the humanities, it is still atypical for a humanist approaching a new project to begin by imagining what kind of cluster or team will be required. Instead, if the project demands skills the humanist does not possess, she will seek to learn them herself. This was certainly John’s approach when he decided to write a little bit about “failed states” and to do so read nothing but political science articles for the better part of a year. Mark notes that interdisciplinarity meant something very different when he was working in the University Libraries on a digital video repository. That project involved teamwork among variously equipped equipped experts brought together to engage a particular problem.

Precisely because it comes from science and the corporate sector, the project-based team is liable to provoke fears of contamination among humanists rigorously trained to believe their methods uniquely capable of “critique.” Yet collaboration can also provide an invigorating interruption to humanist business as usual. This is how English Professor Eduardo Cadava described it in an interview (with John’s Fall 2013 working group) about, among other things, his experience teaming up with photographers and museum curators. “If I can put it this way,” Cadava suggested, “collaboration should always also be about interrupting yourself. That’s part of what can happen with a collaboration is that you can be interrupted, and I think things can happen when you’re interrupted.” Teamwork has the virtue of shaking the solitary scholar out of habitual practice.

Collaborative programs that link computer science and humanist work ought to make both appear more various. They ought to remind us that STEM is no monolith, as we argue above, and they also ought to loosen the grip of the solitary humanist researcher. We would not mandate  teamwork in place of the solitary labors of  humanists or scientists. Our hope, rather, is that a broader range of practices might fall within the norm for humanist research. Nearly a century ago, John Dewey identified  “knowledge cooped up in private consciousness” as myth. The humanities remain too much in its thrall.

Which is not to say that humanists commitments to single-author publication are “merely” ideological. “The science model,” Biagioli argues, “is hardly applicable to the humanities because we usually decouple our research from the training of graduate students. Instead, some scientists’ teaching takes the form of running labs where they train graduate students while conducting their own research. Therefore, not only do they have more time to engage in collaborations but they can also mobilize more resources (such as their labs and graduate students) for such projects” (821n16).

Humanists do not need labs (although some enjoy them). And they may refer to the labs they do need as “libraries.” But the way labs “couple” graduate training with faculty research might spur us to imagine alternatives to our current arrangements, allowing us to steer more deftly between the Scylla of defensive ghettoization and the Charybdis of overloaded service commitment to interdisciplinary programs and centers.

We have had many occasions to flag the confusion of department with discipline on this work-in-progress blog. Persistent (and sometimes unconscious) efforts to make the one form fit the other produce a recurring stumbling block for humanist experimenters. For this reason, we enjoy Biagioli’s evocation of a research model that does not need a department-like structure in order to educate students. This proposition appeals particularly to those of us (like Mark) who find themselves in institutional situations where strongly departmentalized humanities disciplines (like English and History) limit the contributions that locally non-departmentalized disciplines (like Film and Media Studies) can make to graduate training (and thus the reproduction of “the humanities”).There is, to be sure, no shortage of support for “interdisciplinary” work among professors in established humanities departments, but the habits of disciplinary reproduction often leave little room in curricula for the development of alternative competencies.

Money in the humanities and social sciences has historically flowed more through tuition dollars than grants, which is part of why pedagogical experiments like those involving the construction of new joint majors between computer science and humanities departments is so appealing. But for these experiments to actually succeed in the longer term, they need to break down or radically supplement a departmental structure that tends to be inflexible in its relation to discipline. Once upon a time, humanities scholars sought to designate the seriousness of their enterprise by arguing that it rivaled the stringency of science. We suggest another kind of relationship, one less burdened by ressentiment. The lesson of the “Science Wars” should be that two cultures arguments do not serve us well at all, and that there is more to learn from the working friendships humanists are in the process of institutionalizing with computer scientists.

The Geography of Humanities PhDs

Dear John,

While you’ve been convening your think tank, I’ve been engaged in a secret project. Surprise!

Did you ever wonder where (in the US) humanities PhDs are made?

Turns out English PhDs are made everywhere, which comes as little surprise–although a major caveat about what that means exactly below.

Less self-evidently, the maps I’ve generated reveal something of the way universities have been distinguishing themselves by supporting additional PhD programs, such as Film Studies, Religion, and Rhetoric.

It turns out to be remarkably easy, if a bit time consuming, to produce maps of this kind of thing using Google’s Fusion Tables. I simply downloaded the relevant data from the NCES IPEDS Data Center, selected  PhD “first” major completions from it, and then uploaded those to Fusion Tables as a csv file. Google’s platform allows one to merge in other data–like the IPEDS information about institutional characteristics that includes the geographical coordinates of reporting institutions. It also allows one to filter and summarize the data in basic ways. It’s not possible to save merged, summarized, or filtered data within Google directly, so any serious manipulation requires a process of downloading and the re-uploading the tables one creates. Once the geo-coordinates are in there, Fusion Tables can make a variety of simple maps, and one can combine them using the Fusion Tables Layer Wizard. After learning a bit about how to add Javascript to posts on our little site here–it’s not perfect!–I can present:

2012 Total PhDs by State and Institution.


Click around in it! If it gets confused, refresh your browser.

It turns out, no surprise, that a map of English PhDs looks similar.

2012 English PhDs by State and Institution.



What’s with Alaska? You’d think they’d be readers up there. In any case, English PhDs are minted pretty much all over the country and in roughly the same proportions as all PhDs. By “English PhDs” I mean those degrees counted in the two digit CIP 23, so it includes the creative writers and the rhetoric and composition scholars. (Readers wanting a crash course in CIPs can look at my post here.)

Now it gets interesting. It won’t surprise you that I next made this map of Film Studies PhDs (CIP 50.0601).

2012 Film Studies PhDs by State and Institution.



Many prominent PhD programs are notably absent here. To try to figure out why, I did some emailing around to colleagues and promptly discovered that most faculty members, even those who have held administrative positions as chairs or directors, have no clue how their institutions report degrees in their fields. This is all decided above, or at least beyond, the department level. Reaching the helpful people in Brown University’s Office of Institutional Research, I discovered that their Modern Culture and Media Studies PhD reports under 09.0102 or “Mass Communication/Media Studies” in CIP09 for Communications, which is not typically included in national aggregations for humanities degrees. PhDs in 09.0102 look like this:

2012 Media Studies PhDs by State and Institution.



This is interesting in that it clearly counts programs, like Brown’s, whose graduates think of themselves as Film and Media Studies scholars, while also counting programs, like the one at the University of South Carolina, in Communications proper. The two groups don’t mix as much as we should–we attend different professional conferences, for example. In combination, then, the two maps reveal confusion about how to count “Film and Media Studies” in that similar programs are being counted under different numbers. But they also suggest some kind of clarity in that no institution counts completions in both.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be the case that institutions have decided to support either the more social scientific approach of Mass Communications or the more humanistic approach of Film and Media Studies. Six of the nine institutions producing PhDs under 50.0601 also report PhDs in the “09” Communications area–so they do both even though none of these six reported PhDs under both 50.0601 and 09.0102 specifically. It seems that among those making the selection these two CIPs are seen as alternatives to one another: pick one and place the degree in “humanities”; pick the other and define it as “communications.” The “error,” if we want to call it that, tends to be in the second direction. That is, programs that would probably not think of themselves as “mass communications” are being grouped in that way, but the reverse is unlikely to occur. There is some regional specificity to the pattern, since of the three schools that have 50.0601 PhDs and 09 PhDs but no 09.0102 PhDs, two, UCLA and UC Berkeley, are in the higher education mega-state of California.

