Hard Truths and a Heavy Heart for the Humanities
I love the humanities. I love my discipline of history. I do intellectual history, meaning I use literary and philosophical sources as well. I love literature. I love philosophy. I love art and art history. I see value in studying the humanities for their own sake. I think teaching the humanities can impart important life and career skills, including critical thinking, clear writing, and logical argumentation. I think the content of a humanities education is useful too, and not just for cocktail parties, but for learning the lessons of history, examining moral questions, identifying the aesthetic value of cultural production, and appreciating peoples of different backgrounds.
Despite all this, I support (some) cuts to the humanities at the university level. Not because I want to. But because there is no real choice. Let me explain.
I’ve read a lot of articles about how shitty it is to be pursuing a doctorate in the humanities these days, but none on what that means for professors. Until now. This article in The Chronicle of Higher Education is a must-read for doctoral students and their professors. The gist: graduate programs are shrinking, and with that, professors have fewer doctoral students to train, thus damaging one major reason they became professors in the first place.
“The only place I can really use some of the research I have is at the graduate level, and now I don’t have someone to impart it to,” says Anthony Colantuono, an associate professor of art history at Maryland, whose department held a retreat this month to talk about how to maintain a vibrant graduate program while admitting only a couple of students a year…. “You want to pass that on; otherwise it could be lost for good,” he says. With fewer graduate students enrolling, that loss is a real threat. “We are all terrified by this,” he says, “because as researchers we’re committed to graduate teaching.”….
The history department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison cut its new graduate admissions in half this past fall, to just 21 students. “Why train people if the outlook for professional historians is not nearly as good as it was five years ago?” asks Laird Boswell, director of graduate studies in the department….
[Frank] Donoghue, the English professor at Ohio State, has written a forthcoming article for the journal Pedagogy about the phenomenon. “The privilege of teaching a graduate seminar every year, or at least every two years, long ago came to become an expected perk of faculty teaching jobs at Ohio State,” he says. “It clearly can’t be anymore, but who gets seminars and who doesn’t has become an increasingly significant factor in faculty morale.”
This sucks. And yet, as the article notes, Penn State’s history department has come to grips with this reality and is adopting a new strategy in response. They’ve cut “entire subfields,” and are no longer accepting students pursuing 20th century US history, medieval history, or modern European history.
“This is the way of the future, and we’re way ahead of the curve here,” says Michael Kulikowski, chairman of the history department, which was featured at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association as one of 10 departments doing innovative things. “People have been talking about the oversupply of unemployable Ph.D.’s in the humanities for several decades, and I think we’ve found a part of the solution. We are concentrating on areas where we can place students competitively.”
Furthermore, there are some graduate students who are ok with this, namely, the ones who still get in. I’ve been saying this for a long time, as a member of NYU’s proto-union, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, or GSOC, and at history department grad student meetings. The biggest complaint is always always always lack of money, be it summer funding, or money for childcare, or research, or dental insurance. Well if we had half as many history students, there’d be more money to go around, and all those problems would be solved. And there’d be fewer people competing for the dwindling number of jobs.
It’s important to be realistic here, even if it comes off as elitist. From my perspective, as a job seeker in the academy, it’s quite practical. Let’s take a quick look at the U.S. News ranking for top doctoral programs in history (not the best metric, I know, but a reasonable one for this purpose). As a doctoral student at NYU in history, I know that I will have a hard time competing with students from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (and Penn, and Columbia, and Stanford, and Berkeley, and UCLA, and Johns Hopkins, and Chicago, etc. etc.). Students doing a Ph.D. at Florida State will have a hard time competing with me, and students at Duke, and Cornell, and Northwestern, and UNC (and Brandeis, and Georgetown, and UVA, and Wisconsin, etc. etc.).
Even many of those at the top schools either will have trouble getting a university job, or will get a job outside of the academy. So this raises the question: why do Florida State (ranked #101 according to US News), and other lower ranked schools, offer a PhD in history at all? Whom does this benefit? Are those students coming out of Florida State going to be competitive in an academic job market?
Again, this is not to denigrate any schools, their faculty, or their students. These rankings can be rather arbitrary, but unfortunately they mean something to people on hiring committees. And they mean something in terms of the resources schools have to support their doctoral candidates.
