Category Archives: Working With and Within the Culture Industries


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.

Summer Numbers: Reach and Share

Dear John,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reach = ΣIC / ΣTC


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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results are interesting.

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

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



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



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



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

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

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

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

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


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


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. 

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.”



23.0101 & 50.0601

Dear John,

After WWII, the Feds started paying serious attention to the types of degrees college students completed. They had been compiling educational statistics since 1870, but Vance Grant explains (in the historical overview here) that increasingly detailed surveys of higher education were funded in response to the post-GI Bill boom. Currently, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports degrees conferred by field of study going back to 1949-50 in its Digest of Education Statistics. In 1966, the Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS) made major improvements in the granularity and scope of data collected. Institutions of higher education were asked to report degrees awarded under standardized numerical codes designating the field of study. (I have yet to determine the reporting mechanism for 1949-1966 surveys.) In reporting on degrees awarded in 1986-87, Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes replaced HEGIS as part the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS, here’s a history). This was a lengthy bureaucratic process rather than a wake-up-and-take-a-CIP kind of change, but for the sake of clarity let’s just stick with 1986 as the Dawn of CIP.

At that point, HEGIS codes 1501 English, General, and 1502, English Literature translated to CIP codes 23.0101 English Language and Literature, General and 23.0801, Literature, English (British and Commonwealth). HEGIS  605 Communications Media (Videotape, Film for Radio/TV) became CIP 10.0104 Radio & TV Prod & Brodcs and HEGIS 1010 Cinematography became 50.0602 Film-Video Making/Cinematography & Production.  That’s it for “film.” Taxonomically, “Film Studies” did not exist. One might well ask, therefore, how, if at all, degrees in film studies were counted?  (Turn to the timeline in the back of Inventing Film Studies to discover among the juicy factoids that in 1970 the AFI reported 68 institutions with a degree program “in film or a related field” including 11 with PhD programs.)  In 1990, a CIP code was finally added for Film/Cinema Studies: 50.0601. In 2010, the name was revised slightly to Film/Cinema/Video Studies. By definition this is: “A program in the visual arts that focuses on the study of the history, development, theory, and criticism of the film/video arts, as well as the basic principles of film making and film production.”

2010 brought bigger changes for English: a new series of 23.14 codes for Literature. 23.0101 abides, but a degree specifically in British and Commonwealth literature could now be numbered 23.1404; by definition: “A program that focuses on the literatures and literary developments of the English-speaking peoples of the British Isles and the British Commonwealth, from the origins of the English language to the present. Includes instruction in period and genre studies, author studies, country and regional specializations, literary criticism, and the study of folkloric traditions.”

I am sure you have already intuited the genius of CIP. It is so obvious! One simply lops off digits to arrive at higher levels of statistical abstraction. Thus the four distinct series under 23 English Languages and Literature/Letters (23.01 English Language and Literature, General; 23.13 Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies;  23.14 Literature; 23.99 English Language and Literature/Letters, Other) can easily be collapsed into the area code for English: 23. One can perform the same trick with the six different varieties of 23.14 Literature  (23.1401 General; 23.1402 American (US); 23.1403 American (Canadian);  23.1404 Brittish; 23.1405 Children’s and Adolescent ; 23.1499 Other). This allows institutions to track degrees at the level of granularity meaningful to them, while facilitating the kind of aggregation that makes results meaningful to those thinking about trends across the higher ed sector. When the Digest of Education Statistics compares degrees granted over time in various disciplinary areas, in considers the top level (two digit) CIP code by default. Degrees in Literature (whatever sort) will show up along with Rhetoric and Composition under 23 English Languages and Literature/Letters. Degrees in Film/Cinema/Video Studies will show up with degrees in studio art, music, “arts, entertainment, and media management” and so on under CIP 50 Visual and Performing Arts.

