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The Decline of the English Department
October 19, 2009 10:39 AM   Subscribe

William Chace, former university president (Wesleyan and Emory) and Eng. Prof., on the decline of the English department, with lots of good ideas for why and how, as well as some thoughts on what to do about it. (Albeit no explicit blame to the true scourge: postmodernism and the relativity of it all…).
posted by JL Sadstone (120 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
First the facts: while the study of English has become less popular among undergraduates, the study of business has risen to become the most popular major in the nation’s colleges and universities. With more than twice the majors of any other course of study, business has become the concentration of more than one in five American undergraduates.

Ugh, business majors. Do they really think the world is capable of supporting so many middle managers?

English majors will have the last laugh when all those business majors get replaced by computers 10-20 years from now.
posted by delmoi at 10:52 AM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


"[A]t the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books."

I have no idea if you're making a joke with your "true scourge" statement, but I don't see any mention of postmodernism in the article at all. My gloss of the article is that as more and more people started to feel disenfranchised by people dryly teaching the classics to them, they asked for and in many cases received a new variety of texts and methods for interpreting those texts. What was exclusive became inclusive. And, like any private club, once anyone can join, the old times bemoan how it used to be cooler.
posted by jessamyn at 10:53 AM on October 19, 2009 [17 favorites]


English majors will have the last laugh when all those business majors get replaced by computers 10-20 years from now.

Actually, I think the compters will have the last laugh as they pick through the documents of the species they replaces and wondered about the long-dead but once teeming population of smart monkeys that created these texts.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:55 AM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Actually thinking about this a bit more, wouldn't having less students in english departments actually be a good thing? Fewer writers out there means that those do peruse that field will have more opportunities, and the ones in the industry will be more passionate. Also
What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.
I don't find that very persuasive. You don't need an English degree to write, and you certainly don't need one to read.
posted by delmoi at 10:57 AM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Actually thinking about this a bit more, wouldn't having less students in english departments actually be a good thing?

I'm assuming that overall numbers of people enrolled in universities have gone up over the period he describes, so that while all faculties have grown English has simple grown slower than business.

This may be a case of an English professor trying to do a little statistical analysis for which he isn't very well-equipped.
posted by GuyZero at 10:59 AM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


I guess youngsters these days just want jobs when they graduate.

I kid! I have a folklore degree, so I'm not really one to talk.
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:01 AM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


For those of us who care about literature and teaching, this is a depressing prospect, but not everyone will share the sense of loss. As the Auden poem about another failure has it, “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Sure, blame it on #BalloonBoy.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 11:03 AM on October 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


"Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers."

I just about snorted out loud when I read this. Yeah no business jobs out there. But the English factory is hiring! Sorry, I suppose I am bitter becuase I have had to put a massive fork in my dreams of doing the MA/PhD route in English, mainly because the jobs prospects for Dr. English are diddly-crap.

I now have a cool job. English was a massively useful subject for what I do, but only when supplemented with equally massive amounts of work experience in other areas.

The English department is amazing for training you in verbal skills, terrible at providing a vocation.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 11:07 AM on October 19, 2009 [10 favorites]


> English majors will have the last laugh when all those business majors get replaced by computers 10-20 years from now.

And a hollow, mechanical laugh it will be.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:08 AM on October 19, 2009


Former teacher, then college pres, naturally blames those whose ranks he left for bigger more prestigious , better paying position. Silly stuff. Why? Students elect to go into this or that major before they really get a barrage of the courses that (he claims) are not presented properly. In most colleges, students elect majors before entering into junior years. How many courses that are "ioll presented" have they really had in their first and second year? Precious few.

Students are now being taught most of their early classes by part-timers, adjuncts, grad students etc and these are the very ill prepared inexpensive labor (teachers) that --college president seek to keep costs down.

Now blame the faculty in the English (or any other humanities department). I dislike what and how lit is taught these days, but I certainly don't blame this as the cause for fewer and fewer students electing to major in English. In fact, the decline is in just about all of the humanities and not just in "inadequately taught" English departments.
posted by Postroad at 11:10 AM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


More and more, this story has a Lovecraftian tinge. You know, a venerable and once-high race has spent millennia worshipping old, possibly dead gods, from whom nothing new has issued. The altars are so thick with spilled ichor of ages past that the original inscriptions have been rendered unreadable. Then, seeking to revivify themselves, too late they turn and make unwholesome pacts with the shadowy, incomprehensible forces whispering from the darkness. After a few generations, they find themselves warped and enslaved in lowest service to those allies which once offered them power and great tradition is trod underfoot.

That tweedy reverence held for the unmoving classics, that pantheon which must neither be changed nor doubted, gives no new oracle after so many generations of grad students have offered up their theses for dissection. What more can be said? So much ink has flowed, gallons to every original letter, that any glory once held when those words were fresh has now been obliterated. New idols from distant lands are carried in: what is the psychosexual history of this text? And these new gods prey upon the old by offering much in the way of criticism, little in praise. These old texts had little to teach about, for example, race relations — they are so Eurocentric. And so we have a flurry of seemingly purposeful activity, for dismantling a great, if creaky, edifice is just as busysome as creating it. After a time, though, there is little left but a few arches and staircases as the nightgaunts pull down a drafty Gormenghast.

And then post-modernism appears, new and alien, displaying what appear to be fresh tools, tentatively clutched by the old folk who are unable to tell where technology is fused to ritual. How powerful, how strange, and it is some time on before the new tools are realized to take away meaning only, to destroy even the question of meaning, leaving you with less and less, until all of your works upon the foundations of the classics are gone, and even those foundations are viewed through these fantastical lenses as frauds.

Now, we can only walk by and hear the wails of empty tenure, permanence without power, murmuring only "nothing is left, all is lost." Some bargains are not worth the price and those who suffer are often the sacrifices of their grandsires.
posted by adipocere at 11:22 AM on October 19, 2009 [86 favorites]


The point of any degree in a college of liberal arts is not to get a job, but to learn how to think critically. To learn how to be a careful reader. To learn the difference between good information and bad information. To learn how to make a case. To learn how to research. To learn different critical methods.

The trouble isn't that there are no jobs for English majors. The trouble is that none of these qualities are in very high demand anymore.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:23 AM on October 19, 2009 [67 favorites]


"substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture)."

Translation: Get off my lawn, women and minorities!

Much of this article reads as grumpy-old-manism, a guy pissed off that the culture that defined his personal and professional identity has changed, and he no longer knows who he is or where he fits.

That said, the real problem *is* mentioned in his article: the "pre-professional" ambitions of students and the intense focus on making college education "practical," where practical in fact means that it reproduces the status quo. That "English" as a study is broad, diverse, ever transforming and challenging of its own boundaries is a feature, not a bug. It is a challenge to the educational philosophy that views college as the preparation for a middle management job. Now I think most people in the field actually realize that on a conscious level, and almost no one can articulate it well to anyone, but that's, in my mind, what it does and should do.

Also, I have a HUGE problem with this:

"They can also convert what many of them now consider a liability and a second-rate activity into a sizable asset. They can teach their students to write well, to use rhetoric. They should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their activities. They should announce that the teaching of composition is a skill their instructors have mastered and that students majoring in English will be certified, upon graduation, as possessing rigorously tested competence in prose expression. Those students will thus carry with them, into employment interviews or into further educational training, a proficiency everywhere respected but too often lacking among college graduates."

No, no no no NO. Such moves do nothing to help the study of "English" or "literature" in any way. Instead, they only speed up the transition of English departments from intellectually active communities to service units. How exactly is turning an English department into a composition program going to stem the loss of students to business? It doesn't -- it turns English into a feeder program for business and other fields. Not that composition isn't important and one of the essential missions of English departments, but this idea is, in my opinion, terrible.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:24 AM on October 19, 2009 [11 favorites]


Er: "Now I think most people in the field don't actually realize that on a conscious level,"
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:25 AM on October 19, 2009


Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking.


By focusing on books and literature, English departments are essentially embracing their own marginalization. Books communicate some things well and other things not so well. If the goal of studying english is to "articulate ...inchoate impulses", well, some impulses are better articulated through other media. "Shaping and refining our thinking" is not some special property of literature - I've seen films that have had more impact on my thinking than great literature. If the only rationale for English departments is "We Like Books!" I'll be glad to see them wither.
posted by logicpunk at 11:25 AM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


marmaduke_yaverland: the jobs prospects for Dr. English are diddly-crap.

The idea that English ph.d's end up starving to death in garrets is much exaggerated from reality.
posted by Kattullus at 11:27 AM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


It is a challenge to the educational philosophy that views college as the preparation for a middle management job.

Adherence to any other sort of philosophy of education is, with tuition what it is, a luxury for rich people.
posted by enn at 11:27 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


This article was linked to from Arts and Letters Daily about a month ago, and it was a much commented-upon Facebook post among my friends in English grad programmes. Their general view was that (1) the difficulties of acquiring a job with an English doctorate is worth talking about, but (2) the diagnosis offered by the article is wrong. The author writes:

"...the disciplines we teach are in a free fall, as ideology, ethnicity, theory, gender, sexuality, and old-fashioned “close reading” spin away from any center of professional consensus about joint purposes..."

Some of those aforementioned friends remarked that there is as much of a consensus in English as anywhere else, but that Chace just happens not to like it. He says the focus "should be on the books, not on the theories they can be made to support." But the majority of his colleagues' M.O. seems to be precisely "making/showing how texts can support theories". This seems like a fairly cohesive 'joint purpose', whatever anybody outside the field might think of it.

Anyway, I'm speaking as an outsider, and one who doesn't really dig English. But that doesn't mean that there isn't, basically, a consensus there about what they're up to.
posted by Beardman at 11:29 AM on October 19, 2009


wouldn't having less students in english departments actually be a good thing?

Fewer students. Fewer.
posted by rusty at 11:30 AM on October 19, 2009 [58 favorites]


I don't think the point is necessarily invalidated by the bias of the writer. I'd seen this repeatedly in my history undergrad. For instance, I remember having a discussion about gay marriage where the professor argued quite extensively and effectively on the hypocrisy of the "defense of marriage" argument, then turn the tables on gay marriage advocates through institutional critique, in the process giving a student enough ammo to destroy the professor's own anti-monogamy perspective. All three sides being now reduced to strings of logical fallacies, we congratulated each other, slapped ourselves on the back and went home. This urge to deconstruct everything as the prime purpose of academic thought (so it seemed) was part of the reason I avoided a PhD track.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:30 AM on October 19, 2009


This urge to deconstruct everything as the prime purpose of academic thought (so it seemed) was part of the reason I avoided a PhD track.

that being an undergrad course in humanities, I would think the goal of that lesson was to show how to construct and deconstruct logical arguments which is a wonderful skill to learn in college. I don't think PHD programs in history spend their time playing gotcha with logical proofs.
posted by Think_Long at 11:33 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wrote a novel and got published with good notices and I only have a high school diploma. On the other hand, I was disgusting enough to write genre fiction. I'd love to have a college education; I'd love to have an intensive education in literature. But, I'd also like to pay my rent, and that means my schooling sent me to work in a medical office.
posted by headspace at 11:33 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


All three sides being now reduced to strings of logical fallacies, we congratulated each other, slapped ourselves on the back and went home. This urge to deconstruct everything as the prime purpose of academic thought (so it seemed) was part of the reason I avoided a PhD track.

