Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, June 11, 2010

the humanities: once more with vagueness

James Mulholland, an English professor at the Wheaton College that Ann Curry confuses with mine, writes about the future of the humanities:

We could think of humanities centers as the beginning of a “more is more” strategy for our fields in the corporatized university. One constant complaint from humanists is that academic budgets are more devoted to financing the sciences, from expensive labs to costly science journals. In the competition for scarce resources, we need to be more aggressive in attracting research money, whether it’s through the pursuit of “big humanities” (digital projects, long-term edited collections, and the like) or through centers that can draw donors who want to see their names in lights.

Some scholars worry that such efforts would undercut departmental budgets. But I think the opposite could happen. Humanities centers would complement traditional disciplines, provide publicity for the college, and, most important, direct money back to traditional disciplines. Centers are good advertising within the college, especially for donors who can see what it is that we do.

I’ve read Mulholland’s article several times, and I can't figure out what exactly he is recommending. What counts as a “humanities center”? Who works there? What do they do? Are students involved, and if so in what ways? Also, what are “big humanities”? What kinds of “digital projects” would be likely to attract research money away from the sciences? Why would funding agencies be interested in “long-term edited collections,” and what would they be collections of?

I don't think the humanities are going to get anywhere unless we can come up with something a lot more specific than this.

And I will say one thing about my own discipline: humanities centers or no humanities centers, I do not think that the study of literature will long survive as an independent concern within universities. I think by the time I retire literature will be studied only as part of two other disciplines: rhetoric and cultural history. And while that will be unfortunate in some ways, it won't be the worst thing that ever happened to literature.


  • Along these lines, the English Department at the University of Central Florida may soon be dividing into two separate departments: Writing and Rhetoric (despite the unfortunate acronym) and another department whose title escapes me which will house literature and my own Texts & Technology doctoral program.

    First step toward what future? Who knows.

  • While we're talking about Keith Thomas, "humanities centers", academic disciplines, etc., I came across this just last night in the intro to the festschrift for Thomas by Peter Burke, et al, Civil Societies.

    … there is at first sight something surprising about Keith's oft-repeated refusal to defend history as a distinct subject or department in universities. "I do not think there is a unique historical method", he said in 1990; historians are "totally parasitic for their ideas upon other disciplines… Historians don't have any ideas of their own. They on the whole tend to employ what they think of as common sense, which is really a debased version of the economics, philosophy or sociology [or literary theory?] of a generation or two ago". Yet he takes up this position precisely because he sees history as a civilizing form of study. If the historical approach were confined within departments of history, the many other subjects that it should fertilize might lose their historical component, and historians might simultaneously be assigned mere leavings and lose contact with the important intellectual developments occurring elsewhere. "It would be better", he thinks, "to regard every subject as having its historical dimension".

    After raising some objections to this position, the authors quote Thomas on why the humanities, including history, will/should remain important. Thomas may not be responsive to how a "humanities center" would attract enough cash or students or produce "long-term edited collections" to justify its existence within the managerial version of the academy which appears to be increasingly dominant. But it's a far better response to "why the humanities?" than various work-life-skill-acquisition justifications which are so common.

    The humanities "enlarge our experience, enhance our self-consciousness, widen our sense of what is humanly possible, and, most important of all, enable us to step outside the assumptions of our own day and to escape the tyranny of present-mindnesss".

    Bingo. Now about that grant proposal...

  • I agree: Bingo. But here's a question I'm thinking about a lot: are those goals better achieved through formal university study, or through self-directed personal engagement, as was the case for almost everyone in the English-speaking world until about 150 years ago?

  • But is the underlying assertion here (ie, "One constant complaint from humanists is that academic budgets are more devoted to financing the sciences, from expensive labs to costly science journals") - really true? Here in (rich) Norway, the director of NHO (Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise - the main representative body for Norwegian employers) recently complained that while business and industry R&D is instrumental in nature, and tied up with natural sciences and technology, the social sciences and humanities make off with the biggest pot of money at colleges and universities. His assertion - and complaint - is thus the opposite of the one voiced by Mulholland's humanists.
    (incidentally, Stanley Fish had a compelling rebuttal of what you aptly label "work-life-skill-acquisition justifications" of the humanities here:http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/the-uses-of-the-humanities-part-two/)

  • @ ayjay: "Are those goals better achieved…. " Lovely question, and one I've fitfully considered in the context of distance-learning and exploiting some of the university offerings on the internet via frex iTunesU. I'm not up on any of the educational literature, so I'm just talking thru my hat, but here's how I'd expand on your question. No answers, mind you.

    To simplify -- our familiar system of formal university study addresses both the manufacture of knowledge and its consumption. It's a business model that finances certain types of knowledge production and communication in exchange for "investments" (tuition, time and attention) by knowledge consumers and others (government, foundations, etc) who have an interest in having certain types of knowledge produced.

