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 Amazon.com 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.




Collaboration is a fighting word in the humanities


Dear Mark,

On Friday May 9, I read this short paper (a love letter to collaboration really) at The Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work conference, the culminating event to mark three years of Mellon Foundation support for research on the humanities and work at the University of California Humanities Research Institute. I was on a panel chaired by David Theo Goldberg that also featured Tobias Warner from UC Davis and Irena Polic, Associate Director of the humanities institute at UC Santa Cruz.

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Collaboration is a fighting word in the humanities. It sparks arguments concerning our work; concerning what makes us different from and similar to scientists and social scientists; concerning what “the humanities” contributes to the university, including our ability to “resist” whatever we take to be the dominant. And yet collaboration is neither new to humanists nor all that unusual. Even great and solitary geniuses rely upon librarians, editors, publishers, and, of course, other scholars. While such collaborators often show up in acknowledgements, we habitually exclude them from the humanist author-function. So long as this is the case, collaboration will continue to surprise and threaten us.

For those of us who like surprises,collaborative research is as challenging to get started as it is to sustain. This is one lesson of the research/working group I convened at UCHRI last fall.

The group’s structure encouraged examination of the relationship between single authored scholarship and more collaborative endeavor. All of us used UCHRI funding to pursue our own projects–which ranged from administrative tasks to dissertation writing to book publication. Concurrently, we researched and wrote together about humanities labor. There was a good deal of experience with collaboration in the group. One of us had done union organizing, another had been in the tech industry, a third was in a dean’s office, and so forth. We produced many words about humanities labor, using the platforms on which collaboration in our fields now typically relies (Google Drive and Plus, Zotero, Scalar and WordPress). Much of our writing was single authored, however, and assembling it after the fact is an ongoing work in progress. We will be left with what amounts to an edited anthology, a form of collaborative effort that leaves largely untouched the notion of the humanist as solo practitioner.

In short, we never began collaborating in a manner that one would avow as such. It proved impossible for us to privilege our collective work over the exigencies of existing commitments to projects of individual scholarship and career development. We were too well situated in institutional practices that required us to behave as individual actors to imagine what it might mean for this group to take on a professional life of its own. We were too good at critiquing the contemporary currency of collaboration–as an imposition derived from big science, as neoliberal administrative strategy, as import from Silicon Valley–to truly experiment with it.

It was disheartening to discover midway through the fall that the very first UCHRI residential group in 1988 faced comparable challenges. Its members convened to answer the question, “How Does Collaborative Research Work in the Humanities?” Then as now, “the call for collaboration” appeared “an adaptive response by humanists to a…changing cultural environment,” in the words of the 1988 convener, Riverside philosopher Bernd Magnus. The environment today is different in many respects. In 1988, threats came from “Bennett, Bloom, and Cheney,” as Magnus put it, where today humanists feel pressure from STEM and MOOCs and corporate-style administration. The way collaboration figures is comparable, however. It is still seen as a defensive move, a reaction to strange external forces impinging on tradition.

Yet collaboration also entails an abiding sense of novelty and excitement. In December, our group interviewed one of the youngest members of the 1988 UCHRI research project, Eduardo Cadava, who is now Professor of English and Master of Wilson College at Princeton University. Describing his own experiences collaborating led Cadava to pronounce: “Collaboration is a means of being unsettled.” Although he argued that there is more room for such interruption in the contemporary academy than in ‘88, Cadava observed a kind of institutional schizophrenia that complicates thinking about collaboration “as self-reflexively as we might.” Departments and disciplines demand that we see ourselves as solo authors, such that our relative merits may be judged. Our institutions assist us in reproducing this vision, and thereby help to pull us apart. These same institutions also push us towards collaboration, however, through centers and institutes as well as through grant programs that favor interdisciplinary projects.