There's a fair bit of building on the rubble in the humanities, too, though perhaps more in some disciplines than others. In Plato's Meno (84a-c), Socrates describes the purgative effect of reducing someone to aporia: it shows someone who merely thought he knew something that he does not in fact know it and instills in him a desire to investigate it.
posted by Beardman at 11:34 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


By focusing on film, film studies departments are essentially embracing their own marginalization. Film communicates some things well and other things not so well. If the goal of studying film is to "isolate...quotations out of context," well, some contexts are better articulated through other media. Shaping and refining our thinking is not some unique property of cinema- I've read books that have had more impact on my thinking than certain great movies. If the only rationale for Film departments is "We Like Film!" I'll be glad to see them wither.
posted by Your Disapproving Father at 11:37 AM on October 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


By focusing on women, women's studies departments are essentially embracing their own marginalization ...

By focusing on the Irish, Irishstudies departments are essentially embracing their own marginalization ...

By focusing on music, music studies departments are essentially embracing their own marginalization.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:42 AM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


More and more, this story has a Lovecraftian tinge.

Doublesecret Probation, indeed, Dean Vermis!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:47 AM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


By focusing on the internet, Metafilter is essentially embracing its own marginalization.
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:48 AM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


My girlfriend and I were talking about this issue last night. She's a grad student at a very highly ranked English dept and I run a literary arts nonprofit. Our conversation had a vaguely apocalyptic tone. Although the decrease in English enrollment may seem, to some MeFi readers, as a trivial incremental change that'll run out some swarthy postmodernists, the way we look at it is much more dire: basically, we have a number of cultural industries--the university, the publishing industry, and print journalism (one might as well throw in film and recording artists, though I'm less concerned about them)--that are stuck relying on an economic model that they don't know how to make work.

My basic fear is that we're seeing the erosion of an infrastructure that furnished our cultural milieu. People are talking about losing a few English majors here and there but the overall effect is really losing several institutional supporters of socially desirable, but not-profitable cultural services. I know the the humanities often doesn't get very much respect here, but here's some of the stuff I'm hearing: several publishing people I know were laid off last fall (including the editors of books I'm sure you've read) and one Executive Editor (who was not fired) told me that she found herself thinking, "Well, I had a nice run. I wonder what I'll do when the publishing industry is over?" My girlfriend's English department is facing extreme cuts, force furloughs, etc., and everyone generally assumes that they're not going to have a future. A very well-established novelist told me, last fall, that she wasn't so much worried about the fallout of our economy as the end of our cultural way of life. Take a look at this Stanley Fish blog post which basically gives the impression that the liberal arts education was a brief, economically idiosyncratic blip, that'll be gone in a generation.

A few additional points:

- Many people are posting based on their reaction to their English classes, but the decline goes throughout all the social sciences and the humanities, including fields like philosophy that might resemble CS or math. (So, I question the usefulness of coming here and venting about postmodernism.) I think that the America Scholar article spends too much time focusing on the "meaning" of the English dept discourse, which is not totally relevant to the changes in the economic model, which he addresses fairly briefly: (1) Unlike medicine, law, CS, and other fields, the humanities will not make a profit for universities; (2) because of increased college enrollment, college ends up downgrading to high school (with law school or MBAs becoming the equivalent to college), resulting in the vocationalization of undergrad. The solution won't be the nostalgic retreat towards the canon that he's talking about, since that alone won't change the underlying economic structure of English departments.

- This will be an interesting time to see what universities come up with to replace their current business model. For example, it surprised me when my girlfriend told me that to be a dean one had to have a phd, which makes sense if you're running an academic colloquy, but not if you're running a small business. Some other articles: Mark Taylor had some very drastic proposals on restructuring all of universities' academic territory, many of which would seem obvious to a corporate HR officer and revolutionary to a tenured faculty member, such as abolish faculty, train grad students for other careers, and impose mandatory retirement.

- It's hard for me not to connect this, in a limited cultural as opposed to causal or economic way, to the way that reading on the Internet has encroached on print reading, but this is not a conversation I want to get into here. In an unrelated note, most people in NY will notice how many fewer people read on subways now vs playing with a blackberry or other portable device.

- The response to these types of threads on Mefi is often a combination of (1) anti-humanism; (2) technological utopianism (e.g., bloggers will replace journalists even though there is no evidence to suggest that this will be the case!); and (3) a strange market morality that argues that industries that are not economically viable deserve to decline. These are not helpful responses to this problem!

- There should be a thorough post about California gutting the UC system, which will have long-term effects on our life, given the amount of research that goes on in the various UC campuses. It's hard to improve on this Judith Butler article. Take a look!
posted by johnasdf at 11:49 AM on October 19, 2009 [30 favorites]


Now that everyone's got to have a degree for any job, the liberal arts thing is just kind of...irrelevant. Those numbers cited in the article show a drift away from large, abstract topics with little intentional relevance to workaday life (however useful they may actually be). And business (and I suspect things like marketing, communication, etc.) which at least purport to put kids into roles they'll be interviewing for later, take up the slack.

This whole liberal arts thing is a little medieval. Of course I absolutely love it and will have my English sheepskin entombed with me. But as soon as higher education becomes democratized, don't be so surprised that students start wanting to tinker with the curriculum. Not that those business, marketing, etc. degrees are worth the insane sums borrowed for them, either. Higher ed, pushed as the solution for most of the nation's shifting labor ills, has not found a meaningful way to absorb all those students and do well by them.
posted by adoarns at 11:50 AM on October 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


I haven't RTFA'd closely, but from my skim, it appears Chace hasn't given much thought to the genesis of the American University English Department. One assumes American English Departments were modeled after the British University English Department, which, if Terry Eagleton is right, was conceived as a kind of ideological transmission device.

"Love of books," isn't a convincing argument for survival. Ideological propagation might be.
posted by notyou at 11:52 AM on October 19, 2009


rusty: Fewer students. Fewer.

This is one of my own personal bugaboos. Here are the usage notes on less from Merriam-Webster:

The traditional view is that less applies to matters of degree, value, or amount and modifies collective nouns, mass nouns, or nouns denoting an abstract whole while fewer applies to matters of number and modifies plural nouns. Less has been used to modify plural nouns since the days of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing. Less is more likely than fewer to modify plural nouns when distances, sums of money, and a few fixed phrases are involved <less than 100 miles> <an investment of less than $2000> <in 25 words or less> and as likely as fewer to modify periods of time <in less (or fewer) than four hours>.
posted by Kattullus at 11:52 AM on October 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


Astro Zombie: The point of any degree in a college of liberal arts is not to get a job, but to learn how to think critically. To learn how to be a careful reader. To learn the difference between good information and bad information. To learn how to make a case. To learn how to research. To learn different critical methods.

The trouble isn't that there are no jobs for English majors. The trouble is that none of these qualities are in very high demand anymore.


Yes, yes, yes, YES, yes.

However, I have to add (as a college-level instructor) that it's not just that critical thinking isn't in high demand in the workplace, but it isn't even taught in grade or high school anymore. My (university) freshman, intro-level Biology students just wanted the answers, dammit. They didn't want to/couldn't/didn't know how to think critically about anything. Made me want to pull my own teeth out. Hence, re-thought a career as any sort of main-stream educator/instructor/professor.
posted by East Siberian patchbelly wrangler at 11:52 AM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I am always happy to meet an English major. As somebody who worked for two decades as a cashier, I want to throttle any business major I meet, as they are the scourge of the working class.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:54 AM on October 19, 2009 [10 favorites]


Kattullus: I just couldn't help it, in this of all threads.
posted by rusty at 11:54 AM on October 19, 2009


I will also say, as an English Phd candidate currently on the job market, one of the reasons for the difficulty in finding jobs is that there are too. fucking. many. PhDs. And so, so many of them are unqualified. I go to a fairly decent Research 1 institution, with a strong English department. We aren't top 20 or anything, but we also aren't Indiana Basin Silt Community College. And, man, not to sound like an arrogant dick or pretend that I am the most brilliant student ever (because I most definitely am not), but a lot of my fellow students are fucking idiots -- at least when it comes to being literary critics. I have seen work by PhD students that would barely merit a C from me if they were in my English 101 course, let alone some of the more advanced lit courses I have taught. They not only are unable to master the basics of close-reading, but also they have no ability to understand the theories they attempt to apply to literature. And what happens? They get straight A's because grade inflation on the graduate level (at least in the humanities) is WAY worse than it is on the undergrad level. Maybe it is different at places like Harvard, but in my experience few professors are willing to give anything less than an A to a grad student, because they know that 1) it'll hurt their feelings (and no one wants to hurt anyone's feelings) and 2) if they don't have a 4.0, their chances of getting a job will be shot (and no one wants to be responsible for crushing someone else's dreams). You have to truly fuck up monumentally to get a B, let alone a C, in grad class, and even if you do fuck you, you'll probably just take an incomplete and turn in a slightly better piece of shit paper a year later when the professor doesn't care anymore and doesn't have to feel guilty about giving you an undeserved A. Sure, some wither when it's dissertation time, but even then a lot of them push through with crappy work and go out on the market, only to end up with no jobs and 100k of student loan debt or adjuncting at 3 different community colleges to pay rent. It would be a far, far greater service to the field and to these individuals if they were cut much earlier; they wouldn't have to suffer through the rejection of the job market and could move on to something else that they are more suited for, and there wouldn't be a billion people applying for the 50 jobs in any given specialty available each year.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:57 AM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Actually, to follow-up on my last post, here are some things I'd like to see:

-- An business plan contest held by the MLA, similar to the type that routinely helps MBA grads get money for their start-ups. Basically, professors are not entrepreneurs or businessmen and they need to collate ideas on how to survive economically.

-- Find some way to interrelate some of these industries. A few examples that come to mind: grad students can get internships at newspapers and small presses, which would save money for the paper/press and create skill sets for the grad students. A literary arts nonprofit could be housed at a university, opening up that dept for foundation and corporate grants, saving money for the nonprofit, and increased the university's relationship to a public audiences. These aren't perfect, but I just thought of these in the last five minutes. Surely someone actually doing this could come up with something more viable.

