Holding down the Fort: hands across the humanities edition

I’ve been in Charleston, South Carolina for the past few days at the Society for French Historical Studies conference sponsored by the Citadel and the College of Charleston.  The weather here has been sunny, pleasant, and in the mid-60s during the afternoon, so it’s a lovely break from winter for many folks.  (Since it’s also sunny and in the 60s back in the Denver area this weekend, I’m less impressed, but we have far fewer palmetto trees and not much of a harbor, actually.)  It’s still warm and sunny here–and I’m blogging right now from Terminal A of the Charleston airport because my 2 p.m. flight to Atlanta was cancelled!  I’m booked on a 6:15 p.m. flight to Atlanta, but my flight to Denver won’t leave until 10 p.m. EST, so it’s going to be a long stay in airportlandia for me.  Lucky for you that I’ve got a suitcase full of opinions to share with you, and lucky for me I haven’t checked my bag!

SFHS President Joelle Neulander and her Program Committee did a great job of showing the conferees the town and sponsoring institutions.  There was a fascinating (if depressing) roundtable up at the Citadel Friday afternoon on “The Present and Future of French History and the Humanities.”  The Citadel, with its boxy and generously crenellated architecture, was a fitting place for this conversation because we all feel besieged as a profession.  The panel members were affiliated with various institutions in the U.S. and England and featured both mid-career and nearly-retired scholars, and they all had interesting insights about what they’ve observed locally and over the past twenty to forty years in French studies.  Many of the older scholars reminded us that there never was an imagined Golden Age for the Humanities in the U.S., and that they’ve seen other crises come and go.  Other panelists and audience members were more alarmed.

The star witness on the panel was Brett Bowles, a French professor at SUNY Albany and therefore an eyewitness to the “deactivation” of his department along with the Italian, Russian, Greek and Roman Studies, and Theater majors.  He was understandably quite gimlet-eyed on the future of French studies and the humanities because as he reported, 20 full-time tenure-track and tenured scholars are facing the end of their employment at SUNY Albany in another 16 months.  Bowles urged everyone in the audience to be proactive and aware of what’s going on in their universities and to make alliances across disciplinary boundaries.  He encouraged larger humanities departments like English and History to stand up for the smaller majors because he warned that “this is where we’re all headed.  We’re headed to the end of tenure.” 

Some of the discussion amongst the audience after the panelists had their say was rather limited, and focused more on ideas about pitching our teaching more broadly or trying to make arguments that our courses teach valuable and marketable skills.  I don’t think the value of our teaching or the courses we offer in the humanities is at all in question, because we know that universities and departments are happy to hire adjuncts and casual labor to cover them when we resign or retire.  Clearly, universities need someone to teach these courses–it’s our roles as humanities researchers and generators of new knowledge that are under attack.  That’s what makes us different from K-12 teachers–those of us on the tenure-track are contractually and professionally required to conduct research and publish peer-reviewed articles, chapters, and books.  That’s what the wider public doesn’t understand or care about, and what universities don’t want to support.  They’re perfectly happy with our work as teachers–in fact, many members of the public don’t understand why we don’t do more teaching.  We need somehow to make the case that ongoing research in the humanities is worthy of public investment and private support both in its own right, and as something that continuously feeds and nourishes our teaching. 

Where do we get ideas for new courses, new books, new kinds of assignments?  The answer, 9 times out of 10, is either directly related to or an indirect byproduct of our research, and if universities fail to support their faculty as active researchers, the curriculum and the quality of teaching will suffer directly.  Moreover, universities and the general public have a broader responsibility to the culture of our nation to support humanities research across a variety of fields and disciplines:  think of the cost to our other cultural institutions like museums and the arts if university faculty were required just to teach, and never learned new languages, never went to archives to look at ancient or recently unclassified documents, or stopped providing expert advice on preserving old buildings and on city planning and development questions.  Would archives survive if there were no scholars to visit them?  What about libraries?  Would they survive without new scholarly books or journal articles?  Are we really prepared for scholarship to become the pursuit of dilettantes again, as it used to be, or do we think that access to a great education and productive faculty scholars is important to fulfilling the promise of our democracy?

Flash:  The Union still holds Fort Sumter.  Will America defend her great democratic institutions, or should we all just fold up the chairs and go home?

