A Valentine: Oh, the Humanities!

I’ll blog about another terrific roundtable I saw last weekend at the Society for French Historical Studies later this week, but in the meantime, I wanted to wish you all a happy Valentine’s Day and leave you with this thought:

In spite of the vicious political attacks on the humanities going back at leastto Lynne Cheney’s leadership of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the budgetary pressures that threaten our work and even in some institutions and programs our very existence, I think in some respects we might be living in a Golden Age for humanities scholarship.  (Whuuut??  Is Historiann taking Professor’s Little Helpers again,I can hear you all wondering?)  Largely because of the market forces that have relentlessly shaped our professional lives, people who manage to get tenure-track jobs nowadays are and will overwhelmingly remain active scholars, whereas in the past it seems like it was a rare humanities faculty member at SLACs, Aggie schools, or public directionals who remained active scholars through their careers.  Scholarship was for the Big Thinkers at R-1s, not for the rest of us, but now even departments like mine rarely hire ABDs or people who haven’t yet published at least a few articles, and many of our tenure candidates in recent years have had books in print in addition to a list of articles as long as my arm. 

In this respect, it seems like we have been a force for democratizing higher education.*  I believe that the undergraduate students I train now are better trained for advanced work in history by my colleagues and me than I was twenty years ago at a supposedly highly selective SLAC.  I was well-educated for the times–but I had several professors (tenured, full professors, that is) who had never published a book, and many who published just their dissertations back before I was born and so weren’t exactly terribly active as scholars by the time I got to college.  But everyone in my department who is tenured is by definition an active and productive scholar.

(Does anyone want to guess who were the better and more challenging teachers, back in my day?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?)

Therefore, I don’t believe there’s ever been a stronger or readier generation to defend scholarship.  It’s the water we’re all swimming in, not just the lucky duckies who have the plum positions at the fancypants private unis, the Big Ten powerhouse grad departments, or the tony SLACs.

*Yes, I understand the irony of making this claim against the backdrop of the precarious academic job market, which as Tom pointed out in the comments on yesterday’s post, is sorting out regular from “special” faculty and permitting only the former to be producers of knowledge and insisting that the latter be strictly teachers.  To be clear:  I’m suggesting that the brutal job market has had a democratizing effect on the quality of educations we now offer most American college and university students compared to the quality of educations they were offered forty years ago.  This ratcheting up of expectations has put the same pressure on adjunct faculty as well:  in my department for example, all of our adjunct faculty hold Ph.D.s now (except for one ABD, I believe), and many of them remain active scholars in spite of their heavy teaching loads.

0 thoughts on “A Valentine: Oh, the Humanities!

  1. Yes. And we have women and minority faculty members to thank, for entering higher ed in large numbers over recent decades. They raised the bar; they made high-quality education more available to more people. Undemocratic hiring practices of the past used to generate undemocratic teaching and learning.


  2. Well said, but I have a couple of caveats or queries or quibbles. On “…are and *will overwhelmingly remain* active scholars…” that pretty much remains to be seen, I think. Even at the R-1’s, the “time to completion” between second and third (and later) projects can be pretty daunting. While there’s no compelling premium in publishing things regularly–and some scholars publish too many thin and repetitive books too often–you could roll a bowling ball down the aisles of some world class open stack campus-based libraries I frequent with little likelihood of injuring any senior scholars (that I would recognize, anyway). Or in many adjacent regional archives too, for that matter. So I would say the jury is out on “will remain,” after people get promoted to whatever they consider their optimum attainable level. Maybe the current generation will exceed its predecessor in this respect, but we can better conjecture than predict on this question at this particular time.

    Second quibble is on “train” as a reference to what we do with undergraduates. I was never that wholly fond of this term when it replaced “educate” at the graduate level, and I still revel in having arrived in g. school with an undersophisticated and in some ways almost resistant cohort. Those of us who stuck it out in the end got re-fashioned for historiography, analysis, critical reading, and the rest of the professional toolkit. But I think some people now hit graduate school a little too pre-adapted for their own long range good. Just a transient but long-embedded perception of mine in this regard. Can this undergraduate focus on the preparation of students for “advanced work in history” (if it be such a focus) wholly coexist with the broader and often different needs of other students for historical perspective of another sort? Not saying that it can’t, but I think it’s worth some thought. We have these discussions all the time at my dept. If we do/don’t do this or that, curricularly, some say, “our majors” won’t be able to compete when they get to graduate school. Part of my own memory says yes they will too, and maybe emerge more resilient and creative. But beyond this, that’s only a handful of the people we teach, and what would the policy in question do for the rest?