It bears emphasizing that the two maps combined certainly underreport Film and Media Studies PhDs–major programs at NYU and UT Austin don’t show up in either list, for instance, and I’ve been unable to figure out how they are reported.

Of course, even if we mentally combine the two maps we get nothing like the saturation coverage of English. But that merged map might look kinda sorta like that of another relatively small humanities area, Religion/Religious Studies (CIP 38.0201).

2012 Religion PhDs by State and Institution.



With some intriguing differences, both Religion and Film/Media show concentration in the upper Midwest, in the South, New England, Texas, and California (can’t get that Dead Kennedys song outta my head, you know the one). These are areas that also show the heaviest concentrations in the totals map with which we started. The big ed states are big no matter which PhD you look at. Since the Religion map is less filled-in, one could see this as the geography of a system that has historically seen PhDs in English and History as foundational “must haves.” Institutions added other PhDs as they grew, but more selectively. Notably, there’s not all that much institutional overlap between Religion and Film/Media. Of the thirty-eight institutions reporting PhDs in Religion, only eight show up on either the Film or the Media map. So one could say that institutions have chosen to invest in some humanities “extras” and not others.

Of course, this might all look very different if Film and Media Studies were counted in a consistent way. But on the other hand, English and History might look look more like Media and Religion were subfield emphases broken out. Here, for example, is 23.1304, “Rhetoric and Composition.”

2012 Rhetoric PhDs by State and Institution.



Many schools offering PhDs in this discipline probably report them under the more general English CIP 23.0101–probably some Film Studies PhDs are reported that way too! In any case, they will appear in an aggregation of CIP 23. But what if they didn’t. In other words, if we freed our tabulation from the sedimented idea that “English” names a disciplinary and institutional unity and distinguished the various emphases and flavors lumped under that heading, would it any longer appear to have the kind of saturation it does in the second map above? Clearly our classification schemes (and to some extent our institutionalized imaginations) have been built on the English-and-History-first-then-humanities-“extras” model. But the drift of PhD programs over the last two or four decades has arguably been in the more selective direction indicated by the Film, Media, and Religion maps. To compete for students and distinction, institutions have sought to distinguish their particular strengths and flavors of degrees among offerings nationwide. It’s probably impossible to wrest a map that would show that mosaic from the available data, maybe with a bit more table time…


I. A. Richards’s Failed MOOC

An odd, rumpled little man with oversized glasses sits behind a desk. Looking up from his papers into the camera, he invites us to consider what “sense of poetry” might mean. What “sense” might poetry make? How might we “sense” it?  A feeling for poetry, we are assured, will be important to understanding it, although it is impossible, at the outset, to know exactly how. Through eight half-hour episodes, the burden of conveying both feeling and meaning falls heavily on the talking head’s distinctive Oxbridge voice. The program avails itself of few other resources to make poetry sensible.

Although he has a certain retro charm, “Professor and Lowell Television Lecturer at Harvard University” I. A. Richards could not be called a dynamic performer. He gets little help from the camera: its relentless medium close-up is interrupted only by the text of poems Richards reads at length, which scroll in white characters down a black screen. On rare but memorable occasions, Richards offers a chart, a device also employed in his classroom lectures at Harvard (the Crimson references his “famous diagrammatic slides” on May 11, 1964.)

I. A. Richards in Sense of PoetryDiagram from Sense of Poetry

The program’s vococentrism is partly the point. In episode six, which discusses Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Richards explains that “Poetry, like music, is a sound art.” Hearing this, one cannot help but wonder whether Sense of Poetry might have worked better in its radio rebroadcast, where Richards’s memorable diction for favored terms like “beauty” would not have competed for attention with his unruly hair and cramped visage. No getting around it: however important the subject matter, this is not good television. Our admiration for public media notwithstanding, had we been living in Boston in 1957, we would almost certainly have turned the dial from Sense of Poetry on WGBH (Channel 2) to NBC’s Dragnet on WBZ (Channel 4).

Produced by Lewis Barlow, who went on to have a long career in television, Sense of Poetry and its sequel Wrath of Achilles belong to a pioneering set of televised lectures featuring professors from a range of disciplines. Funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, the lectures were organized by the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council, of which WGBH, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard, MIT, and other major area colleges and universities were members. Richards’s lectures represent a historical conjuncture, like ours, in which major philanthropic, cultural, and educational institutions united in efforts to use a young, but rapidly maturing medium to broaden educational access.

If today’s digital humanities appear strikingly innovative, this is in part because we have forgotten their precedents. As we have noted repeatedly on this blog, a long history of humanities research and teaching across media presage more contemporary efforts. Thanks to generous funding from the Mellon Foundation designed to improve digital access to historical public television, we have had the opportunity to conduct archival research at WGBH-Boston on one largely unacknowledged precedent for the MOOC, namely, 1950s and 60s mass education efforts on TV.

In the WGBH archives, we were able to view televised lectures on psychology, science, and art aired in the same years as Richards’s shows. Many of these shows will soon be available online. We found the science and art series notably more televisual in style than Richards’s poetry appreciation class. The art program Open House, for example, took advantage of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which had been wired and lit for television broadcasting by 1956. In this show, the camera is free to guide the viewer’s attention by roaming the surface of the artworks being described–a technique now termed the “Ken Burns effect.”  Of all the shows we watched, Of Science and Scientists clearly had the biggest budget. Its episodes used stock footage to illustrate key points, employed a cast of scientists as opposed to a single lecturer, and staged dynamic lab experiments to punctuate the professors’ explanations. In their formal conventions, the art and science shows struck us as extending traditions of educational filmmaking and, rough as these early programs were at times, anticipating PBS staples like NOVA.

Richards’s programing in contrast looks like a televisual dead end, an immature or ill-conceived vision of what the medium could do for education. True, Wrath of Achilles (based on Richards’s abridged translation of The Iliad) makes a concession to visuality by deploying Greek sculptures as “springboards for the imagination.” Yet little effort is made to dynamize the statues. They appear not as three dimensional objects but rather as still slides projected alongside Richards’s talking head. Moreover, Richards reliance on handheld notes, which required him regularly to look down from the camera, differed notably from the practice evident on other shows, which used cue cards held offscreen. Although our research has yielded no conclusive explanation for this distinctly leaden visual style, it is easy to imagine that constraints of time, budget, and imagination conspired with Richards’s principled commitment to the spoken word.

Despite all this, Richards earned a primetime slot, got not one but two programs on the air with WGBH, and in so doing furthered his longstanding ambition to use mass media to teach. His shows were kinescoped to allow recirculation on the fledgling National Education Television network (ancestor to PBS), suggesting a broad possible audience. The information NET provided its distribution centers touts Richards’s “background and insight,” as well as his “dramatic flair” (“Individual Program Data”). That said, our search thus far has yielded no concrete evidence of showings outside Boston.

Notably, the NET bulletin also identifies Richards as “co-director of Language Research, Inc., producers of French Through Television.” Although we haven’t seen this show, WGBH was certainly involved in its production and aired 159 half-hour broadcasts in its first year of television broadcasting (September 1956 – August 1957).

