Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” and Big Tent Humanities


Dear Mark,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• the ability to participate effectively in deliberative conversation;

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

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

Redbook Redux


Dear John,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The aim of reenergizing general eduction is worthy but the predicates the authors give it are wrong. The effort to segregate a humanist tradition from engagements with histories of population administration and mass media is a step backwards. Although the report is eager to see the culture wars recede in the rearview mirror (28), it remains locked in the terms that produced that conflict. Exactly like their 1945 forebears, these Harvard professors can only present “media” as an antagonist to the “high arts” that humanist properly study, or else as site of brave new experiments designed to bring “popular culture” into the conceptual space of “arts” they already know how to administer. For about century, other humanists have wisely rejected these alternatives.





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

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

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

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

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

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

This argument is frustrating for a number of reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark and John


Miller’s Big Lie


Dear John,

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

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

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

Or do they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.”



Crisis, Crisis, Crisis


Dear John,

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

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

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

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

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


The Administrative Limits of Digital Humanities


Dear Mark,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


5.From Mass Culture to Mediation: Next steps


Dear John,

Your last neatly tied up some points and introduced some new ones. Good work! It has left me wondering where we are in the big picture. The discussion of mass culture feels like the main thread to me, to the point that I almost wish we’d considered the Red Book points in reverse order.

We’re agreed that

  • the Red Book authors position commercial mass culture (other than literature) “as having a limited experimental role in the classroom” and “as antithetical to the sorts of examples featured in general education”
  • this move goes hand-in-hand with elevating a particular version of English as isomorphic with Humanities,
  • this two-fold gesture omits/erases half a century of efforts to incorporate the study of media like film in Humanities, along with any awareness that the particular version of English at issue was itself a relatively recent invention.

If an undeclared aim of the book is to accomplish this, we might reassess its concern with balancing Jeffersonian and Jacksonian imperatives, its privileging the Humanities as a unifying element within General Education, and its opening gambit of thinking systemically about General Education beginning with K-12.

Such a reassessment begins to clarify the Red Book’s role as a Truman-era policy blueprint. The mass media gesture with which the authors conclude, as much as the K-12 argument with which they begin, proclaims this a high-stakes, big-picture endeavor. It also underscores the funding pitch. System-wide, what could possibly compete with the funding stream available to advertisers? Only the Feds!  Similarly, putting media front-and-center reframes the Red Book’s vision of General Education as the fulcrum upon which leveling/unifying and meritocratic/sorting ed functions might balance. It points us away from the context of the Early Republic and toward that of 1945. Then, the big education news was the G.I. Bill (1944), which funded education as a back-to-work program and a benefit like business loans and subsidized mortgages. The big media news had to do with imagining a post-war market that included television, educational films, reconfigured international regulations, and major anti-trust cases (the 1945 Film Daily Year Book provides a contemporary overview.)

To take up the mass media problem, in other words, is to begin to make a materialist critique of the Red Book, in which we would think of schools and colleges as institutions among others concerned to unify and sort national populations, to produce an admixture of obedience and innovation. The Red Book’s authors are elites who, with some success, leveraged their institutional authority to define a fundable mission for English-led Humanities in General Education–a mission that succeeded better as national policy than it did at Harvard. In this mission, reading would be valued over, and sometimes opposed to, watching and listening. “Great works in literature” would be valued over a catch-all approach that encompassed “anything that has anything to do with anything in the Metropolitan Museum” (108). The Red Book authors say this is because great works provide commonality in an age when specialization, complexity, and increasing numbers of students from diverse backgrounds threaten “common heritage and common citizenship” (5). If we take this argument seriously and imagine 1945 instead of 1830 as its context, then the democracy-demands-English argument just looks lame. It is not unified culture per se that the professors are after (for that purpose, Hollywood might be a better interpreter of great works than Harvard), nor is it political participation (if that’s the goal, why not place civics, rather than English, at the core of General Education?). Rather, the professors want to administer what counts as common culture by setting its touchstones in Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, etc. Nice work if you can get it!

Here’s where I’m going with this riff on a well-established theme. (Alert! Unsupported polemic follows. Can we just agree to call it a working hypothesis?) The Red Book is much less the reasoned voice of a mid-century consensus about the Humanities than Harpham, e.g., would have us believe. It is an early, and maybe the defining, strategic move in the culture wars. This move established the coordinates that would guide arguments about the humanities right up until the present. Schematically:

Unity Difference
Great Works Anything
Humanities values Commercial values
Interpretation Facts*
Reading Viewing/Listening
College/School Other Institutions

Twenty years on, dissident humanists inside English departments and outside them would organize themselves around one or more of the devalued terms in the right-hand column. Thirty years on, materialist critiques of this structure (Bledstein, Ohmann) gained some currency, without however, foregrounding the crucial link between educational institutions and media institutions. Forty years on, the right-hand column people could be represented by left-hand column people as posing a threat to the national future in their influence over general education. Fifty years on, it became clear that tactical advances by Studies programs and  big “T” Theory had moved the dividing line between the columns into the heart of English departments, without altering the structure of oppositions. It was obligatory for English professors to consider whether “the human” and “the humanities” were categories worth defending. Sixty years on, humanist self-crit had come to seem self-defeating. Some commentators looked nostalgically to the left-hand column as a recipe that would retain or renew public funding. But the real action was elsewhere, in the struggle to grapple with  a period of media change more sweeping than any since the first decades of the 20th Century, when arguments about commercial cinema profoundly shaped the Humanities and Social Sciences.

This struggle, which is in no small part a struggle to define what “Digital Humanities” will come to mean, promises (if we’re lucky) to decentralize the Imperial English department, to open educational institutions to real collaboration–both internally across disciplines and with certified and vernacular experts outside their borders, and to establish a new strategic alignment. Schematically, that alignment might push the established alternatives aside, like so:

Populations Unity/Difference
Examples (of Practices) Great Works/Anything
Contested values Humanities/Commercial values
Mediation (specificities, interactions) Reading/Viewing/Listening
Continuity/Change Interpretation/Facts
Good Management (a question & a project) Institutions

How about it? Should we try to demonstrate this hypothesis?

In other news, we’ve spun-off a series of to-dos for ourselves in recent posts. Maybe we should create a static page to keep track of these?


*This one is probably too much shorthand. I have in mind the set of arguments and assumptions that make a certain kinds of historical and social analysis part of the Humanities in the Red Book and another kinds part of the Social Sciences. Humanities: interpretative procedures that work form text to context. Social science: ordered series that aim to establish “what happened” or “what is.” Theres a lot more to say about this. The placement of history (as an epistemology) inside the Humanities and History (as a discipline) outside it (in the Red Book but not necessarily elsewhere) is something we really need to look into. To do list?