The history of this institutional tendency, which simultaneously fosters and thwarts humanist collaboration, is the focus of the nominally “solo” work that brought me to UCHRI in the first place: a co-authored project with University of South Carolina film scholar Mark Garrett Cooper. In telling the story of the university as a mass media institution, we have chronicled a longstanding dynamic involving problem-solving teams of humanists (who come together to ask questions and conduct research) and organizational entities such as departments and disciplines (which exist to manage problems, to reproduce them in a way that makes clear the department’s continued need to exist). We enjoy Science and Technology Studies scholar Mario Biagioli’s evocation of a research model developing recently in science that organizes “practitioners around problems, not disciplines, in clusters that may be too short-lived to be institutionalized into departments or programs or to be given lasting disciplinary labels” (819). Humanists do this too, and particularly around projects related to mass media–think of the Bloomsbury Group, the Frankfurt School, and the Rockefeller Communications Seminar. But the sciences seem well ahead in carving out institutional spaces for reproducing their experiments. They do so through the academic unit called the lab, which “couples” graduate training with faculty research, Biagioli observes, leaving scientists not only with “more time to engage in collaborations” but also with a venue for mobilizing resources, including students, for research.

Humanists do not need labs to do collaborative work, of course (although some humanists enjoy them). And they may refer to the labs they need as “archives” or “libraries.” Regardless, Mark and I appreciate how the thought of the lab spurs us to imagine alternatives to our current arrangements, potentially allowing us to steer more deftly between the Scylla of defensive ghettoization and the Charybdis of overloaded service commitment to interdisciplinary programs and centers. It is not the only such model: UCHRI has also experimented with the notion of “the studio,” bringing together scholars and journalists to work on projects concerned with Religions in Diaspora. I got to witness these studios in action when they came together for a few days last fall. It was impossible to miss the variation in what counted as a studio project (making a film, running a web site, designing a curriculum), in studio structure (some had one PI, others more diffused authority), and in the audience the studios purported to address (UC students, documentary film goers, on-line consumers of news and commentary).

Labs and studios are potential sites for collaboration, not panaceas. At Davis, I am part of a lab whose members from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences work on video games and are currently reckoning with the limits of grant-funded research. Soft money interrupted our solo work in interesting ways and has helped us start, if not yet finish a number of projects. Even when we can secure it, however, such support comes at considerable labor cost–a lot of us now spend more time writing grants than conducting research. Money in the humanities and social sciences has historically flowed more via student credit hours than grants, which is part of why we have become convinced that we need a pedagogical experiment to complement our research experiments. Whether the lab can function in this respect is not yet clear, but we know that whatever curriculum we establish will need to radically supplement a departmental structure that tends to be inflexible in its relation to discipline. In contrast to the department, with its obligations of tenure, we want the lab to be a place that diverse researchers can be a part of so long as it interests them. Addressing this institutional challenge is, for us, inseparable from coming up with research projects in the first place.

“The Collaborator” can appear as much villain as hero. No one wants to be accused of being  the kind of humanist who just goes with the flow, thus abandoning the critical alterity we so often celebrate. Here especially, we need to reconsider our habits, because they are keeping us from identifying potentially interesting allies. Humanities PhD programs have long graduated students who go on to work in institutions far beyond university walls, for instance. Closer to home, the presence of PhD holders who administer and conduct research at humanities centers, in university libraries, and in labs begs us to reconsider the hyperbolic opposition between administration and faculty.

The difficulty humanists have reimagining research practices not only limits how we act in the university but also makes it more difficult to understand what our university labor can do. If we have tended to think of what makes humanities research cutting edge primarily in terms of its content, there are increasing incentives to emphasize its form. More forcefully, I have become convinced by my experiences at UCHRI, with Mark Cooper, and with the Davis lab that our present moment demands attention to the organization of humanist labor above all else. If we are unwilling to experiment more aggressively with the ways we conduct and disseminate our research, we should anticipate increasingly lonely intellectual lives.




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.




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. 



Specialization is not the problem


Last month, a cloud of doom shadowed the humanities: it seemed that undergraduates were turning away in droves. No longer. Having more carefully examined the numbers, participants in “the summer of humanities debates” have discovered there actually was no alarming decline in undergraduate humanities degrees.

This discovery has not brought an end to crisis talk, however. Instead, one senses a shift in target from undergraduate curricula to graduate education and a constellation of issues surrounding expert status, including the nebulous issue of reputation. The humanities lack respect, commentators fear, and scholarly emphasis on research specialization is largely to blame.

