• September 4, 2015

It's Time to Stop Mourning the Humanities

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

You may have heard that the academic humanities are in crisis.

As a humanist, I understand why we are fascinated with serious aspects of the crisis: creeping corporatization, unstable systems of tenure and promotion, pervasive worry about relevancy, our (failing?) competition with the sciences for institutional support. The stagnant hiring, which has gone on for nearly 30 years, means many qualified Ph.D.'s are either unable to find tenure-track jobs or underemployed as adjuncts.

I agree that the humanities are in hard times. However, I propose that we stop talking about the "crisis," even stop using the word. I suggest that we change our vocabulary and attitude, and begin to offer a cogent reassessment of what the humanities do and why they deserve to be maintained and expanded within the university. I want to link how we talk about the crisis with how we respond to it.

Calling it a crisis obscures the fact that we are living through fundamental, long-lasting changes in the nature of higher education. The growth in adjunct labor has been decades in the making, as Marc Bousquet has shown, and a managerial ethic has also been expanding inexorably as well. The continuing structural changes are insidious because they are so mundane.

Despite those trends, I'm afraid that we are handcuffed to crisis narratives that are incomplete and ultimately disabling.

Many academics, especially in medicine, business, and law, don't understand our concerns. From their perspective, colleges and universities have always been corporate. In the humanities, we view the "corporatization" of higher education with more than a little paranoia—too much, I think. Humanists tend to see administrators as gleefully cutting costs and maligning our teaching and research because it doesn't serve the "bottom line."

Yet the reality is that many of those administrators are us—scholars who came out of the humanities. (The president of my college is a music professor and performing cellist; not exactly the model of a corporate raider.) So we've played a part in corporatizing the university. And whatever our feelings about those corporate impulses, they are intensifying and seem unlikely to fade. In recognizing that, we need to stop the ritual mourning of the crisis and ask ourselves what we want the humanities to look like within a corporatized college or university. What do we want the humanities to do? How do we get the money to do it? Those are the questions we need to answer.

Humanities centers can be one place where we start to find the answers. Scholars at those centers are given the time and support to consider how we want the humanities to function in a wider culture. The centers can serve as models for reimagining the relationship between the humanities and the corporate university.

For the past year, I have been a junior fellow at the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University, where we have debated those very questions. Unsurprisingly, there isn't agreement about what we must do. Some fellows have suggested that we make our scholarship more relevant, others that we focus more on university budgets. Still others have argued that we should worry less about public opinion or budgets and pursue our studies more vigorously.

I would argue that our first step should be to change our intellectual conversations so as to compete better with other parts of the university. We do a good job of talking to ourselves, and of being cross-disciplinary, but we seem frustrated when our nonhumanities colleagues see us as self-involved or too invested in the use of jargon. Every discipline has its own vocabulary, and we should value our expertise. But, rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that we relish the inscrutability of our theories and methods.

That perception is unfair; rarely are scientists asked to make astrophysics more accessible. But instead of proving our expertise by always striving to make things more complex, we should advocate for the value of what we add to higher-education institutions. That advocacy is more important than finding a wider audience of lay readers or worrying about how our research can be made more appealing to the public. Right now is it crucial for us to consolidate and expand our role within the college, not outside it.

With that in mind, 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.

The ability to move nimbly between a repertoire of specialized disciplinary knowledge and the different audiences it serves and attracts is a skill that must be cultivated earlier, and with more urgency, in professional development. Graduate students need to learn from their professors how to influence those in charge of campus budgets.

Humanities centers are one way to start that training. Emory's Fox Center has three fellowships for graduate students completing their dissertations and two fellowships for undergraduates working on senior theses. Those students form connections with academics from outside Emory, like me—the value of which is easy to see for graduate students looking for jobs and undergraduates seeking graduate-school admissions. But the fellowships also expose students to debates about their institution among those who are in charge of it. Students can be trained in how to understand and manipulate the organizational structure of the university, knowing its nodes and relays of power, and learning who has the money and how it flows.

Instead of emphasizing how beleaguered we are, we should remember that we are extremely good at telling compelling stories that don't get told in the social sciences and sciences. In the course I've taught this semester at Emory, one of my undergraduates is a neuroscience major. He is pre-med and wants to become a surgeon. He had never taken a humanities course and was in mine to fulfill a writing requirement. He was unfamiliar with humanities disciplines; though a junior, he had never checked a book out of Emory's library.

In our last session, as we were chatting about his future plans, he mentioned he had signed up for a poetry course next semester. I don't know whether a humanities course will make him a better doctor. I can't tell whether it will make him a more informed citizen or a happy, well-rounded person. I believe, however, that his good experience in my humanities course led him to take another. That's something college administrators can measure and understand.

I don't think my success with that student is unique. Most humanities professors have a story or two they cherish about a student they have drawn into new interests.

In my experience, students who are involved in those oh-so-sensible majors value the opportunity to sneak off and indulge their secret creative-writing habit or their interest in queer theory. We can use that interest and energy to excite students and administrators.

My experience at a humanities center and with the students I've taught there is one small example of how we might think within the bureaucracies of the corporate university to move toward a self-sustaining model. I suggest that we use the powerful interrelationships of the humanities to increase the size and gravity of humanistic inquiry.

We should refocus our attention on demonstrating to skeptical administrators what the humanities accomplishes for faculty members and students, using metrics rather than abstract claims about critical thinking (claims that I believe, by the way) or its relevance to the real world. We should emphasize our entire repertoire of compelling cultural narratives and lengthy disciplinary histories to make the case.