I find a number of points of interest in this. Although it seems almost too obvious to state, English takes up a lot of real estate on this list. 54 History, by comparison, only contains one series with 9 parts. The level of granularity makes no difference to the aggregate totals (it shouldn’t), but it seems to point to something about disciplinary structure. What generates the need to distinguish so many flavors of English?  History also has “general” and “other” categories, for example, but English seems to need them at the 23.14## level as well as the 23.## level. Why 23.1499 English, Literature, Other as distinct from 23.99 English Language and Literature/Letters, Other? Their definitions differ by a single word. 23.1499: “Any instructional program in English language literature not listed above.”  23.99: “Any instructional program in English language and literature not listed above.” Does this result from taxonomic logic merely or are there really hyper-specialized degrees out there that require this distinction? Is it an attempt to capture approaches at different types of institutions (Research 1s and Community Colleges,e.g.) and/or levels (PhDs and AAs)?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Another kinda obvious point: while “English” and “History” designate both disciplines and commonly encountered administrative divisions (departments), the same cannot be said for 50 Visual and Performing Arts. At my institution, for example, the degrees encompassed within this category are spread out not only across different departments but also across different colleges: 50.09 Music has a Dean; while 50.06 Film/Video and Photographic Arts does not designate a coherent institutional entity at all. Precisely because the point of CIP taxonomy is to report degrees and not departments, we can see a much closer fit between institutional organization and taxonomic organization in the case of History and English than with Visual and Performing Arts.  With respect to the latter, there is a striking disjuncture between the discourse that reports on the credentials higher education confers, on the one hand, and the institutional organization producing those credentials, on the other. At the level of aggregated data about “Visual and Performing Arts,” the institutional arrangements that credential students disappear entirely in favor of a new unity produced by the taxonomic scheme. 23 English is also an unity generated by the taxonomy, but looking at the series it comprises, one can imagine actually existing departments.

Curiously (kinda obvious point number three), the term “humanities” organizes practically nothing in this schema. CIP code 24 Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities is clearly meant as a designator for generalist degrees and not as rubric encompassing disparate disciplines. In contrast, CIP 45 Social Sciences has under it Anthropology, Archeology, Criminology, Economics, etc. NCES does sometimes combine CIP codes to report trends in the “humanities,” but that requires an explanation of what gets lumped (see below). Reporting about “Social Science” does not–although History does get combined with Social Science in the same tables that report on the humanities. Is the “crisis of the humanities” partially, or maybe even primarily, taxonomic?

James English partly addresses this question in The Global Future of English Studies. As his title suggests, English is specifically concerned with the discipline of English. He makes good use of the NCES data to deflate the rhetoric of “crisis” often employed by English professors who want their departments not to change, to change dramatically, or to receive more funding. “Though the specific position of English is subject to shifts on the wider academic landscape,” English writes, “the discipline appears, according to various reasonable metrics, to be firmly embedded in the terrrain” (8). It is true that the percentage of graduates with degrees in English in 2008 (3.5%) was roughly half of its post-war peak in 1971 (7.6%). But, he argues, there are number of systemic factors at work here, such as the fact that the increasing diversity of degree programs available has tended to decrease the individual market share of  each of them. Once this is taken into account,

English has held its own, remaining one of the largest non-vocational degree programs as well as the largest by far in the humanities. Nor are the humanities eroding away, as many of us believe them to be . . . As a sector, the humanities has been the clear winner in the enrollments chase over the last 20-25 years, outperforming all other sectors . . . including business. In short, considered strictly in terms of US higher education enrollments over the past quarter century, English is the dominant field in the fastest rising sector  (16-17)

English illustrates with a chart (Figure 1.4. Percent change in share of undergraduate degrees granted, United States, 1983-2008). This has the humanities increasing by a whopping 28% at the left edge and Computer Science and Engineering declining by more than 30% on the right edge (worry about your bridges!). The source for this is Table 274 from the 2009 Digest. That table explains that “humanities”

includes degrees in Area, ethnic, cultural, and gender studies; English language and literature/letters; Foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics; Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities; Multi/interdisciplinary studies; Philosophy and religious studies; Theology and religious vocations; and Visual and performing arts.