To make such a claim, we argue, is to confuse the problem of specialization with that of audience. As all students of media should know, knowledge cannot be controlled from its point of production. Colleges and universities provide specialized training of ever-increasing variety. They should not behave as if any discipline, or narrow set of disciplines, could secure a general education for all comers. Nor, in practice, do they. Yet discussion of the humanities crisis continues to strike that chord for a broader audience.

Michael Bérubé’s recent Chronicle of Higher Education column provides the exemplary pivot in this summer’s debates. After making clear that there is no degree problem, Bérubé reengages an earlier description of crisis:

There is indeed a crisis in the humanities. I have said as much in this very space: It is a crisis in graduate education, in prestige, in funds, and most broadly, in legitimation. But it is not a crisis of undergraduate enrollment.

Bérubé attributes the “crisis of legitimation,” in part, to misleading and alarmist rhetoric about falling numbers, which he rightly perceives as an alibi: “the real lament is almost always about recent intellectual and curricular developments in the humanities, and the enrollment numbers are little more than a pretext for jeremiads.” The “recent developments” he has in mind are, in truth, not so recent. They are familiar terms from the culture wars–“Theory, race/gender/class/sexuality, jargon, popular culture”–which, as Bérubé gleefully insinuates, probably increased undergraduate interest in the humanities during the 1980s rather than the reverse.

They also diversified the humanities: Bérubé rightly marvels at the breadth and variety depicted in contemporary NCES data and at the “underacknowledged” growth of the Visual and Performing Arts.

Disdain for such diversity characterizes the jeremiads that Bérubé derides. Mark Bauerlein laments “the diminishing status of the humanities” and attributes this trajectory to “professors who can’t penetrate the narrow careerism of freshmen; administrators who foster a utilitarian outlook on education; an adversarial, social-critique curriculum that turns students off; an excessive focus on research.” Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal proffers the reductio ad absurdum of this position by arguing that training and research in literature (which here predictably stands in for the humanities as a whole) is entirely beside the point. “Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods,” Siegel declares: “Literature requires only that you be human.” Readers hoping to ferret out the program of postsecondary education that led Siegel to this preposterous conclusion should consult his article.

Robin Wilson’s recent Chronicle column (requires subscription), “Humanities Scholars See Declining Prestige, Not a Lack of Interest” synthesizes the contention that a crisis of “legitimacy” derives from humanists’ specializations. In Bérubé’s version of the legitimation crisis, there’s plenty of blame to go around–the English department shares it with administrators and culture warriors. But Wilson is happy to stack up Bérubé, Bauerlein, and numerous other experts to focus blame on the alleged inability of humanists to engage a general audience.

Bauerlein supplies Wilson’s argument with its keystone:

“Can you find me a dean who is going to come into the office and say, ‘I am really, really proud of what our English professors are doing with their research, and I want to send them to talk to alumni groups about their latest books’?” Mr. Bauerlein asks. “There is no audience for humanities research, no consumption, no measure of impact anymore.”

Do not be distracted, gentle reader, by the manifold wrongness of this statement.

Never mind the retrograde conflation of “English professors” with “humanities research”–your institution may not be publicizing the efforts of faculty members working in Arabic, say, or Theater.

Never mind that when Bauerlein says “English professors” he cannot possibly mean those creative writers who teach in English departments and find their latest books splashed across university home pages.

Never mind that deans ready to trumpet the works of their humanists actually do exist or that measures of “impact” have multiplied as quickly as the requirement that scholars demonstrate it.

Never mind all that, but do notice that Bauerlein’s hyperbole makes a valid point: much of contemporary humanist research is not addressed to “alumni groups.”

This hardly makes our scholarship unique. Much of the research that goes on across any university is equally opaque to donors: everyone from the astrophysicist to the zoologist has reason to observe that what seems like crucial scholarship within a discipline can look esoteric from without.

Demonstrating the value of scholarship for non-specialist audiences requires effort, and in many cases pitching professorial research entails more effort than faculty, deans, development officers, press agents, and alumni organizations are willing to commit.

These various parties are nowhere in the framing of the problem provided by Wilson, and for good reason: to foreground the range of mediators involved in presenting scholarship to general audiences directs attention away from “the humanities” toward a wider and more complicated array of institutions and actors.