    Looking at it as simply a process of supply and demand -- production and distribution/sales of what is produced -- there's no obvious reason why the same things couldn't be produced and distributed long-distance. And distance-learning is potentially a huge productivity multiplier -- number of units which could be distributed would be enormous relative to what can be produced on a physical campus.

    But we all know there are (at least) two problems. First is that the marginal cost of producing and distributing the nth unit is approximately zero, so we have the same sorts of revenue and pricing problems as the movies and music and journalism industries are wrestling with. But perhaps as important, "distance learning" eliminates the institutionalization of the intangible elements of formal university studies -- both a community of scholars and a community of students. Though I've not been on the scholar side of the equation, my experience is that one of the most important parts of learning was via other students outside the classroom.

    The internet doesn't magically solve the problem. In recent work on econo-geography (or geo-economics? frex Krugman and Florida), we've learned a lot about why people continue to gravitate to cities and why certain economic activities physically cluster in astonishingly small geographic areas, sometimes measured in a few city blocks. And this despite the technology of phones and email etc. Yes, people are increasingly telecommuting. But that appears to be more an added dimension to a geographically-situated network of people engaged in related activities. It's not, at least yet, an entirely new paradigm for locating economic networks.

    Accordingly, what we see in the "real economy" suggests there are significant downsides to dismantling the institutions that create physical communities of scholars and students. Nonetheless, the ability to produce, access and share digital media is going to create new expectations (and opportunities) for how knowledge is produced and consumed.
    [comment to be cont'd]

  • [comment cont'd]
    So if we're going to shift away from the formal university as our main model of knowledge production and consumption in the humanities, we'll be faced with two inter-related challenges. How to institutionalize (formally or informally) non-physical communities of scholars and students? Before formal university studies became the dominant mode, self-directed study of the humanities was nonetheless part of cultural communities which encouraged and institutionalized, albeit often informally, the humanistic agenda of learning. Will the internet become the main venue for "polite society" or a republic of letters that encourages self-directed personal study?

    And how are we going to compensate knowledge producers -- and all which that implies for which types of knowledge are privileged by a consumerist approach to production and dissemination of knowledge?

    Some spectacular course materials -- lectures by top-notch professors, thoughtful courses of directed reading, study guides, etc -- are increasingly available on the tubes, with production values improving at almost exponential rates, given the increase in broadband speeds. Most of this is exploiting materials that are already produced as part of the formal university setting -- they're just repackaging for expanded distribution. They're not simply dumbing down or popularizing for a mass market like some of the worst stuff on the History Channel.

    If we take away the formal university as the primary manufacturer, who's going to take up the slack? How will they be able to pay their rent? Will we see knowledge production in the humanities sink to lowest-common-denominator History Channel commercialization? Or will Chris Anderson's hypothetical "Long Tail" be our salvation?

    Our best hope will be in the uncertain economics of a "Long Tail" model. And that's where, just maybe, the notions of "humanities centers" could play a constructive complementary role. If a center chooses to build a "long-term edited collection" (I presume digital as well as physical), it will also need to build a place where a virtual community can gather around that collection. Or at least take an "open source" attitude -- be open to others who want to create a community to engage with the collection.

    Centers could also perform an extremely useful curator function. Frex, Google Books and Scholars are in their own way fabulous, but they've got terrible metadata, they're often hit-and-miss, and of course they offer little or no perspective or context for the results of searches. The same can be said of the growing number of databases of historical documents, such as correspondence, official papers, or print publications like newspapers. There's a whole lot more value that could be added to what are, as yet, simply new archival technologies.

    So, a very long-winded response to your suggestion that a return to self-directed study of the humanities (1) may be in the offing and (2) may in fact turn out to be not such a bad thing. Yes, although we need to think about how that shift might be institutionalized in a shared virtual culture of humanities study, including how the university itself might make a positive contribution to that transformation.

    But that leads me to a further question. With the potential decline of the university model and in an increasingly diversified virtual world, where is the locus of cultural authority? Or where is even the space in which different views are contested? Do the humanities need such a space, or are an ever shifting set of "epistemologically closed" [thanks Julian Sanchez!] sub-cultures just fine?

  • Thanks for the great thoughts — and look for further reflections on these matters. In my second column (July) for the new Big Questions Online magazine, I'm going to be writing about Anya Kamenetz's DIY U. So . . . more then. (Trying to resist the temptation to comment further and steal my own thunder.)

  • Just curious: what is the worst thing that ever happened to literature? Or do you have at least a short list of candidates for the spot?

  • Just curious: what is the worst thing that ever happened to literature?

    Probably the invention of creative writing programs.

  • I line 'em up, you knock 'em down.

  • Well, you know, we all have our roles in life.

  • Vernon God Little winning the Booker prize was maybe not the worst thing, but it's up there.

  • Vernon God Little . . . yeeeeeeeessshhh.

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