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A Faustian Bargain
November 20, 2010 5:56 AM   Subscribe

A Faustian Bargain: perhaps the best defense of the humanities in higher education you will ever read in a peer-reviewed biology journal (or maybe anywhere).

Addressed to George M Philip, President of the State University of New York At Albany, after the decision was made to phase out that school's French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theatre Arts programs.
posted by activitystory (89 comments total) 84 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very nice. The arguement that the sciences brings in grants is something that caught my eye. I would love to see a study done at any university in how much grant money comes from govt funded military sources and how much, by contrast, from the private sector. I know that there is a heck of a lot of money poured into all our universities for "national security," that is, money from various branches of our military and govt. This, a neat way of subsidizing education and seeming to remain aloof from "socialism," in which govt supports private and public schools.

The writer argues that they faced similar problems at his school (Brandeis) but he fails to mention that the president--who has since announced his resignation--was initially going to sell of it great art collection to raise money till an outpouring from the public put a temporary hold on this.

Finally, I would ask one simple question of the president of the school: what is your yearly salary and what peripheral benefits are you given, ie, house free of rent etc. I ask because last week an article on education noted that there are now some 30 college presidents making salaries of over one million dollars per year.
posted by Postroad at 6:14 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I believe that there is a place in the language for everything: there is a place in the language for the most mellifluous words, when the time is right for them, and the vilest swears, when the time is right for them. Sometimes, your rhetorical purpose is best served by angrily swearing. Few times, but sometimes.

This is the rhetorical time for patronizing prose. "Disrespectfully yours"— Ha!
posted by curuinor at 6:35 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh this is glorious... such a wonderfully written and structured slap in the face. I bet, years down the line, when all of this foofaraw over SUNY Albany budgeting has been forgotten, this letter will remain, a shoo-in for anthologies of the 100 Best Pies-in-the-Face.
posted by Kattullus at 6:48 AM on November 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


can you imagine if the decision as to which departments to cut was put in the hands of the faculty? rats ... sinking ship... academic politics... the most vicious politics...

the essayist might have better aimed his arrows at science faculty. he mentioned, only briefly, that *within* the sciences there are fads and ebbs and flows and subjects which have little practical use to anyone. however, science faculties have been largely dismissive of the work that goes on in the humanities for a long time now. they don't get that the business mentality is coming to the sciences too. in particular, research mathematics is seen on some of the more poorly funded state universities much like the english department: a quaint subject that doesn't and won't ever support itself with grants that is kept around because of the service courses it teaches.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:50 AM on November 20, 2010


It's time for the humanities to separate from academia anyway. The rise of critical theory was a cry for help. Get us out of here! Language, literature, theater and the arts shouldn't be about careers and sinecures. What's to stop you or I or anyone else from setting up shop in the agora and teaching our own humanities courses? The models are out there. The internet. Reading groups. Private lessons. Nationalities houses. Careerism killed academic humanities. Let's get back to the world.
posted by Faze at 6:57 AM on November 20, 2010 [13 favorites]


I don't know. Humanities enrollments have been stable for two decades or more, and people in the last thread we had on this subject observed that financially, they can actually be more self-sustaining than the sciences. I can believe that (although I had claimed the opposite in that thread).

I think distribution requirements are a bad idea and a bad solution to the problem in any case. They're not popular with students and lead to the kind of widespread cheating we were discussing in the Shadow Scholar thread. While some distribution requirements might be necessary, by and large I think it's better to treat people as adults capable of making their own education decisions. Certainly distribution requirements probably won't solve the problems of, say, the Russian department, since you can just hire adjuncts to teach language classes and dump all the tenure-track lines.

More fundamentally, I think it's ironic that the kind of spirited defense of Great Literature that the author mounts here would probably not be shared by the majority of academics in these fields. This isn't a question of the evil "postmodernists" replacing the dead white males with black queer feminists or something. It's simply academia exercising its proper function, which is to be critically attentive to cultural issues, of which canon-formation is a major one.

The Great Books strategy is very common in defenses of the humanities in the academy, but in my opinion it's a big mistake. You can't ask people to question established values (something that is integral to humanities work) and simultaneously justify their livelihood by reference to a very unstable and problematic set of values on which there fundamentally can't be much agreement. This kind of thing just leads to bad faith and opens the door to culture-war critiques of the university, which end up threatening the humanities in a different way.

Really, I think it's time to start looking for a viable non-academic, perhaps non-institutionalized alternative framework for humanities work. With all the glaring defects and inconsistencies of the current system--the reserve army of unemployed PhD labor, the broken tenure system that can't coexist with the increasing reluctance of presses to publish first books, the adjunctification of the university, the corresponding cutthroat competition for mediocre TT positions, the resultant proletarianization of junior scholars, the increasing gap between tenure as it is currently practiced (institutionalized rent-seeking) and as it was once imagined (a shield to protect free inquiry)--I can't see why this hasn't happened already.
posted by nasreddin at 7:02 AM on November 20, 2010 [13 favorites]


> however, science faculties have been largely dismissive of the work that goes on in the humanities for a long time now.