Whatever else a crisis of “legitimacy” does, it typically keeps the focus narrowly on “us,” the humanists, and in a manner that rewards a readership drawn in by the recent coverage of humanities crisis. “If there is no decline,” this readership might wonder, “then what’s the fuss?” Answer: trouble of another sort–decline in “prestige, not interest.” Begin the next round!

The imagined community of readers for a Chronicle article like Wilson’s is larger and more diverse than the “narrowly careerist” undergraduates of Bauerlein’s lament. Teachers and their students may well read her article, or Siegel’s in the Wall Street Journal, or David Brooks’s work in the New York Times, but they are not singled out. For these writers to successfully address their broad audiences, they need to provide a common reference point. “Crisis” does that work, generating the minimally shared grounding that enables Wilson and other writers, editors, newspapers and periodicals to rehearse a recognizable theme. In disagreeing with the way Wilson’s article presents “the crisis,” we too agree to reproduce this theme.

Those familiar with the past century of humanities work on mediation (or language, or form) should find it easy enough to follow our reasoning here. Bauerlein, Bérubé, our humble selves, and all the rest may succeed in convincing particular readers of this or that, but as a group we are not well understood as engaged in persuasion, communication, or conversation. Rather, we map terrain, demarcate limits, establish some facts as settled and other as open for contestation. This process revises how “the humanities” get discussed in the venues where they get discussed. All of us who engage in such labor are genre workers, busily renovating the plots, dramatis personae, and mise-en-scene of the “humanities” that can be assumed when one sits down next to a reader of the Wall Street Journal.

The ability to do this genre work has very little to do with research specialization. People trained as journalists, literature professors, and biologists are all equally capable of revising and reproducing the theme of “the humanities in crisis.” But, of course, not every capable individual is equally well positioned to intervene. The ability to update the genre has a good deal to do with processes beyond any individual’s control–institutional sanction, editorial selection, good timing, and so on. Working across institutional boundaries and sectors only amplifies the layers of mediation between any writer’s particular contribution and substantial changes to what any writer can assume her readership knows.

Precisely because mediation is involved, the problem of “general” versus “specialized” education is much better understood from the vantage point of consumption rather than knowledge production. Students enrolled in “Introduction to Film and Media” classes, readers of Cinema Journal, and viewers of The Daily Show are not only different audiences but different kinds of audiences. Different rules structure performances in these different domains, which means that research results–whether settled facts or challenging new interpretations–require different presentations in these different fora. That difference is determined not by what the researcher knows but by what the audience is imagined to know.

Notably, the audience imagined by “humanities in crises” coverage in the Chronicle and the major daily papers does not assume consensus about the content of “general education,” but does assume that the humanities’ mission is to anchor such a program. One frequently encounters claims that humanities education should enhance common culture, improve quality of life, and nurture an ability to engage in other than instrumental social transactions. One rarely meets consensus on what students should be reading, viewing, or listening to in pursuit of these aims–a problem sure to come up in any specialist discussion. As conducted in the press, the “generalization” vs. “specialization” debate largely emphasizes the social function humanities education is supposed to perform, rather than its content or methods.

True, conservative commentators are happy to dictate a reading list. Their champion listmaker is probably E. D. Hirsch, who has provided concerned parents a year-by-year syllabus from kindergarten on. The receivability of Hirsch’s initiative for a broad readership, and its marginality within professional scholarly practice, underscores a key assumption of the “humanities crisis” genre, namely, that “general education” will produce common culture through exposure to common works.

In the Chronicle et al., the logic of “great books” needs no explanation. “Great books” (or paintings, movies, plays, symphonies, etc.) tell readers they are in the presence of a humanist argument in the same way that song and dance numbers let audiences know they are watching a musical. At issue is not only the value of particular works, but also the type of knowledge and pleasure that circulates around and through them. The ability to talk about works others recognize as “great” is liable to make just about anyone feel smart.

Even those participants in the “crisis” debates who would never endorse a great books curriculum may be tempted to let its logic stand, rather than risk undermining its built-in case for the humanities’ redeeming social value.