Educational programs devoted to literature, and poetry specifically, were not uncommon at this time. In its first year, WGBH-TV devoted more than one-hundred and eleven program hours to literature, 8% of the total. “Linguistics” programs, like French Through Television, accounted for 7% of the total hours, and the most common type of programming, news, accounted for 23%. One-third of the literature programs that first year were produced by WGBH itself, and these included From Shakespeare to Auden, The Poet Speaks, and Poetry in the Great Hall. WGBH-FM had previously broadcast poetry programs, so presumably these shows developed strategies that worked on the radio. We didn’t have the opportunity to watch the other poetry programs, however, and cannot appraise their similarity to Richards’s televised appreciation lectures. Harvard provided no other “Lowell Television Lecturers” from its English Department, but this may have been because Ford Foundation support for faculty release time was limited and soon ran out (Lowell Institute).

What seem in retrospect to be failings of Richards’s TV programs–their visual poverty, lack of imitators, and dubious distribution–only deepen our interest in the conundrum identified in John’s post on Richards and elaborated in our article forthcoming in differences.

What sense to make of the fact that Richards derides mass media, often in hyperbolic terms, while also working seriously to produce it?

John proposed that “Richards personified” a historical divide: “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 [organized] the English department and its discontents from the mid-1940s onward.” Richards’s two WGBH series confirm that hypothesis. Moreover, from the broader field of view suggested by the Boston station’s collaboration with Harvard and other institutions, we can see just how overhyped the English-centered narrative has become. The terrain of humanist media experiment in the late 50s and 60s was so much richer than the story of comfortable New Critical hegemony suggests.

Richards’s career both affirms this hegemony and complicates it. Three decades before his work with WGBH, he established what would become a New Critical conceit. In Practical Criticism (1929), he argued that “mechanical inventions, with their social effects, and a too sudden diffusion of indigestible ideas, are disturbing throughout the world the whole order of human mentality, that our minds are, as it were, becoming of an inferior shape–thin, brittle and patchy, rather than controllable and coherent” (320). To this familiar problem–for what mass medium has failed to prompt comparable complaints that it stupefies and disturbs its users?–Richards offers a now-familiar solution: “Poetry, the unique, linguistic instrument by which our minds have ordered their thoughts, emotions, desires . . . in the past” offers “the most serviceable” means to right our thinking in the present (320).

A decade after his work for WGBH, Richards argued that TV was the best available means for building global education in English. In Design for Escape (1968), he declared that “the most capable channels for such teaching are film, film-strip, tape, records, picture text, TV–modern media, extant or to be–computer-handled” (3). He cautioned, however, that a “new, severe, and most exacting puritanism of purpose” would be required “to keep the distracting temptations of these media at bay” and to counter TV’s “powerful sedative action” (20). Retrospectively, the WGBH shows do seem like they might have resulted from a “puritanism of purpose.” Perhaps the severity of Richards’s tone is best understood as an attempt to steer between the Scylla of distraction and the Charybdis of sedation.

The situation in 1968 is clearly complicated by the fact that Richards denounces the very medium he deems “most capable”: “Who in the habit of watching much current TV,” he asks, “or of studying typical devotees under the spell and the expectations it has taught them to bring to it, can feel any great upsurge of hope when TV is mentioned as a major instructional force?” (19). In phrasing his rhetorical question, Richards makes an interesting distinction between skeptics “in the habit of watching” television and the “typical devotees” enchanted by it. For the question to make sense, the group of skeptical viewers must include both himself and his readers–habitues familiar enough with the medium to lament its devotees’ educational prospects. So what was Richards watching in ‘68? Who knows? Perhaps his guilty pleasures included Star Trek, finishing its second season that spring, or the long-running Gunsmoke, which had been on since ‘55 and was completing its second season in color.

Regardless of what he was actually watching, Richards’s conviction that television would be good for us only if it could be something else recalls early-century efforts to develop film as an art form. Around the time Richards was inveighing against mechanical reproduction in Practical Criticism, imagist poet H.D. and her Pool Group collaborators were at work on their landmark avant-garde feature film Borderline (1930). Like so many modernists of the interwar period, the Pool Group’s hostility to mainstream commercial cinema inspired calls for greater attention to the distinct possibilities of different media forms. They did not mean to save poetry from film, but to explore the expressive possibilities of each medium through their work in the other. Similarly, although more devoted to instruction than poetic expression, educational filmmakers had by 1930 developed stylistically distinct films for classroom use as well as a system for distributing them (see Orgeron, et al. and Achland and Wasson). In contrast to these efforts to expand what media can be and do, Richards insists upon prophylaxis; either poetry counteracts mass media’s mental derangement (1929) or, if media are to provide privileged pathways for literary education (1968), their naturally seductive tendencies must be controlled by a sternly literary super-ego.

Just as Richards’s 1929 approach eschewed modernist engagement with mass media, his 1968 approach eschewed new waves of televisual experiment. One example of such experiment, the artists’ collective cum think tank Raindance Corporation was founded 1969. Though its journal Radical Software and how-to manual Guerrilla Television, this organization promoted a host of activist video and television projects bridging educational institutions and community groups. Richards can perhaps be forgiven inattention to these upstarts. Their artistic, political, and scholarly predilections seem so very different from his own. Still, the example of Practical Criticism suggests that disinterest in media experiments outside poetry (or after Pound) characterized Richards’s entire career. He seems supremely confident in his ability, first, to make sweeping pronouncements about audiovisual mass media and, second, to evaluate them primarily by assessing their capacity to transmit selected literary accomplishments of prior epochs.

Should we take up a position prepared for us by the interminable cultural wars and caricature this Richards along with the sort of English departments that he helped found? It would be easy to do so. He plays the part of the literary traditionalist so well: the appeal to timeless truths transmitted from Plato through Keats to You, the Student; the insistence that the sense of great poems may be discovered simply by listening, really listening to them (in circumstances carefully controlled through professorial selection and guidance); and, of course, the conviction that civilization will fall if we don’t all learn Homer.

In the seventh episode of Wrath of Achilles, Richards challenges viewers to appreciate that Homer has historical relevance beyond its stature as great poetry: “These nightmare horrors, however ancient The Iliad may be, are with and in us today.” He cautions that we must remember what the epic tells us about who we “most deeply are” because “We’ll help men in the future best if we don’t forget ourselves.” By long conditioned reflex, our inner voices cry out: “What do you mean ‘we’? If it’s abiding human themes you’re after, why insist on The Iliad and not . . . fill in the blank, but Kurosawa’s 1958 The Hidden Fortress comes to mind? And honestly, must ‘we’ search out in our depths truths manifest on the page?” Enough: we will never be Platonists, and these obsessions of Richards’s are not what most concerns us. We are happy to affirm that poems have value and to agree that The Iliad is worth contemplating. We are eager to engage arguments about when, where, and how “the human” may be discovered. We just think poetry, as a form, no more nor less interesting than any other. No form of human expression simply transmits content; each informs it. Media make sense differently. We wish Richards could have discovered this and avoided tying himself up in knots, treating TV both as poetry’s enemy and its instrument of salvation, if only the professors could learn to control the technology’s contaminating power.

Thus we prefer a different Richards, a bona fide media experimenter whom we also like to imagine as a closeted Trekkie. This Richards failed productively. By providing negative examples, his televised lectures helped clarify what educational programs would become.

