26 May, 2019

How to Save the (Institutional) Humanities

The large majority of our fellow-citizens care as much about literature as they care about aeroplanes or the programme of the Legislature. They do not ignore it; they are not quite indifferent to it. But their interest in it is faint and perfunctory; or, if their interest happens to be violent, it is spasmodic. Ask the two hundred thousand persons whose enthusiasm made the vogue of a popular novel ten years ago what they think of that novel now, and you will gather that they have utterly forgotten it, and that they would no more dream of reading it again than of reading Bishop Stubbs’s Select Charters.
 — Arnold Bennet, Literary Taste (1907)

Humanities departments are not doomed to oblivion. They might deserve oblivion, but they are not doomed to it. This post is going to suggest one relatively painless institutional fix that has the potential to dam the floods up before they sweep the entire profession away.

I am prompted to write this post up because another series of articles on the "death of the humanities" has been making its way across the internet. The article that started this round is written by Andrew Kay, who has a PhD in English literature from UW-Madison. The imagery he uses is fantastical. Here is his impression of the MLA:

How can I conjure MLA 2019 for you?

Have you ever seen that viral picture from 2017 of a party of Oregon golfers calmly putting while, in the near distance, a wildfire consumes the landscape? Trees blacken; smoke, pinkish-gray, shrouds everything in impasto blots; nature itself seems to creak, groan, and at last give way. But the golfers go blithely on. The conversion of this Edenic place into Dantean incandescence won’t interfere with the genteel game they know and love — or, if it will, they are determined to get in one last round before the region is razed. “Eye on the ball, Chet!” one can hear them saying. “Not on the cataclysm!”

Thus MLA 2019.[1]
You can read the whole thing here. It is self-absorbed and at times a tad on the silly side, but broadly correct in the picture of the academy it offers. The article caused a great ruckus — enough to cause a cabal of tenured lit-studies doyens to write up a response, accusing Kay of terrible sexism. If Kay's narrative is a tad silly, their response is nothing but. Its only redeeming feature is that it inspired Anastasia Berg to pen her own rebuttal to their rebuttal. Berg's counter-rebuttal is the finest thing you will read this week. Really, go read it. Wesley Yang called it a "masterclass in methodical annihilation."  I will call it the most satisfying bit of criticism I have read this year. [2]

I don't really have a dog in this fight. Most of us don't. And that is the central problem with every piece of this type. "The humanities" are not the same thing as humanities departments in American universities. Literature, history, philosophy, and even literary criticism preceded the American university system. They will continue long after the American university system is gone. Arnold Bennet  Hazlitt did not have tenure. Duan Yucai did not have a 2-3 teaching bloc. Emily Dickinson never went to college at all. As long as there is, in Arnold Bennet's words, a "passionate few... [who] enjoy literature as some men enjoy beer," then these things will persist into the future.[3]

Confusing a subject with the narrow band of institutions currently devoted to credentializing those who study it clouds our thinking. The collapse of humanity departments on university campuses is a best an indirect signal of the health of the humanities overall. At times the focus on the former distracts us from real problems facing the latter. The death of professorships in poetry is far less alarming than American societies' rejection of poetry writ large. In as much as the creeping reach of the academy has contributed to poetry's fall from popular acclaim, the collapse of graduate programs in literature and creative writing may be a necessary precondition for its survival.

Academics don't want to hear this, of course. But the truth is that few academics place "truth," "beauty," or "intersectional justice" at the top of their personal hierarchy of values. The motivating drive of the American academic is bourgeois respectability. The academic wants to continue excelling in the same sort of tasks they have excelled in since they were 10 years old, and want to be respected for it. The person truely committed to the humanist impulse would be ready pack things up and head into the woods with Tao Qian and Thoreau. But that is not what academia is for. Academia is a quest for status and certitude.

If pondering on these things you still feel the edifice is worth preserving, then I am here to tell you that this possible. The solution I endorse is neat in its elegance, powerful in its simplicity. It won't bring the halcyon days of the '70s of back, but it will divert enough students into humanities programs to make them somewhat sustainable.

A few years after I graduated my alma mater decided to overhaul their generals program. After much contentious wrangling over what students should or should be forced to study, the faculty tasked with developing the general curriculum settled on an elegant compromise: there would be no generals. Except for a basic primer course in mathematics and writing, general credit requirements were jettisoned entirely. Instead, faculty made a list of all majors, minors, and certificates offered at the university, and placed each into one of three categories: science and mathematics, the humanities, and professional skills.

