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Amanda Anderson: In July you published a piece in The Chronicle Review titled “The Humanities After Covid-19,” in which you discuss how dramatically the pandemic has intensified an already urgent crisis affecting the job market for humanities Ph.D.s. What worries you most?
Humanist Methods and the Problem of Disciplinarity
Jonathan Kramnick, “The Interdisciplinary Delusion”
Michael Clune, “The Bizarro World of Literary Studies”
Sarah E. Chinn, “The Real Cause of the Humanities’ Woes”
Michael Clune, “The Problem is Bad Interdisciplinarity”
Nan Z. Da, “The Digital Humanities Debacle”
Ted Underwood, “Fear Not the Digital Revolution”
Jonathan Kramnick: First and foremost, the human cost for job candidates, graduate students, and recent Ph.D.s. But at the same time, we all should be worried about the long-term consequences for the disciplines of the humanities when an entire generation doesn’t get hired — when there’s such a sharp disruption in the ordinary processes of bringing up the next generation of scholars through the ranks.
Anderson: There’s been a lot of talk over the past several years about the need to reform the way that we look at doctoral education and its aims: the importance of training students for careers beyond academia or recommending that we change the very structure of the dissertation to accommodate a broader conception of scholarly writing.
Kramnick: We’re likely to hear much more of that kind of talk now. That’s understandable, and there are good reasons for it. I think we should explore new ways of learning from and contributing to humanities-style work as it happens in non-academic settings and venues. At the same time, I think we need to recognize that alternative academia, or jobs outside of the ordinary tenure-track stream, provide only so much of a solution to the jobs crisis.
In the short term, those kinds of hiring possibilities are going to be under the exact same pressure as universities themselves — there will be job crises in publishing, in museums, in libraries, and so forth. Second, there is not a clear relationship between training for jobs outside of the academy and the skill sets that we develop and teach. So it’s arguably the case that those jobs are not the obvious and logical outcome of getting a Ph.D. in the humanities. We need to face that fact. There’s perhaps no reason to go to graduate school or to get a Ph.D. if you want to work in those fields. Plus, those kinds of jobs have their own streams of hiring, their own expectations and norms and paths, which have traditionally not included graduate programs.
Anderson: Your work addresses debates about what makes the humanities or certain disciplines within the humanities distinctive or important. Your own field is literary studies. What makes literary studies distinctive as a discipline within the broad array of academic disciplines?
Kramnick: What’s distinctive about literary studies is that it’s an interpretive discipline that looks closely at language. It involves a particular kind of skill in working with the written word, and that skill is attached to procedures of interpretation that provide a special purchase on questions that other disciplines care deeply about.
Anderson: So you didn’t use the word “literature"; you talked about language.
Kramnick: I am interested in the medium question of literature — the relationship between the skills that literary scholars have and the kind of truth claims they make, and the meeting up of their own language and language that’s out there in the world. However, yes, literary studies is a discipline that takes literature as its object. That’s quite important. I would add, however, that what we call literature is open for debate and revision. It’s a fairly capacious category.
There is not a clear relationship between training for jobs outside of the academy and the kinds of skill sets that we develop and teach.
Anderson: Is there anything specific to be claimed for the humanities more generally: literary studies, history, art history, philosophy?
Kramnick: We’ve all had to think a lot about that recently. For me, what it often comes down to is that the humanities study or describe the domain of value — beauty, truth, meaning, justice. It’s a domain that forms or studies values that make things like saving lives worth doing. Other disciplines don’t do that exactly.
Anderson: Many people also point to the importance of the humanities with respect to a focus on lived experience. Is that part of your conception of its focus on value? Or is that a slightly different dimension?
Kramnick: You can’t get around lived experience, and it is vital to the humanities, but other units of the university examine different dimensions of something that we might call lived experience as well. Psychology, for example, and neuroscience. From their own disciplinary vantage, they come at the question of consciousness, lived experience, the transaction that humans and other animals make with the world, in a way that’s distinct from what humanists do. Lived experience is not the sole property of humanistic disciplines. But lived experience in its richness and ethical entailments is something the humanities look at in their own particular way.
Anderson: Some common defenses of the humanities claim that they help to promote a capacity for empathy, or broad ethical sensitivity.
Kramnick: I think ultimately that’s an empirical question. Do humanistic disciplines in fact impart greater ethical sensitivity to their students? I certainly like to think that they do. I’m not sure whether that couldn’t also be said for other units of the university as well.
It’s an old argument, going back to the mid-century, that what the humanities do is create citizens. Certainly at this moment we all could use a bit more of that. I wouldn’t want to dismiss that argument. I think that it’s an interesting empirical question. And whether or not that’s the case, I’m not sure it’s the sole property of the humanities.
Anderson: I’ve often wondered, with respect to some of the central claims made about the humanities, what people in other divisions of the university would say in response. Would they cede that whole area and say, “You’re right, we don’t ever talk about values or ethics”? Would they say, “You’re right, you do critical thinking, we don’t do critical thinking”?
Anderson: It would be of great value to have more conversations across the departments on these questions.
Kramnick: I agree entirely.
Anderson: Speaking of conversations across departments, you have been strikingly critical of interdisciplinarity.