None of which means the humanities should become a dilettantish treat, a relief from the rigors of "real life." Geoffrey Harpham, director of the National Humanities Center, advises us to think of ourselves as specialists in a particular discipline yet also as humanists whose work contributes to a larger public good.

I agree, but right now, in this uncertain economic era, it's important for humanists to concentrate on our role within the university. We succeed within a corporatized university because we offer ways to reflect on it, reinvent it, and evaluate it. We are the self-consciousness of the corporate university. We shouldn't undervalue that role. We are being forced to sell out to corporate models of higher education. Let's at least be sure to sell high.

James Mulholland is an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.


1. galway - June 02, 2010 at 09:43 am

It's actually quite untrue that scientists aren't asked to make their work (from astrophysics to evolutionary theory). We're asked to do this all the time, in our grants, in talking with the media, in writing press releases for papers (increasingly common at many journals), in justifying our work to tenure review committees, and in teaching classes. Unlike most humanities departments (at least those I'm familiar with) we also teach non-majors courses where the whole point is to communicate a field without jargon. This kind of commununication is a major point of discussion in my field and how to talk to the media was the best attended workshop I went to at a recent conference in my field. I think this may be a big part of the difference in perceptions of the fields. Although many (most?) scientists don't do a great job of translating their work to the broader world, some do and they are powerful advocates for all of us. Much of science is not applied, we study it to know the world better. In this way some science is more similar to studying the classics than to studying engineering, accounting, or other truly applied fields but by showing the general public the beauty and power of what we study those effective translators, Carl Sagan, Neil Degrasse Tyson, E.O. Wilson, and others have helped keep an interest in funding this work.

2. drjeff - June 02, 2010 at 01:38 pm

This article was thoroughly distasteful. A summary:
(1) Very many people are obtaining PhD's in the Humanities.
(2) Since the perception of the value of the Humanities is low, many of these PhDs are unable to attain to professorships.
(3) The solution to this problem? "Students can be trained in how to understand and manipulate the organizational structure of the university," and also to appeal to the vanity of "donors who want to see their names in lights."
(4) Another solution? Offer to "indulge" non-humanities students in diversions such as "creative writing" and "queer theory."

Only in paragraph 20 of 23 does the author "suggest that we use the powerful interrelationships of the humanities to increase the size and gravity of humanistic inquiry," that is, actually add value, rather than simply gaming the system.

Perhaps if the author were a professor of Philosophy (rather than of English) he might have seen how bizarre the bulk of this article is.

For a very different view of this issue, see the insightful and admirably brief article, based largely on the work of Emory professor Mark Bauerlein, at: tinyurl.com/2fpaze4

3. anonscribe - June 02, 2010 at 01:44 pm

Every humanities department teaches courses for non-majors. This is how the department makes money: 1 professor, 10 TA's, 500 students in an English survey (or history, or philosophy, etc.) where the whole focus on exposing students to literature without bogging them down with too many complex issues.

The saddest divide within the university is between the fine arts and humanities. Too little is made of the connection between creative industries like publishing, film, television, video games, and radio and the humanities. When people think "humanities," they think Socrates, Melville, and history books--not The Big Lebowski, The Golden Compass, Kanye West, or Final Fantasy (where I learned more than most middle-schoolers about mythology). These facets of the humanities are derided by scholars as "not serious" and placed as mere cultural studies. If more people connected the study of great literature, philosophy, and history with great works of film, television and music, perhaps the humanities would regain a little of that lost luster.

4. harry - June 03, 2010 at 03:01 pm

The larger point of #3 is well-taken--at my university, for example, the fine arts are under similar pressures. Some challenges to that sort of work remain, however, and at least a few of them are of those fields' own making.

Perhaps the one most to the point of post #3 is the issue of "greatness," a term that often doesn't get sorted out very well. I had a recent discussion with a video game scholar here, and one of the things I queried him about was whether the field had yet developed a hierarchy (implicit in "greatness," no?) of subject matters. Not could one identify great works, but had the field sorted out what works weren't great? Myst, for example--is it better than Frogger?

To be sure, the "traditional" humanities have been pushing back against this notion of "greatness" for sometime, but we'd be naieve to think that such categories don't matter, especially to constiuencies outside those already convinced of the subjects' importance.

5. futureprof7337 - June 03, 2010 at 08:16 pm

Again, the humanities is the study of all of the creative achievements of humans. That includes science, architecture, perhaps even political activism. Art isn't a frivolous thing, for there is an art to living, an art to science and an art to designing things that improve people's lives, an art to rhetoric, and maybe even the all-important art of designing a society where all of this is possible to a wide swath of people--Where one has access to it, and I'm not just talking about taking the Black and Hispanic kids to the Opera to show them what "culture" is--but giving everyone, rich and poor, hope that they can attend school, design stuff, study science and give them the tools and resources to make great stuff, write great stuff, invent, design, etc. sometimes that means redesigning systems that are severely flawed. (I was one of those Hispanic kids btw...) I'm just saying creativity is a widely common human trait needed in a broad range of societal and problem-solving functions and the humanities should be treated essentially as such.

6. neilpelkey - June 04, 2010 at 09:53 am

When the humanities decided to require instead of inspire, they were wounded. When 25% of the credits was not enough to justify massive overstaffing and the humanities wanted 50%, they infected thier own wounds. When manidatory retirement ended and the arrogant deadwood would no longer have to give way to fresh blood, the humanities died. The only task left if for academia to drag the rotting corpse from campus and dump it far enough away that the stench is no longer noticeable (preferably somewhere near a Wal*mart and a McDonalds).