-- I want someone to identify how universities can generate earned-income in ways that are unrelated to the current model. For example, if the main value offered by English depts is comp, then there must be a way to better monetize that--for example, open comp classes to students who are not enrolled at the university. Or offer some sort of cheap skill set- demonstrating certificate that might be useful for someone going into, say, marketing. Every business person I talk to asks me if my organization (that's mostly about poetry and literary fiction) offers business writing classes...
posted by johnasdf at 11:58 AM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Astro Zombie: The point of any degree in a college of liberal arts is not to get a job, but to learn how to think critically. To learn how to be a careful reader. To learn the difference between good information and bad information. To learn how to make a case. To learn how to research. To learn different critical methods.

The trouble isn't that there are no jobs for English majors. The trouble is that none of these qualities are in very high demand anymore.


I agree with this, too.

When I was close to completing my Ph.D. in German literature/cultural studies in the early 90s, I realized that I had little passion any longer for my academic work, so I started actively looking for applications of my education outside the academy. I was fortunate and got a job as a computational linguist--a job for which I needed my educational background. I've since moved into more general software development, but the skills mentioned above that I developed in my humanities education have been immensely valuable.

My dissertation supervisor promptly wrote me off because I didn't want to become her, essentially.

I always say: if an undergrad came into her office and asked why he should major in German, my dissertation supervisor would give him the speech above about how the things you learn in the humanities are broadly applicable to any career. But as soon as I decided to apply this reasoning with my then-near Ph.D., I was a pariah to her.

That kind of thinking is partial cause of the decline in question.
posted by tippiedog at 12:03 PM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


I have no idea if you're making a joke with your "true scourge" statement, but I don't see any mention of postmodernism in the article at all. My gloss of the article is that as more and more people started to feel disenfranchised by people dryly teaching the classics to them, they asked for and in many cases received a new variety of texts and methods for interpreting those texts. What was exclusive became inclusive. And, like any private club, once anyone can join, the old times bemoan how it used to be cooler.

This ignores some of the features of the guy's argument, like how universities don't teach composition to everyone and should, and how publish-or-perish minimizes the importance of truly gifted teachers, who are not always truly gifted writers. What's more this is more or less totally false. It would be really nice if that were the way it is, but it really isn't, at least not from any perspective I've been exposed to.

Recently I was one of a few undergraduates consulted by a group of professors who were trying to decide the new direction of our comp. lit. program. They have a new direction in mind: They want to make a new, problem-based curriculum, entirely based on the kind of new tools and new texts you're talking about - whereas the program as it currently exists grapples with textual problems, but also revels in the pleasures offered by Auden, or Aeschylus, or Acker, and the difficult pleasures offered by translation.

My main criticism of their guidelines was that although they were offering what seemed like a smart program, I thought that many of the people who are best at talking about and learning literature are the people that love literature, and that confronting undergraduates from the first with a wall of problems would ruin the pleasure of this thing that they loved.

The moment I started talking about 'pleasure' everyone looked at me like I had just said something truly incomprehensible, and then they changed the subject and really didn't speak to me directly for the remaining duration of the meeting. Afterwards, one of my professors, an older one (one who taught me to love Joyce) said to me: "You can't say words like 'pleasure' around these people."

Read this part again:

"But I know what some of my students sense, that what we do now faces an array of problems, any one of which might prove surmountable, but which together amount to an enervating spectacle."

This is it exactly.

The academics that you imply who aren't down w/ new tools for analyzing literature, and new texts, and a more inclusive student population? They don't really exist. Maybe they do in Oxford. But I don't hear them talk at conferences, and I certainly don't hear their work cited in class discussion. They're in the distant, distant minority.

What he refers to here, and correctly, is the overall disposition in academic literary studies, this now-pervasive idea that in literature we have problems before we have pleasure, if we have pleasure at all. This idea that we must engage in a boxing match with, say, Conrad, and wrest from Conrad some problem that shows the text's lack of perception, or our lack of perception of the text, or our lack of perception of the lack of perception of the text &c. That to call a piece of writing beautiful is something like a carnal sin. That pieces of art lie across some vast demilitarized zone and that the job of a student is primarily to pick up a bayonet and start marching. It's not that the club is open, it's that the club is actually just no fun anymore.
posted by voronoi at 12:06 PM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think another factor in the decline of the portion of American college students going into the English department is that there are other departments that offer similar, but slightly different areas of study. American civ, film, comp. lit. etc.
posted by Kattullus at 12:08 PM on October 19, 2009


I've never been clear why the study of fiction ever gained such a preeminent position in the academy, though it has occurred to me that its rise coincides with the age of mass media and its demise with the age of the Internet and many-to-many communication. Perhaps people are now more interested in writing than reading, in producing rather than consuming.
posted by johnny novak at 12:11 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


generally though, it's the whole problem of the way (we) young people are framing the value of our college experience. I'm not sure how it has changed over the past few generations, but it seems that most students approach college from a technical stance - this major gives me these skills for which I will do this. This kind of viewpoint is super enticing for a young person because it gives them direction, something to be proud of, something they can feel expert in.

I used to be really into pottery and archaeology; I don't know how many people suggested I become an "archaeologist who specializes in ceramics". What a ridiculously narrow focus for someone just starting out in college
posted by Think_Long at 12:11 PM on October 19, 2009


now-pervasive idea that in literature we have problems before we have pleasure, if we have pleasure at all

Why are pleasure and problems mutually exclusive?

This idea that we must engage in a boxing match with, say, Conrad, and wrest from Conrad some problem that shows the text's lack of perception, or our lack of perception of the text, or our lack of perception of the lack of perception of the text &c.

I don't really see this going on, at least as the dominant force in academia. Yes, in the early days of any theoretical movement, there's a certain antagonism driving the project -- early feminist scholars wanted to skewer canonical writers for their sexism and support of patriarchy; early post-colonialists wanted to decry the imperialism of Conrad. But I rarely read anything coming out now that has this kind of angry, militarized attitude. Yes, part of, say, queer theory is to expose heterosexual biases in a particular literary text, but more than that its to demonstrate, for example, how heterosexuality relies upon and is intimate with homosexuality, how homosexuality as a constructed identity can operate in multiple, often contradictory ways, how texts are implicated in sexual ideology while simultaneously offering a place to challenge that ideology. I think the days of the angry second-wave feminist (or whatever other straw-person caricature you want to insert) are mostly over.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:17 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why don't English departments merge with Linguistics departments and create something new and more useful for its students in the marketplace of ideas? Or Communications? Or Business, for that matter. A formalized curriculum of language can help anyone.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:17 PM on October 19, 2009


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of college students more than doubled between 1970 and 2003 (the only two dates he used in the essay). So a drop in English majors from 7.6% to 3.9% represents an increase in the total number of English majors.

The percentage drop might still be a worrisome trend but it doesn't explain why Chace sees "fewer and fewer undergraduates [...] showing up in classrooms, mine and everyone else’s."
posted by Soilcreep at 12:20 PM on October 19, 2009


Saxon Kane - I'm not saying they have to be mutually exclusive (problems and pleasure). They aren't for me. But the way all the undergraduates I know are being taught, you would think they are. Your mileage hopefully varies.
posted by voronoi at 12:21 PM on October 19, 2009


Why don't English departments merge with Linguistics departments and create something new and more useful for its students in the marketplace of ideas? Or Communications? Or Business, for that matter. A formalized curriculum of language can help anyone.

This doesn't make sense to me.

In my experience, please correct me, the English Dept. to Linguistics is like apples to sea cucumbers.
posted by Think_Long at 12:25 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


johnny novak: I've never been clear why the study of fiction ever gained such a preeminent position in the academy

That's a good question. My first response was one of irritation, but I've got my crankypants on today (I'm sorry, rusty!) but after thinking about it a bit, that's a very, very good question. Fiction is a very odd thing. First of all, it's a fairly recent phenomenon, one that arises in Western Europe over the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. Just the concept of it is slightly hard to wrap one's head around, i.e., that there is untruth which is not lies. My one suggestion is that literature and history are the twin pillars of the nation state. The idea was prevalent that a great nation had to have a great history and great literature (e.g. the idea of "the great American novel"). The state needed people to champion the cause of the national literature, i.e. literature professors.

Besides that, fiction a very central idea to western civilization and one that's spread all over the world and is so unquestioned that it's hard even to imagine an era where people struggled with this idea even though it wasn't really that long ago (Daniel Defoe pretended that Robinson Crusoe was a real account, for instance, because he had no category to put his story in).
posted by Kattullus at 12:28 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I was in the Black Studies program. By now, I could have been black." --Woody Allen
posted by gimonca at 12:32 PM on October 19, 2009


but kattullus, aren't you mostly speaking to the novel as a form of literature? Fiction has been around for a lot longer than that, and it is not hemisphere-specific
posted by Think_Long at 12:34 PM on October 19, 2009


I interviewed to study English a while back.

When I mentioned that literature can be used by everyone for their own personal development and exploration, and how any reaction, emotional or other, to a piece of art is valid, both the academics titered and make some disparaging comment on the lines of "Well that may be true for Oprah's Book Club, but here we are more interested in purity."

Part of me still wishes I was studying literature but at the same time I'm very glad I don't have to deal with that sort of douchebag and fit in with what they feel is the 'right' way to read a text.
posted by litleozy at 12:41 PM on October 19, 2009


This has nothing to do with postmodernism or whatever paradigm you care to blame.

As a chair of a humanities department myself, albeit one who's a social scientist, my strong belief is that the future of the humanities entails diminishing the importance of "pure" research and scholarship of any sort in favor of community-based work that is accountable for changing the lives of people other than our direct students (and changes their lives for the involvement). A complete sea change, in which "relevance" is measured by the extent of our engagements in the real world problems of real communities. English could play a leading role in such a movement, along the lines of the role played by the humanities in democratizing British higher education in the post-war years, a role abandoned largely by the humanities disciplines enshrined in America's elite educational institutions.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:46 PM on October 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


Quiller-Couch, was I think the first Professor of English in the UK, appointed in 1912. Before that the humanities were dominated by study of the Classics, something which has all but died out.

I suppose the high-water mark for the study was a generation later with Leavis, an overtly political critic and supporter of amongst others D H Lawrence.

The shift represents in some way the rise of the educated working class of whom D H Lawrence was an exemplar.

Perhaps the study of English was more about ownership of the political narrative, than the aesthetic.
posted by johnny novak at 12:47 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think it's worth pointing out that generic "business" degrees and programs are not much more useful than liberal arts degrees, and I'm not sure—if you had a way of factoring out individual differences (what jobs a person is willing to take)—that they'd necessarily be that much more employable than traditional liberal arts discipines.

I had a conversation with a bunch of HR people recently that drifted into this topic. They mostly all agreed that given the choice between two people with an equivalent level of education (bachelor's, master's, etc.), they would rather have a liberal arts degree than a very generic "business" degree, because at least the guy with the liberal arts degree "knows that he doesn't know a damn thing." There was a lot of hate for MBAs without work experience, too.

