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Humanities Crisis Mad Libs

Sometime last week, maybe after reading this piece in The New York Times, I noticed that coverage on the “crisis” in the humanities had taken on an all-too-familiar tone. So, to save time for busy journalists, I made a simple template, which I call (with apologies to Timothy Noah) Humanities Crisis Mad Libs. Just fill in the blanks, and you will have an up-to-date article on a perennial topic of concern:

Despite the awe-inducing fame of the faculty in the [“humanities” discipline that has been around forever in North American universities; do not include fields like technical writing, language pedagogy, or Asian or Middle Eastern languages] at [U.S. News Top 25 School; no slumming], only a [puny number of their students; remember, majors=“students”] now trickle into their wood-paneled seminar rooms. Since the Great Recession, economic pressures have led more students to think of college as an investment in professional training. As a result, students are steering clear of [narrow aspects of teaching in the humanities that do not explicitly claim to be useful in the job market] in favor of [a field of study that says it’s the way to quick cash—for now]. In response to these developments, Professor [White Dude in his 60s], a specialist in [humanities field with a hopelessly oversaturated job market], expressed worry over where this trend would lead the university. “We are not here to teach the merely useful,” he said, stroking his goatee. “We are here to challenge students to think about the big questions in life. We will always have [whichever author or historical figure who smells like moldering tweed from a hundred yards away] going for us.”

My Mad Libs might be unfair. But the cartoonish debate about the humanities that appears in the American news media is even less fair to the vast majority of university faculty members who teach these subjects. Unfortunately, the worst distortions about the humanities often come from humanities professors themselves when they talk about the humanities only in terms of “big questions,” “critical thinking,” and the virtue of the humanities’ nonprofit uselessness.

Of course humanities classes challenge students to think about big questions; of course that teaching is valuable. But when the argument leaps immediately to synthesis, analysis, and imagination, we give little credit to the scrappy effort needed to master the fundamentals of many humanities fields. Humanities faculty members regularly miss the chance to tell their students and the public about the many other valuable skills they teach: how to write a clear sentence; how to communicate in a foreign language; how to look to the past in order to make decisions today; and so on. All of these are invaluable skills that help students in the world of work.

Building these nuts-and-bolts skills also leads to broader vistas. Let me take an example from the course I teach every fall in introductory Mandarin Chinese. This course is very rigorous, and much of it is sheer drudgery. Chinese characters are brutally difficult for students who have never been asked to memorize much in high school, and the four tones of Mandarin pronunciation can make even the most outgoing 19-year-old timid and nervous. But this class always goes beyond vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, as we regularly talk about how students are learning how they learn and how to approach aspects of the language they find most difficult. (Students also learn a bit about the need to persevere and not to be afraid of making mistakes.)

Moreover, even though introductory Mandarin is not what we call a “content course,” my students still learn about Chinese history and culture. In the lesson I am teaching right now, students learn that there are about half a dozen words in Chinese for the term “Chinese language” or “Mandarin.” Each of these words—which translate back into English as “the national language,” “the standard language,” “the language of (ethnic) Chinese”—tells us something about the trying history of China, Taiwan, and Chinese communities around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even students who think they are learning Chinese “just” to do business gain a greater understanding of themselves and of another culture. If they want to learn more, they can take another course in literature, culture, film, or history with me or one of my colleagues; many do just that. (As Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs have shown, introductory courses are the best place for faculty to attract students who might major in their field.)

Sadly, however, too many Ph.D.’s in literary and cultural studies are told in graduate school that teaching basic skills—whether foreign language or writing in English—does not count as “real work” or as part of their professional identity. This ideological training leads to a perverse cycle: When tenured and tenure-track humanities professors stay away from the introductory, skills-based courses they could easily teach (or leave them to graduate students and adjuncts), they sell themselves short by devaluing the know-how that makes their research and teaching possible in the first place. When pressed to explain why their work matters to the university or the public, these faculty members can only retreat to the narrow ground of “critical thinking,” “big questions,” or “cultural awareness”—but these areas are not the exclusive properties of the humanities, and never will be.

What would happen, then, if humanities professors stopped offering up defenses of their work that fit so easily into my Mad Libs? Such a move might help the public gain a better understanding of teaching in the humanities that takes place at colleges outside of the Ivy League and the tip-top-tier state universities that get so much coverage in the media. It might also bring spokespeople for the humanities to engage in some critical thinking of their own about the professional self-image that makes it easy—too easy—to pigeonhole the humanities in the first place.

Michael Gibbs Hill is director of the Center for Asian Studies and the program in Chinese at the University of South Carolina. His first book, Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture, was published last fall by Oxford University Press.

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