  3. yeah, I’m also a little bothered by the idea that history majors are being trained for graduate school (or for anything in particular), if only because so few of them end up there, and so many non-history majors end up studying history in grad school. I don’t think anyone in my cohort was a history major, and I don’t think it’s damaged us, although we had some catching up to do on historiography. Personally, I never had a history course as an undergrad (I went to one of those progressive schools with distribution requirements instead of a core), and it hasn’t hurt me.

    I tend to think of the humanities in particular (and academe in general) as just burning off the accursed share- it’s books or human sacrifice, so it may as well be books.


  4. Sorry for mentioning “training.” I really was writing about my experience, in which I did go on to further graduate study. I stand by my main point, which is that I think my department offers a more rigorous education to our students should they choose to take up the challenge than I was offered 20-25 years ago at a school most of you would recognize as more prestigious than the one I teach at now.


  5. Wouldn’t an alternative explanation be that there is such a severe glut of highly qualified humanities scholars that only those with extensive research qualifications have even the slightest hope of getting a fucken faculty jobbe? Under this view, what you are lauding is actually a symptom of exploitative pathology in the humanites labor market. (I’m not taking a position one way or the other.)


  6. I think you are right on Historiann. 40 years ago, I probably would have gotten a TT (not having to compete with women) written one or two articles. Turned my dissertation into a short book and likely stopped. I think it became pretty obvious as I competed in an open job market that I was a teaching first guy, and luckily I landed in the right place for me – a private K-12. And yeah, my tony SLAC didn’t do such a hot job teaching me skills 20 years ago. My graduate advisor taught me how to write. And I take what she taught me and teach it to my 9th graders, who generally write better than I did as a college graduate by the time they graduate high school.


  7. Although I am not in humanities, we all have a lot of commonality in “training”, ability and being active scholars. Training consists of acquiring skills, studying a field or more of knowledge and adjusting to a way of thinking common to a community.

    In my experience training changed little over the years.

    Ability clearly is constant for the simple reason that there are no measured indications that people have changed much over the years.

    I cannot define a scholar, but I am sure it is not somebody who publishes a lot. Sadly, that is a very common semi-definition. A scholar is a person who publishes quality papers or books that the her community values highly. In my opinion, everything else is wasting paper and time.


  8. “Wouldn’t an alternative explanation be that there is such a severe glut of highly qualified humanities scholars that only those with extensive research qualifications have even the slightest hope of getting a fucken faculty jobbe?

    That isn’t an alternative explanation–that IS my explanation. It’s the crazy market that has selected for aggressive and successful researchers. I was trying to find something positive to say today, or find some good that’s come out of the situation we’re in. This is as close as I can come to finding good news.


  9. I think the result is not better research but more informed teaching. Job market lands me where I am and I am way more avant garde than anyone this place could have hired 40 years ago. So I can give these fancy classes. And: I teach classes that in a fancier place would go to TAs / adjuncts and that I really don’t know how to teach any more. So, instead of teach these as I was taught them I find out what are the current avant garde ways of teaching these. So in this regional people end up getting some pretty cool SLAC style services.

    This benefits a few students and it’s the best I can do. I have 4 classes now, 2 out of field (it’s 4 different classes, and with cross listings and other stuff like that I’m teaching for 4 departments, too). It is really obvious how much easier the in field courses are, even if they are new ones which they are. So a few majors get mega benefits but: was it really so bad back in the day, with less avant garde profs (I doubt it) … and my research time goes into covering all these many and various courses everywhere and so … the benefit, such as it is, is only to a very few students for whom it makes a difference.



  10. I think you are right about the quality of faculty — there are excellent scholars everywhere — but I am not sure that makes us well prepared to defend the humanities or humanities research. Too many of us take what we do for granted in some way — both as students of the humanities, and as scholars. It’s very hard to articulate good defenses of the humanities that don’t sound fairly traditional.


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