Whither Humanities?


Everything in this Chronicle piece by William Pannapacker rings true, so true in fact that were it not for the fact that I know that he and I are not the same person I might wonder whether there has been an unparalleled rupture in the quantum reality of the universe.

Professors are, indeed, trapped, by cuffs both gilded and cutting. That's why I left and why I would advise any young Ph.D. or professor in a humanities field to retrain, get the hell out, and put their considerable energy, skill, and humanistic sensibility to work, without regret, in the world at large.

If I were the kind of person who highlighted passages then this piece would be covered in yellow florescence.

One reason that so many talented Ph.D.s toil away for decades as adjuncts is that academe acculturates them to believe that anything outside of higher education is stupid, immoral, and disgraceful. Academics are trained to judge other people by their status in the profession. Worst of all, friends, family, and partners can all be sacrificed in favor of individualistic goals. Work all the time, keep moving, abandon everyone outside the profession: Only affiliate yourself strategically.

Yes. A thousand times yes. That.

I am giving a talk to Ph.D. students before the end of the year about “alt-ac” (though I don't use that term, as it is absurd to think that the path of the majority, i.e. not ending up as a tenured professor, is alt anything. It is default ac). I've debated how much to call this out specifically and by name, to point to the individuals who have told them that the only career they should focus on is an academic career, who think acquiring skills that might be valuable for both present research and future non-academic jobs is something they should do on their own time and without training or, better still, not at all. That's the insidious part of acculturation. It's not easy to question the obvious wrongness of this acculturation into the academic priesthood.

This single observation of what happens to graduate students in humanities is, in part, one answer to how, in humanities fields at least, a model for a new university can come from within. Start by doing the opposite of all that. Encourage, facilitate, compel graduate students to think of their discipline in the world, to build their skills in terms of a larger strategy, to connect what they are doing. The ways that such things are done now are both too little and conspicuously self-pleasuring. Too little in the areas that matter, namely in connecting outside of the academy, across disciplines, in ways that help students have modern skills that can be applied elsewhere. What would PhD education in humanities look like, for example, if students were required to spend time teaching K-12 or interning with a local business or building a tech product? There are a ton of ways to work for mutual benefit, but humanities disciplines labor under a medieval and more recently elite model of what it is that they do, producing a narrow caste trained for the single act of species replication.

On the other hand — and surely you didn't think I would throw a phrase like “self-pleasuring” in and not follow up on the insult — where humanities departments have recently taken a stand on how they connect to the world has been largely performative. I don't doubt the importance of social justice initiatives in themselves or individuals' desire to do better. I do, however, find the posing and posturing of universities to be cynical and, in may ways, simply same old hat. Talking about things some more. Making a statement. Demanding some administrative changes. It's all still within the academy, within the way that professors talk to each other and talk about that oppressive administration. It's a theoretical stance built entirely on promoting, policing, questioning, and navigating speech-acts (which are, with all due respect, significant, but also not the same thing as acts.) It is a posture of finding place within the academic hierarchy. The insider talk of priests and the intrigue of court politics. It is, in short, thoroughly academic in the very act of claiming (superior) engagement with the world, a world which graduate training in many (not all of course) humanities disciplines can make feel distant, lower, something to be held in mild contempt. How can people (out there) not care as much as we do? How can they not see as much as we do what's going on in this work of literature? How can they not value it as much as we do? How can they not be as sophisticated in their thinking as we are?

Reality check here. The smartest humanists I've met are outside the academy. They knew to get out. They may have started Ph.D.s but then they took what they learned and brought that to bear on other professions and other paths. I wouldn't idealize it. It's not greener grass over there all the time. But they faced expulsion and are now thoroughly outsiders in their fields. That is perverse. They should be celebrated and back on campus every other week to help students navigate these paths. As Pannapacker puts it:

So much vocational energy is squandered by higher education. What if academe offered more career mobility for faculty members who are unhappy in their positions — and inevitably dragging down the morale and quality of their institutions — but who do not see any way out of that situation? What if professors were not indoctrinated to reject any other way of life as somehow lesser than the one that they, themselves, have come to dislike? What if they brought their commitments to the “outside world” and refused to allow their idealism to make them so easily exploited and unfulfilled by institutions that often are not what they purport to be?

This has been my ax to grind for a long time. So much wasted energy. The academic system, in humanities in particular, is wildly inefficient and wasteful. If there's any part that really gets at me, it's that. The casual wasting of time and indifference to the preciousness of time. This is an inheritance, in my mind, of the idealization of gentleman scholars and a life of cultured leisure among the elite. But the consequences are of course anti-humanist, ignoring the carpe in the diem and pretending that the span of a professor is a limitless freedom of lifetime sinecure unto old age. Would humanities fields be better off not only if, as Pannapacker argues, there were clearer ways out of the profession or out of a position, but if it were the norm and expected that this was always a temporary stop?

I find it helpful to remember that today's “humanities” were not, in their long fashioning, outcomes of the university or of a particular academic cult at all times. That's in many ways the inheritance of the 19th century, rooted in ideas about what makes a person “cultured” or “civilized” (and, yes, with origins of course in Cicero and the Romans). The breadth of humanities outside academic departments is far broader, more persuasive, and vibrant than within journals or specialist conferences. Humanists are in tech companies, in social organizations, in government and so forth. All the common defenses of the humanities are right when they point to practical impacts both general and specific.

Humanities are out there. The biggest trick humanities disciplines pull is convincing their acolytes that that big world of humanistic inquiry doesn't exist. If tenured humanities professors feel trapped, then its a trap made of mirrors and confusion.

I suspect most of them know this. And that makes it all the more devastating.