The reality is, unfortunately, that fewer schools need to offer PhDs in the humanities, and those that do need to offer fewer slots for graduate students. Because those jobs just aren’t out there. It’s nice to say things like “No More Plan B,” where American Historical Association (AHA) president Anthony Grafton and executive director Jim Grossman argued that taking jobs should be valued equally to tenured professorships. They ask, “Why not tell our students, from the beginning, that a PhD in history opens a broad range of doors?” People with doctorates in history have gone on to a variety of careers in the public and private sector.
This openness is probably a good idea, as is expanding the training doctoral programs in history provide, so as to make the above statement more true. But Grafton and Grossman still insist that the dissertation must be a book-length project. “In history, the dissertation is the core of the experience.” Yet people will spend their entire 20s (or 30s) on dissertations that nobody will read, or even publish. And this experience will not really provide any more training than a 2 year MA program for all those other non-academic jobs that history PhDs require. As Louis Menand has written, “the idea that the doctoral thesis is a rigorous requirement is belied by the quality of most doctoral theses. If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship.” This is as true for history as it is for any humanities discipline.
If we are going to be serious about helping the academic humanities survive into the 21st century, we need to make the dissertation (a little) less rigorous, but make graduate schools harder to get into, by cutting the number of slots, even of entire departments. That way, only the very best students (ideally) will pursue PhDs, but those who do will likely finish and may actually have tenure-track jobs awaiting them. The most committed and most talented students will get a greater proportion of the financial and faculty support universities can provide. Fewer students will be around to teach, but since there will be fewer programs, they will congregate around top faculty, creating very high level intellectual communities. Yes, it’s elitist and “meritocratic,” insofar as any of this is meritocratic and not purely subjective (another debate altogether). But I can’t think of any other good solution.
Again, I say this as a person who loves academic history, who loves the humanities taught at the highest level. In my perfect world, everyone would go through a Columbia style great books program. But I recognize that the North American jobs of the future are in the technologies: math and science skills are the most useful, as is more technical, pre-professional, career-oriented training. Because fewer and fewer students are majoring in history, or the humanities broadly, as they rightly realize that there are fewer jobs there (of course, far too many are majoring in business, the most useless of majors, in my view).
I’ll give one example from my own career as a TA that should suffice. As a TA for a history class, I had an excellent student, a young Filipina-American, who did extremely well on all the assignments, and wrote an especially excellent final paper, incorporating primary sources and secondary literature to craft an original argument. Perhaps over-stepping my boundaries, I emailed her, and told her how great the paper was, and that she should consider majoring in history if she was not already, because she had a real talent for it. She responded, and told me that she really liked history, and was minoring in it, but she was in fact enrolled in the nursing school, and was going to pursue nursing as a profession, and that she believed her parents would be angry if she ever said she wanted to major in something like history.
Even beyond the interesting ethnic angle, this incident left me fascinated. Should I have been disappointed? After all, I thought, while nursing is an exceptionally noble profession, there are tons of nurses out there, nurses who don’t need the skills historians have, and this woman might be better suited, or in economic terms, maximize her utility, as a historian. But then, I thought, why would I even suggest history as a career option? Not only is nursing noble, it’s also practical, a path that leads to a job. Majoring in history in college doesn’t necessarily lead to the pursuit of a doctorate in history, and , as we know well, a doctorate in history does not necessarily lead to a tenure-track job. This woman was satisfying her interest in history through a minor, but pursuing a noble, practical career, which she may very well enjoy, and enjoy more than a life in the Ivory Tower. Telling her to pursue history would have been bad advice.
And that’s the problem. Even people who love history, and are good at it, are less and less likely to choose it as a profession. I suspect the same is true of the other humanities disciplines. There’s no use is denying this fact, and I think fighting it is probably futile. In the future, academics in the humanities are going to need to provide their services to more people outside the academy, through adult education and the like. In the present, we need to work to make the humanities more attractive, but also adapt to the needs of the students, undergraduate and graduate. And that means, unfortunately, fewer students, fewer programs, fewer departments. It’s sad, but it’s the only way.