The business degrees that they liked weren't general ones, they were highly specialized pre-professional programs. Except that they sometimes get offered (for what amounts at this point to be mostly historical reasons) by the same institutions that also offer general-knowledge and liberal arts degrees, I'm not even sure they're the same 'product.'

Where the problems begin is when people confuse the two, or when liberal arts schools and departments try to market themselves to students whose main interest in college is to increase their job prospects and future salary potential. Down this road likes pain for everyone involved: students are going to be displeased when they find out that a BA in English doesn't translate into job offers in the same way a professional program might have, and departments are going to be pushed to include things in their curricula that they don't want to teach.

A true liberal arts education without any job-training component is — perhaps sadly, but let's be realistic here — the province of students who can afford to spend several years of their lives and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on self-improvement. That includes two groups, as far as I can see: one are the children of the rich, and two are successful adults who already have a job, but want a better, more well-rounded education. Liberal arts colleges have traditionally only catered to the first group; the second seems totally neglected.

Maybe if they started reaching out to less traditional students they'd be able to pay the bills without trying to convince students interested in job training that an English degree is a good alternative.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:54 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've never been clear why the study of fiction ever gained such a preeminent position in the academy,

Maybe I'm misreading, or misunderstanding, but why wouldn't it? Humans are storytellers, and have been since long before writing was invented. What stories we tell and how we present them says a lot about us (in the context of where/when/how those stories are told/reproduced).
posted by rtha at 12:55 PM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


intro-level Biology students just wanted the answers, dammit.

20 years ago I went to a high school and college that worked hard to get us to think critically. It probably worked pretty well. (English minor. Enjoyed it very much.) But I can tell you as a student, we did not like being told that we had to think critically and then get mediocre marks on our English paper because it wasn't "quite what the professor was looking for." During study groups and such, it basically became a game to see who could figure out what the professor really wanted, so that we could do better on our tests and papers. We were criticized for "just wanting the answers, damnit," but we didn't know of any other way to get better grades.

A related issue was that except for a couple of brilliant students with photographic memories and/or a preference for cocaine, we just did not have the room in our brains to both think critically and also do all the rest of the work that was required of us. We were completely overloaded with work and chastised by every professor in their department (math, English, history, etc.) for not making their class a priority. Even without a college social life, there was just no way we could give each subject the time it rightfully deserved. ("Be curious!" our beginning Italian teacher yelled at us when we didn't know the complete history of Florence [before the internet]). You know what? We don't have time to think critically! We have to cut corners somewhere. The requirements that you and this school have given us aren't doable! We have to survive, you know, so please just help us do that.

That was 20 years ago, when our knapsacks weren't as heavy as the ones students have now. I can't imagine the strain they are under to do everything right for everyone.
posted by Melismata at 1:14 PM on October 19, 2009 [10 favorites]


...two groups...one are the children of the rich, and two are successful adults who already have a job, but want a better, more well-rounded education. Liberal arts colleges have traditionally only catered to the first group; the second seems totally neglected.

On the subway, I've recently seen ads for, of all things, a non-credit Humanities school pitched at adult students and professionals. Where there's a niche...
posted by Iridic at 1:17 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


we did not like being told that we had to think critically and then get mediocre marks on our English paper because it wasn't "quite what the professor was looking for."

That can be a problem, but just as often why students get mediocre marks is not because they didn't reproduce exactly what the professor thinks but because they are unable to demonstrate in their papers that they are actually thinking critically in order to get to whatever thesis they are trying to present. I will give an A to a student who disagrees with me 100% on a particular interpretation but is able to make a smart case for it, but not to one who can restate my thesis but not "show their work" when it comes to arguing for it.
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:24 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


a non-credit Humanities school pitched at adult students and professionals

Interesting! I didn't know anyone was making an effort to go after adult students who weren't looking just for additional job training.

The closest thing I'd heard about was a retirement/"active adult" community near Penn State in State College that has, as one of its perks, the ability to audit classes at the University without cost. That struck me as pretty neat, and something that would probably bring some interesting perspectives into classes that you normally wouldn't get in a room full of teens and early-20s students.

My suspicion is that there are a lot of people around who would really like a well-rounded, traditional liberal arts education, but that immediately after highschool is just about the worst time for many to actually get it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:28 PM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


the English Dept. to Linguistics is like apples to sea cucumbers.

I did both in undergrad and decided to follow neither into a Masters degree but I found that my studies of semantics and my studies of postmodern blabityblah actually sort of informed each other fairly well. Linguistics is sort of broad, so parts of it have a lot to do with literature and parts have very little to do with it.
posted by jessamyn at 1:30 PM on October 19, 2009


With Wikipedia and Sparks notes, who needs to wallow in lit and lit crit for 2 full years?\
posted by Postroad at 1:57 PM on October 19, 2009


I think this is quite US specific. I'd need to google numbers, but I understand that the popularity of English Lit is holding up fine in UK HE for instance
posted by A189Nut at 1:58 PM on October 19, 2009


Linguistics is sort of broad, so parts of it have a lot to do with literature and parts have very little to do with it.

I believe it. based on my limited experience they are very divergent, but it is very very limited.
posted by Think_Long at 1:59 PM on October 19, 2009


English could play a leading role in such a movement, along the lines of the role played by the humanities in democratizing British higher education in the post-war years, a role abandoned largely by the humanities disciplines enshrined in America's elite educational institutions.

fourcheesemac, could you elaborate for those of us not so familiar with British higher-ed history?

And I will second the comment earlier on getting jobs w/ an English degree; I think to the outside world, it's an advantage for many jobs because it suggests that I can spell, write, and follow directions; a surprising number of people struggle with these requirements in your average office job.

At this point in my career, it's a check-box, "liberal arts degree", and my subsequent experience is of much more interest to new employers. If I wanted more jobs to choose from, I could go get an advanced degree in education, or business, or what have you, with relatively little fuss. English degrees are the Type O of college degrees.

I did not know there was a hate for business degree types among HR departments, but that does make me feel better, as I certainly had more fun getting my degree than I would have a business degree.
posted by emjaybee at 2:14 PM on October 19, 2009


All my students who are pre-business think that they are going to go straight from their BA to a position as a CEO or the next Bill Gates. I don't have the heart to tell them that they will be 60hr/week cogs in the middle management machine.

No, that's not true, I do have the heart, I just don't have tenure.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:23 PM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


I originally wrote a long-ass rant about Literature == Rhetoric but I think all I really wanted to do was bitch about my junior-level Lit course on Kafka. Taught by a self-professed militant Zionist with NRA literature tacked to his office door, this guy managed to take something as sublime and rich as Kafka and turn it in to a series of Zionist pamphlets dressed up as modern-day Jewish parables. As in, Kafka was, literally, a Jewish prophet sent by G-d to guide the chosen people through the coming Holocaust. This being the crowning event in a series of run-ins with English Department People that started with doing some ill-advised, forced, color symbolism analysis of Ordinary People in 10th grade English.

I am an avid reader. I currently read about one novel a month (or more when I have time) and re-read many works several times. My tastes are varied. I enjoy thinking critically about the content and presentation of a given work. I love book discussions. I am, in short, what I imagine to be the English department's key demographic and yet my experiences with said culture have done more to put me off reading than any of the crap fiction I've slogged through because I cannot put a book down once I pick it up.

This is why English departments are in the crapper. IMO
posted by Fezboy! at 2:53 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think there are some bits of faulty logic at play here.

The article can't help but recall the "glory days" of liberal arts education when college was a luxury reserved for the privileged few. What one studied matter little; that one studied was the necessary preparation for assuming one's position in a job befitting one's social standing. Of course the Boston Brahman are going to study English literature while at Harvard. They'll be taking over at daddy's company later on. Technical proficiency in the career will be gained there, not in the Yard.

That colleges are increasingly populated by middle-class students, and that colleges are increasingly expensive means that these students do not have the luxury of devoting themselves to liberal arts study.

All sorts of interesting trends can be noted in higher education. More and more people study religion at the university level. Why? Because we're becoming more religious? Hardly. Because past generations at Yale had their fill of religion while at St. Paul's. Today's Yale student is much more likely to have come from a middle class family in Iowa. That student is less likely to have already studied religion in an academic context.

I agree that the decline of interest in the humanities is lamentable. But as we pull more and more people out of poverty and shower fewer and fewer resources on the idle rich, this will, alas, be the invariable consequence.

As an aside, all colleges need to be doing more to prepare their students for careers. I don't mean becoming vocational schools. But when Goldman Sachs and McKinsey send recruiters to Harvard year after year, the typical scared senior will find the transition into those careers much easier. There are no recruiters for "Being a Writer!" or "Self-Discovery!" I think colleges assume alot more courage and self-direction than many of my generation may actually find themselves possessing. A little guidance would go a long way.
posted by jefficator at 2:59 PM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yeah, a lot of the comments here touch on this, but I think the big thing the author fails to touch on is:

-- College has become a very expensive vocational degree. It's a hoop you have to jump through to get a white collar job. Not all such jobs, there are still other avenues. But most. Being that this is the case, you get a much broader swathe of people going to college. More practical people.

--- It used to be the college was an elite experience, one that was necessary for entrance to the elite. Inasmuch as it was so, then the education could be an elite education, one focused on giving the student a well-rounded understanding on the broad basis of our culture, a knowledge of its history, its literature, its art and its science. That's the kind of education you want your cultural leaders to have.

The English Department is never coming back.

Speaking for myself, I was struck by the recent article in the Washington Monthly --- I think college will be the next major cultural institution to be destroyed by the internet. It jus makes too much sense --- a campus exists in order to concentrate scarce resources (books, smart people) that may now be accessed from anywhere for free, or nearly so. Why therefore would I pay $30,000 to 60,000 a year to sit in a classroom and live in a dorm? Not that Harvard's going anywhere anytime soon, and people will certainly be slower to dump the leaf-strewn quad than they were to ditch the CD player when better tech came out, simply because the attached prestige will linger. But ulitimately the money will talk. Inasmuch as the purpose of a class is to deliver a given set of knowledge or skills to a small group in a supervized setting, all that can be done much more cheaply and just about as well over the web. The rest is just set dressing.
posted by Diablevert at 3:05 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Waffle Waitress: What U readin’ for?
Bill Hicks: !?!? …. What am I reading ….for?

“The point of any degree in a college of liberal arts is not to get a job, but to learn how to think critically.”