The humanities were once the stuff of wonder, but thier demise is self-inflicted.

Good riddance.

7. rhancuff - June 04, 2010 at 10:20 am

#6 is apparently not very familiar with humanities departments. Rather than having "massive overstaffing," or even moderate overstaffing, humanities departments are often the greatest users of adjunct faculty -- the segment of the professoriate that supposedly was needed for the "flexibility" to deal with the dips here and there in student population but instead has become the majority.

But the death of the humanities is a ridiculous way to talk about these things. You may talk about the demise of the culture of humanities departments, conferences, and journals, but the army of adjuncts working under a full-time manager who may or may not be a tenured professor/researcher will still be around to teach the intro lit and writing courses.

8. lill2962 - June 04, 2010 at 11:19 am

I spent more than 10 years at a private liberal arts college that was ahead of the competition with internships, especially with alumni companies. There was, for example, no journalism degree, but the grads got good jobs in media (back in the day) because they had subject-area knowledge, relevant experience and knew how to talk to adults.

The college's career center made the point of informing students that good companies with smart CEOs wanted some liberal arts majors who could think critically and write and talk well in the employee mix. The trick was getting past the H.R. department who wanted "safe" vocationally educated hires. So part of this college's culture was to sign up the alumni to do informational interviews with the students, tell them how their field worked, and maybe even offer an internship or a job or provide a referral that led to gainful employment.

English departments in my experience (30 years ago)tended to be insular and generally didn't want to dirty their tenured hands with vocational matters, other than writing a few grad school recommendations (what else was there?) for favored students. In the meantime, higher ed has gotten so bloody expensive that there's an umderstandable vocational return-on-investment attitude about it among students and their families. Maybe someone should remake "The Graduate" circa 2010.

No doubt many English departments (and, by extension, the other humanities fields if they're going to survive) need some updating and renovating, and they need to reach out, change their image with employers and help their students figure/try out career paths early in their academic careers. This is already going on in progressive places like my old private liberal arts college. Places where it's not going on had better get started. There's plenty of time to stay true to the humanities' cultural mission and still get your student started in making a living.

The higher ed business models are all being rethought, and those fields that don't look forward will be left behind. Have you ever looked at university curricula of 100 years ago? There are no eternal verities.

9. neilpelkey - June 04, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Dear lucky #7. There is a push toward 3 year degrees. A philosophy deparment of 1 will be massively-overstaffed when this trend comes to dominate. I fully expect that "New Media" departments will be pushed by rhet-comm departments as the "hip" replacements for the tired old literature-masquerading-as-a-writing department.
You are correct that humanities departments, by becoming an uninspired pedagogic checkbox, are staffed by people whose other job inlcudes serving fries or vente lattes. You are incorrect that breadth requirements will keep the adjunct army alive.
I give you Amherst and Antioch--the future and the past.

If the humanities want to thrive, then beceoming a vibrant part of the economic and pedagogic success of academia is necessary. The term "service department" will not long be with us.
The death of the humanities is perhaps ridiculous, but the fog is rising.

10. princessleia - June 04, 2010 at 01:13 pm

I agree with #2 drjeff. The "solution" to the "problem" is that humanists need to play the system?? Instead of saying that YES, reading poetry will make someone a better doctor! Humanities are about the HUMAN condition -- and humanists don't seem to be able to make that relevant to society any more. No wonder we're all doomed to becoming The Borg. (And astrophysicists DO get asked to explain their work and they do a good job at it, which is a factor in their success at getting support.)

11. goxewu - June 04, 2010 at 01:37 pm

Re #6:

I hope that neilpelkey, having upchucked that pedagogical hairball, feels better now.

"The only task left is for academia to drag the rotting corpse from campus and dump it far enough away that the stench is no longer noticeable (preferably somewhere near a Wal*mart and a McDonalds)" is good enough, though, for maybe some part-time overtime as an adjunct in the English Department.

12. nacrandell - June 04, 2010 at 03:09 pm

Weren't the B.S. and M.B.A. degreed individuals responsible for the Wall Street crash?

Hunanities need to focus on their worth for anaytical reasoning and tone back the poetry quoting (Dr. William Carlos Williams is good though) if they want to be treated seriously.

13. azprof - June 04, 2010 at 05:38 pm

You had me until "...their secret creative-writing habit or their interest in queer theory" then your agenda revealed itself. What a waste, you were actually on to telling a good story that needed to be told, and then degenerated into self-serving bias.

14. trendisnotdestiny - June 04, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Upton Sinclair reminds us that:

Its hard to get a person to know something when their jobs require that they not know it.... I am always amazed at the academics ability to believe that they can create change within a system that requires them to:

1) pay for themselves (RO1 NIH)
2) fund raising through researching corporate interests
3) prepare indebted students for work that does not exist
4) service: community, committee and university
5) think, write and present ideas
6) read, edit and serve journal publicators
7) have some assemblance of family life
8) manage and advise graduate students
9) meetings, meetings and more meetings
10) prove their worth to: administrators, students and family

I do not buy the notion that once you get tenure then you'll have the power to challenge the status corporate quo... Instead, the people now who get tenure either fall into two categories of malleability:
1) corporatists
2) co-opted idealists who find out after the fact that their impact on the system

While I somewhat agree with author Mulholland and respect Bousquet greatly, it was failure of humanities in the first place to name the neoliberal agenda, plan for different results from its affects (financial crisis), and to have viable strategies going forward like the corporatist (Freidman, AEI, Business Roundtable and free-market think tanks did in the early 1970's)....