It is fundamental category error, however, to assume that the rules for writing popular humanities arguments should also govern humanities research and curriculum design. If professional humanists learned nothing else from the culture wars, we should have learned that contemporary culture is far too various and complex to be controlled by a syllabus.  Contemporary humanities research offers a number of sophisticated ways of explaining not only what cultures past and present value, but also how those values have been contested and altered. This variety should not worry us: managing and explaining it is part of what we have to offer students and professionals in other disciplines. Nor should we flinch from contests over the content of “general education.” Where selection is required, debate should flourish.

What should worry us is the paranoid control fantasy that the “legitimacy crisis” layers over the “general education” narrative. It is bad for us to imagine that our problems could be solved by presenting a more homogenous front. This is a mid-century fantasy. It belongs to a moment when it was possible to imagine the uniformity of both the American college age population and the audience for mass media. A moment before, Ben Schmidt has recently reminded us, significant numbers of women began entering professional fields and the pre-professional programs that provided training in them. A moment before, furthermore, a whole range of demographic shifts diversified university student populations and an array of programs organized around geographic and demographic areas of study reoriented the university towards the problem of difference. It was precisely in response to such developments that conservative journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, and professors reanimated midcentury rhetoric in the 1980s.

Before it looked like a hostile reaction to academe, the dream of uniformity led the authors of 1945’s Harvard Redbook to envision the entire US education system–kindergarten through graduate school–as an alternative to the threat presented by mass culture’s organizing power. The secret to doing so was to standardize what was taught, especially at lower levels, and to thus answer the competing process of homogenization that was happening via network television. It is important to remember that Harvard never bought this program. The Truman administration picked up some of the Redbook’s recommendations, and important policy discussions certainly reflected its approach. Nonetheless, 1960s and 70s changes to academic funding such as the Pell grant program had more sweeping effects on the university than anyone’s plan for general education reform.

Just like network television, the idea of general education lives on largely as a reminder of how different the world is today. Professors and education administrators work in multiversities whose organizational structure is designed to reproduce specialization. Students get their introduction to this structure when they begin to think about their degrees, and they will continue to inhabit the problem of specialization when they graduate.

The authors of this spring’s Harvard report “Mapping the Future” are right to observe that humanists ought to be thinking about the place of their curricula in this context. For the authors of this report, the transition from high school humanities to college humanities at Harvard seems particularly in need of consideration: “Over the last 8 years,” the authors of the report write, “more than half of students who as pre-Freshmen indicate an intention to concentrate in a Humanities concentration end up in a different division” (8). Students have more choices at college that in high school, and humanities professors can always do more to explain the relation between the two. Likewise, they face an increasingly complex and important task in explaining how the choices students make in college prepare them for futures that include work.

These days students need less help understanding “common culture” than they do appraising the relation among specialized sorts of study and specialized sorts of labor. Life affords many opportunities to reflect on the groups to which one belongs; fewer opportunities to evaluate competing ways of understanding such groups. “Citizenship,” the shibboleth of Cold War educational policy debates, is liable to seem a different kind of activity for students in Political Science, Journalism, Economics, and English literature classes. Accordingly, the work of managing the media relations, party organization, policy formation, and campaign strategy through which citizenship can be enacted falls to experts in various fields. Citizens, students, and professors alike confront the problem of relating the proliferation of specializations within the academy to an increasingly differentiated world of work.

The problem of specialization looks different at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but its urgency is apparent for both. For undergraduates, who should be encouraged to explore a diversity of specializations, the primary challenge lies in selecting among them. For graduate students, who have already chosen, the primary challenge lies in understanding the professional paths afforded by that choice. There are options other than academic careers. Although Stanford’s proposal to require graduate students in the humanities to choose whether they are training to become scholars or something else may not be the best approach, it has the merit of admitting up front that, as with undergraduate degrees, not all PhD candidates in a particular program are training for the same kinds of jobs.

Professional humanists are not specifically trained to address a general public, although it is certainly true that they can cultivate that skill. What allows Bauerlein or Brooks or Siegel to write their journalistic commentary is not mastery of Shakespeare, but rather rhetorical training that might be acquired in any major that privileges argumentative writing, many of which are in the humanities.