Yep. More than just demand in society, critical thought seems to be completely counterproductive to ‘success.’ And indeed, seem a curse to living in the modern age.
I’m reminded of the Viking who caught all kinds of crap from the other Vikings because he wouldn’t kill children.
Æskil: ‘Sven Skullbreaker, pfft, what a pussy.’
Hrolf: ‘Don’t let him hear you say that, he’ll eat your guts.’
Æskil: ‘Yeah, unless I were a child! HA HA HA ‘ *uproarious laughter *
Sven: ‘Aww, cut it out guys or I’ll cut your kneecaps off.’
Bjorn: ‘Yah, our kiddy kneecaps!’
Sven: *hacks Bjorn’s face in with an axe *
*uproarious laughter *

Disheartening time to have any degree of introspection.
I developed my appreciation for classical music a while back. Got me nothing but quizzical looks.
Mentioned to someone I was going to hit the gym. They asked me why.
…seriously. Why – was I exercising? Not on the 'why be healthy, why be fit, etc - but - why do it when there's no visible direct benefit...plus, hey, you gotta pay to work out?
How do you answer that knowing there’s no common reality perspective you share?
(Back to the Future 3 -' Run for fun? ...what the hell kind of fun is that?')

Same thing with this, I’ve gained a tremendous amount of vicarious experience and have a storehouse of ideas that would be impossible to gain from concrete experience. And yet, it’s been very useful. Studying history alone has vastly improved my understanding. Shakespeare has more to say about human affairs than any number of studies I've read.

And yet – can’t make no money from it, what good is it? What’chu thinkin’ fer?
Yeah, well, things being what they are, it’s not an invalid question. But I understand it says the same thing in ecclesiastes so it’s an old issue….
posted by Smedleyman at 3:09 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think college will be the next major cultural institution to be destroyed by the internet.

I was shocked when in the UK to learn that many of the leading institutions there offer full-credit degree programs online.

I doubt seriously that college will be obliterated by the internet. Quite the contrary, I wonder whether the internet will cause college to return to a time-away for the upper echelons of society?
posted by jefficator at 3:13 PM on October 19, 2009


My dissertation supervisor promptly wrote me off because I didn't want to become her, essentially.

I always say: if an undergrad came into her office and asked why he should major in German, my dissertation supervisor would give him the speech above about how the things you learn in the humanities are broadly applicable to any career. But as soon as I decided to apply this reasoning with my then-near Ph.D., I was a pariah to her.


Unfortunately, this sort of attitude is widespread within academia. I've often heard staff have an exchange where one asks "What ever happened to X?" or "Which institution is X working at now?" to hear the other reply, "Oh, they left science / academia" followed by a short sorrowful, silence. It's as if the person in question died.

Despite any lip service to the contrary, graduate study is overwhelming aimed at producing (potential) lecturers or professors. Hence the runaway bubble of postdocs and adjuncts, and hence the bad employment prospects for those that do aim for a career in academia.
posted by outlier at 3:17 PM on October 19, 2009


I think college will be the next major cultural institution to be destroyed by the internet.

Then you've never been to an engineering department. And I don't mean computer science. I mean the machine shop and that two-story-tall hydraulic press that the civvies use to test crush points of concrete blocks the size of semi trucks.

The internet has and will continue to change the university experience extensively but "destroy" is a pretty strong word.
posted by GuyZero at 3:18 PM on October 19, 2009


I graduated from college not so long ago and saw nary a sign of post-modernism, despite getting a BA in philosophy and taking quite a few classes in the English department.

The only post-modernism I see today is in conservative politics, where any text can be interpreted in whatever way the reader desires. So, for example, Medicare reimbursement for an end-of-life consultation with your doctor is creatively interpreted as a government death panel, and that's just as valid as the interpretation that it's a means of determining your wishes while you are still able to communicate them.

Meanwhile, conservative legal theory, as espoused by Antonin Scalia, holds that the truth can never be known, so if you've had a trial (no matter how badly run), the issue is settled, no matter what the "evidence" may show.

Perhaps all the English majors have joined the Republican Party, and that's why the university English departments are left empty.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:33 PM on October 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


I doubt seriously that college will be obliterated by the internet. Quite the contrary, I wonder whether the internet will cause college to return to a time-away for the upper echelons of society?

Why?

Then you've never been to an engineering department. And I don't mean computer science. I mean the machine shop and that two-story-tall hydraulic press that the civvies use to test crush points of concrete blocks the size of semi trucks.

The internet has and will continue to change the university experience extensively but "destroy" is a pretty strong word.


Why not? I mean, when I say destroy I mean destroy in the same way that the cassette tape/CD desrtroyed the LP. Vinly still exists and in produced, and an elite subset of the music-consuming audience prefers it. I think Harvard and Oxford and so forth will still be around, sure. But all the small liberal arts colleges and the lesser state schools? Those whose name and repuation do not themselves confer a premium? They cost damn near as much, and people are going broke trying to pay for them...I was perhaps a trifle glib to say books and people were the scare resources that a university concetrates. Labs and machine shops and other things can also be so, and it may yet remain necessary for the student to be physically present to understand the lessons that may be learned there. But I suppose my question would be, are such things subsidizing the college, or subsidized by them? Becuase I'm thinking it's the tutition of the business majors with their macro 101 text books and copies of Who Moved My Cheese which are secretly funding the $10,000,000 neurobiology labs. Well, them and corporate sponsors. Take away the business and humanities types, and it seems to me quite possible and likely that the businesses may step in....
posted by Diablevert at 3:56 PM on October 19, 2009


Perhaps people are now more interested in writing than reading, in producing rather than consuming.

You can't be a good writer without having a decent amount of reading under your belt.
posted by jason's_planet at 3:59 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


fourcheesemac: As a chair of a humanities department myself, albeit one who's a social scientist, my strong belief is that the future of the humanities entails diminishing the importance of "pure" research and scholarship of any sort in favor of community-based work that is accountable for changing the lives of people other than our direct students (and changes their lives for the involvement).

I think that this sort of practicalization freaks a lot of academics out, and they've been pushing back. For example, James Ladyman has recently started a petition against the British government which has been making a bit of a splash; I keep seeing it referenced in various places. Here's the proclamation that people are putting their name to:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to allocate funds for academic research solely on the basis of academic excellence and not on the basis of 'impact' or the judgements of 'users'.

Isn't that absurdly strong? I can understand them not wanting funds to be distributed solely on the basis of impact, but not based on impact at all? I'm pretty sure that if you think that some project has a chance of curing cancer you should give it more money than you otherwise would. Still, the petition is accumulating signatories like nobody's business.

What makes Ladyman's petition especially funny to me is that academic funding plays a center role in his most recent book. In the book, Ladyman and Ross want to do away with the sorts of speculative metaphysics that many philosophers engage in, so they suggest that a criterion for whether a metaphysical question is good or not: if it conceivable that a science funding board would allocate funds to a study of your question, then it is a good question. Otherwise it's not.

By creating a petition to influence how funds are allocated, Ladyman is, by his own criterion, trying to make it such that the questions he studies are not metaphysical nonsense!
posted by painquale at 4:00 PM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


But there's also been a rise in Ethnic Studies departments, Gender Studies, Women's Studies, Africana Studies, American Civilization Studies, Middleeastern Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, Queer Studies, Hispanic Studies...

Methinks this has something to do with the increasing frustration of "English" supposedly encompassing everything worth reading in literature but actually meaning White and/or British studies. Maybe they should just call it that.
posted by lunit at 4:06 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've never been clear why the study of fiction ever gained such a preeminent position in the academy, though it has occurred to me that its rise coincides with the age of mass media and its demise with the age of the Internet and many-to-many communication.

People have been studying narrative in earnest for millennia. In 400 B.C., Aristophanes could hang a popular comedy on the contemporary controversy around Euripidean psychological realism.

If more people began studying literature around the beginning of the age of mass media, it's because a lot more people began studying around the beginning of the age of mass media. It's just correlation.
posted by Iridic at 4:48 PM on October 19, 2009


I think that this sort of practicalization freaks a lot of academics out,

Damn right it does. That's what makes it the radical vision it is: from the most esoteric and notionally "useless" activities that are the stereotype of "humanities" fields to deeply engaged activist research addressing real world problems is a big leap. It requires a generational turnover, an outreach to a different kind of student and a new constituency.

I chair a humanities department, as I said -- a top 10 department in the field, at an elite top university. Our PhD students get jobs at a pretty decent rate; the students who work in my program, however, are getting jobs and competing for funding in a much broader universe of disciplines, fields, and applied specialties than even a decade ago. My own work is deeply community based and oriented. When I advise PhD students now, question one for any dissertation is: what good is it going to do to know this or that answer to this or that question? How will you leverage your knowledge, credibility, and credentialed status to improve the lives of the communities in which you work? We make the research problem of every PhD dissertation topic be accountable to such questions as part of the basic process. And we attract activist students as a result. But moving beyond the idiotic notion that a politics of representation was a substitute for a politics of action also entails doing serious, scholarly, disciplined research, accountable to facts as well as problems. We don't have time for hand-wringing about the state of the humanities, the colonialist history of the disciplines, etc. Enough reflexivity already!

Get useful, or get out of the way.

Or as the Man said, the philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:52 PM on October 19, 2009 [12 favorites]


"I will give an A to a student who disagrees with me..."

Please recognize that you, as an instructor with your students' interests in mind, are far and away exceptional in this respect. Please don't be disappointed or take it personally if your students assume automatically that you are otherwise, as most of their other instructors want parrots, not minds.
posted by majick at 5:04 PM on October 19, 2009


yet my experiences with said culture a crappy instructer have done more to put me off reading than any of the crap fiction I've slogged through

FTFY.

Please recognize that you, as an instructor with your students' interests in mind, are far and away exceptional in this respect. Please don't be disappointed or take it personally if your students assume automatically that you are otherwise, as most of their other instructors want parrots, not minds.

While I would love to think of myself as exceptional, I can't take that sort of credit. Maybe I've been lucky, but I haven't had many instructors in my BA, MA or PhD experiences that are looking for parrots. Sure, there are some in my department -- I even know who they are -- but most faculty, while they want you to be able to master the concepts & material that they are teaching, are looking for students to simply regurgitate them. They want the students to understand the content, understand how it works, and be able to go through the same sorts of intellectual moves on their own.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:29 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thinks it's all becuase good Harris Tweed sport coats became so hard to find. And expensive.

And when you did find Harris Tweed people give you shit becuase the elbow patches are leather made from some poor near-sentient mammal. So then you switched to Corduroy sport coats with wool patches on the elbows. And you make that annoying"swishswooshswishswoosh" sound when you walk.

And becuase of this noise you can't hide from your dumb TA's when you want to. And they chase you around the department like puppies asking you about Achilles and "Define hubris?" they ask, only they say HEEE-YOU-BREEE. "Swishswooshswishswooshswishswooshswishswoosh"

Not to mention all the static electricity you pick up walking across campus on those cold fall mornings that you shock yourself when you open the car door of your 1979 Saab. ZZZhrt! Which shorts your Volvo, or maybe it's the battery, so you gotta call that creepy Campus security guy for a jump who asks you what you thought of some Tom Clancy novel you never read. ZZZhrt! You spill the coffee you had in your other hand, which was really 78% cheap Canadian Scotch.