To be honest James, getting over mourning or grief/loss work in the humanities involves three things according to John Schneider (Michigan Therapist)...
1) Identifying what is lost
2) Struggling through what is left
3) Planning for what is possible

It is like telling someone who has been assaulted to just get over it... but financial abuse is different.. homes, futures, choices, credit and trust have all been obliterated outside of academe.

As many in social science will acknowledge, economics rules in a global marketplace of capitalism... If we are not able to articultate the problems capitalism within our own institutions of education (funded, co-opted, and resembling corporations) then we fail to see the origins of why we are mourning the loss of humanities in the first place. I ask where were these scholars twenty years ago?

15. neilpelkey - June 04, 2010 at 10:50 pm

I indeed feel better after having "upchucked that pedagogical hairball." I do miss Bill the Cat, who (like inspiration and the foundation of the humanities) has been missing for some time.

Wheaton of MA, home of the author, just cut 17 staff and 12 faculty positions, becasue they could not afford to continue spending 7 million per year on the humanities. I am not a moral philosopher, but it seem the choice of ones's own little finger vs a hundred million Chinese is upon academia. I am just guessing that the "money" departments will choose to keep their fingers and let the humanities--no matter how "really really really" important they are--say hello to history.

16. generally_academic - June 05, 2010 at 02:06 am

Best way to stop mourning the Humanities: Retire and just read good books.

17. goxewu - June 05, 2010 at 01:20 pm

Re #15:

"...the choice of ones's own little finger vs a hundred million Chinese is upon academia. I am just guessing that the "money" departments will choose to keep their fingers and let the humanities [disappear]."

I'm not quite clear on this. "One's own little finger = "the 'money' departments = the sciences? (Wheaton is building a big new science center.) And "a hundred million Chinese" = the humanities? Is that right?

It's also unclear whether #15 is a scientist's gloating, dancing on the grave of the humanities, kicking them when they're down, might makes right, etc., or...a cultural conservative's lament for the traditional humanities (great works by great authors, etc.) being supplanted by post-structuralism, situational aesthetics, the death of the author, deconstruction, etc. Or both?

18. neilpelkey - June 06, 2010 at 12:25 am

Re #17 The humanities have suffered badly by becoming a checkbox requirement. When it does not really matter if the "H" is insiprational, then if is a commodity. The army of ajuncts that have come to be that commodity are real important people, and there are a lot of them. Yet in reference to Adam Smith's comparison, most departments of tenured faculty are going to care more about the the msot minor fo their needs than the needs of a large body of people they do not know.

So, in part, referencing the Theory of Moral Senitments is lamenting great works untouched. Yet I see no reason that Frug and Foucault cannot be juxtaposed to Smith and Schumpeter. The Paston Letters and the Color Purple carry so much in common, but it would require substantial work to carry it off in a classroom. I submit also that it could not be done in a classroom full of have-to-be-theres.

And yes I would happily dance on the grave of what the humanites have become in all to many places--loathsome graduation requirements.

19. goxewu - June 06, 2010 at 10:07 am

Re #18:

OK, but there are a lot of "checkbox requirements" for a bachelor's degree, including some in math, the hard sciences such as physics and chemistry, and the social sciences.

What is it then, that makes the humanities "checkbox requirements" so "loathesome"? Or is there something inherent in the humanities that would make them not "loathesome" only if they were entirely elective in an undergraduate curriculum?

20. spellchecker - June 06, 2010 at 01:03 pm

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21. seamustheclassicist - June 06, 2010 at 02:30 pm

So, in short the humanities, the core of the actual University is, no longer matter. They have been pushed aside by a monetized educational system, greed replacing charity I guess.

Well isn't that a load, especially when you consider all the Master's programs out there for professionals, MBAs, MFPs, MSWs, that are almost required to get ahead in any industry today. These programs are requiring less and less stringent qualifications to enter. In fact it is a stretch to call them Master's programs because the fields they are mastering can only be mastered in industry. Otherwise only the hard sciences and liberals can be mastered in the academic setting.

Nor are the hard sciences immune, plenty of kids these days graduating with B.S. in biology, chemistry, physics are out of a job. If these schools are corportized any further, you might as name them after a company and start paying students to attend with job garuntees after completion.

Oh wait! That is what companies did before the 70's let's not regress.

22. seamustheclassicist - June 06, 2010 at 02:33 pm

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23. neilpelkey - June 06, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Dear Goxewu,

I agree that there are far too many checkboxes across the board. A course that is loathesome to one person, may be inspirational to another. I think a rigid curricula to create an open mind is disingenuous and ill-advised. There is nothing particularly loathesome about the humanities, but that is the topic here. I find the "rocks for jocks", "planet for pinheads", "big nasty weather", and other such "natural science" service offerings equally odious.

Breadth for the student's sake is a treasure. Breadth to keep average class size "high enough" is not.

I fully support limiting the in-major credits to about half. After that I hope my students' journeys to Ithaca are long ones--ones of their own choosing.