Kramnick: I’ve been critical of certain approaches to interdisciplinarity, and somewhat a champion of others. What I’ve been critical of is a kind of reductive interdisciplinarity that doesn’t respect the particular methods and objects of the individual disciplines of which any interdisciplinary project is composed. That tries to flatten, say, the humanities to the social sciences, and then maybe the social sciences to the sciences — a model of vertical integration, as it is called. I have attempted to advocate for something more horizontal and pluralist. Interdisciplinarity should be a collaborative project based upon mutual respect between and among disciplines that have separate objects and separate methods, but that might share a common interest in a phenomenon or a question or a project.
Anderson: Can you give an example of this problematic form of vertical integration?
Kramnick: Well, a long time ago I was interested in the application of the evolutionary social sciences, and evolutionary psychology in particular, to the humanistic disciplines. There was an attempt to ground and flatten the humanities by appealing to what I thought was a fairly crude model of the evolved mind. I think one sees a lot less of that these days. One sees more of a kind of interdisciplinarity that’s based upon digital methods, an interest in information and data as the common object across and between disciplines.
One also sees a general orientation to major crises in the world. It’s hard not to feel really drawn to this. Universities are now more sensitive than ever to their place in the world, so it makes sense that they would want to bundle resources and attach them to urgent problems, Covid-19 being one of them — but also racism, global warming, things like that, which all of us care deeply about and want to help solve. But nevertheless, the underlying model in which, under conditions of scarcity, we assume that there’s a common object and a common method across different units of the university, and that we should bundle them all together, has deep epistemic problems.
Anderson: You have said “a pluralistic array of disciplines matches up with a pluralistic vision of the world.” What do you mean?
Kramnick: What I mean is that the structure of the university in which there is a department of music, and art history, and sociology, and Near Eastern studies, and chemistry, and electrical engineering, and so forth, is designed to get a handle on a world which itself has many different parts. The world that we want to understand is not just the world of biology and physics, or just the world of politics. It also includes an aesthetic dimension: written, visual, and so on. These objects are as real as anything else out there. So an ontologically populous world in which the domain of the aesthetic is real — it’s out there, it’s of value — is one that requires a university that has itself a heterogeneous and pluralistic structure, with no discipline reducing to another, just as no part of the world reduces to something else
Anderson: Something you’re also capturing here is the importance for intellectual inquiry of a non-instrumental approach, or at least the possibility of inquiry that is not driven instrumentally.
Anderson: Do you think that the sciences experience the same sort of pressure?
Kramnick: From what I hear from my colleagues in the sciences, that’s absolutely the case: the kind of attention paid to applied science rather than pure science and, in the extreme, a kind of reduction of science to engineering.
Anderson: Is there anything important that the humanities can learn from the sciences in terms of method or reflections on method?
Kramnick: Oh, absolutely. First and foremost, we can take on board the notion that we’re in the game of knowledge and therefore of truth. Our objects of study push back and limit what we can say about them. That entails a kind of epistemic humility. That sort of ethos perhaps comes more naturally to the sciences, which require, after all, a kind of slow, deliberate empirical process often based on teamwork.
I’ve been very interested recently in the structure of truth claims in literary studies: how they work, what kind of methods they’re attached to. What is the epistemology of close reading? Those kinds of questions.
Anderson: I’ve often thought that it’s quite important for humanists to lay claim to their distinctive practices of knowledge production. I’m always a little disturbed when literature classes don’t have a final exam, to make sure that we’re conveying how important the knowledge is that we’ve sought in that particular class.
Kramnick: I think that’s right. There’s knowledge like: What years were Jane Austen’s novels published? Who does Elizabeth Bennet marry? And there’s also the kind of knowledge that’s embedded in the practice that literary critics do when they interpret works of literature: close reading, predominantly.
It’s important to understand Covid-19 and the novel coronavirus as an epistemic event, an event in the history of knowledge.
Close reading is a method, and therefore has an implied epistemology, and therefore makes truth claims. I think this has a lot to do with the way that literary critical language actually matches up with the language of a work of literature. And the way that close reading, which is actually really a form of writing rather than reading, is a kind of skilled practice and therefore has an epistemology and therefore makes truth claims. I’ve been looking closely at strategies of quotation in particular.
Anderson: Quotation as a kind of evidence.
Kramnick: Yes, and also a skilled practice that involves matching your own syntax and grammar with the words that you bring into your sentence. I’ve been particularly interested in what I call “in-sentence quotation” — what we often call in-line quotation — where you bring the language into your own and are therefore limited by its existing syntax. You have to sort of wrap your words around it. That’s a practical skill that has real practical knowledge behind it. And I think it has an implied truth claim to it.
Anderson: I also think that it’s an art.
Kramnick: Oh, God, absolutely. It’s a creative art. You’re actually making something that has never existed before. You’re making a new object out of what you’re interpreting.
Anderson: Is there anything to be learned about modern scientific knowledge production in the context of the pandemic?
Kramnick: It’s important to understand Covid-19 as, among other things, an epistemic event, an event in the history of knowledge. It has elicited an unprecedented effort to understand something very rapidly, using all the resources we have. The effect on the institutions of knowledge has been dramatic — an all-hands-on-deck response by universities and labs and other institutions. It has really strained the practice of science, as my friends in the philosophy of science and the history of science have been pointing out. It has strained almost to the breaking point ordinary processes of peer review and modeling. It’s led to a tremendous spike in articles and studies but also in retractions.
Anderson: What role could the humanities play in either accompanying this rush to knowledge or reacting to it in a productive way?
Kramnick: I think what’s of maximal value is that the humanities can remind us why we’re bothering to save the planet in the first place.
Kit Salisbury produced the transcript from which this discussion has been condensed and edited.