Finally you scream pounding the wheel of your 1970 Saab that why the FUCK can't I buy Harris Tweed anymore becuase I won't, I just WON'T wear pile fleece. I mean. My god. What am I? A fucking Earth Sciences department professor or something?
posted by tkchrist at 6:00 PM on October 19, 2009 [18 favorites]


painquale - that petition is probably against the RAE - the research assessment exercise - which is a very specific, and very stupid, system of assessing "impact". The RAE tries to force all research into one model of research and publishing, whether it makes sense or not. I'm sure it's had different detrimental effects in every discipline; I just know History -- and in History, the RAE has been very detrimental to the quality of research, as it privledges quantity over quality.
posted by jb at 7:06 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Diablevert, if the only argument for the internet rendering college obsolete is that the internet is cheaper, then I don't see why the 20th century's proliferation of public libraries isn't a fairly strong counterexample.
posted by Beardman at 7:33 PM on October 19, 2009


Saab. Volvo. 1979. 1970. It's all ball bearings these days.
posted by tkchrist at 8:15 PM on October 19, 2009


Re: Internet education.

This requires very strong motivation and discipline on the part of the student, something that most college kids are not known for. Most people need someone standing over them, handing out deadlines.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:58 PM on October 19, 2009


I bailed out of a PhD program in English when I realized just how esoteric the "hot shit" work was becoming. In relative terms I was a conservative, in the sense that I majored in English as an undergraduate primarily out of an interest in creative writing myself and then decided without all that much thought to get into a PhD program since I had the grades and the GRE scores for a top-ten program. So I figured hey, pick an era or a group of authors, read all of the stuff about them, then put together a thesis. But my advisers (when they had time for me) were pretty straightforward as to how I needed some sort of an angle that jibed with one of a few contemporary strands of cultural or identity theory to sell myself. And that's fine, but I just didn't feel the need to be a part of that club any longer. The cultural studies of England in the 1980's have effectively displaced a major part of American English departments, to the extent that English departments really should change their names to departments of critical and cultural theory. Take those intro. to English literature classes that so many departments sell undergrads on, where the "naive" enjoyment of literature for the sake of itself remains vital, and teach those courses in history departments.

So I guess I'm a touch bitter about it all, but it was an eye-opener that my program to admit up front that they only got people two or three "real" (i.e., tenure track) jobs per year but accepted 15 to 20 candidates to plug their holes for teaching freshmen comp. (They could pay us 12K/year to do it without benefits, as opposed to hiring experienced, fully credentialed teachers. Did I mention this was a top-ten school for English lit.?)

An MA in English has been perfect for me since teaching English abroad is probably one of the few fields where it really carries some weight any longer. And I made a few connections into the worlds of magazine writing and poetry which suits me fine. When I hear about the likely death of English departments I get a little nostalgic -- I really enjoyed my time doing it as an undergraduate, but it was also an incredible privilege. As much as I enjoyed my own experiences I can't imagine the world will be any poorer in cultural or educational terms when kids realize their life will be a lot easier with any number of other practical degrees.

I remember my then girlfriend's father back in the early 90's, a very successful DC policy wonk type of guy, telling me that as long as I had a solid liberal arts degree from a good college I would have all sorts of opportunities to do anything and make a lot of money doing so. Hard to believe that was less than two decades ago.

I do think studying English for so many years made me a strong writer but hey, that's such a subjective thing anyways. And in some ways a more developed and critically aware writing style is precisely what employers don't want these days. Or to paraphrase Chris Farley, "Oh, it's little Billy Shakespeare!"
posted by bardic at 9:19 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


just how esoteric the "hot shit" work was becoming

The study of literature has always been esoteric -- it's been a field for the elite. One of the purposes of critical theory has been to challenge the ideological control of literature exercised by the upper classes. The problem is, though, as many have said, the divide between the rarified language of theorists and putting the radical intentions of their work into practice in the real world.

Take those intro. to English literature classes that so many departments sell undergrads on, where the "naive" enjoyment of literature for the sake of itself remains vital, and teach those courses in history departments.

If the history professors and grad students I have been exposed to are any indication, the vast majority of these courses would be exercises in plot summary. They don't know how to read poetry -- although, unfortunately, many grad students in English don't either.

I can't imagine the world will be any poorer in cultural or educational terms when kids realize their life will be a lot easier with any number of other practical degrees.

I absolutely disagree with this. Mario Savio said it better than I ever could:

"The 'futures' and 'careers' for which American students now prepare are for the most part intellectual and moral wastelands. This chrome-plated consumers' paradise would have us grow up to be well-behaved children. But an important minority of men and women coming to the front today have shown they will die rather than be standardized, replaceable, and irrelevant."
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:16 PM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm sure all these more abstract aspects play into it to an extent, but ultimately do we really need any other excuse at all beyond the expense of getting a four year diploma today? Back when i had just started college I used to watch Noah Baumbach's "Kicking and Screaming" and take some comfort in Eric Stoltz's decision to be a "career student", but is that remotely practical these days, or is it not more likely that if you're going to college at all chances are you play on trying to maximize that into a lucrative career? For God's sake, I hear of people racking up $100,000 in debt to go to culinary school these days.
posted by squeakyfromme at 10:17 PM on October 19, 2009


"One of the purposes of critical theory has been to challenge the ideological control of literature exercised by the upper classes."

But it wasn't about literature any longer. English departments became a dumping ground for cultural studies and film studies. Or to be more polite, they took on projects that clearly belonged in other fields. About half the people getting jobs in my highly anecdotal experience were doing explicitly non-literary studies under the auspices of English departments.

"They don't know how to read poetry -- although, unfortunately, many grad students in English don't either."

Of course. Basic abilities in scansion were derided in my experience, not to mention the ability to engage in a more than rudimentary exposition of plot, theme, imagery, etc. Actually reading and engaging primary sources as opposed to the surrounding theoretical cloud, or even disregarding books all together and studying non-literary cultural phenomena were the norm.

And Mario Savio is ridiculous. Personally, I cherish the opportunities I had to spend a lot of time with big, long books. But it isn't for everyone, and it's the height of condescension to say that friends of mine whose passions are for computers or biology aren't as "enriched" as I was. Or to put it another way, the path to critical thinking doesn't have to come through literature, necessarily. Although it can, and this was my take on how English departments could still sell themselves in time of decreased attention spans. At the same time, English departments did themselves no favors by deciding that literature, their defining source of meaning, was really just on the same level as comic books, movies, and romance novels.
posted by bardic at 10:46 PM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


When I studied Eng lit 25 years ago the same literature v theory debate was going on, and even then the idea that students should read the poetry and not bother their heads with any new fangled theories was old fashioned. If the question is how to get people intertested in literature as an academic subject, surely one answer is to show them that literature is fascinating because there are so many different approaches to it.

Speaking for myself I odn't think anyone should be allowed to "study" business - I can't imagine anything more boring or less worthwhile as an academic subject.
posted by Major Tom at 1:59 AM on October 20, 2009


(Albeit no explicit blame to the true scourge: postmodernism and the relativity of it all…).
I think the grammar and punctuation national socialists cull a far greater percentage of potential enthusiasts way upstream resulting in a type that favors the correct and the very idea of correctness at the expense of the imaginative from there on.
English teachers, more than any other teachers, love their craft to death.* Not sure about English teachers of english though.

(In fact, Im going to take this opportunity to call for an apostrophe strike and a capitalization Monkey-Wrenching. Write-around-the-apostrophe Brothers And Sisters Unite! ' Others please join in support or just because its fun. )

*Mefi english teachers excluded of course because you dont do this now do you.
posted by vapidave at 3:26 AM on October 20, 2009


"When I studied Eng lit 25 years ago the same literature v theory debate was going on"

But I'd argue a fundamental shift occured during the 1990's. It isn't "lit vs. theory" any longer. It's "theory vs. comic books, 'Battlestar Galactica' episodes, and Lady Gaga."

I guess I'd go out on a limb and argue that at least the "hardcore" theorism of the 80's and beyond was arguably a better thing than what English departments have now, which really isn't English, or literature for that matter. I think a lot of college English departments would have a hard time stating just what they do that's so special any longer, not to mention why they should be funded.

Do I sound like an old fuddy-duddy? I really don't mean to sound like an old fuddy-duddy. But you could get a BA in English in many reputable departments these days and not read many books of literature or theory. I'd consider that a problem, especially for the department heads who have to justify their existences on an annual basis.
posted by bardic at 3:36 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Unless/until people start dealing honestly with the utterly massive overproduction of PhDs and the culpability of graduate programs in same over the last 3 decades, I remain sympathetic to but cynical about the mounring over the English department. I've been there, and I left for greener pastures too.

In other news, his private/public higher ed dichotomy is 19th C lunacy.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:39 AM on October 20, 2009


yet my experiences with said culture a crappy instructer have done more to put me off reading than any of the crap fiction I've slogged through

FTFY.

Comprehension is not your strong point I take it. Let me help you out by quoting later in that same paragraph:

[My experience with the Kafka professor] being the crowning event in a series of run-ins with English Department People that started with doing some ill-advised, forced, color symbolism analysis of Ordinary People in 10th grade English.

Emphasis placed to assist your comprehension. So, no, you didn't fix that for me you smug bastard. You obfuscated it to fit whatever predetermined path you wanted to take the conversation and in the process became yet another example of English Department People and said culture's modus operandi.
posted by Fezboy! at 5:25 AM on October 20, 2009


Apologies for the tone and personal attack there. Posting this early in the morning is not a good idea and I will refrain from doing it in the future.
posted by Fezboy! at 5:37 AM on October 20, 2009


Diablevert, if the only argument for the internet rendering college obsolete is that the internet is cheaper, then I don't see why the 20th century's proliferation of public libraries isn't a fairly strong counterexample.

You can't get a degree from a library because a library doesn't come with instructors who monitor your progress, test your comprehension and confirm that you have absorbed the necessary knowledge of the subject. In order to complete these requirements, pre-internet, you pretty much needed to concentrate a bunch of smart people and students in one physical space, so they could attend lectures, take tests, hand in papers and read rare books related to their subject. The internet breaks the model by providing the means to complete the necessary pedagogical tasks without needing to bring teachers and students to the same place.

Indeed, libraries themselves are increasingly making efforts to expand their social role well beyond helping people find books and do research, into things like hosting classes, job search centers, and providing internet access. Because the day is coming when you'll be able to access the info in the books online, with a much vaster selection than any individual library could hope to hold. I love the NYPL and I think it'll be around for many years to come. But I also think that in five years or so, if not today, any actual research I might care to do on an obscure subject will be better done on the internet, because there will be tens of millions of books with searchable text online.