24. blowback - June 07, 2010 at 09:50 pm

I was waiting for some one to provide some moral outrage over Prof. Mulholland's remarks. Many of you above seem not to have read the article very well if at all. I was struck by 2 thoughts: 1. Why have the editors invited such naked self-promotion. Last Week it was Alexandra Lord and this week it is James Mulholland(Ph.D Rutgers 2006). He has written the equivalent of How I Spent My Aceademic Year and he thinks the rest of us should take an active interest in his self-serving comments. So why was this article selected for publication? 2. There is something in Prof. Mulholland's tone that is very off-centered: a lack of intellectual rigor, self-involved point of view(did Emory pay you to write these remarks about their Humanities Center or were you hoping to be invited back?), and a lack of empathy over the plight of those who seemed not to have been as lucky---and luck it is because unlike some of you I looked up Prof. Mulholland's publications. He wishes to promoted himself as a "humanist" with a plan to save the humanities which amounts to nothing more than to create more Humanities Centers like those at Emory or the National Humanities Center(no doubt the next stop in his plans for himself). No, Prof. Mulholland you are no "humanist" with a plan to save the Humanities or those who teach them; you are just a English professor and not very good one based upon the thinking on display in this article. I can make allowances for the fact that this article was not meant to be taken as a scholarly investigation of the issues. However, it still was written by one who claims to be a scholar and hence to be able to think like one. Yet I find no evidence such a habit of mind here. Nothing is studied, nothing is analyzed, nothing is questioned. Prof. Mulholland strings together a set of vague and unexamined assertions which to conculed that there is NO CRISIS in the Humanities. Rather he suggests that a group of non-tenured malcontents have "HANDCUFFED" us to "CRISIS NARRATIVES." Apparently, he thinks that those of us who have to live our academic careers under the harsh reality of this crisis that keeps us at the mercy of an oppressive system that offers no escape MUST KEEP OUR VOICES DOWN because somehow it is interfering with his self-promotion of himself and his analysis that the only thing wrong with the humanities and higher education is POOR PR. Really? Are these the grand ideas that a one year Fellowship at Emory has allowed you to arrive at? I would think that it proves just how wasteful these Humanities Centers are when a limited amount of money is being spent on professors who get these positions not based upon the quality of their thinking or analysis but on their network of contacts. I am not surprised by his reference to the National Humanities Center in NC many whose fellows at present are as always from Duke, NCU, and of course Rutgers(where the author earned his degree!). However, I would challenge anyone to prove that anything useful has ever come out of the National Humanities Center or any other Humanities Center that has made an essential contribution to the direction of the scholarship on the Humanities? Can anyone name a siginficant method or theory associated with any of these Centers? These Centers are created by a few of the elites to benefit themselves and their acolytes. Mulholland seems to have already tired of his tenure track position at Wheaton before he has even earned tenure. He hopes to make name for himself so that he can win appointment at come other Humanities Center where he can take great pride that he can convince another Pre-med major to take another poetry course because this what he sees as the most important contribution he has made during his year at Emory. Do you really think that Universities are going to give money to the likes of Mulholland so they can run some overpriced recruitment program? Prof. Mulholland has no serious ideas about saving the Humanities or those who teach them but he does have a self-serving plan to save himself.

Therefore what are we to make of his remarks? He shows a surprising lack of understanding about how other professions and disciplines function but which he takes to be models for the humanities to follow---law, medicine, business, science. I suggest you take a look at the plight of law school graduates Prof. Mulholland. These diciplines he believes know how to exist within CORPORATIZED UNIVERSITIES(he never fully defines what he means by this and frankly I do not think he knows himself). His solution to the plight of the Humanities is what he calls his MORE IS MORE STRATEGY that will fund BIG HUMANITIES projects(digital, editied collections, etc). Clearly he has not been reading the papers because Big Science is dying for lack of funds. Go Ask the people at NASA how that as turned out Prof. Mulholland! The only reason Humanities departments have been allowed to continue at most institutions is because they are relatively inexpensive to run compared to the sciences, etc. The more one reads his comments the more his positions are undermined by his pronouncement that "WE NEED TO STOP THE RITUAL MOURNING OF THE CRISIS AND ASK OURSELVES...WHAT DE WE WANT THE HUMANITIES TO DO? HOW DO WE GET THE MONEY TO DO IT?" He compounds this by suggesting that scholars who work at HUMANITIES CENTERS "CAN SERVE AS ROLE MODELS" between the Humanities and the corporate university. Would that make Prof. Mulholland the CEO of the Humanities? And where will all this money come from? These Centers he claims "CAN DRAW DONORS WHO WANT TO SEE THEIR NAMES IN LIGHTS." This is the sum of his analysis and examination of the crisis--which of course in his view is no crisis at all: Find rich people to give money to people like Pof. Mulholland and to places like the National Humanities Center so that they can give this money to people like Prof. Mulholland so he can do whatever he wants to do. What can any serious person say in the face of this level of thinking? None of what Prof. Mulholland states is new, none of this has worked in the past, and it so simple minded that frankly it functions as an insult directed to the rest of us who have not been as lucky as Prof. Mulholland appears to have been.

There is more that could be added to the harmful attitudes on display in Prof. Mulholland's remarks. I hope Prof. Mulholland is tenured because another performance like this one and he will make waste to whatever opportunities he may have been given. I have seen people with far more accomplishments than Prof. Mulholland turned down for tenure. I wonder what his view of the crisis of the Humanities will be if he is forced to view it off the tenure track for good and outside appointments to Humanities Centers. Will it become a crisis then for Prof. Mulholland?