*       *       *       *      *       *      *       *      

If the French historians and the free airport wifi connection isn’t enough to get you down here for a visit, there’s a lot more to say about Charleston.  I’ve eaten extraordinarily well here–it turns out that the restaurant I ate at with my BFF ej on Friday night was written up in the New York Times recently as the hottest place to eat in Charleston with the dernier cri locavore chef-du-moment.  It’s a good thing I planned ahead and snagged a reservation in January, which is very uncharacteristic of me!  We almost blew it too, because we were at the plenary session and cocktail party that was up at the Citadel, a few miles northwest of downtown, and our cab never showed up.  It was like a screwball comedy:  we got to the restaurant with a combination of a tour bus ride and pedi-cab (a first for me), and the friendly folks at Husk held our table for us, and quickly served drinks to us in their adorable speakeasy next door when we arrived.  Try the Corpse Reviver #2 or the Monkey Gland–tell them Historiann sent you (but you can settle the bill your own selves.  That’s Colorado hospitality for you!)  For dinner, I had the butter roasted catfish, ej had the duck, and we shared the hummus and the BBQ duck sausage appetizers.  Yum!

Here’s a question:  how long has it been since you went to a restaurant–not even the fanciest restaurant in town–and saw almost every man in a jacket (and many with ties?  I have to think back to the last funeral I attended, I’m afraid, and count the corpse.)  Nice jackets and ties, too, and all of the men were freshly barbered and even looked like they might smell good.  All of Charleston dresses to impress–black and white, men and women.  This is a town with a lot of uniforms in it, too–we saw Citadel cadets everywhere in their boxy grey-with-navy trim uniforms, and actual Navy sailors on the waterfront.  Snappy!  I almost started humming “Anchors Aweigh.”

0 thoughts on “Holding down the Fort: hands across the humanities edition

  1. Interestingly enough I am now at an institution that is seeking to significantly expand its full time faculty in the humanities. I realize this is unusual, but it is probably not unique. It is just that such institutions tend to be outside the US.


  2. But sadly I think humanities/history research is part of the problem. The public if they read history don’t read “real” history, but the regurgitated history of dead white men. You’ve made this point yourself. They don’t want us doing research, because it means we study women, and other under-represented groups that get in the way of the great narrative of American and or Western ascendance. If we’d stop doing research, then we could all go back to history classes that focus on the Magna Carta, and Thomas Jefferson as great thinker (not slave holder etc.).


  3. Historiann:

    Reading your description of the situation at SUNY Albany raised a question in my mind that I hadn’t thought of before: Will there still be French classes (or classes in those other disciplines) without a department? If the answer is “yes,” then those 20 tenured faculty have essentially been replaced by adjuncts, and we’re all in much worse shape than I ever imagined.


  4. I think Katherine has at least some part of the answer. The rhetorical part of me wants to ask “America” which stork do you think *brings* this knowledge, and from where, and what do you suppose is its half-life? But after listening to the irrationality of the cro-magnon wing of the U.S. polity recently it seems pretty clear that a significant part of its political class would deem those questions irrelevant. We *have* our history, they would say, just go and teach it, and leave all this “new” stuff out of it. I’d like to think, nevertheless, that there is a third segment of the polity/electorate that could be reached with arguments for the “relevance” of continued inquiry. Even if this hypothetical listener wanted to limit the “subject” to the proverbial “dead white men,” it would take several centuries to excavate all of them from the strata of records lying around and now more accessible than ever via the internet. If that sale ever got made, who could monitor what was retrieved from the depths? Maybe the relative jettisoning of the old “new social history” with the cultural turn amounted to leaving behind a valuable tool for this kind of rearguard action?

    I hope you didn’t have to tap out this post on a blackberry, but I’m stunned and impressed if you did. Hopefully you’re bringing back tons of cashews for the p-nut gallery here.


  5. Jonathan, from what I understand they’re zeroing out those departments entirely. U/g students have until May 2012 to complete their degrees, and grad students have been promised “other opportunities” to finish their degrees, but most of the Albany faculty understand that their termination will be in May 2012. There’s been some talk (if I recall correctly) about offering some online language courses, but I didn’t get the impression that the SUNY admins. are planning to replace the 20 tt faculty with adjuncts and continue to offer degrees in these fields.

    Pushing the students out seems to indicate that it’s the programs, and not just the tt faculty, that are being “deactivated.” But since the decision to “deactivate” these languages/programs was a top-down decision with no faculty governance body consulted, I wouldn’t put anything past them.