Op-Ed commentators are specialists. Their specialization does not keep them from addressing their audiences, but rather enables it. Any specialization can lay claim to general conversation once connected with that audience. Narrowness did not prevent Jacques Derrida from becoming a celebrity, although neither was Derrida’s celebrity entirely of his own making. The public intellectual, like the Op-Ed columnist or the Hollywood actor, succeeds not by virtue of personal talent alone but by dint of a system of relations that gives that talent an audience. (David Shumway was right to call the academic version of this a star system [requires subscription]). Humanities programs train the managers and editors and scriptwriters and many of the other experts who participate in the reproduction of such star systems as much as they train the specialists who become stars.

The humanities are not outside contemporary networks of experts, in other words, but very much participants in, contributors to, and sometimes managers of them. Professional humanists participate in meritocracy, whether they want to or not.

Meritocracy should not be confused with elitism. It dreams not of enduring power but of provisional authority. Merit is situational. It favors talent but rewards competence. It ranks, but also standardizes. A properly functioning meritocracy should be less obsessed with identifying “excellence” than with improving ordinary performance. It should care more about the aggregate than the outliers. It should worry more about the results it produces than how well it is loved.

It would be good for professional humanists to nurture their meritocratic fantasies. But to do so, they will need to give up the midcentury dream of a standardized “general education” that required academics to disavow their role in shaping the very mass culture they opposed.

The academic humanities launch students into a division of labor. If this seems a controversial assertion, it is because it cuts against the generic argument. Like a good guy in a black hat, it runs counter to the popular case for the humanities’ value. Focusing on the undergraduate experience, this case assumes that exposure to great works will generate common culture. It wants to give humanists the job of preparing students not for work but for citizenship, life, or what-have-you. Universities no longer work this way, if indeed they ever did.

Put differently, one might say that if general education requirements prepare students for “life,” they do so by acquainting them with a variety of specialized knowledges–many of which start from incommensurable premises. Concentration in a major confers some form of credentialed expertise–a specialization. We do no service to general ed students, undergraduate majors, and graduate students when we deny the existence of this differential training. Regretting our specializations is not the way to improve our reputations on campus or in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Instead, we need to be clear about how our specializations enable humanities students to go to work. With others.




Examples, not Objects


Dear John,

I find Ralph’s reply to your last useful in its offer of “examples” as an alternative to “objects.”  Ralph asks us if we can agree that

institutional practices that are guided by particular examples, especially by examples that have functioned as very important in our early attraction to a practice or discipline, would seem less susceptible to balkanization, more likely to provide the basis for establishing new relations, than practices wedded to objects. I like examples because, in the same gesture, they explain to me both why Shakespeare is more important to me than Soyinka and why Soyinka is important to me.

I think we can agree, but agreement requires us to put back on the table some features of disciplinarily that have dropped out of our last few exchanges.

Of what is “Shakespeare” an example? “Literature,” “drama,” “poetry,” “English genius,” and “adaptation” are the first of several possible answers that come to mind. Likely the wide range of possible answers is one reason why Ralph regards Shakespeare as an “important” example (in addition to the fact that this example has been formative for him). Is it the same example in each context? Does Shakespeare mean the same thing in high school as at university? Certainly my discipline would find a major difference between a filmed stage performance of The Taming of the Shrew (about which it would care very little) and 10 Things I Hate about You (which it might treat as generic hybrid or star vehicle more than as a Shakespeare adaptation)Is a rose a rose? With respect to those examples that have formed academic disciplines, I think the answer has to be a qualified “no.”

This was an issue several posts back when you pointed out that as a “film” person in English, I am pigeon-holed and pigeon-hole myself by an object-centered account of discipline. I could only agree, but my main point in this thread was that my English colleagues and I mean different things by “film.” It is not the same object, because it is an example for different sets of arguments. “What is film?” is an organizing question for film and media studies; “What is Literature?,” not so much. I think that in English that the reverse is the case, with the difference that a very powerful disciplinary strand in English assumes that all cultural production can be treated as literature-like (“film” here might be an example of “narrative”). Film and media studies, I would say, sometimes acts as though it wants to secure the completing claim that all cultural production is media-like (“novels” here might be an example of “print media”). Not surprisingly, I like the imperialist ambition of my discipline much better than that of yours. Since your discipline is so very much better funded and institutionally entrenched, I also get to imagine my counter-imperialist claim as one of righteous rebellion against your discipline’s tyranny. But of course this is precisely the battle narrative we want to interrupt, by pointing out that neither discipline makes sense without the other and that overall structure and function of the humanities at present cannot be understood absent the media practices emblematized by “Hollywood.”