For the next decade, Harvard and WGBH continued to collaborate, producing a variety of shows, among them for-credit course programming under the aegis of the Commission on Extension Courses, a cooperative open-enrollment effort led by Harvard but also involving the other institutions comprised in the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council. The first TV courses for college credit were offered in the fall of 1959: European Imperialism, taught by Harvard history professor Robert G. Albion and A Study of Revolutions, by Harvard history professor Crane Brinton. Students taking these courses for credit were “expected to attend occasional conferences and the final examination” (Commission 21-22). Throughout the 60s the Commission on Extension Courses continued to use television to expand the audience for its general education program. Brinton’s course, for example, was offered on Polaris submarines as part of an arrangement with the U.S. Navy (“Atom Submarine’s”). From this start Harvard and WGBH would build PACE (Program for Afloat College Education), a two-year degree that would record 6,000 registrations for forty courses by the time it ended in 1972 (Shinagel 223).

Meanwhile, WGBH became more interested in drawing larger audiences to its programs. Although the station shared with Harvard an investment in producing television that improved audiences while also attracting them, it was increasingly clear where the institutions’ audiences and broader programming goals diverged. In order to preserve Channel 2 for shows addressing a more sizable audience, WGBH in 1966 began planning to move its K-12 educational programing, “The 21 inch Classroom,” to its new UHF channel (Glick). Technical difficulties delayed Channel 44 until 1967 (Lowell Institute). By the fall of 1968, however, WGBH was offering the Commission on Extension Courses four half-hour segments of prime time on the UHF channel at no cost in order to move the taped lectures off Channel 2.  As WGBH General Manager Hartford N. Gunn, Jr. explained in a letter to Harvard’s Reginald H. Phelps, Chairman of the Commission on Extension Courses, the station had already scheduled the cultural events show On the Scene, the demonstration program Exploring the Crafts, and the appreciation program Meet the Arts for 7:00-7:30 time slots, where Louis Lyons and Bob Baram’s news programs had already seen ratings boosts of 50%. Lyons, curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism from 1939 to his retirement from Harvard in 1964, had pioneered televised news criticism and commentary with his show the Press and the People in 1958.

Although much of the programing from the 1960s is not available, the documentation we have seen suggests that Harvard’s for-credit shows continued the ultra-low-budget “taped lecture” approach, while WGBH’s public affairs, how-to, and cultural interest shows developed the genres and styles that have grown familiar to viewers of public television. In November of 1969, the premiere of Sesame Street began a new chapter in televisual education. Supported by the two-year old Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Ford Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation, the well budgeted show drew upon a decade’s worth of experience in TV education to build a new audience: preschoolers. Indicatively, it called upon Harvard psychology professor Gerald S. Lesser not as a talking head but rather as an advisor behind the scenes. Serendipitously, at some point in the 1970s (we haven’t been able to determine exactly when) Richards’s former producer Lewis Barlow worked on the show.

By negative example, we are arguing, Sense of Poetry and Wrath of Achilles assisted in the discovery of what U.S. public television would be. If Richards failed to set a New Critical approach to Romantic poetry on the path that lead from Press and the People and Of Science and Scientists to the The NewsHour, NOVA, and Sesame Street, the fault may lie partly in his appropriation of a communications model developed by Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver’s 1949 Mathematical Theory of Communication. The introduction to the book Wrath of Achilles (1950), concludes with Richards’s port of this influential approach, complete with a diagram. In the model, information has a “source” (“Homer” with all the uncertainty that entails), passes through a “transmitter” (Richards), takes form in a “signal” (the printed word), which necessarily involves the incorporation of “noise,” before finding a “receiver” (“certain subsystems . . . in you”), and “destination” (your consciousness, a mystery comparable to “Homer”). Richards trusts poetry to get the message through, despite the attendant noise (25).

Richards’s interest in this type of approach almost certainly precedes the framework appropriated from mid-century information theory. His pioneering 1920s survey research for Practical Criticism, for example, demonstrated that students weren’t interpreting great literature in the ways their professors expected them to, and called for new (noise-canceling?) pedagogies to correct the problem. “That the one and only goal of all critical endeavours, of all interpretation, appreciation, exhortation, praise or abuse, is improvement in communication may seem an exaggeration. But in practice it is so,” wrote Richards (11). In any case, the signal/noise metaphor stuck. He references this communications model and repeats his hope that the signal will be received in Sense of Poetry episode five, the second of two installments devoted to Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden.”

Theories of mediation reject the transmitter-as-encoder, receiver-as-decoder communications model, and instead emphasize the noisy “signal” as the source. Doing so makes it possible to investigate the social and semiotic relations different forms of mediation afford. From this point of view (ours), it is a mistake to think of The Iliad as a “message” that has to defy noise-inducting encoding in order to be properly received. It is also a recipe for bad TV, since it requires one to treat that medium as an enemy, a vehicle whose properties must be resisted rather than exploited. In transposing his lecture style from classroom to television studio, Richards behaves as if trying to demediate his programming content, the better to distill its Platonic essence. Instead of making poetry a television sensation, he professed a more modest (but recognizably paradoxical) aim of preserving its sense.

It is impossible for us not to regret this approach, however much we admire Richards’s experimental efforts. His media innovation would be easier to champion if he were willing to compare television with the printed page rather presenting the former as a noisy channel for the latter. Because he cannot think in terms of the media experiments he conducts, his efforts have many of the same flaws we find in contemporary MOOCs, which treat the TED talk as if it were state of the art.

Which brings us to Richards’s successors. The 1970s witnessed a dramatic expansion of Harvard’s extension program. In 1971, it added a two-year Associate of Arts degree track with a more vocational orientation. With the retirement of Phelps in 1975, the enterprise was reorganized and a new Dean, Michael Shinagel, appointed. Harvard Extension withdrew from the Commission on Extension Courses consortium and began developing an array of graduate programs. Its distributed learning component went online as early as 1984, when the Teleteaching Project used Annenberg Foundation funding to develop a calculus course that could be offered by computer modem (Shinagel 177). It only makes sense, given their long-standing support of distance education, that Harvard and MIT would in 2012 announce edX, an effort to provide quality education for free worldwide over the internet. Many of the questions being asked by participants in the MOOC debate have precedents in late 50s educational television. Professors, students, administrators, investors, and interested observers want to know: What kinds of classes will work in the form? How will it be possible to certify completion and grant credit, to preserve the brand of elite institutions while marketing increased access to them, to generate a sustainable funding model? These questions are pressing, but the answers often appear to miss the mark in much the same way that Richards’s shows did. The lecture form, albeit with new and improved equivalents of “diagramatic slides” has leapt from the classroom to the computer screen. It can be found on YouTube, iTunes U, Udacity, Coursera, and their competitors.

MOOC innovation will not look like a hyperlinked version of the traditional classroom, nor will it resemble a PBS show.

At some point in the not-too-distant  future, mainstream “Massive Open Online Courses” will remind us of how thoroughly NOVA, Sesame Street, and Guerrilla TV reformulated “education” for the medium of television. These initiatives did not assume TV to be just another delivery system for the same old content. As a result, they ended up creating new types of educational experiences and new audiences to go along with them. To do this at scale required new institutions, like WGBH, the CPB, and the Children’s Television Workshop. Professors certainly contributed to these institutions, and continue to participate in their activities today (one notes, for instance, that even humanists get a hearing on The NewsHour). Academics do not control what goes on at PBS, however, any more than they manage affairs at NBC. As such we can add public television to a list of institutions where humanists work collaboratively but without the kind of autonomy generally privileged in the humanities wing of the academy.

