Oh, the Humanities! Disciplines Survived, Even Thrived, Despite Recession

September 08, 2014

For humanities departments that are still struggling with the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, it appears no news is the best news.

That’s one of the chief conclusions of a report released on Monday by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The report stems from a survey of the state of the humanities across 13 disciplines.

Despite continuing debates about the decline of the humanities and heightened interest in STEM education and professional programs, the authors of the report found that some of the oldest academic disciplines had survived and even prospered in the face of the difficult recession years, in which many colleges faced budget cuts and calls to revamp their curricula.

"We expected there would be more change," said Robert B. Townsend, director of the academy’s office in Washington. "That was one of the surprises coming out of this report."

The new survey results build on a previous one conducted during the 2007-8 academic year. This time around, the academy added five new disciplines to its look at the humanities: classical studies, communication, folklore, musicology, and philosophy.

The report does not incorporate any new departments beyond the programs surveyed in 2007-8: art history, English, foreign languages, history, history of science, linguistics, religion, and combined English and foreign-language programs. Instead, it serves as another snapshot in time, with updated information about the eight original disciplines, collected during the 2012-13 academic year.

The new data show that the unease of the recession years was not without some consequences.

Foreign Languages Feel the Heat

The economic crunch between the two surveys delivered a sharper blow to some departments than others, with foreign-language programs particularly feeling the heat. By contrast, the number of students majoring in linguistics increased slightly, the report says.

Colleges and universities cut 12 percent of their foreign-language degree programs from 2007 to 2012 while canceling 21 percent of combined English and foreign-language programs. Eighteen percent of those programs were at public institutions. By contrast, the colleges and universities surveyed cut about 6 percent of degree programs over all by 2013.

In the immediate wake of the recession, the future of foreign-language education looked brighter.

A 2010 study by the Modern Language Association found that enrollment in foreign-language and combined English and foreign-language programs had increased 6.6 percent from 2006 to 2009, with more than 1.6 million students enrolled in programs across the country.

A number of factors could be at the heart of the more recent cuts in foreign-language programs, according to S. Paul Sandrock, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, which tracks teaching in elementary, secondary, and higher education.

Some programs might have been canceled because of a lack of teaching staff, or consolidated into other programs. But the cuts remain sporadic over all, Mr. Sandrock said.

Across the eight original disciplines, the humanities appeared to remain relatively stable in terms of the number of departments and faculty members, though the number of students majoring in humanities disciplines declined slightly.

The report had more-hopeful news for faculty members concerned about the availability of stable employment in the humanities: Seventy-one percent of those in the survey were employed in full-time positions, while less than half had non-tenure-track or other part-time positions. In English the number of full-time faculty members increased by 3 to 4 percent, while part-time positions decreased by the same amount.

The number of female professors in tenure-track jobs increased across nearly every original discipline, while the number of women receiving tenure in history increased 3 to 4 percent.

Teaching Still a Priority

The report also asserts that, in the humanities, teaching remains a priority, in addition to research. Full-time faculty members teach 86 percent of non-introductory courses to undergraduate students, and teaching is considered an "essential" factor in making tenure decisions 78 percent of the time across all the disciplines surveyed, the academy found.

In many departments, the use of new technology in teaching and scholarship remains somewhat limited.

While nearly a third of the departments surveyed by the academy said they had some form of online education in place during the 2012-13 academic year, there was resistance to the use of digital-humanities technology when it came to publishing and scholarship.

Nearly a quarter of the colleges surveyed reported having a center on the campus dedicated to digital humanities, but only 15 percent offered a seminar on the use of digital humanities in research and teaching.

Mr. Townsend, the academy researcher, said he wasn’t surprised.

While working on a report on job prospects for historians published by the American Historical Association last spring, he found that many scholars remained skeptical about books and journals published solely in an electronic format.

"It took a lot of handholding to say, Look, these books are legitimate, they’ve been vetted by a blue-ribbon commission," Mr. Townsend said.

But for now, despite the cuts in some foreign-language departments, the humanities appear to have survived the initial years of the recession relatively unscathed.

"In some ways what was most striking," Mr. Townsend said, "is how little difference there was."