If this remains our goal, and I think it does, then we need to remember that the risk of talking past one another remains significant. “What is film?” and “What is Literature?” are not even the parallel disciplinary questions they may appear, because (as our discussion of “realism” brought out), consideration of the material carrier  (e.g., photosensitive emulsion on a flexible plastic base) has been front and center in film studies, whereas in English that question was largely consigned to the marginal subfield of “the history of the book,” until the impending demise of the codex brought it out retirement under the banner of digital humanities. Words like “film,” “print,””media,” and “mediation” mean differently in the disciplines that, like it or not, shape our approaches. Object-orienation points not to a consensus about what the objects are or how they differ from other objects, but to the unruly disputes, shared vocabularies, acknowledged and unacknowledged premises that animate academic practice. If objects keep disciplines in their lanes (as you say), they do so in part by making it difficult to recognize what’s going on next door, even when we’re looking right at it. The conceptional shift from objects to examples helps us here, because it requires us to ask “what is exemplified?,” a question more likely to disclose incommensurate premises and zones of dispute than the question “does this differ from that?”  Understanding differences of exemplification strikes me as a necessary first step in developing shared examples.

I am not taking back my initial point that examples are not unities. We cannot say in advance that examples point to commensurable explanatory contexts for which they are examples. But I am qualifying this point, because it seems to me that any decent explanation of that incommensurability is bound to transform the example into the common property of a new explanatory context.

I am trying to decide whether this notion runs counter to your “fantasy in which we become more specialized and, as a result, less self-sufficient.” I find the idea of specialized teamwork inherently appealing but practically difficult to imagine without shared examples capable of permitting a collective organization of  the labor. Absent such organizing examples, self-suffcient specialization sounds to me like alienation. I might have a sense of myself as a highly specialized cog in a machine without much idea of how I participate in its overall function. This may in fact characterize the academic humanities at the moment. I take that to be one way of reading Ralph’s comment about the uncertainty involved in conceiving the adversary these days.

So can we say that we need some shared examples as well as, because it really is not possible to know everything, some proprietary ones?  It seems to me that we are developing a set of such examples, including “Criticism, Inc.”

Mark

 

 




For and Against Object-centered Collaboration


Dear Mark (and Ralph),

Mark wrote:

The image-argument thus encodes the complex proposition that “collaboration” entails an opposition, a “them,” and that the ground for the us-them distinction is inherently unstable. It is easy to break collaborations apart by denying the principle commonality that unites them. It is perhaps equally easy to find alternatively commonalities, grounds for collaboration where none seemed to exist. Which is to say, I suppose, that collaborations exist as they are practiced and not as they are planned or defined.

Ralph commented:

First, collaboration involves serious risk, specifically, a risk that one may betray oneself, investing precious effort in projects of little interest or value, or perhaps of interest and value to one’s adversary. To my mind, the sea-change from Ransom’s time has to do with how we might conceive the adversary today, in particular, our inability to identify it with anything as self-contained, objectified, and monolithic as Ransom could or did. However, that increases the risk, making it more likely to be insidious and devastating. (I take this to be no argument against collaboration.)

All agreed. Collaborations are provisional, sometimes project or segment of project specific, and as bound to schism as they are to growth. All the better.

I do not want to collaborate with Nazis like Louis does in Casablanca and am relieved that Ralph thinks that is not really the risk anymore. Relieved but than on alert, in as much as Ralph says that I can stop worrying about card-carrying goose-stepping Nazis, as it were, but should start worrying about the far riskier proposition that (other than the banks perhaps) our adversaries today are less identifiable than card-carrying goose-stepping Nazis, as it were.

To my mind, this apt description of the risk entailed in collaborating now makes it crucial to question the givens that make our humanities practices identifiable. Not that we need to be in disguise because our adversaries are diffuse and not readily identifiable. But rather because by reconsidering the practices that let us know what we are doing and why, we may prepare ourselves for working on different problems and considering new projects and maybe even getting wise about what it means to collaborate with a diverse array of experts.