This aggregation includes within the humanities some fields perhaps not typically imagined there–those disciplines that might be encompassed by the “arts” part of “arts and humanities” as well as degrees like 50.1001 Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management and 50.0912 Music Pedagogy. The numbers would have to be re-aggregated and crunched to see what difference, if any, the inclusion of particular degrees makes to the overall trend, but differently tabulated data from the 2011 Digest does shed some light on the matter. If we take the same period English considers (1983-2008) and look at the change in the number of BA’s awarded, those in the Visual and Performing Arts more than doubled (220% increase) while those in English did not quite double (176% increase). Moreover, the absolute numbers are much higher in Visual and Performing Arts. In 2008, for example, BAs there totaled 87,703 as compared to 55,038 in English. As James English points out, what matters to the “health of the humanities” overall is the proportion of these increases relative to the overall growth in the number of BAs. But differently aggregated data does cast new light on his assertion that “English is the dominant field in the fastest rising sector.” The dominance of English seems evident if the point of comparison is any one of the numerous disciplines comprised in the humanities as NCES defines it. But its presence does not loom so large within the aggregation that includes Foreign languages (20,977 BAs in 2008–a 188% increase over 1983), Visual and performing arts, and all the rest. Moreover, it is not itself the fastest rising component of the fastest rising sector. The 2011 Digest doesn’t let me say conclusively which two digit CIP wins that honor; it only breaks out Visual and performing arts; English; and Foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics. Of those, “Visual and performing arts” wins. But then again CIP 50 contains a disciplinary hodge-podge, some of which are arguably not “the humanities.”

James English is able to make the kind of argument he makes about English not so much because of its numerical strength but because of its institutional power, because, among other advantages, of the very good fit between the taxonomy that measures it and the departmental structures that sustain it. This is implied by his argument and worth underscoring. That fit does not exist for those fields whose faculty and curricula may overlap with English but also have disciplinary autonomy, e.g,: 30.2601 Culture Studies/Critical Theory and Analysis, added in 2010 to CIP 30 Multi/Interdisciplinary studies (along with Mathematics and Computer Science, Gerontology, and Historic Preservation and Conservation); and 05.0201 African-American/Black Studies, part of 05 Area, Ethnic, Culture, Gender, and Group Studies (along with German Studies and Tibetan Studies); and of course 50.0601 Film/Cinema/Video Studies.

James English makes some astonishing claims about degrees in these fields.

While they are not English majors, their intellectual formation is being guided more directly by English than by any other discipline, and to this extent they remain under the curricular umbrella of English studies. The numbers at issue are not large: about 7,500 students graduated from American universities with degrees in the relevant subfields of ‘Area, Ethnic, Cultural, or Gender Studies’ in 2008 and another in “Film/Cinema Studies” subfield within visual and performing arts. But these figures are rising rapidly, having increased more than 25% over the last decade. They might be regarded as representing a small but nontrivial ‘hidden’ fraction of English degree students. (21)

If we start from the contrary assumption that “cinema studies, ethnic studies, women’s studies, culture studies, African American studies, and Asian American studies” exist because scholars and students weren’t satisfied with the guidance they were getting under the English umbrella, it’s less easy to deny their disciplinary identity. (50.0601 definitely thinks it is a discipline and not a wayward child of 23.0101; I’m just sayin’.) Moreover, if we look at the CIP’s within Area, Ethnic, Culture, or Gender Studies, we discover that James English’s overhasty generalization may lump together very different types of programs (African-American Studies likely has a joint appointment in the English Department, German Studies may not). Because I like English’s book overall, I don’t want to brand him a typically imperialist English professor. Can we just stipulate that the small but rapidly rising numbers are probably not best understood as “hidden” English majors?  Unless, of course, they get aggregated in that way, through the two-step that turns them into “humanities” majors and then establishes English as the dominant discipline in that sector.

It’s more interesting, I think, to play with the granularity that IPEDS affords, which anyone can do with the handy dandy report generator here.