Breaking the relationship between a physical location or object and access to the information it contained is the essence of what the internet does. Any institution or industry which depends upon selling those objects or providing that access is threatened by it. It's just that some of them haven't realized it yet. The musicians may end up having the last laugh --- people still value and will pay for live performance as a worthwhile experience in itself.
posted by Diablevert at 6:38 AM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Don't blame me! I was an English major, married and English major...and now have two (possibly three) kids enrolled as English majors.
posted by VicNebulous at 6:40 AM on October 20, 2009


Saxon Kane: "[Quoting Savio:] 'But an important minority of men and women coming to the front today have shown they will die rather than be standardized, replaceable, and irrelevant.'"

That's well and good, but the problem I've seen is that many students aren't made explicitly aware of what they're signing up for. They thought they were going to read the classics, learn to write, and have a degree that's worth something in the job market, not become cannon fodder in some sort of cultural revolution.

Not everyone is interested in being a martyr.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:04 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Emperor SnooKlooze: Unless/until people start dealing honestly with the utterly massive overproduction of PhDs and the culpability of graduate programs in same over the last 3 decades

Actually, studies* show that there hasn't been that big of a change from 1970 (from just under 30 thousand to just over 40 thousand) and that most of that change has come in the biological sciences, health sciences, computer and information sciences and psychology.


* Couldn't find anything more recent than for 2000.
posted by Kattullus at 7:33 AM on October 20, 2009


Kadin2048: have a degree that's worth something in the job market

I don't know if you're specifically talking about English PhDs or are including MAs and BAs too, but, to quote that study I linked to way up at the beginning at this thread, "contrary to rumors of rampant joblessness, only 39, or about 5%, of respondents in English were not in the paid workforce in December 1995 (table 5). However, only five people, less than 1% of respondents, were unemployed in the traditional economic sense of being involuntarily out of work and seeking work. Fourteen of those not working did not give an explanation for this, but it is probable that most of these women were caretakers since, in another section of the survey, they reported having small children. Twelve people, all women, were retired, many of them former high school teachers who started graduate school in midlife because they enjoyed literature."
posted by Kattullus at 7:38 AM on October 20, 2009


The 'less v. fewer' issue grates on my eardrums to the degree that I am driven to listen to Steve Somers on New York's WFAN talk about sports teams for which, as a New Englander, I have little enthusiasm. His sports talk uses slang to spice up the English, rather than supplant it.

Sometimes though, he forgets to use 'about' between the word 'talk' and the Subject talked about. Then I sigh and hit the scan button.
posted by drowsy at 8:48 AM on October 20, 2009


The internet breaks the model by providing the means to complete the necessary pedagogical tasks without needing to bring teachers and students to the same place...Breaking the relationship between a physical location or object and access to the information it contained is the essence of what the internet does. Any institution or industry which depends upon selling those objects or providing that access is threatened by it.

If you admit that online learning still requires "instructors who monitor your progress, test your comprehension and confirm that you have absorbed the necessary knowledge of the subject", then we must just be talking about online courses that aren't affiliated with universities (since those that are tend to pay the instructors just as much as for normal courses). In order to make such courses reputable enough to attract students, you have to make those jobs attractive to people with good credentials. And in order to do that, you need to compete with traditional universities in terms of pay, benefits, etc. And to do that, you need to start charging the students quite a bit. Maybe not as much as for a 'real' university, you're right, but I'm just thinking that overcoming the space barrier might not make as drastic a difference as you suggest. But who knows...
posted by Beardman at 10:01 AM on October 20, 2009


Kattullus: "I don't know if you're specifically talking about English PhDs or are including MAs and BAs too, but, to quote that study I linked to way up at the beginning at this thread, "contrary to rumors of rampant joblessness, only 39, or about 5%, of respondents in English were not in the paid workforce in December 1995 (table 5). […]""

I was actually thinking mostly about BAs, not MAs or PhD's, because that's the level at which I know the most people and have the most personal experience. I agree with you to some extent—I think the employment situation for people with a liberal arts background is sometimes a bit exaggerated (total unemployment, starvation, cannibalism, etc.), and I was getting at this in my earlier comment regarding a discussion I had with some people working in corporate HR. There's no active dislike of the liberal arts, it's just not desired as much as specialized pre-professional programs that fit neatly into a job role.

I don't know how Masters or PhD programs in English really sell themselves to prospective students, but it was definitely the case when I was an undergrad that the department at my college really oversold itself in terms of applicability in getting a job. I used to routinely hear the same kind of stuff that balric describes ("as long as I had a solid liberal arts degree from a good college I would have all sorts of opportunities to do anything and make a lot of money doing so"); it was an exaggeration then and it's certainly one now.

You can't sell a program to prospective students as a good resume line, and then pursue a curriculum that explicitly rejects, almost as a point of honor, anything that resembles job training, and not expect a lot of disappointment after Graduation.

The situation isn't as completely dire as some people make it out to be, but it's not all roses for liberal arts majors either. The average starting salary for an English major in 2006 (and I suspect the gap is bigger now due to the labor surplus, but I couldn't find any newer stats) was 31% lower than a business administration / management major and 50% lower than an IT major's. That's a pretty brutal difference in pay.

Sure, $31k isn't peanuts, but after rent and food and other fixed costs in most places young grads want to live, there isn't going to be a lot left over. I think a lot of young people don't realize that their choice of major isn't just a matter of which classes they're going to take, it's a lifestyle decision. My experience—anecdotal, but confirmed by people who've graduated more recently—is that many professors and advisors are less than upfront about that.

And that does a disservice both to students and to the departments themselves. I think true liberal arts departments are important to have around, but they're going to be torn apart from the inside by students demanding more job-relevant skills if they continue to recruit without being totally honest about what their department offers, both good and bad. If that means that departments must decrease in size, so be it.

Based on the conclusions at the bottom of your linked article, I think we're pretty much saying the same thing, only I'm talking more about the undergrad / bachelor's level and you're talking about the PhD one.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:06 AM on October 20, 2009


And I was quoting bardic in the second paragraph parenthetical; sorry about the misspelling.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:08 AM on October 20, 2009


Kattullus - It's not the number of PhDs, but the number of PhDs relative to the number of academic positions because, as noted upthread, in many departments a PhD is considered to primarily be training for an academic research/teaching career. I appreciate that you are pointing out that things aren't as dire as some say, but it's like saying hey, it's not the world on fire, just a city or two. How many people would go to law school if less than 60% had a chance of becoming a lawyer when they got out? Only imagine it's law school for 6-10 years.
posted by jb at 11:49 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh - about the number of PhDs, I meant to point out that even as the numbers of people getting PhDs in humanities has not increased significantly, neither have the jobs -- they may have even gone down as universities stopped expanding and cut back on humanities departments.

Everyone in a PhD is aware of this: their adviser trains dozens of PhDs, maybe hundreds of PhDs in a career, but only one can replace them. In the 50s and 60s, this wasn't a problem; universities were expanding and the system needed more professors. Nor is it a problem in a field like mechanical engineering where there are many great industry jobs for PhDs doing research. But there is no English or History factory or research firm. There aren't even, as there is in the social sciences, public policy or government research positions.

The PhD in humanities isn't a generic degree like a B.A. or some Masters -- it is a professional degree offering very specific training in specific skills.* And every PhD in these fields leaving academia is leaving the profession they were trained for. Some of us may do so happily, others very unhappily, but it doesn't change the fact that we are like M.D.s who can't find a job in medicine, or lawyers who cannot find a place to practice law. We start out on the job search with only a few more skills for other jobs than that which we had coming out of our BA's, and many years lost.

*Unless there is a hitherto unknown business application of my ability to read messy 17th century probate inventories?
posted by jb at 12:00 PM on October 20, 2009


The average starting salary for an English major in 2006 (and I suspect the gap is bigger now due to the labor surplus, but I couldn't find any newer stats) was 31% lower than a business administration / management major and 50% lower than an IT major's.

I can't see the methodology, but if they're counting most law students in their figures, who have very low income, then that will bias the average salaries of majors that traditionally feed into law school. Not a lot, but some, and the English and poli-sci and bio majors who were drawn off to law or medical school likely had higher average earnings potential than their co-majors.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:00 PM on October 20, 2009


But you could get a BA in English in many reputable departments these days and not read many books of literature or theory.

I was saved from this 'orrible fate by my favorite professor, a devoted classics scholar and fanatical Dickens/19th century expert as well. I remember her classes better than anyone's; I'm sure I would never have made it through the Iliad without her. Of course, we didn't really get into Derrida that much, but I never counted that as much of a loss.

Which is why I do disagree with the internet-only model; some difficult works require the presence and passion of a devoted teacher to make you want to try to understand them.

And I think this is true of any real learning, actually; teachers are necessary, and they are more than walking book-vocalizers, or Wikipedia entries. A conversation in a classroom between students and teacher is not just the words said, but the emotions in the air, the body language, and yes, the desire to please an instructor that you admire.

The excitement of learning is in the back and forth, the debate, the building on the remarks of the person before you. It doesn't happen in every class, but when it does, you learn, and you remember.

(dedicated to Dr. Carwell, wherever you are)
posted by emjaybee at 12:23 PM on October 20, 2009


Future of Humanities: B a chameleon 2 survive; Package old in new; bow 2 corporate gods; review Dark Ages. Keep it to 140 characters. #bsht
posted by Surfurrus at 12:56 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's "theory vs. comic books, 'Battlestar Galactica' episodes, and Lady Gaga." ... But you could get a BA in English in many reputable departments these days and not read many books of literature or theory.

While many English departments do offer courses in pop culture and film, it is usually no more than 1-2 per term, and I would be willing to bet that you could count on one hand the number of English major programs that don't require AT LEAST 1) 1-2 surveys in British & American literature and 2) a major authors course, probably in Shakespeare, Chaucer or Milton. I think your statements are so extreme as to be a caricature.

Let's look at UC Irvine's English BA -- they are well known for being "cutting edge."
Looking at their curriculum, their students have to take courses (I'm using their terminology here) in poetic imagination (analysis or craft), comedy/tragedy, romance & realism (analysis or craft of fiction), history of theory & criticism, close reading, 1 course each in renaissance, 18thc, 19thc, and early american lit, a course in anglophone/non-western lit or minority lit, a major authors course, 3 more electives, & a foreign language.

A school chosen at random: University of Georgia.
Their majors take: Intro to English studies; 1 course in Brit lit pre-1800; 1 course in American lit pre-1800; 1 course in Brit/post-colonial lit post-1800; another course in American lit, any period; a course in cultural criticism or theory; 4 electives.

Yes, just 2 examples, but hardly curricula in BSG & Lady Gaga. I hear people talk all the time about how craaaaazy English departments are and how the field has become some big orgy of kooky deconstructionists looking to destroy everything of value or insist that episodes of House are more important that Shakespeare, but that's totally ridiculous. The vast majority of academic conferences and organizations still center on the "classics" and any discussion of "non-literary" issues is to enrich the study of literature, to understand texts as part of a historical moment. And there are a few people -- Butler, Spivak, Zizek -- who publish work that is mostly theory, but the vast majority of books & articles that come out take literary works and movements as their primary emphasis.