Where I am, then, on the object question, given that objects tend to organize our work in the humanities.

For the object:
Objects serve as matters of concern around which collaboration happens and they also are collaborators themselves that facilitate some kinds of work and exclude others. Humanities scholars cluster around objects and things happen. Any limit to the sort of work that can be generated through object-centered study is, as Ralph stipulates, also potentially a strength. Ransom, Ralph writes, “can hardly conceive of his practice apart from what he practices it on, in relation to or with, and vice versa.” I have had the good fortune to be invited to join a sizable collaborative endeavor organized around the study of video games called IMMERSe. Across disciplines, on six plus campuses, including “industry partners,” and forecasting myriad projects on an array of themes, this collaboration would be unthinkable without the object, video games.

Ransom, in this regard, is a model.

Mark, you wrote,

I think Ralph’s got a point that no matter how low we estimate Ransom’s approach, it is notably self-conscious in saying what English should be as a professional endeavor.

Do we collaborate with Ransom in trying to figure out 1) what it means to be an English professor and 2) how this could be made more satisfying work?  I think we might when we use him to call attention to assumptions that continue to inform the practice of the discipline, even if few current practitioners would explicitly avow the whole “Criticism, Inc.” package.

If memory serves, we credited Ransom like Leavis for doing what everybody says they did: making English reproducible as a university discipline. So in response to your questions, I’d say “Yes” to both 1) and 2). I also think that we are more convinced than many of our colleagues that “Criticism, Inc.” is a pretty relevant essay for thinking about what happens in English departments today precisely because English professors are far from being convinced they should give up object-centered practice akin, in many respects, to that promoted by Ransom. Ralph, I take it, is with us on this one. We’d make a comparable argument about the relevance of Leavis, although for a slightly different strain of English professor (a little more Raymond Williams-esque).

To the extent that we can recognize the capacity of object-centered study to organize inter-disciplinary collaboration and departmental formation (itself a collaborative practice), we’re intrigued by Ransom et al. We might go farther and say that these Ransom et al. established the default mode of collaboration in English. They helped make it possible (how, exactly…) for English professors to think of themselves as collaborating most profoundly with the literary objects they study. Such professors do so as part of a collective composed of similar close readers, of course, so even discrete pairs of scholar and poem are part of something bigger. That collaborative model worked for more than a half century, in that it facilitated the growth of English and other similarly collaborative disciplines/departments. Does it still work today?

Against the object:
Objects balkanize the humanities. Their very capacity to help us group into departments and specializations divides and excludes even as it brings certain scholars together. That’s not a problem, per se, but it can be in certain circumstances. I think this balkanization tends to be entrenched now, such that it can make more plastic collaborative dynamics hard to fit into our existing institutional structure.

Objects tell us to stay in our lanes. They make us recognizable (film scholar, novel scholar) which can be good but also limiting. Our specialization becomes a kind of professional identity. With all the benefits and costs implied.

I have a fantasy in which we become more specialized and, as a result, less self-sufficient. If we are expert in something really small, doesn’t that mean we’ll see the greater need to work in groups? To stop pretending that any of us could possibly write a book on our own and to start making more visible collaboration that currently exists the better to manage it in the future?

I’m not interested in reproducing the English department or the humanities as they have been, in short. Objects are part of that legacy I’m willing to consider living without.

Living with Hierarchy:

Mark wrote:

Collaboration entails an idea of the common good and an epistemological uncertainty about it.

Graphic Artist Two iconographically invalidates as bad faith Billy’s semantic negation of competition, while leaving the imperative “Collaboration!” untouched. I like this second interpretation. It seems to be of a piece with Graphic Artist Two’s cynicism: a reminder that while collaboration might be valued over competition it cannot be opposed to it, since would-be-collaborators begin from a position in a competitive hierarchy with which they may unwittingly collaborate despite avowals to the contrary.

If that’s cynicism, then I’m cynical. There’s nothing about collaborative practice that mandates equality even if collaboration invokes the common good in principle. We’re talking about collaboration that takes place within and connected to the university, a meritocratic institution, a hierarchy-generating machine. Unless we think meritocracy just completely incompatible with the common good, we’re stuck with something like this dynamic. And something like this critique. No?

John