Although MOOCs have not yet arrived at their Sesame Street moment, experiments in developing the form are well underway. Players like Udacity, edX, and Coursera have invested heavily in the format of short prerecorded lectures supplemented by quizzes. As we are writing in September 2013, the Udacity home page touts an Intro to Physics taught by Andy Brown, who, while lounging in what appears to be his backyard, entices students by promising they can “Study physics abroad in Europe — virtually! Learn the basics of physics on location in Italy, the Netherlands and the UK, by answering some of the discipline’s major questions from over the last 2000 years.” (As yet, Udacity offers no humanities courses. Funders: we would like to announce our interest in developing an overview of global media culture and feel that extensive location shooting worldwide would really make this work. Please contact us for a proposal.) Overall, the MOOC format seems to be figuring out how to reconcile television tropes such as location shooting, fun demos, and talking-head interviews with segments of prerecorded lectures and various approaches to algorithmically-mediated evaluation and teacher-student interaction.

Redesigning the classroom experience in ways that do not simply reproduce unidirectional models from educational film and television remains a challenge. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Georgia Tech professor Karen Head reports that in teaching a writing composition MOOC her team “found our pedagogical choices hindered by the course-delivery platform we were required to use . . . Too many decisions about platform functionality seem to be arbitrary, or made by people who may be excellent programmers but, I suspect, have never been teachers.” Head usefully calls attention to a central division of labor issue–who gets to say what the software will do?–while also foregrounding the kind of failure that might, like Richards’s programs, generate more innovation. “Despite the challenges,” Head writes, “being part of the early process of testing new pedagogical approaches was instructive” because it promises to abet efforts for “integrating new technologies into our traditional classes.” Such integration will no doubt continue to occur (Computing and Engineering Dean Jonathan Tapson predicts that we are 10 years out from the moment when MOOCs actually vie with “traditional classes”), but humanists like Head also may find themselves well positioned to help develop entirely new forms of education, perhaps for types of audiences they have not yet imagined.

It will be difficult to talk intelligently about such innovation if commentators in and outside the academy think of digital media as (noisy) vectors for existing educational material and goals.  The first lesson of Richards’s failure should be that media matters, and matters as a form, technology, and institution. The internet no more qualifies as a new delivery system for the same old content than television did. Both ought to encourage us to value experiments with form such as, to pick just one example, Alexandra Juhasz and Anne Balsamo’s feminist DOOC, or Distributed Open Collaborative Course (which has been covered here, here, and here.)

The second lesson of Richard’s failure, then, is that we must reject the story of the humanities that requires us to imagine the English department as the central pillar of general education. Although we are still accumulating evidence, it seems pretty clear that history and art history, for example, found it easier than literary criticism to contribute to educational television. In any case, there was much more going on in the humanities at mid-century than New Criticism and there was much more going on in humanities television than The Wrath of Achilles. So much more, in fact, that the predominance of English departments in internet-age accounts of the humanities can only appear self-serving.

Finally, the media savvy cannot afford to think in terms of academia vs. culture industries or to strongly oppose scholarship to journalistic or documentary work. Questions about who will decide what to do with MOOCs are vital and, at the moment, relatively open to a wide range of administrators, faculty, students, entrepreneurs, and policy makers. Online ed seems to be in a moment more like television education’s 1966 than its 1957. It is clear who many of the players in online education will be, but a counterpart to the Children’s Television Workshop has not emerged. This is why educational television in the decade following Richards’s WGBH shows holds so much interest. Despite his often hostile stance toward the medium, Richards clearly felt it was important to join a debate about TV’s future. And yet his sweeping antagonism can only have placed him at a disadvantage when it came to working with the increasingly professionalised individuals who produced television. It is worth learning from this mistake. Conspiratorial collaboration, rather than “puritanism of purpose,” strikes us as the appropriate attitude.

–Mark Cooper and John Marx

Special thanks to Allison Pekel, Leah Weisse, and Karen Cariani of the WGBH Archives and to Rachael Stoeltje of the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive.

Works Cited but not Linked

Acland, Charles R., and Haidee Wasson. Useful Cinema. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
“Atom Submarine’s Crew To Become ‘Harvard Men’.” Herald Tribune 2 Sept. 1960. Clipping. WGBH Archives. f. 287823
Commission on Extension Courses. University Extension Courses: Fiftieth Anniversary Program 1959-60. 1959. WGBH Archives. f.287823.
Glick, Edwin Leonard. WGBH-TV: The First Ten Years (1955-65). Ann Arbor: dissertation, 1970.
Homer. The Wrath of Achilles: The Iliad of Homer. I. A. Richards, trans.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1950.
“Individual Program Data: The Sense of Poetry.” Educational Television and Radio Center, 20 Feb. 1958. Indiana University Libraries Film Archive.
Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council  and WGBH Educational Foundation Annual Reports 1956-1966. WGBH Archives. 
Orgeron, Devin, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible. Learning with the Lights Off : Educational Film in the United States. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
 Phelps, Reginald H.  Letter  to Hartford Gunn. 31 July 1968. WGBH Archives f.349421. 
Richards, I. A. Design for Escape: World Education Through Modern Media. New York,: Harcourt, 1968.
—–.  Practical Criticism. London: Kegan Paul, 1930.
Shinagel, Michael. “The Gates Unbarred”: A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910-2009.  Cambridge, Mass: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2009. 

Redbook Redux

Dear John,

The Harvard professors are at it again. A recently released report, The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future,” picks up the banner of the mid-century General Education in a Free Society, albeit with a narrower brief of defending a role for the Humanities, as opposed to all of general education. Most notably for our purposes, this recasting of the Redbook recapitulates its refusal to understand mass media research and teaching as a central part of the humanities project.

Once again, however, there is also much to admire.  There’s a resounding opener: “The Arts and Humanities teach us how to describe experience, how to evaluate it, and how to imagine its liberating transformation.” Not bad for a document written by a committee! The account, refreshingly, is not English-centered and takes a long, if limited, historical view.

Moreover, borrowing from the Humanities Indicators project, the authors provide a responsible summary of long term data on humanities bachelors’ degrees. We see that after a steep drop in the 1970s national humanities BAs as a percentage of the total number have been more or less flat for the past two decades, with a slight decline after 2008. As we’ve noted elsewhere, following James English, the national trend numbers look different if one compares rates of growth in particular areas to the total growth in completions. Harvard is atypical in this respect, in that it has not increased undergraduate degrees significantly over the past decade. In the context of this document, reporting the national trend as degree-share (as opposed to growth-share) demonstrates that Harvard’s numbers have seen a more significant decline than the national average, particularly if one includes History BAs in the Humanities (a wise move, in my view). Nonetheless, the authors reasonably conclude: “we have less a ‘crisis’ in the Humanities in Harvard College . . than a challenge and opportunity” (11).

They also provide a clear path for reform. Faculty are encouraged to look to the freshman experience in particular, as the numbers show that “would-be” humanists are lost (mostly to Social Science) during that first year. As Russell Berman points out here, the overall case that humanists can and should take responsibility for enrollment declines and work to reverse them is refreshing and useful.

Still, it’s really too bad that this Harvard working group hasn’t been following our blog.

The trouble begins with their survey of arguments against the Humanities. They list five. The last, “The Technological Argument,” they summarize thusly:

Human societies, both literate and non-literate, have universally understood themselves through works of art that require deep immersion. In the twenty-first century, however, deep immersion is no longer the order of the technological day. New technologies disfavor the long march of narrative, just as they militate against sustained imaginative engagement. Students born after 1990 will not read paper books; much more significantly, they might not read books at all. The study of the “deep-immersion” art forms is the study of shrinking, if not of dying arts. Instead of lamenting that phenomenon, we should adapt to it. If we support the Humanities, we should support media studies, not the study of the high arts. (5-6)

It’s not entirely clear whether the first sentence, with its dubious declaration of a universal form of art appreciation, is meant to gloss the argument they are against or to assert their own viewpoint. In either case, the equation of “deep immersion” with printed narratives must be a straw man. How could educated and alert 21st century persons fail to acknowledge the possibility of deeply immersive experiences of audio visual works (narrative and otherwise) as well as shallow experiences of print material? (I might as well confess that while I understand and value the kind of sustained reflection I think they are describing, the language of “deep immersion” makes me think of the sensory deprivation tanks in Altered States.)