From this point forward all students would be required to gain a separate qualification in each of the three categories.

A selection of majors, minors, and certificates available at BYU-Hawaii.

Getting three separate majors in four years is beyond almost all students. But some students might pull off a double major and a certificate. Even more manage one major paired with double minors. Some settle for two certificates, while some will do one minor, one major, and one certificate a piece.

The list above —which is by all means not a comprehensive listing of every major, minor, or certificate offered by the institution — gives you an idea what some of these combinations might look like.

The logic of this system impresses me. From the vantage of actually imparting knowledge to students, this system is superior to the way things are normally done, with students taking one course in this and one course in that until their generals and elective requirements are filled up. Many love the sense of freedom this gives them, but the problems are obvious. An education determined by the whims of curiosity is an education that teaches nothing much at all. Better to learn a few things well than many things not at all.

"Many things not at all" is what the current system teaches. The structure of generals and elective courses struggles to produce any other outcome. Learning something well depends on a cumulative process of practice and recall. Memories not used soon fade; methods not refined soon dull; facts not marshaled are soon forgotten. I remember the three credits I took in Oceanography as a grand experience (not least for field lab at the beach), but years later I find I cannot recall anything I was tested on. And why would I? After that class was over the information I learned was never used in any of the other classes I took.

This sounds like an argument against learning anything but one carefully selected major. That takes things a step too far. There is a benefit to having expertise in more than one domain. I am reminded of Scott Adam's "top 25%" principle, which I first found in Marc Andreeson's guide to career planning:
If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

Become the best at one specific thing.
Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things. 
The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

....Get a degree in business on top of your engineering degree, law degree, medical degree, science degree, or whatever. Suddenly you’re in charge, or maybe you’re starting your own company using your combined knowledge.

Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty goods” until no one else has your mix...

It sounds like generic advice, but you’d be hard pressed to find any successful person who didn’t have about three skills in the top 25%. [4]

To this I would add a more general statement about the purpose of a university education. In my days as a teacher in history and literature, I used to give a lecture to the Chinese students I had helped prepare for American university life. This lecture would touch on many things. This was one of them. I would usually say something close to this:
Students who go to America usually fall into one of two groups. The first group is focused like a laser beam on grinding through coursework that will easily open up a new career to them upon graduation. You will know the type when you see them--they will be carrying around four books on accounting or chemical engineering, and will constantly be fretting over whether their GPA is high enough for them to land an internship with Amazon. In many ways those students will spend their university years doing the exact same thing they are doing now: jumping through one hoop after another to get good grades and secure what they hope will be a good future. 
On the other hand, you have many students who arrive in America and immediately devote themselves to the pleasures they could not chase at home. These students jump at the obscure class in 19th century French poetry, glorying in their newfound freedom to learn about something just because they want to learn about it. They follow their passions. Such passions rarely heed the demands of a future job market. 
Which student should you be? 
My advise: be both. 
The trouble with our new expert in Romantic poetry or classical Greek is that even if she is smart enough to do just about any job out there, she has no way to prove that to her potential future employers. Her teachers will have her write term papers and book reviews. Your ability to write an amazing term paper impresses nobody outside of the academy (even if the research skills needed to write one are in demand out there). If you do not have a technical skillset they can understand — or even better, a portfolio of projects you have completed that you can give them — you will struggle greatly when it comes time to find a job. Your success will not be legible to the outside world. You must find ways to make it legible. You must ponder this problem from your very first year of study. It is not wise to spend your entire university experience pretending that graduation day will not come. It will, and you must be prepared for it. 
On the flip side, I cannot endorse the path of Mr. I-Only-Take-Accounting-Classes either. He lives for the Next Step. My friends, there will always be a Next Step. Life will get busier, not easier, after college. You may never again be given such grand opportunity to step back and think about what is most important. 
What is wrong? What is right? What is true, and how will I know it? What is beauty, and where can I find it? What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? Your accounting classes will not answer that question. Now the odds are high that your literature, art, and history classes won't really answer them either—but they will ask you to develop your own answers to them. That is truly valuable. 
I will say it again: you may have another period in your life where you have the time, resources, and a supporting community designed to help you do this. If you are not having experiences in university that force you to spend time wrestling in contemplation, then you have wasted a rare gift. 
So that is my advice. Do both! 
I cannot tell you exactly how to do both — that will be for each of you to decide. But recognize which sort of student you are, and find ways to counter-act your natural tendency. If you have no desire greater than diving into a pile of history books, perhaps take three or four classes of GIS on the side, and create skins for Google Earth that draw on your data. If you are driven to find a career in finance, go do so — but then arrange to spend a semester abroad in Spain, or Japan, or somewhere that let's you experience a new culture and lifestyle. 
Prepare for your career. Expand your mind. Find a way to do both.[5]