25. mick111 - June 08, 2010 at 09:45 am

I agree with everything blowback wrote, and would like to add my two cents. It's all well and good that Dr. Mulholland thinks that we should adapt the humanities to reflect the corporatization of the academy - but having worked a corporate job to put myself through grad school, I can tell you that he is advocating a system designed to promote a select few well-connected individuals at the expense of the mass. Every corporate structure is designed to give the greatest benefits to those at the top while minimizing the costs at the bottom - just look at corporations where the CEO makes $45 million in pay and stock options, has access to a limo and driver, access to the corporate jet... and the folks in data processing, without whom the company would fold, pull down $25k per year and have to eat Top Ramen. When the economy staggers, it's these workers who end up being forced to choose between paying their rent and eating... while the CEO takes one less trip to St. Barts. This is the reality of the corporatizing academy today; a handful of pampered academic elites who hold down 2/1 loads while being able to think big thoughts, their lifestyles supported on the backs of an army of adjuncts slaving away teaching Western Civ/Intro to Lit/Philosophy 101 while watching the beautiful people float in the clouds above them.

As much as he would like to believe otherwise, there IS a crisis in the humanities. As one of those adjuncts, I am being forced to seriously consider giving up academia and getting a full-time day job just so I can afford to live. I get incensed when I hear/read tenured and tenure-track faculty discussing the "bad attitude" of the adjuncts, and how "we have to adapt to the evolving model of the academy." Tell me, Dr. Mulholland - how am I supposed to be able to pay my rent, buy groceries, and repair my 15 year old car when I get paid less than $22,000 per year teaching five classes at three differnt schools? How many years will I be forced to adjunct before I get to enjoy all these wonderful benefits of the new academic model? Three years? Five? Ten? His article has the feel of Nero returning to Rome from his summer villa, surveying the fire-ravaged city, and saying "The people would LOVE to build a new palace for me!" To put it another way: why should I care what Dr. Mulholland has to say when I'm struggling to pay my power bill?

The truth is that there IS a crisis, and not just in the humanities but throughout the academy. Most schools these days do not make their money through the sciences - instead, they make their money through business schools, churning out vast faceless armies of MBAs whose tuition is paid for by their corporate sponsors. I would argue that the corporatization of the academy is a direct result of schools focusing on the easy money to be had by allying themselves with the business world - and the money pits that are the humanities and the sciences, disciplines that provide little benefit for the money invested, get trimmed back a little more each year. The solution to this problem should NOT be to adapt to a new model of academia, but rather to return to the core values that made the humanities the powerhouse that it once was - connecting students with the intellectual, spiritual, and cultural heritage of the world.

I would like to end with a challenge to Dr. Mulholland: if you are SO SURE that there is no crisis in the humanities and that your model is the wave of the future, then step down from whatever tenured or tenure-track position you currently hold and become a faceless cog in a Humanities Center somewhere. Surely there would be no current adjunct who would want your position, because there would be so many opportunities in these Centers! If you will do that, then I will shut my mouth, swallow my opinions, and be a happy little adjunct-drone for the rest of my life.

26. trendisnotdestiny - June 08, 2010 at 05:37 pm

Man, this article and thread is case and point in how a divide and conquer strategy works to divide academe into individualized, tiny little compartments of self interest, each claiming the lauded real estate of legitmacy and outrage...

Someone please make a convincing argument here for collective action as if a team were to be created among students, adjuncts, tenure track, non-tenure track and tenured professors... Academe needs leadership from within

27. mfortunato - June 08, 2010 at 06:13 pm

The revolution will not be funded.

That means even the very best revolutionary rhetoric, too.

So it's only a crisis for those of you who thought it would be different. For those connected with the realpolitik, it's just predictably ugly.

28. evan97yo - June 09, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Well, when John Cage did his most influential composing, it came out of Wesleyan University's Center for the Humanities, and was important. Anyway . . . .

Academe needs leadership also from administrators and from President Professor Obama. And from leading donors. (Are you reading this, Mr. Soros?)

If and when an academic team acts collectively for the greater good, it's not necessarily going to be one big happy team on behalf of American academe. The conflicts of various teams, while destructive, also have potential to be productive towards limited goals.

Meanwhile we'll each see nodes and networks that often shift and sometimes evaporate, yet nevertheless can ally sets of students, adjuncts, tenure trackers, and the tenured. Whenever we come across such a node or network, let's actuate it. Make it work for our teams, their projects, and goals.

The going got rough, but there was never any guarantee that our whole mission-in-action would stay relevant enough to maintain position. So let's keep moving towards reconciliation with our world of contingencies. It's awful to hear that giant sucking sound, but let's keep our heads up and swim across the current. Life during culture-war time, anyone?

We'll recognize allies by how we include each other. Let's not get too distracted by others. Whenever we ally with three students, two adjuncts, one tenure-tracker, and one tenured prof, then we've got an affinity group, a potential team It probably won't be able to lead much of American academe against the prevalent current, yet it still can help lead something good within, or at a fringe, or around, or from academe.

Here's an argument: let's focus our teams on helping to maintain a modicum of what will remain worthwhile--like, a civic space for informed, thoughtful inquiry--so that someday, when our heirs look back at these years, they'll find teachings, institutions, and other resources to foster their work. Surely there will be some who don't find enough nourishment in the fruits of the prestige-economies and the money-economies. Let's work on their behalf.

If we stay in classrooms and persist, our work might make a key difference, accumulatively, so let's not quit when we don't have to. Let's keep reading and writing things that matter. Let's say our piece, and when someone says something worthwhile let's amplify it.