And Fezboy!, who pissed in your corn flakes this morning? You had some bad English teachers, yes. But your zionist Kafka professor? That is so far out there as to be one in a million, or perhaps Harold Bloom. I have worked with dozens and met hundreds of English faculty, sat through many conferences panels. I've heard a lot of crappy scholarship and a lot of great scholarship, but I have never, ever seen or even heard about something as insane as that. To pretend like he is the model of English scholarship as it exists today is 100% incorrect. Had I had a professor like that, sure, I'd probably be a bit soured on the field, but come on, man. That guy is not representative.
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:04 PM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


I wish I could favorite your comment twice, Saxon Kane, once for being a sensible voice of reason and once for the out-of-left-field joke at Harold Bloom's expense. Everytime someone takes a a swipe at that odious windbag a flower blooms.
posted by Kattullus at 1:28 PM on October 20, 2009


If you admit that online learning still requires "instructors who monitor your progress, test your comprehension and confirm that you have absorbed the necessary knowledge of the subject", then we must just be talking about online courses that aren't affiliated with universities (since those that are tend to pay the instructors just as much as for normal courses). In order to make such courses reputable enough to attract students, you have to make those jobs attractive to people with good credentials. And in order to do that, you need to compete with traditional universities in terms of pay, benefits, etc.

Sure. But the traditional universities in question may be, say, Bangalore University or Far Eastern Univeristy in Manila. This company is managing it for $99 a month. It's not accredited, yet. It may never be; that particular company may certainly still fail. But the courses most likely to be compatible with online education --- something like, say, and Econ 101 --- are usually conducted in huge lectures, often taught by adjunct faculty and grad student TA's. Say 200 kids, state school tuition of $20,000 a year for eight courses, so $2,500 per kid. $500,000. Let's say $25,000 for the prof (they usually teach at least two courses), plus another $5,000 for each of 4 TA's --- $45,000 for pay, double that to include benefits, $90,000. $410,000 leftover, that goes to supporting the rest of the university. That's the sweet spot.

According to this Chronicle of Higher Ed piece, a lot of adjuncts at community colleges --- with master's and doctorates in thier fields --- are currently getting about $10,000 a course, no benefits. So it seems, ballpark, you could get 4 fully accredited American profs for about $40,000, take another $40,000 in profit/to cover other costs, and charge students $400 in tuition. $1600 a semester, $3200 a year.

This is all back of the envelope stuff, of course. Online colleges will have huge problems getting accredited, prestige will remain a very important factor in where students choose to go, and all of this will take time. But the potential efficiencies are are exponential, in an era when traditional college is becoming more and more unaffordable.
posted by Diablevert at 2:31 PM on October 20, 2009


@fourcheesemac: I attended college sporadically for over twenty years, accumulating credits as I could afford them until I finally had enough and appropriate ones to graduate. I noticed in my last foray that almost every class had a group project, and several were organized almost completely around team efforts.

Is this a recent shift in educational method, or was I simply not taking many upper division classes before?
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:07 PM on October 20, 2009


Becuase I'm thinking it's the tutition of the business majors with their macro 101 text books and copies of Who Moved My Cheese which are secretly funding the $10,000,000 neurobiology labs.

Nope. Individual donors help get buildings built, and the university may cover some shared facilities, but science labs basically run on grant money, not the university's money. Beyond some a few things like initial help with startup costs and support with incoming grad students, the lab depends on the PI spending huge amounts of their time trying to get various people to give them money. For a neurobio lab, you're looking mostly at NIH grant money. In fact, a not insignifigant amount of money from grants won by professors goes directly to the university - "institutional overhead." There's also the money made from patents and such, a portion of which goes to the university as well.

And heck, depending on how you crunch the numbers, it's quite possible for universities to actually lose money (or at least to gain very little) on tuition-paying undergraduates. Grad students in good (science-y) programs are generally an expense too, until/unless they get their own fellowships or are covered by their PI's grants.

So, no, scientific research and labs are not necessarily money-losing propositions for a university, and yes, there's currently no way to make up for the lack of labs for distance learners. Even many basic techniques in bio and chem involve things far too expensive or dangerous for DIY homework labs, and there's not really any adequately realistic and educational way to simulate labwork.. The university, as a place to learn science, is in no danger right now, and as someone who's also pretty passionate about the humanities, I hope that that helps to keep the humanities afloat too.
posted by ubersturm at 8:03 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Granting that I teach in a very elite university, a good number of humanities majors I know go on to law, business, or medical school with a humanities BA. Conventional wisdom has it that your odds of admission go up if you're a music or art history major applying to law or medical school, as long as you have the right science coursework. Appears from my vantage point to actually be true.

As for PhDs, yeah, we're overproducing them. But it's because there are too many mediocre programs and programs without funding.

Rule one of the PhD chase: if someone else isn't willing to pay you to do the PhD, don't bother. If all students followed that rule, the mediocre and underfunded programs would cease to exist, the pool of cheap grad student and adjunct labor would shrink, and a lot of things would be better.

My PhD students, in a top program which fully funds all its students, predictably get good teaching jobs, and even in this down market we've done fine lately.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:02 AM on October 21, 2009


Grad students in good (science-y) programs are generally an expense too

That's an interesting perspective. Based on my own experience, graduate students are a net win for departments - if they're not bringing in their own grants or payed by their PI, they get to teach/assistant teach at a fraction of the price of a professional. If there weren't graduate students, departments would be paying more for the labor.
posted by logicpunk at 6:48 AM on October 21, 2009


logicpunk: it depends on the program. Note that my experience comes from biochem-type programs. These programs mostly start out with rotations, meaning that the student is not affiliated with a lab for perhaps their full first year. In this setup, the school or department generally covers the stipend, tuition, insurance, etc. until the students have a final lab. In many such programs, funding is also not directly tied to being a TA (that is, TAing a couple of courses may ultimately be a program requirement, but you do not have to be a TA in semester X to get paid in that semester, and TAing will not affect your stipend). Thus, at the beginning, these sorts of programs are essentially paying their first-years to attend classes or do rotations.

Arguably, a grad student at this stage is more expensive than a research tech with a similar or greater amount of experience; the stipends are similar, but the school will have to cover tuition and sometimes other university-related expenses for the student. Plus, techs are often funded straight out of the PI's grants, and not necessarily by the school at all. Later on, when grad student funding is coming from the advisor, and not the program, and they're funding-neutral or funding-positive, but it's quite possible for them to start out as an expense.
posted by ubersturm at 3:45 PM on October 21, 2009


All grad students supported by their advisor's grants are highly funding positive, as the grant pays both overhead and tuition, so those 4 years on the grant easily cover that first year. Yes, the professors would obviously teach more undergrad classes if they didn't train graduate students, but then the university would never see any overhead money, and worse degrees from "teaching oriented" universities just aren't worth nearly so much.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:30 AM on November 12, 2009


I think academia really needs some form of anti-exploitation pledge that focuses attention upon the specific problems created by the current system. In particular, the pledge could affirm that poorly paid adjuncts should all be retired people over 65, and banning second postdocs, thus forcing young people into "up or out" system.

Another effective method of improving life inside academia might be raising RA and TA salaries, and then let the finances limit admissions. If you had an interested philanthropist, one approach might be :

First, identify the graduate programs in one discipline that have fewer graduate students than faculty and pay them all at least $25k per year. You then rank the eligible programs by the quality of research. Second, pay every PhD student in years 1 through 4 from the highest ranked five eligible programs an extra $10-10k per year, thus raising the pay to $35k+ per year. You'll reevaluate this list and ranking every couple years and continue the program over the next decade or two.

I'd assume any Ivy league schools not meeting the two eligibility requirements could still match the high salary. So you'd slowly transform the pay expectations enough that exploitive graduate programs lose almost all their best students, everyone else now knows which PhDs are significant, and the most exploitive PhDs programs are marginalized.

You've also brought more stronger students into the field who might have otherwise have left for Wall St. after undergrad, and created a massive pay cut going from year 4 to year 5, a strong incentive to graduate in 4 years.

I'd expect that eligible grad programs have no more than 50 year 1 through 4 students each, so we're talking around $2.5M per year plus expenses, for 10 to 20 years, to effect one discipline.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:31 AM on November 12, 2009


At the risk of being self-indulgent, I'm going to post some excerpts from a statement of teaching philosophy that I recently sent to one of the schools to which I'm applying for a tenure-track job. I think might be interesting to some here:

" [...] The systems of power that govern the modern world – whether economic, political, or ideological – require the maintenance and reproduction of the status quo. Like any social institution, education has sometimes supported and sometimes challenged cultural hegemony. At present, higher education seems caught within an ideological bind. A certain discourse of “practicality” has become, to a large extent, the governing principle of modern learning. The practical is that which matters in the so-called “real” world; by mastering the practical, students prepare themselves for careers, increase their earning power, and learn the skills that will carry them through life. As educators and scholars, we cannot ignore the necessity of the practical. Like our students, we must live in the world; we depend upon the systems of production and the political structures that provide the material basis for life and work. Yet the discourse of practicality naturalizes these systems. It provides a pre-existing ideology, a world-view that asserts the necessity of a certain way of life, and all the inequities and injustices that accompany it, and shapes individuals to fit within that system under the guise of empowerment and choice. When students and educators focus on only the practical, they tacitly accept the status quo as right and true, submitting to a globalized consumer society that valorizes market philosophy above all else and functions through the relentless commodification of all aspects of human existence.
The study of English is simultaneously central to the pursuit of the practical and its most intellectually sophisticated critic. The necessary and practical skills of clear and effective communication, argumentation and research, critical analysis, and elegant, purposeful writing are nowhere better taught than in English departments. Composition classes provide the basis for all other academic pursuits and the necessary skills for success. Literature classes have long provided the conceptual and cultural vocabularies that underwrite social values and unite individuals as part of a community. The status quo needs English studies, but focusing on English as critical thought rather than a purely skills-based discipline enables us to effect change. Beyond the study of particular content, literary study can and should be an education in new ways of thinking that unsettle prior assumptions and promote new approaches to human existence and social relations. Because of its openness to interdisciplinary methods and self-reflexive inquiry, literary study has developed sophisticated challenges to oppressive economic regimes, socially constructed ideologies of identity, and political and imperial hegemonies. While scholars have sometimes had difficulty communicating the insights of literary study to those outside the academy, I believe that our work has the potential to encourage a greater understanding and consciousness of social relations and the ethical obligations among people.
[....]
In Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, Alain Badiou writes that the final principle for the pursuit of the true and the good is “Keep going!” [...] education must serve to unsettle [...] our responsibility is to keep going in this process, no matter how difficult it may be. [...]"
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:29 PM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


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