Far fewer students have taken this advice than I hoped. I am partially fond of my alma mater's new system because it forces all of its students do exactly what I advocate they should. But the logic of the system is compelling on its own grounds. By requiring a science based minor, all students are required to master the basics of statistics and the scientific method. They do this not through a series of university-required, general-purpose, mind-numbing courses, but through a minor they choose themselves. All students are required to master a professional skill that will give them options on the post-college job market. They will learn how to make their work and talents legible to the world outside of academia. And all students are required to round this education out with an in-depth study of art, history, or culture.

From an organizational sense, the system's greatest boon goes to the humanities departments. The prime reason students do not take humanities courses is that college is too expensive to afford a degree which does not guarantee a career. That is it. As the number of people graduating from college increases, merely having a degree is no longer a signal of extraordinary competence. Any student that goes hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt for the sake of a degree which will not provide them with the skill-set they need to pay it back is extremely foolish, and most of them know it.

There is a lot of noise about making changes to humanities curriculums to end this dismal situation. In the abstract I think this is an excellent idea, and have even written memos to department heads describing adjustments that could be made to ensure their students remain employable. But this is not realistic for most professors or programs. They cannot teach what they do not know. This path is far less difficult for these departments to tread. It will be easier to ask history graduates to get a minor in GSS or data visualization than it will be to ask history professors to start teaching or grading those same skills.

The enrollment benefits of the system are clear. Students afraid to major in a humanities program will be able to use their professional studies or STEM training to provide a bankable back-up. Students who wouldn't think about taking a course in literature or art, on the other hand, will now be forced to choose half a dozen credits in it.

This doesn't solve all problems. The adjunct hiring model is barely touched on here. But the central problem facing humanities departments is declining enrollment numbers. This solution will not be enough to bring these institutions back to their high water marks in the post-war boom decades. But it will be enough to stabilize the free-fall Kay dramatizes in his piece.

If you found this post on modern humanities worth reading, you might also find the posts "Modern Universities are an Exercise in Insanity"and "Teaching the Humanities as Terribly as Possible" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Andrew Kay, "Academia's Extinction Event," Chronicle of Higher Education (10 May 2019)

[2] Wesley Yang, tweet of 3:37 PM, 20 May, (url: https://twitter.com/wesyang/status/1130603402373865473 ). The original piece is Anastasia Berg, "Fanning the Flames While the Humanities Burn," Chronicle of Higher Education (20 May 2019).

[3] Arnold Bennet, Literary Taste: How to Form It (1907), ch. III. Accessed at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/literary-taste/chapter3.html

[4] Quoted in Marc Andreeson, "Career Planning: Part II," pmarca.com, accessed 26 May 2018. 

[5] Tanner Greer, "Advice for the Chinese Student About to Go to America," unpublished manuscript.


Anonymous said...

Amazing I wish I had something similiar to read like this 4 years ago when I was starting out at university. I was a hoop jumper but now im regretting the time spent purely jumping hoops.

Evan said...

I've changed my major twice. Now happy with what I'm doing - though I wish there were more subjects in my major.

I think we need a system that accommodates people who find new interests, rather than fulfilling a plan they have when they begin.

Maybe their needs to be two paths; one for specialists, the other for those with a spread of interests.

Anonymous said...

I heartily agree.

I majored in Molecular Biology with the usual free selection of general courses (in my case, humanities courses). But by selecting my general courses within a consistent theme (Chinese History, Chinese Film, Art in the Cultural Revolution, Popular Culture in China, etc.), I was able to actually reinforce, solidify and remember what I learned (combined with 8 semesters of Chinese language study and a summer in Beijing). I didn't end up with a Chinese Studies minor because they didn't offer one per se, but that's essentially what was achieved. Classmates who instead took random courses on the history of the Roman gladiators, Japanese woodblock print, and Russian literature never solidified anything, and I'm quite sure that most of the knowledge gained has evaporated by now without ever being put to use. Even many of the requirements within my major evaporated out of the mind quickly when the concepts taught weren't actually relevant to any subsequent advanced courses. A critical mass is needed, and what you propose is all about building critical mass.