And for good reason. I consider your unwillingness to use the shift key an infinitesimal part of that reason.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:25 AM on November 20, 2010


For an amazing "defense" of the humanistic tradition and classic works of literature, see tyhis week's NY Times Book Review of Saul Bellow's letters.
https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/books/review/Wieseltier-t.html
posted by Postroad at 7:30 AM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Isn't studying the humanities an attempt to understand what it means to be a human in a multiplicity of contexts? Separating humanities from science/technology/engineering/mathematics, i.e. STEM, fields is already so prevalent that we're rapidly destroying the planet.
posted by mareli at 7:30 AM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Very nice. The arguement that the sciences brings in grants is something that caught my eye. I would love to see a study done at any university in how much grant money comes from govt funded military sources and how much, by contrast, from the private sector.

That s not the issue at my alma mater. The argument is whether football brings in more money than academics.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:50 AM on November 20, 2010


0xdeadc0de, that was pretty lame.
posted by artof.mulata at 8:00 AM on November 20, 2010


I can't believe Faze and nasreddin just made the same comment.
posted by escabeche at 8:00 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the article: Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed.

And this is a substantial part of that reason.

The legitimacy of Petsko's argument does not require the line above, but it seems he would rather flatter the people who resent science than rally those he ostensibly claims to be, one who supports both the sciences and the arts. There is no need for clumsy metaphors that play on the supposed inhumanity of scientists.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 8:01 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is 'God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh'). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I'm sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don't.

They'd have to spend a long time combing his writings to find that particular bon mot, given that it actually comes from H L Mencken, not Voltaire. I'd be happy to come and pedantically nitpick your work in a professional capacity while ignoring its substance, if you only you had a comprehensive Humanities programme, which now, of course, you don't.

Actually, I enjoyed this. It rose above mere accusations of philistinism by providing good, practical examples. I can't help but think it's a case of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted, unfortunately. It's a screed that needs to go higher up the command chain.
posted by RokkitNite at 8:04 AM on November 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


ennui.biz: in particular, research mathematics is seen on some of the more poorly funded state universities much like the english department: a quaint subject that doesn't and won't ever support itself with grants that is kept around because of the service courses it teaches.

Uh, I don't know how much research mathematics you do, but we get lots of grants all the time.

Also, maybe you wouldn't have to keep us around to teach service courses if kids weren't allowed to graduate from high school until they could convincingly add fractions.
posted by King Bee at 8:05 AM on November 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


It's simply academia exercising its proper function, which is to be critically attentive to cultural issues, of which canon-formation is a major one.

And there's the rub. Without Humanities as a mandatory part of a college education, students' great capabilities for critical thinking, and thus their abilities to identify injustice go undeveloped. Their functional, pragmatic education allows them to be productive and self-sustaining without having the ability to conceptualize much beyond the self. I'm surrounded by these types in Medicine-- brilliant people who can school my ass in biochem or physiology but can't for the life of them understand how obesity is anything but an individual problem without structural cause. I'll save for later my diatribe on how none of them can string a goddamn sentence together, but suffice it to say that these folks are also phenomenally bad writers.
posted by The White Hat at 8:11 AM on November 20, 2010 [17 favorites]


> 0xdeadc0de, that was pretty lame.

Yeah, I know, I didn't intend for it to be personal. Sorry, ennui.bz. That snark was really directed toward a stereotype that you don't represent.

The science vs. humanities culture war has made monsters of us all.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 8:16 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow. What cold fury in a piece of writing.
posted by polymodus at 8:16 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Without Humanities as a mandatory part of a college education, students' great capabilities for critical thinking, and thus their abilities to identify injustice go undeveloped.

The thing is, I'm not totally convinced "critical thinking" is something real either. I see it used most often as a way to endorse whatever the accepted critical methodology of your preconceived position is--that is, when it's conservatives, it's all about learning to "think critically about" (i.e. denounce and reject) liberal messages, and vice versa. The concept is incredibly vague, and judging by the scholarship I read, not in any way necessarily connected with humanistic learning.
posted by nasreddin at 8:26 AM on November 20, 2010 [9 favorites]


In the academy, it is never appropriate for me to address a colleague or peer with "Disrespectfully Yours," even if I feel that way.
posted by joedanger at 8:28 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


In the academy, it is never appropriate for me to address a colleague or peer with "Disrespectfully Yours," even if I feel that way.

