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.




Outcomes


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

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

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

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

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

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

This argument is frustrating for a number of reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark and John

 




Ah, to train a “humanities workforce.”


Dear Mark,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John