    Katherine, I agree that the actual history the public reads is just a narrow view of what many of us do. I actually don’t think that there’s as much of an ideological axe to grind against us as indifference. If people understood the connections between our work and cultural institutions they enjoy/patronize/maybe even support, maybe they’ll be more willing to support our work. Everyone loves museums, parks, zoos, and libraries, right? Making some of the connections between our academic work and these other institutions might be one strategy for effecting a cease fire (or even increasing public support.)

    Things can hardly get worse, can they?


  6. I’m going to go all Russian on everybody and be depressing.

    We’re all toast. I was just reading about the Tea-for-Brains concept of what to cut. CDC, NOAA, and the list goes on.

    I’m having a hard time imagining anything of bigger direct personal interest than knowing when tornadoes or blizzards are likely to hit, or having ways to stop epidemics in their tracks.

    I know the TeaBrains are far out at this point, but there was a time when Goldwater was radical. Now he’d barely qualify as a Republican. So I fear the uber-utilitarianism of the fringe is going to spread. And the whole “But what’s it good for?” mentality is already bad enough.

    When people can’t figure out why we need to stop measles epidemics, why would they see a need for biologists or astronomers or historians or people who know English well enough to say “Anchors Aweigh”?

    We’re doomed. Doomed, I tell you.


  7. In a way, I agree with quixote. We are all doomed in the short term.

    In the long term, I’m more hopeful. The market-worshipping utilitarianism the multinational capitalist elite has spent the last ~30 years imposing on the world is, at its heart, about the most dehumanizing, even anti-human, ideology that’s ever been cooked up. Eventually, it will destroy American society. However, if anything is left when that happens, people will have a chance to build something better.

    The duty of those of us in the humanities now is to make sure something is left. Barbarism does not have to be a permanent condition.


  8. Did you see the list of degree programs the Louisiana Board of Regents wants to cut? It’s a huge number- 450+ programs- but what struck me was that they want to cut all language programs except French and Spanish at LSU. Ridiculous.


  9. I agree with Katherine, and it’s not just that they only see one version of history is valid, they think anyone can write history. See the most recent textbook scandal in Virginia, where the state purchased history textbooks for fourth graders riddled with errors, that had been written by a woman after doing internet research. Why those textbooks? They were the cheapest.


  10. “Where do we get ideas for new courses, new books, new kinds of assignments? The answer, 9 times out of 10, is either directly related to or an indirect byproduct of our research, and if universities fail to support their faculty as active researchers, the curriculum and the quality of teaching will suffer directly.”

    Exactly! Down here in the community colleges — or at least mine — the theory is that we don’t need time for all of that elitist research business. That interferes with teaching. Then, the trend in the teaching policies at our place emphasizes sameness, as demonstrated in the advancement of such programs as our “common course” (for online classes, in which everything — all assignments, all readings, you name it — are EXACTLY the same and all the instructor does is grade) or our particular manifestation of “outcomes assessment” (NCLB at the college level). In other words, they want to crush any creativity in instruction. If you research, and you come up with better assignments or new books, especially new books that are not specifically textbooks, then you complicate that sameness.

    The argument that our research supports other institutions is pretty compelling and can be spread further from just those institutions. If our value is allegedly connected to the amount of capital we generate, then researchers who use archives or tourists who visit museums stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, pay for parking, buy airplane or train tickets, rent cars, buy gas, buy tchotchkes and otherwise pump cash into local economies.


  11. I’ve said it here before, but the adjunctification of the workforce is predicated on separating research from teaching, as a general rule. One thing tenure-stream faculty can do is to agitate for allowing (or even requiring) adjunct faculty to do research, and make the university find a way to write it into their contracts (say, instead of required service). Otherwise, hiring adjuncts to teach is a statement that a program sees research and teaching as separable–which means, of course, that research is then no longer required, but just a perk of the elite. Historiann can call it a contractual obligation, but if a program has some teachers who aren’t required to do research, it really does start to look like closely guarded privilege, rather than necessary concomitant to good teaching.


  12. I am sorry to hear of your experience at your community college. My experience has been the opposite. While we are not expected to produce books and articles we are expected to do professional development and we have been supported in a variety of way.

    We have a very strong professional development committee, which runs everything from workshops to funding grants. My department gives me $1000 a year for professional development and research and I can apply to the committee for another $3000. The faculty here publish books, articles, conference papers, attend national workshops and conferences and pursue other creative projects.