What looks like an economy is one, but it's never the whole picture. Let's keep framing ecologies of wisdom.

The more rapidly, intensely, and disorientingly social change comes, the more people will seek teachers and leaders to guide and inspire. If you're reading this message here at chronicle.com, you're probably already on a team of people committed to such a project. This long-term project calls for far more commitment than most of us bargained for when we went into a "safe profession," right? Well, dammit, higher education should not be the place for those seeking a safe profession, anyway, because the paths of least resistance threaten ruin. Teaching, research, and service should be more a path for risk-takers.

Anyone entering the army of adjuncts by now should realize how the deck is stacked. Let's make our alliances accordingly. Let's play the game by rules that keep us teaching--somewhere--but mainly let's play according to the rules that matter to our teams.

We won't be sorry we hung in here, if we do. Let's stay in only one or two classrooms, if that's all we can afford, but let's keep a hand in, if we can. Someday what we nurture will flourish more, and we'll have played a role. Let's find trust where we can.

Let's aim to regard each other as potential teammates. Let's trust our actual teammates because we must.

29. moldorf - June 10, 2010 at 08:45 am


Your comments about "check boxes" (general education requirements) being "disingenuous and ill-advised" merits some discussion. Your primary warrant, that such courses merely serve the needs of cynical faculty who want to protect their jobs, ignores the realities of the eighteen-year-old mind. Self-interest aside, such courses, whether "Rocks for Jocks" or Introduction to Literature, offer students exposure to subjects that they might not otherwise try (perhaps having had a bad experience in high school). Most Chronicle readers, I would wager, can offer multiple stories of students who, after taking a required course from an inspired teacher, changed majors. Indeed, one in three Harvard students--some of the most motivated in the country--switch majors, while Penn State indicates that half of its students do so (see their respective admissions Web pages). Of course, students won't always respond to a required course, but they don't always react positively to self-selected courses within their major either. Further, even if students keep their original majors, they may nonetheless learn to appreciate the beauty of other disciplines. Just like the teachers of "Planet for Pinheads," Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, and others have "watered down" complex scientific concepts so that "jocks" and other laypeople could understand them, but would you rather that we humanities types remain purely ignorant of the sciences? I certainly enjoy sharing the humanities with science and business majors, and their unique perspectives often allow me to step outside of my echo chamber and see something in the text that I hadn't noticed before. Warm and fuzzy? Perhaps (or perhaps it's consilience), but a few of us still think that education holds out some possibility for positive change.

30. trendisnotdestiny - June 11, 2010 at 01:09 am


Thanks for the thought provoking and well articulated response

31. asongbird - June 11, 2010 at 09:58 am

My, my, my. What hot buttons we have, grandma.

32. agpbloom - June 14, 2010 at 03:31 pm

James Mulholland's article suggests that we should stop talking about the "crisis" of the humanities and even go so far as not use the word. I have another suggestion for the author: Why don't we just pretend that all is well in higher education these days? Such pretending would fit in very well with a larger positive-thought movement and massive corporate culture that censors all serious complaints as whining or needless belly-aching. After all, if you are one of the many people being down-sized by the academy from a full-time contract to one that is labeled as "adjunt," why should you call it a crisis? Instead, call it an happy "opportunity," and in the meantime, go have a cool chat with some higher-paid "colleagues" and constituents over at the humanities center. They might even give you a nibble of cheese or a thimble of cheap wine. Do a tap dance or two and tell them why it might be a good idea to support bizarre classes dealing with "esoteric" stuff like writing well, speaking a foreign language, reasoning logically, or knowing a thing or two about America's history. In the meantime, you may have more senior colleagues like the author saying, "In my experience, students who are involved in those oh-so-sensible majors value the opportunity to sneak off and indulge their secret creative-writing habit or their interest in queer theory. We can use that interest and energy to excite students and administrators." Queer theory as a selling point? No, I won't use the word crisis Mulholland. Instead, I will opt for the word "catastrophe" and continue my search for work in places that have not sacrificed the pursuit of truth for corporate expediency. God help us.

33. joelkline - June 15, 2010 at 12:06 am

There is nothing wrong with framing the humanities to articulate relevancy. On this topic, Mulholland makes some good points. Most graduates enter government, industry, or non-profits when they graduate. Pardon them for expecting the academy to teach them something useful for those careers!

It is our tasks, as academics and humanists, to focus on the human part of humanism. As someone noted, that can translate into critical thinking, logical reasoning, and exceptional conceptualization skills. It is our responsibility to insert the human into digital humanities, user-centered design, ethics, writing (audience), and theater, etc.

I'm sorry if this sounds snarky, but if some posters still call IT "data processing" and think it pays $25k and you think the financial meltdown was solely caused by "BS and MBAs" - not, for example, your pension fund trying to get higher returns or Ivy League grads with BA's who are bond traders - then you do not have a grasp of the relevancy that the humanities has to offer graduates and you never will.

34. agpbloom - June 15, 2010 at 04:48 pm


You offer some really good, balanced points. We cannot lose sight of what makes us human, and it should inform new developments, especially those as ubiquitous as IT.

However, an undue focus on "relevancy" can easily degenerate into expediency with the wrong leadership or character. How many promising avenues of inquiry and research have been mercilessly shut down because there was no immediate "pay-off"?

