Humanities Remain Popular Among Students Even as Tenure-Track Jobs Diminish

February 28, 2010

The results of an important new cross-disciplinary survey of humanities departments make it clear that the humanities remain popular with students and central to the core mission of many institutions. They also confirm that the teaching of English, foreign languages, and other humanistic subjects has become more vulnerable at American colleges and universities.

Conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with the help of a group of scholarly societies, the Humanities Departmental Survey collected data in the 2007-8 academic year from departments of English, foreign languages, history, the history of science, art history, linguistics, and religion at some 1,400 colleges and universities. It also surveyed combined departments of English and foreign languages.

"The survey results provide a snapshot of U.S. humanities departments at the end of the first decade of the 21st century," the academy said in a news release. Among the topics covered in a report on the findings, "The 2007-08 Humanities Departmental Survey," are numbers of departments and faculty members, faculty distributions by discipline, courses taught, tenure activity, undergraduate majors and minors, and graduate students.

First, the bad news, which is not likely to surprise anyone who has been following the academic job market and the rising reliance on non-tenure-track faculty labor: The teaching work force in the humanities is tilting more and more toward the nontenured. During the 2006-7 academic year, 38 percent of faculty members in the departments surveyed had tenure. English departments had the highest proportion of non-tenure-track positions in that academic year: 49 percent.

The survey also found less-than-rosy job prospects for the rising generation of scholars. Survey results indicate that a low turnover rate among faculty members, combined with hiring freezes at many institutions, mean fewer academic career opportunities for graduate students in the fields covered by the survey.

Sustained Interest

And now for the good news: The great majority of the humanities departments surveyed—87 percent—said that their discipline was included in the core requirements at their college or university. The survey collected numbers on undergraduate concentrations and found that the enduring appeal of the humanities translates into minors as well as majors. In 2006-7, 122,100 undergraduates earned bachelors' degrees in the surveyed fields, while 100,310 finished minor degrees in the three largest fields, namely English, foreign languages, and history.

Foreign languages appear to have a good deal of attraction for undergraduates. In 2006-7, foreign-language departments handed out 28,710 B.A.'s and had the largest number of students finishing minors—51,670—of any of the disciplines included in the survey. But the survey noted that institutional commitment to maintaining a stable work force for foreign-language instruction appeared to be on the wane, judging by a decline in recruiting full-time faculty members.

The survey gives a detailed breakdown for each field. The scholarly associations that helped collect survey data in their disciplines included the American Academy of Religion, the American Historical Association, the College Art Association, the History of Science Society, the Linguistic Society of America, and the Modern Language Association. The American Council of Learned Societies and the American Political Science Association also lent a hand.

The survey is likely to be a valuable complement to the data already assembled in the academy's Humanities Indicators project. The academy also announced some potential good news concerning that venture as well. It noted that the Obama administration's budget request for the National Endowment for the Humanities next year included a mention of the need for money to "collect, analyze, and disseminate statistical information about the condition of the humanities." The request also said that the endowment intends to form a partnership with the academy to "sustain and extend" the academy's work on the Humanities Indicators project.

That is a welcome development for the academy, which throughout its efforts to gather data on the humanities has made it clear that it felt the effort was important enough to merit governmental involvement.