Most vexing, however, is this summary’s construal of a different vision for the humanities–one that includes “media”–as an argument against the humanities. They cite Toby Miller here. Maybe his misleading jeremiad against the “Humanities One” of elite universities got under their skin.  Or maybe this is really directed against Cathy Davidson-style “new media change everything” rhetoric. In any case, the drawing up of sides here is all wrong and, it turns out, symptomatic.

Although the authors encourage humanists to stop fighting the culture wars, their framing of “media” vs. “high arts” belies their debt to the powerful mid-century framing of the humanities that started those wars in the first place. The Redbook, like New Criticism, wrote out myriad collaborative efforts across the developing Humanities and Social Science disciplines, efforts  to engage mass media and the populations they addressed. Only by ignoring this interdisciplinary history could anyone believe that there was a void at the heart of the humanities that only the close reading of literature could fill.

The authors follow their statistical analysis with a history lesson that repeats this exclusion of mass media by ignoring almost everything that has happened in the university in the last 100 years. Beginning with the incorporation of the “Liberal Arts” tradition in the Medieval university, they find the Humanities “approaching their modern form” in historical and philological inquiry of the fifteenth-cenutry (12). Interestingly, the description insists on the instrumental value of this knowledge, “intended to transform the world through humane, enlightened action” (13). The truly modern university arrives in the nineteenth century with secularization, the study of vernacular languages, and such disciplines as Art History (15). That’s it. The authors feel no need to follow the history of the Humanities into the twentieth-century in order to define them as:

(i) disinterested, critical scholarship designed to uncover historical truth, (ii) the instructor of technical, applicable skills, and (iii) as the promoter of enlightened, engaged civic action that trains students constructively to understand their own humanity and that of others. (15)

In truth, this tripartite definition owes a clear debt to the twentieth-century history that the authors’ decline to narrate. Aspect (iii) harkens back to the mid-twentieth-century Redbook rhetoric recently revitalized by Harpham. Aspect (ii) rebuts those who question the Humanities’ market value, while (i) sides with those who insist that freedom from the marketplace is necessary for the Humanities to function. The definition deftly–tactically–avoids lingering controversies of poststructuralism. It does not mention that “historical truth” will necessarily be plural, but those in-the-know may infer it. Similarly, “their own humanity and that of others,” manages rhetorically the conflict between those who imagine “the human” to name a unity and those who think it a set of differential relations. Above all, the past informing this definition rings in the assertion of a need to balance these three particular imperatives–a mission that made sense for the Humanities, as opposed to Liberal Arts, only after the research university began to split off the STEM and Social Science disciplines as progenitors of useful, specialized, technical knowledge.

In short, by closing the curtain on the twentieth century that intervenes between the modern universities’ emergence and the present, the Harvard professors bracket off any number of controversies in order to distill an idealized humanist tradition. Unfortunately, this comes at the price of understanding many of the twentieth-century developments that inform their definition of the Humanities.

Instead of delving into the last hundred years of university history, the Harvard report isolates four “Current Traditions in the Arts and Humanities”: “(i) skeptical, detached critique; (ii) appreciative but disinterested enjoyment, (iii) enthusiastic identification and engagement, and (iv) artistic making” (29).

These are all given hoary pasts, which make for some strange pairings in the present. Those in Women’s and Gender Studies or African-American Studies may find themselves surprised to be assigned to category (iii) as “engaged enthusiasts” who belong to “Other departments . . . founded since the 1970s” that “are grounded on forms of more recent identification (e.g. gender, race)” (18).  The inference that these disciplines affirm identity without critical analysis of systemic racism and sexism is unfortunate and possibly unintended. (Although it is in keeping with the report’s suggestion that the humanities in general have overvalued specialized critique and at the expense of engagement and identification.) Similarly, those who have learned from the Frankfurt School tradition of immanent critique may be surprised to find it identified with “skeptical detachment and critique” and  “post-WWII . . . pessimism about universal humanism” (19).

Predictably, the authors analytically separate the four strands only to demonstrate the need for their balanced relation. My complaint is not so much with this procedure as it is with the cracked understanding of the present it produces. Disciplines like Gender Studies and African-American studies derive from historical uses of categories of race and gender to administer populations more clearly than they do from the tradition of Romantic identification. The Frankfurt School is better known for its powerful and influential account of the difference mass media make to human social relations that it is for its critique of  “universal humanism.” Each of these endeavors represents an important meeting point of social scientific and humanistic enterprise. But the authors of the Harvard report consistently ignore such interdisciplinary patterns.

If the authors really want an engaged humanities, why wouldn’t they emphasize the past century of their involvement in projects that spanned the university, stretched outside it, and participated in efforts to create and regulate media forms that reach very large audiences?

It is tempting to find a partial explanation in a desire to exaggerate the distinction between the Humanities and the Social Sciences, which the report points out are so successfully recruiting Harvard’s would-be humanists. But in truth, the report has a lot to say about the overlap between these branches of learning. When it works to distinguish humanist epistemologies, it tellingly makes “empirical science” their alternative, presumably to allow the myriad forms of interpretive Social Science to fall, unscathed, through the rhetorical gap between the two. Social Science is a competitor in this view, but not necessarily an antagonist.

The real threat to Harvard’s vision for the Humanities today, as in 1945, lies outside the gates, in the forms of culture the professors believe they do not make or control but wish they could–a belief and a wish structured by a denial of the humanities’ intervention in those very forms of culture. Late in the report, the authors return to the topic of the “Information, Interpretation and the Information Technology Revolution.” At long last, the report acknowledges that humanists might study “‘popular culture'”! And yet: the Harvard authors immediately submerge the popular within an “immensely rich and large” now electronic archive (39). The authors assert that this archive “presents challenges born of new content, new tools, new competence, and new interpretive challenges.”

To belabor the point, these challenges would seem far less radically new, were certain basic twentieth-century realities such as film and television even acknowledged (neither is mentioned in the text). But the truly notable feature of this string of “new” and revolutionary materials is their rhetorical collision with the reports’ overall pitch that no novelty is required of the present, that humanists should look to old traditions and forget twentieth-century conflicts in order to reenergize the project of meaningful general education for freshmen.

The aim of reenergizing general eduction is worthy but the predicates the authors give it are wrong. The effort to segregate a humanist tradition from engagements with histories of population administration and mass media is a step backwards. Although the report is eager to see the culture wars recede in the rearview mirror (28), it remains locked in the terms that produced that conflict. Exactly like their 1945 forebears, 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 century, other humanists have wisely rejected these alternatives.




In the past week both President Barack Obama and MLA President Michael Bérubé have drawn attention to one of our favorite topics, namely, measuring higher education outcomes. In the State of the Union, Mr. Obama asked  “Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid” and announced  “a new ‘College Scorecard‘ that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” In an article for the Chronicle Review, Professor Bérubé reprised comments earlier reported depicting a “seamless garment of crisis” in Humanities graduate education. We’ve commented on the earlier report here.

