It's Time to Stop Mourning the Humanities

Brian Taylor

June 01, 2010

You may have heard that the academic humanities are in crisis.

As a humanist, I understand why we are fascinated with serious aspects of the crisis: creeping corporatization, unstable systems of tenure and promotion, pervasive worry about relevancy, our (failing?) competition with the sciences for institutional support. The stagnant hiring, which has gone on for nearly 30 years, means many qualified Ph.D.'s are either unable to find tenure-track jobs or underemployed as adjuncts.

I agree that the humanities are in hard times. However, I propose that we stop talking about the "crisis," even stop using the word. I suggest that we change our vocabulary and attitude, and begin to offer a cogent reassessment of what the humanities do and why they deserve to be maintained and expanded within the university. I want to link how we talk about the crisis with how we respond to it.

Calling it a crisis obscures the fact that we are living through fundamental, long-lasting changes in the nature of higher education. The growth in adjunct labor has been decades in the making, as Marc Bousquet has shown, and a managerial ethic has also been expanding inexorably as well. The continuing structural changes are insidious because they are so mundane.

Despite those trends, I'm afraid that we are handcuffed to crisis narratives that are incomplete and ultimately disabling.

Many academics, especially in medicine, business, and law, don't understand our concerns. From their perspective, colleges and universities have always been corporate. In the humanities, we view the "corporatization" of higher education with more than a little paranoia—too much, I think. Humanists tend to see administrators as gleefully cutting costs and maligning our teaching and research because it doesn't serve the "bottom line."

Yet the reality is that many of those administrators are us—scholars who came out of the humanities. (The president of my college is a music professor and performing cellist; not exactly the model of a corporate raider.) So we've played a part in corporatizing the university. And whatever our feelings about those corporate impulses, they are intensifying and seem unlikely to fade. In recognizing that, we need to stop the ritual mourning of the crisis and ask ourselves what we want the humanities to look like within a corporatized college or university. What do we want the humanities to do? How do we get the money to do it? Those are the questions we need to answer.

Humanities centers can be one place where we start to find the answers. Scholars at those centers are given the time and support to consider how we want the humanities to function in a wider culture. The centers can serve as models for reimagining the relationship between the humanities and the corporate university.

For the past year, I have been a junior fellow at the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University, where we have debated those very questions. Unsurprisingly, there isn't agreement about what we must do. Some fellows have suggested that we make our scholarship more relevant, others that we focus more on university budgets. Still others have argued that we should worry less about public opinion or budgets and pursue our studies more vigorously.

I would argue that our first step should be to change our intellectual conversations so as to compete better with other parts of the university. We do a good job of talking to ourselves, and of being cross-disciplinary, but we seem frustrated when our nonhumanities colleagues see us as self-involved or too invested in the use of jargon. Every discipline has its own vocabulary, and we should value our expertise. But, rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that we relish the inscrutability of our theories and methods.

That perception is unfair; rarely are scientists asked to make astrophysics more accessible. But instead of proving our expertise by always striving to make things more complex, we should advocate for the value of what we add to higher-education institutions. That advocacy is more important than finding a wider audience of lay readers or worrying about how our research can be made more appealing to the public. Right now is it crucial for us to consolidate and expand our role within the college, not outside it.

With that in mind, we could think of humanities centers as the beginning of a "more is more" strategy for our fields in the corporatized university. One constant complaint from humanists is that academic budgets are more devoted to financing the sciences, from expensive labs to costly science journals. In the competition for scarce resources, we need to be more aggressive in attracting research money, whether it's through the pursuit of "big humanities" (digital projects, long-term edited collections, and the like) or through centers that can draw donors who want to see their names in lights.

Some scholars worry that such efforts would undercut departmental budgets. But I think the opposite could happen. Humanities centers would complement traditional disciplines, provide publicity for the college, and, most important, direct money back to traditional disciplines. Centers are good advertising within the college, especially for donors who can see what it is that we do.

The ability to move nimbly between a repertoire of specialized disciplinary knowledge and the different audiences it serves and attracts is a skill that must be cultivated earlier, and with more urgency, in professional development. Graduate students need to learn from their professors how to influence those in charge of campus budgets.

Humanities centers are one way to start that training. Emory's Fox Center has three fellowships for graduate students completing their dissertations and two fellowships for undergraduates working on senior theses. Those students form connections with academics from outside Emory, like me—the value of which is easy to see for graduate students looking for jobs and undergraduates seeking graduate-school admissions. But the fellowships also expose students to debates about their institution among those who are in charge of it. Students can be trained in how to understand and manipulate the organizational structure of the university, knowing its nodes and relays of power, and learning who has the money and how it flows.

Instead of emphasizing how beleaguered we are, we should remember that we are extremely good at telling compelling stories that don't get told in the social sciences and sciences. In the course I've taught this semester at Emory, one of my undergraduates is a neuroscience major. He is pre-med and wants to become a surgeon. He had never taken a humanities course and was in mine to fulfill a writing requirement. He was unfamiliar with humanities disciplines; though a junior, he had never checked a book out of Emory's library.

In our last session, as we were chatting about his future plans, he mentioned he had signed up for a poetry course next semester. I don't know whether a humanities course will make him a better doctor. I can't tell whether it will make him a more informed citizen or a happy, well-rounded person. I believe, however, that his good experience in my humanities course led him to take another. That's something college administrators can measure and understand.

I don't think my success with that student is unique. Most humanities professors have a story or two they cherish about a student they have drawn into new interests.

In my experience, students who are involved in those oh-so-sensible majors value the opportunity to sneak off and indulge their secret creative-writing habit or their interest in queer theory. We can use that interest and energy to excite students and administrators.

My experience at a humanities center and with the students I've taught there is one small example of how we might think within the bureaucracies of the corporate university to move toward a self-sustaining model. I suggest that we use the powerful interrelationships of the humanities to increase the size and gravity of humanistic inquiry.

We should refocus our attention on demonstrating to skeptical administrators what the humanities accomplishes for faculty members and students, using metrics rather than abstract claims about critical thinking (claims that I believe, by the way) or its relevance to the real world. We should emphasize our entire repertoire of compelling cultural narratives and lengthy disciplinary histories to make the case.

None of which means the humanities should become a dilettantish treat, a relief from the rigors of "real life." Geoffrey Harpham, director of the National Humanities Center, advises us to think of ourselves as specialists in a particular discipline yet also as humanists whose work contributes to a larger public good.

I agree, but right now, in this uncertain economic era, it's important for humanists to concentrate on our role within the university. We succeed within a corporatized university because we offer ways to reflect on it, reinvent it, and evaluate it. We are the self-consciousness of the corporate university. We shouldn't undervalue that role. We are being forced to sell out to corporate models of higher education. Let's at least be sure to sell high.

James Mulholland is an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.