In 2010-11, your institution awarded the following numbers of “1st major” BAs, out of a total of 6,511:

  • 92  (1%) Ethnic, Cultural Minority, and Gender Studies (50.02, not the higher level that includes the Germans)
  • 139 (2%) History
  • 196 (3%) English Language and Literature, General
  • 283 (4%) Visual and preforming arts of which 20 (less than 1%) were in 50.06 Film/Video and Photographic Arts (which includes production and studies)

At my institution, the numbers were, out of 4,462:

  •  9 (less than 1%) in Ethnic, Cultural Minority, and Gender Studies (demonstrating that California and South Carolina are, in fact, different)
  • 107 (2%) History
  • 98  (2%) English Language and Literature, General
  • 220 (5%) Visual and performing arts of which 68 (1%) were in 50.06

Do these numbers describe the campus you inhabit? Mine make sense to me but they do provide a new perspective. History and English, which seem ginormous on the ground, don’t look that way in this comparative view. Visual and performing arts, which does not seem to be a coherent area at all on my campus, looks like a major one in the numbers. Some of the degrees there to do not look like “the humanities” to me, but a great many of them do. This suggests that a major thread of development in the humanities may already be precisely where we think it should be: in engagement with the full range of culture industries.

The bottom line: it is a good thing we’ve been paying our taxes because IPEDS will help us describe the humanities differently (and let’s hope the Department of Education stays in business). But it will be necessary to dive into the data, rather than rely on the Digest exclusively, and we have to figure out how disciplines like film were counted before they were counted, which may mean research at particular institutions.



I.A. Richards, Digital Humanist

Dear Mark,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richards personified, or so it seems, the split that we have understood historically. His very practice of working with and against Hollywood is what we presented in the Redbook’s wake, after which engagement with Hollywood was replaced by the set of oppositions (Unity/Difference, Humanities values/Commercial values) that you describe as organizing the English department and its discontents from the mid-1940s onward.

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

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

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

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

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

The problem is the mass as much as the media:

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

Fortunately, poetry can save us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Moving On

Dear Mark,

I think we’ve reached the end of a couple of threads here.

First up, you wrote:

Objects don’t define practices. Practices define objects.
Academic disciplines and media industries are best though of as institutionalized practices.
For both sorts of institutionalized practice it matters that pictures aren’t words (even though, like with the 70s and 80s treatment of everything as “text,” there are often disavowals). You seem reluctant to agree. Why?

This, I agree with. No murky ontology. Practices define objects, and if we want to stop defining ourselves by reference to the objects we study, we must redefine our practices. At the risk, that is, of losing control over (including the definitions of and the distinctions among) those objects (pictures, texts, etc.).


We might want to devote some other posts to explaining what it means for a practice to be institutionalized.  It may be worth pointing out that since Robert Merton’s 1940 classic “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality” it has been clear that institutions cannot be adequately thought of as Weberian rationalizing machines, because they also train people to over-conform to their rules. Merton discovers that bureaucratic inefficiency is an effect of the very rules supposed to make institutions hyper-efficent.

This would be good to talk more about. Off the top of my head, I’d say that we lay the groundwork for this already, but that like Graff et al. we tend to rely on polemics about institutional practice rather than sociological studies of what happens in the classroom, etc. Do we need to think more about the latter? Or do I just need to get off the couch and read more of these classic works on bureaucracy you seem to know something about?

Third, part one:

I want to embrace the flattening gesture that puts us all in the market, while also registering that major differences of opinion exist within film and media studies on the question of “whether [we] should work with and within the culture industries.” Projects dedicated to using “new media” to promote participatory culture, like those of Sharon Daniel, have a different orientation than those working to bridge industry and academe under that banner of the Convergence Culture Consortium.

A different orientation, for sure, but they share a reluctance to reproduce the academic exceptionalism that makes university practice seem somehow outside the market while commercial practice is in it. For our purposes here, we need sometimes to be agnostic about these differences. I’m thinking of the laundry lists of “interesting things going on that are not business as usual” that we’ve been generating. Sometimes, however, we may want to privilege one or the other. On what grounds, for me, tbd.