    We are not major researchers and we are not expected to produce like faculty at 4-years schools but we are expected and encouraged to continue our growth in our fields.

    How this translates to the classroom is open. We are not expected to crank out sameness and the freedom we have to develop whatever we feel works best for our students is huge. Having taught in 4-year schools I have to admit the lowly CC has been the most liberating and innovative place I have worked.


  13. Thanks for carrying on the conversation while I was (finally! At long last!) in the air. I pulled into el rancho Historiann at 1 a.m. MST, fifteen hours after I left for the Charleston airport, so you all can imagine that I’m super happy not to have to teach a class today!

    Tom, I think you’re exactly right about the separation of teaching from research among our adjuncts. That’s the thin edge of the wedge.

    There’s a Paul Krugman column today about the budget shennanigans in congress and in the WH now that I think sheds light on what we’re all discussing here. He describes what he calls “eating the future,” (h/t TalkLeft) and I think that’s what universities have been doing for the past 15 years as we’ve seen the erosion of tenure and tenure track positions and the institutionalization of casual academic labor instead. Asking people to teach 4-4 and 5-5 loads and evaluating them only on their teaching rather than requiring or rewarding research is like eating our intellectual seed corn. Sure, it gets the job done in an era of precarity, but it can’t continue indefinitely.


  14. Earl, to be fair, most of the hostility toward research and funding of research — even funding of professional development that does not involve that department of our college — comes from an unholy convergence of crippling budget cuts and the agenda of a particular high level of the adminosphere where major instructional and funding decisions are often made by people who have never taught a class in their lives. Many of my colleagues plug away at their own projects and fund their own professional development outside of the college, and they push back against the sameness assault. The level of the adminosphere that is closest to the classrooms are as supportive as they can be; but they don’t get to make the huge policy decisions that affect the sort of things that might support research and creativity in teaching.


  15. Helm Hammerhand: “Barbarism does not have to be a permanent condition.”

    True! We’re here, aren’t we?

    And as you say, the humanities are the essential light against barbarism. The sciences are tools, which means people (well, some people) can see their utility. But it’s not in them to light the way.


  16. Pingback: A Valentine: Oh, the Humanities! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  17. I was a double major in French and biology, now tenured in biology. I was in the honors program at my big 10 university, so almost all of my French courses were taught by TT faculty, even the intro courses. It seemed like a frivolous major at the time, and it attracted a lot of weak students. But I realize now that I owe those fantastic French professors for teaching me how to write and think critically. I surely never got that in biology courses. This post makes me very sad.


  18. My university’s strategy is even more simple: let professors leave through retirement, death or moving to other institutions. Don’t replace them. Profit!

    We’re down three lines in the last two years. We’ll be down a fourth come July 1. None of these are being replaced. I expect that they think that distance ed courses will solve all our problems. That, and returning to the old days when we taught regular overloads for nothing!


  19. I’m lifting and linking to part of this post. You’ll see in a second.

    @Jonathan – here in LA, we *are* firing tenured faculty and inviting them back as adjuncts. It started in the northern part of the state, in the hard sciences. Now it has spread to some points south.


  20. Pingback: From Historiann, with Emphasis Added | Z-Xiuhtecuhtli

  21. Katherine: You make a great point when you say, in essence, that shutting down research is tantamount to preserving the white male dominance of academia.

    It’s also an attempt (which, ultimately, can only fail) at preserving the status quo in much of society. People who come from those races, classes and genders for and by whom the histories are written can, paradoxically, afford to be ignorant of those very histories, at least for a while. And, people who “made it” without knowing certain things don’t understand why anyone else would need to know them. Hence the de-evaluation of research in history as well as other areas of the humaniites. If a man can become a billionaire without knowing about Louise Labe or Ines de la Cruz, why does anyone else–especially a woman, who should be home making dinner and babies, anyway–need to know about them? Or so the thinking seems to go. Yet that woman who’s barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen is the one who really will find power in knowledge of those poets, or of Fannie Lou Hamer or what “Moms” Mabley and Billie Holiday experienced. I’ve actually seen it happen.

    I have recently taught in a college in which 80 percent of the students are black. I always told them to take history personally, and that ignoring it is signing their own death warrant. A few understood that before I verbalized it for them, but most never before thought about their history that way. Or at least that’s what they told me.


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