Within 24 hours, Bérubé’s remarks were twice forwarded with approving notes to faculty in Mark’s department. So, in terms of resonance with English professors, Bérubé beat the White House. Since we think federal policy likely to be more formative in shaping this discussion than pronouncements from the MLA, the difference in reception wants concrete examination.

In our view, the White House’s plan presents humanists with a very clear challenge: that of making sure the numerical measures actually capture outcomes in our disciplines. Kevin Kiley offers this point of view in a recent post on Inside Higher Ed. He argues that “the scorecard does not include information about learning outcomes, long-term student success or student satisfaction, factors that many in higher education say are equally valuable and are areas where institutions that value general education would likely perform well.” Kiley’s sources include  Rich Ekman, “president of the Council of Independent Colleges, which represents about 600 small private colleges.” Ekman notes:  “‘Short-term measures don’t tell you enough of the story. We don’t want people to go to school for just one reason. There are lots of reasons that factor into that decision, and the scorecard privileges the wrong ones.'”

Ekman must have in mind the scorecard’s Employment metric, which is notably still under construction (and may require a change in federal law to put into effect), but that seems likely to skew toward those fields that place students in high paying jobs immediately upon graduation, since good information about outcomes over the the long term is harder to come by. Short term data is becoming available from a number of sources, however, including and Payscale. The latter ranks institutions by graduate salary. Pick any spot in the list, and one discovers strange bedfellows. Princeton is on top, followed by Harvey Mudd, Caltech, the Naval Academy, West Point, MIT, and Lehigh. College Measures has data for some states and some schools within those states and some majors within those schools. It is a little difficult to compare apples and apples.

In mounting a reasonable critique of the White Houses’s strategy for presenting the data that is out there, Kiley notes that liberal arts advocates have a concrete stake in what data are collected and presented and ought to join that argument. Bérubé’s approach is notable for his avoidance of this challenge or anything like it. So what, we wonder, would make his column appealing to English professors?

In that column, the humanities crisis is primarily a crises of graduate education. It is defined by: overproduction of PhDs, an inability to find alternative career paths for Humanities PhD holders, and the apparent intractability of an increasingly tiered workforce divided between tenure-track and casual professors. Bérubé concludes that “we need to remake our programs from the ground up, to produce teachers, and researchers, and something elses, but since it is not clear what those something elses might be, we haven’t begun to rethink the graduate curriculum accordingly.”

This argument is frustrating for a number of reasons.

First, because some of us have begun to think about those something elses, and in ways that do not require us to divorce graduate from undergraduate education. (As we discuss in another earlier post, David Laurence’s research into the humanities workforce is an important effort in this regard.)

Second, because we do in fact have some sense of what else humanities grads are already doing, it seems counter productive in the extreme to “remake our programs from the ground up” as Bérubé suggests. Rather, it makes better sense to exploit what they already do well and revise the rest. (In a recent article for the Chronicle, Meghan Doherty provides an interesting run down of the strengths and weaknesses of the humanities PhD as preparation for nonacademic work. ) We don’t need a revolution, but rather reform that acknowledges the range of fields in which humanities grads succeed after school.

Third, because the apparent radicalism of Bérubé’s appeal seems more likely to result in temporarily satisfying but ultimately fruitless hand-wringing than actual change. Tear it up and start anew is rewarding to think but institutionally foolish. (As Bérubé rightly notes, Deans get nervous when departments trash whole curricula and swerve wildly in their strategic plans.) Build on your strengths and fix the rest seems a more prudent (if less exciting) way to go. We’d encourage foregoing the catharsis of blowing things up.

Bérubé is right to voice concern about some currently fashionable ideas for reform. Attempts to equate Alt-Ac with Digital Humanities put too much faith in the promise of technology and too little in the power to organize a division of labor. It is also worth remembering, as Bérubé notes, that we have been down the Alt-Ac road before: then MLA President Elaine Showalter tried to promote something like it in 1998 and was shouted down by a disparate array of critics who feared the creation of a “second class” of PhDs and PhD programs. Acknowledgement of that concern, however, ought not blind us to the reality on the ground. Many humanities grads already work in alternatives outside academe.

Business school deans seem to be further along in thinking about this than the president of the MLA. The Wall Street Journal reports “that the business schools at George Washington University, Georgetown University, Santa Clara University, and others are tweaking their undergraduate business curricula in an attempt to better integrate lessons on history, ethics, and writing into courses on finance and marketing.” At an Aspen Institute meeting of business school leaders last month, the Journal reports considerable discussion about “ways to better integrate a liberal arts education into the business curriculum.” The reason for this campaign is obvious: employers want employees with liberal arts skills. “Companies say they need flexible thinkers with innovative ideas and a broad knowledge base derived from exposure to multiple disciplines. And while most recruiters don’t outright avoid business majors, companies in consulting, technology and even finance say they’re looking for candidates with a broader academic background.”

This should be good news for the humanities workforce. To receive it as such, however, humanists have to be willing to understand their curricula in more instrumental ways. The culture of many humanities departments (including our institutional homes) tends to resist aims other the promulgation of disciplinary protocols. Humanities curricula are plenty plastic: we change our requirements and our syllabi all the time. But the criteria we use to decide how to do so rarely consider employability outside the discipline. Why? If only it could be chalked up to laziness and ignorance! The prevailing sentiment seems, rather, to be defensive and antagonistic, as if engaging in outcome-talk amounts to daemonic possession by (take your pick) the market, the number crunchers, or Someone who Hates Us in central administration.

To find righteousness in avoidance of outcomes is to nurture a self-destructive fantasy in which our disciplines somehow exist exterior to the university. Or else we fantasize a university that somehow exists apart from the society that funds, charters, and populates it. For the vast majority of people who enter them, colleges and universities are on the road to somewhere else. It is imperative that we expand our sense of paths our students take and think seriously about those we want to encourage.

President Obama’s scorecard ought to inspire such deliberation. What kinds of jobs do we want for our students? How, other than starting-salary, might we measure success?

When they engage such questions, humanists tend to favor anecdotal answers. To whit, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust responded to the scorecard idea in a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

I graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1968, and my first job was working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. My starting salary was low, but I was inspired by the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty to regard public service as an important calling. I went on to graduate school, joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and ultimately became the president of Harvard University. Should Bryn Mawr have been judged based on what I was paid in my first year at HUD?

It’s a good story, and the answer to the question it poses is obvious. Faust is no doubt right to argue, further, “Equating the value of education with the size of a first paycheck badly distorts broader principles and commitments essential to our society and our future.” To be sure, there are “goods” not measurable in dollars and cents.

But there are drawbacks to rebuttal by anecdote. This one, for example, encourages us to imagine that any liberal arts grad could become the President of Harvard. If she could not, then like the romantic self-fashioning that dominates writing about Alt-Ac, there is no more of an institutional fix in this president’s response to Obama than in MLA president Bérubé’s Chronicle column. It may not be case that any competing model of outcomes must have numerical data, but it seems crucial that anecdotal responses appear symptomatic. Data sets help with that, and it would behoove us to have them.

Data interact with crisis talk in interesting ways. For example, the numbers suggest universities are overproducing graduate students in the hard sciences just as zealously as they are in the humanities, as Jordan Weissmann has noted here, here, and here on The Atlantic‘s web site. “[N]next time you hear a politician talking about our lack of science talent,” Weissmann recommends, “remember all those young aerospace engineers, chemists, physicists who will still be casting around for a gig after they’re handed a diploma. There’s no great shortage to speak of.” But is there a crisis?