Third, part two:

We should not lose sight of the fact that in the 20s and 30s “zealous engagement” with Hollywood often meant strident opposition to it. What I think we aim to describe is how culture industries and universities developed together as institutional fields that collaborated, competed, and often mirrored one another. It’s not for nothing that we talk about an academic “star system.”

Sure. It matters to us why Hollywood is being opposed, in addition. There’s a regulatory argument in most oppositional stances, I think we’ve found. Looking forward to the days of fewer individual academic stars, more star teams.


I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the mental picture of films and novels strutting about in mediation suits with that of a 3D chess match involving  objects, institutions, and disciplines in which Bazin squares off against Marshall McLuhan (they are both wearing Star Trek uniforms).

Oh now you hate all figuration. Whatever. Try this one on: both wearing Star Trek uniforms, but it’s all about rank. Who is the redshirt?


Profit and Form, Objects, Media

Dear John,

Ok, I’ll write about profit, but first I need to figure out what this paragraph means:

Some objects wear their mediation more lightly than others. But we cannot imagine that this variance resides anywhere except in the way that media have been institutionalized, can we? I take the (Bazinian?, not exclusively surely) point that there are properties of these objects that affect their mediation, but for our argument those properties must be significant largely for how they shape institutionalization and discipline.

I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the mental picture of films and novels strutting about in mediation suits with that of a 3D chess match involving  objects, institutions, and disciplines in which Bazin squares off against Marshall McLuhan (they are both wearing Star Trek uniforms).

My imagination wants to bulldoze all of this in favor of some straightforward propositions:

  • Objects don’t define practices. Practices define objects.
  • Academic disciplines and media industries are best though of as institutionalized practices.

For both sorts of institutionalized practice it matters that pictures aren’t words (even though, like with the 70s and 80s treatment of everything as “text,” there are often disavowals). You seem reluctant to agree. Why?

We might want to devote some other posts to explaining what it means for a practice to be institutionalized.  It may be worth pointing out that since Robert Merton’s 1940 classic “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality” it has been clear that institutions cannot be adequately thought of as Weberian rationalizing machines, because they also train people to over-conform to their rules. Merton discovers that bureaucratic inefficiency is an effect of the very rules supposed to make institutions hyper-efficent.

This knee-jerk anti-profit attitude is case of humanist over-conformity. Paul Jay and Gerald Graff say as much in the “Fear of Being Useful” piece we cite. Christopher Newfield, in Ivy and Industry, observes that this particular institutional structure has early 20th century roots in the (bad) bargain that founded the modern American University: administrators would attend to money matters; scholars would be “free” to think and write. I think it is fairly obvious that the terms of this bargain are shifting under the pressure of a much broader argument about what universities should do and how they should be funded. Over conforming to old habits will not serve us well. We want our students to get jobs; we’d like to keep ours; we’d like ours to make a difference. These are not exclusively “profit” propositions, but profit’s sure in ’em.

I’m not sure what to do with a couple of ideas in your last paragraph. There’s this one:

Film and new media scholars will doubtless feel closer to this problem of whether they should work with and within the culture industries than scholars of literature. Literature scholars should not feel so securely distanced from it, however.

I want to embrace the flattening gesture that puts us all in the market, while also registering that major differences of opinion exist within film and media studies on the question of “whether [we] should work with and within the culture industries.” Projects dedicated to using “new media” to promote participatory culture, like those of Sharon Daniel, have a different orientation than those working to bridge industry and academe under that banner of the Convergence Culture Consortium.

Then there’s this sentence:

The zealous engagement with Hollywood that we found so compelling in Grieveson, Wasson, Polan, and Decherney’s work on early film and film study can only appear as anathema today.

