13 January 2014

My Job: Teaching Humanities to the Elephant in the Room

The higher ed news isn't all bad, particularly if you live where I do.  The Mellon Foundation has dumped a heap of money on humanities in the Midwest:
The grant...will make possible two initiatives: One supports the development of summer workshops for pre-doctoral students in the humanities who intend to pursue careers outside the academy; A second initiative will fund cross-institutional teams of faculty and graduate students pursuing research that focuses on a grand challenge: “The Global Midwest.” The latter is intended to stimulate collaborative research that rethinks and reveals the Midwest as a key site—both now and in the past—in shaping global economies and cultures.The first pre-doctoral workshop will take place during the summer of 2015.
So that's pretty neat, particularly in the context of conversations like this one, grimly titled "The Third Rail":
With many new Ph.D. recipients in the humanities struggling to find good jobs, some for years after they earned their doctorates, reform of graduate education was a hot topic here at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Sessions discussed the need to train graduate students for non-academic careers, ideas for shrinking time to degree (which averages 9.5 years in English), the possibility of creating different tracks for doctorates for those seeking teaching careers, the need for better mentoring, the push for better data on job placement, and more. 
But one session, "Who Benefits? Competing Agendas and Ethics in Graduate Education," touched on issues much discussed by graduate students (and adjuncts), but not regularly given much attention here: whether graduate programs in literature and languages should continue to admit the same number of students. While many of those urging talk about the issue want to see programs shrink, the speakers here rejected that approach, with one even calling for programs to expand.
So far, expansion is the reality on the ground"between 2010 and 2012, the number of Ph.D.s awarded in the humanities increased from 4,971 to 5,503."

A visiting martian might not see the problem: after all, though the last round of record keeping showed a decline in college admissions, enrollments have generally been rising steadily; retirements have eroded the ranks of tenured professors; humanities continue to be a requirement at accredited colleges and universities: The students are there, and they get instruction in the humanities, whether they plan to major in them or not.

Let me repeat that: The students are there, and they get instruction in the humanities, whether they plan to major in them or not.

Look back, though, at the two articles I linked.  Look through the initiatives, the conversations, the concerns they describe.  It's all important, vital, necessary stuff for the future of the humanities, but in neither case do undergraduate students enter the conversation.  They don't pull in grant money, they don't do research (unless carefully mentored), they don't throw public festivals (unless carefully mentored), they generally don't major in languages and literatures much less go on to graduate study.

These two instances of the blind spot are not particularly egregious.  It's easy to see, in either case, why undergraduate non-majors are not part of the conversation.  There are plenty of other things to talk about!  But the conversation about the future of the humanities never works its way around to the role of undergraduate non-majors.  It should. Every student enrolled in a humanities class (which is to say, every college student, which is to say every future taxpayer with a postsecondary degree) is an opportunity to convey to the public the importance of the humanities.

Again, to a visiting martian that point would seem fairly obvious.  Most humanities departments, however, have an investment in not putting those students in the conversation.  Here is what would happen if they did:
  • teaching, not research, would gain prominence.
  • significance would accrue to the members of the profession with the least prestige: graduate student TAs, part-timers, contingent full-time faculty, adjuncts splitting their time between two or more different institutions.
  • institutions would have justification for further diminishing tenure-track lines.
  • humanities departments would risk being seen as service units within their institutions, tasked with supporting students in STEM and vocational fields rather than producing new knowledge and new scholars.
  • scholarship in the humanities would wither.
What I hope to work out on the pages of this blog is some alternate vision of this future, which lurks on the horizon even if we continue to ignore the teaching of undergraduate nonmajors.

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