Mark and John


Miller’s Big Lie

Dear John,

Just finished Toby Miller’s breathless provocation to Blow Up the Humanities. In his blurb, Bruce Robbins admires its sass. It has other virtues as well: a defense of the proposition that the humanities oughta be useful, a spirited rejection of what he calls the “Romantic elevation of consciousness” (Kindle location 1423) and, with it, of the conflation of literary studies with the Humanities, a cautious embrace of institutions, attention to humanities work, and advocacy of collaborative effort. A number of our favorite themes, in short. It’s too bad that Miller launches from a false premiss:

There are two humanities in the United States. One is the humanities of fancy private universities, where the bourgeoisie and its favored subalterns are tutored in finishing school. I am naming this Humanities One, because it is venerable and powerful and tends to determine how the sector is discussed in public. The other is the humanities of everyday state schools, which focus more on job prospects. I am calling this Humanities Two.’ Humanities One dominates rhetorically. Humanities Two dominates numerically. The distinction between them, which is far from absolute but heuristically and statistically persuasive, places literature, history, and philosophy on one side and communication and media studies on the other. It is a class division in terms of faculty research as well as student background, and it corresponds to the expansion of public higher education and the way that federal funding fetishizes the two humanities. (Kindle location 22-27).

Sound plausible, right? Media are popular! There’s money in them. And already from this first paragraph one knows which side one wants to be on. Forget the head-in-the-sand humanism of propertied elites. We, who work for a living at “everyday  state schools,” have the force of numbers on our side. Those numbers suggest that “communication and media” trump “literature, history,  and philosophy” any day of the week.

Or do they?

Miller’s evidence for the numerical strength of “communication and media studies” comes primarily from Christopher Newfield’s recap, in a 2009 issue of Professionof  “Table 261. Bachelor’s degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by discipline division: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2005-06” from the 2007 Digest of Educational Statistics. That table shows, as Newfield and Miller both report, 616% growth in “Communication, journalism, and related programs” since 1970, while English declined by 14%. Visual and Performing Arts (where, you’ll recall, the CIP for film studies is located) increased by 174%. And “Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies” (which includes fields like Peace Studies alongside Gerontology and Historic Preservation and Conservation) grew by 404% over this same period. Miller’s perception that growth in some of these areas equals grown in the Humanities may be colored by his experience at UC Riverside, where it appears that Communications and his own discipline of “Media and Culture Studies” have been lumped in a concentration called “Interdisciplinary Studies.” If I’m guessing rightly how Riverside has reported this to IPEDS, the major has done well. 30.9999 Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies, Other was the forth most popular bachelor’s degree, behind Business, Psychology, and Biological and Biomedical Sciences in Riverside’s 2011 completions. Although, more ominously, the web page declares that Riverside’s Academic Senate has declared a moratorium on the major. Must be an interesting story there.

These comparative growth rates are red meat thrown in front of the crisis people: English is in decline! Majors are fleeing to business and media! As James English points out, however, a more meaningful interpretation of the figures pays attention to absolute numbers as a proportion of all completions (which have increased) and is sensitive to ups-and-downs within the period rather than fixing on the change from 1970 to 2006. For example, in that table from 2007, Communication, journalism, and related programs increased roughly 5 fold from  10,324 bachelor’s degrees in 1970 to 51,650 in 1990. English language and literature/letters started that period with 63,914, then plummeted to less than 40,000 before rebounding to 51,170 in 1990.  For most of the 1990s, English and Communication graduated roughly the same number of majors, but Communication picked up in the new century, adding another 20,000 or so completions by 2006. Twenty-first century gains in Comm, in other words, probably don’t come at the expense of English, although 70s and 80s gains may have done.

More interestingly, growth rate comparisons reveal potential shifts in ways of understanding “the humanities.” Miller’s rhetoric indicates as much when it sweeps up mass comm–which almost never gets counted as a humanities discipline–along with “media studies.” For Miller, it turns out that “media studies” really means cultural studies of a few particular flavors (he provides a genealogy in a late chapter). At the outset, however, we’re encouraged to imagine a wider array of endeavors, since, after all, media studies is what workaday humanists do. I think you and I are generally in favor of humanist category confusion and, with Miller, of projects that enlist scholarly collaboration across disciplines conventionally mapped as humanities, social sciences, and STEM. The growth rates in areas like Visual and Performing Arts and Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies suggest there may be increasing opportunities for scholars able to engage in these ways. As I started to explain here, these CIPs can be seen as encompassing disciplinary variety and potentially productive oddball institutional configurations. There is more to say about this.

In no sense, however, can comparative growth rates anchor the claim that “there are two humanities,” that the difference between them maps onto  social class, and that this great divide places English on the side of elites and media studies on the side of the people. To disrupt this sophomoric picture, one needs only to look to the whole data set. In 2011, 7643 degree granting institutions reported via IPEDs–imagine Beauty Schools of America in these figures alongside Harvard and Swarthmore. Here’s a breakdown of the number of institutions reporting first major bachelor’s degree completions under specific CIPs of interest.

  • 52.0201 Business Administration and Management, General –1727
  • 42.0101 Psychology, General — 1396
  •  23.0101 English Language and Literature, General — 1310
  • 30.9999 Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies, Other  — 639
  • 09.0102 Mass Communication/Media Studies — 247
  • 50.0601 Film/Cinema/Video Studies — 129

Business is the great demographic leveler. Institutions offering a bachelor’s degree in it range from the numerous branches of ITT Technical Institute to the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Morehouse College, and  Bob Jones University.  English, however is not far behind. You can’t get an English BA from ITT, but you can in Ann Arbor, at Morehouse, or Bob Jones (and in fact most of the places business degrees are offered). At the other end of the spectrum, 50.0601 is a truly boutique affair. Of 129 institutions granting degrees, 40 are Research Universities (very high activity), 30 are Baccalaureate Colleges–Arts & Sciences, and 21 are Master’s Colleges and Universities (larger programs) according to Carnegie Classification. Consideration of associates degrees tips the balance still further in favor of business: 1341 institutions reported completions compared with 168 in 23.0101 and only 12 in 50.0601. Interestingly, 30.9999 picks up some ground here with 208 institutions showing associate degree completions.

The numbers confirm what ought to be perfectly obvious to anyone who works in the postsecondary humanities. The “dominance” of “literature, history, and philosophy” is not rhetorical, but institutional. These disciplines spent the better part of the 20th century securing their claims on resources within all manner of institutions of higher education and, as importantly, beyond it, in mandatory K-12 education. The situation is in fact more nearly the opposite of what Miller suggests: a visible minority of elite scholars and experimental programs at a limited array of relatively well-funded research universities are busily mounting rhetorical and institutional challenges to the configuration stabilized by their mid-20th century counterparts. Call it a hypothesis.

Miller takes a classic vanguardist position, waving the people’s banner far ahead of the masses who continue to want that old-fashioned English degree. Again, there’a a lot to like about this position, which echoes some of what we’ve been saying here. But it would be better to emphasize the real contradictions, fractures, and possibilities of the present then to stage a phony class war between two versions of humanist endeavor. There are not one, not too, but many humanities in the Untied Sates, maybe more than there are humanities disciplines. Their futures hinge not the sublation of supposed opposites (Miller’s device) but on their ability to arrange themselves in compelling and effective new combinations.




Crisis, Crisis, Crisis

Dear John,

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

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

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

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

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