I think Grieveson, Wasson, Polan, Decherney et al. describe institution building arguments that configure still extant relationships among academic and industrial practices. (Although these relationships may be changing.) We should not lose sight of the fact that in the 20s and 30s “zealous engagement” with Hollywood often meant strident opposition to it. What I think we aim to describe is how culture industries and universities developed together as institutional fields that collaborated, competed, and often mirrored one another. It’s not for nothing that we talk about an academic “star system.”




Form, Objects, Media, and Profit

Dear Mark,

I don’t think that we need to do the realism thing, although you’ve never struck me as a person who was remotely afraid (to the contrary) of deep water. My invocation of realism was, allow me to say this as dismissively as possible, an example. Of, precisely, the challenge of thinking in inter-medial fashion. The only reason for us to care about realism would be if we thought its differences across media would tell us something about the changing inter-medial dynamics.

Some objects wear their mediation more lightly than others. But we cannot imagine that this variance resides anywhere except in the way that media have been institutionalized, can we? I take the (Bazinian?, not exclusively surely) point that there are properties of these objects that affect their mediation, but for our argument those properties must be significant largely for how they shape institutionalization and discipline.

You wrote,

I think our collaboration repeatedly demonstrates that my background in Film and Media Studies gives me something to say about about the problem of meditation that your background in English does not, and vice versa. This productive difference does have something to do with the fact that I’ve watched a lot of films and you’ve read a lot of novels. It ought to be possible to value this difference without perpetually reprising a love-hate relationship with these objects of study.

For other English types, it will be important that I’ve been reading 20th/21st C novels. Victorianists and 18th C scholars of the novel typically care more about mediation than contemporary fiction scholars and modernists do. In my experience the curiosity of the 18th C epistolary novel and Victorian seriality far more emphatically direct scholars to ask about relations among form, object, and media than even the experiments of modernism and postmodernism. Leave the novel for the lands of poetry and drama, you’ll find again this complex relation of form, object, media is rarely ignored. The novel, in short, is the problem, and the high profile of 20th C fiction in particular.

Which, given the still strong market for at least some novels, makes it odd that anyone could forget this point you reference from our work in progress:

This inter-medial encounter ought to remind us further that humanities objects are themselves moving targets produced and reproduced by nonacademic institutions.

Why is this not obvious?

Our account of how the humanities rose in status by retreating into the academy is surely part of the answer.

The fear of being useful is the affective remainder of the power plays associated with Leavis, Crowe, and Ransom, which legitimated criticism by retreating to the academy and, at the same time, complained that academics were not empowered to manage cultural reproduction.

Although I still like this formulation, I’ve been trying this out for a little while now on my colleagues, etc., and I don’t find that use is what galls them. Or so they say. What unsettles them is profit. I’ve been prodding you about this particular matter for a little while but you haven’t taken the bait. We like our objects to be worthless in exchange. Profitability when we refer to it makes a certain opaque point. Sometimes it testifies to significance, but rarely (ever?) analytic significance.

In our work in progress, we recognize the power of but are skeptical towards the Leavis / New Critical retreat into the academy and away from the market. We recognize the power of and tend to like the transdisciplinary efforts of mid-century anti-capitalists cum strange bedfellows Greenberg and Adorno/Horkheimer. I like having it both ways, and we do note that there’s no reason to be caught up in jazz-baiting or kitsch-hating when appreciating Greenberg/Adorno/Horkheimer efforts, as we put it, “to take in the whole picture of culture administration and explain how nominally opposed camps collude to maintain capitalism.” But it’s hard not to notice that Greenberg/Adorno/Horkheimer take different approaches than early century academics like Thrasher et al. who worked with and within the culture industries.

Film and new media scholars will doubtless feel closer to this problem of whether they should work with and within the culture industries than scholars of literature. Literature scholars should not feel so securely distanced from it, however. I think I told you about Amitav Ghosh’s presentation at the Novel conference in which he reminded a room full of academics that many writers write to make a living. There’s no escaping the filthy lucre. How are we to think about the way that humanities academics frame their relationship to it? The zealous engagement with Hollywood that we found so compelling in Grieveson, Wasson, Polan, and Decherney’s work on early film and film study can only appear as anathema today.