Likewise, how much time and energy has been wasted on programs that falsely promised such an outcome? Sometimes, looking back, a preoccupation with short-term "relevancy" turns out to be a misguided conformity to fads and mob decision-making. The history of science reveals such unfortunate moments...in retrospect. Pasteur in his time-frame was extremely irrelevant to the dominant paradigms in medical knowledge. Or...if you want to look at other fields, take the behavioral sciences as another example. Popular crime writers like John Douglas have told and retold the history of how fields like behavioral forensics were regarded with extreme skepticism at the FBI under Hoover, only to be revisited and included as part of a more sophisticated, qualitative approach to apprehending dangerous felons.

Finally, one area that I am really concerned about that seems obsessed with a naive notion of "relevance" is education. Colleges of education have streamlined in recent years, cutting offerings in fields like history, philosophy and sociology of education. In fact, it's gotten to the point where subjects that do not directly affect teaching "practice" or please the teachers unions are viewed with suspicion, tolerated or even eliminated. Such has been the fate of a field once known as social foundations of education. It is almost absent in education colleges, replaced by a focus on the RELEVANT in areas labeled administration, methods or curriculum. I believe this undue focus on the immediately relevant has been the death sentence of a teacher education curriculum that once had a rich underpinning in the liberal arts and sciences. And now, people wonder why some teachers do not have the breadth of knowledge that an earlier generation once had.

Watch out when leaders invoke "relevance." It's a loaded word that can leave many casualties. Just look around for the academic fields it has destroyed in the name of contemporary progress.

35. 22056568 - June 21, 2010 at 07:19 pm

I teach music in public schools by day and I adjunct at a college by night. I make much more money by doing this than simply working at the college. I am sick to death of reading anyone's comments about the humanities, fact is they are dead. They are so dead that today's college freshmen know practically nothing concerning the humanities. I use to teach the classics, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Now I teach what is important in the field and what to look for. What the subject can do for you, how to understand it, and I try to sell it to the students. I hope that when I give a concert, they may be tempted to buy a ticket and come. Let's end the debate and work to help people outside the field to become supporters and consumers of what we have to offer. Hang out the welcome sign and invite the totally uneducated consumer into the very closed field of the humanities. It is good for everyone.

36. agpbloom - June 22, 2010 at 08:14 pm

If the humanities are dead and "we all have killed them," then what product is left to be "sold"? Can you have your cake and gulp it too? What is left to offer if the field is truly dead and buried?

It seems that the fine post by trendisnotdestiny (#14) is dead-on here. Why are some academics so eager and willing these days to accommodate the business model for fear of being left without a piece of the corporate pie...or cake?

By the way, this move is not just germane to academics, as religious organizations have also made this move. Increasingly clergy are supposed to adopt CEO personas and run congregations like large business organizations. As a result, like their academic counterparts, they have also decided to jettison many humanities offerings in their seminaries and colleges, replacing the study of "dead" languages, philosophy, theology, biblical history, ethics, pastoral care and preaching with more consumer-friendly fields like advertising, marketing, management principles, industrial psychology, organizational theory and a smattering of IT, of course. The writer/ theologian David Wells wrote eloquently on this coming trend in his book Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?

Even if they are not dead yet, no doubt, the old humanities subjects are being killed, and their death is being hastened by some prophets of the new age anxious to destroy remnants of their predecessors, as they text each other about it. I believe this movement finds a parallel in the religious realm of life. No doubt, there are other realms that have followed the trend.

If the old humanities drown, I believe that they may very well take other important fields down with them as they gasp for air. The question is whether or not new humanities scholars will intervene or cheer at the sight of their own accident.

37. kedves - June 22, 2010 at 09:52 pm

As a former career fundraiser, I will agree with the main idea, to some extent. At the last place I worked before grad school, we cultivated a very major gift to a humanities building in the discipline that the donor, a wealthy hard-knocks retail type, wished could have been his major. (Let's skip over the inconvenient parts of the story, shall we? The disrespect their benefactor received from the faculty at that university, or the fact that most donors give to their own area, business-school alumni to the business school and athletics fans to athletic buildings. Donors are not entirely plastic. But that would disrupt a nice narrative.)

As an academic who is a contingent faculty member, I think that as long as Prof. Mulholland views all contingent faculty as adjuncts and all adjuncts as doing a completely different job than the one he is doing--as if academia is being taken over by robotics and the robots are disrupting the real work of the real faculty--his narratives will be entirely fictional. Good luck finding your sugardaddy, Prof. M. Your narrative at this point is not quite as well matched to a department gift.

The humanities are very much alive, in the courses people teach all over campuses everywhere--including me, a social scientist. I am requiring my freshman intro-to-college class to attend campus arts events and I make the case in every class about the competitive value of effective writing, reading, and perception skills. It's not that hard, and it starts with students. (Alumni in residence, if you really want to learn the fundraising model.) Students get it; why can't you? What's old and stale and dying is this insistence on esoteric uniqueness, as if the people in the humanities alone face a need to explain the value of their work to outside audiences. It's particularly funny coming from a very junior person, but I like irony. It must be those English courses, or perhaps I have been ruined by reading.

38. 22056568 - June 23, 2010 at 10:43 am

There you go. Kedves proved my point.

39. agpbloom - June 23, 2010 at 10:57 am

The point being that...the humanities are alive and dead? I guess this point could also be called a contradiction, or a paradox, depending on what side of the bed you get up on in the morning.

Maybe what is really dead is logic.

40. footbook - July 05, 2010 at 04:45 am

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