Not to mention that it's pretty immature and not really witty or biting at all.
posted by nasreddin at 8:32 AM on November 20, 2010


Oh how precious! In the academy no less. Of course, disrespect of university elites (or those who see themselves as such when biznobs is more apt) is really what's at stake here.
posted by ofelia at 8:43 AM on November 20, 2010


Oh how precious! In the academy no less. Of course, disrespect of university elites (or those who see themselves as such when biznobs is more apt) is really what's at stake here.

Yes, let's act like children! If we TP his house he's bound to bring that French department back.
posted by nasreddin at 8:50 AM on November 20, 2010


I went to college at a local university that calls itself the Harvard of the Midwest. I was in the engineering program, and there was a requirement that, for breadth, we take 18 credits of humanities. However, since the workload to get the entire engineering curriculum was so heavy, most of my classmates (including myself) felt we had no choice but to take the most notorious blow-off classes to get our breadth requirement. Hello, Intro to Politics at the community college in the summer!

(then again, this is the place that raised rates not to keep up with costs, but - and they said this out loud! - to keep pace with the next school in the rankings. And of the 20-odd kids that graduated in Mech E with me, only two or three of us went on to get jobs that had "engineer" in the title - the rest became consultants. *ptui*)
posted by notsnot at 8:50 AM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


The thing is, I'm not totally convinced "critical thinking" is something real either[...] The concept is incredibly vague, and judging by the scholarship I read, not in any way necessarily connected with humanistic learning.

Perhaps I'm speaking too loosely, but I can guarantee you that there's more support for humanistic learning in the humanities than in the (non-social) sciences, which is really my point. I have an unsubstantiated suspicion that these functional/vocational programs are breeding the next, Randian iteration of conservative America.
posted by The White Hat at 8:51 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the academy, it is never appropriate for me to address a colleague or peer with "Disrespectfully Yours," even if I feel that way.

That's funny, cause in the letter he literally points out that the dude has no advanced degree, and by implication, is not a peer in the academic sense.
posted by polymodus at 8:51 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think there's a question raised by the fact that this school is a part of a state wide system. If the state of NY already is providing x Russian programs, could it make sense to kill this one in order to focus limited resources on other things?
posted by TheShadowKnows at 9:14 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


if kids weren't allowed to graduate from high school until they could convincingly add fractions.

Yes, Jimmy, it's the correct answer, but you're not showing me that you know it's the correct answer. You need to be asking yourself, "What's my character's motivation in this scene. Why does he need to know the sum of 4/5 and 1/10? What are the consequences of his choices?" Then you take that knowledge and let it inform your acting.

I don't know, maybe we need to go back to space work and movement for a while. Did you bring your dance belt?
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:15 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


nasreddin: I'm not totally convinced "critical thinking" is something real either. I see it used most often as a way to endorse whatever the accepted critical methodology of your preconceived position is

You're right that "critical thinking" often doesn't mean much, but I think it could--obviously, most people are bad at constructing and evaluating arguments, and I think that's mainly because they are never taught how to do it. Obviously, there is great value in having fellow citizens with this skill. I always wanted to be taught it instead of struggling to work it out it on my own, and I think everyone else should too. (Of course, this kind of "critical thinking" would be closer to philosophy and even some non-humanities like statistics; I'm not sure how or if literature could be involved.)

Really, I think it's time to start looking for a viable non-academic, perhaps non-institutionalized alternative framework for humanities work.

I'm especially curious about this. Do you think an alternative system is really possible, and you think the reason it hasn't happened yet is just the issue of credentials? That is, I get the impression that you must be a professor (or grad student) to publish anything in the humanities; it's not enough even to have a PhD if you've left academia. Since standards of credibility are a matter of consensus, no one wants to be the first to reject them, and I expect they'll take a very, very long time to die if they ever do. (But I'm a pessimist and I'm also not an academic.)

I'd be interested in what you think an alternative system for the humanities would look like and why no one has yet tried to create one.
posted by Chicken Boolean at 9:17 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a rule, I assume that anyone who is being addressed by an open letter in a journal, as well as the people who read that journal, are most likely peers and equals.

I know lots of people that are active within their area of study that didn't get an advanced degree for one reason or another. Even more so when you're dealing with international journals, where the degrees aren't as standardized. You just assume you're dealing with a colleague until they prove otherwise.
posted by joedanger at 9:18 AM on November 20, 2010


The thing is, I'm not totally convinced "critical thinking" is something real either. I see it used most often as a way to endorse whatever the accepted critical methodology of your preconceived position is--that is, when it's conservatives, it's all about learning to "think critically about" (i.e. denounce and reject) liberal messages, and vice versa.

I think that's because many people don't understand that "critical," like "romance," has more than one meaning, apart from the most commonly used connotation.

Critical thinking should really mean to examine ideas and arguments and figure out a) why you feel sympathetic (or not) to such and such an argument b) whether that argument is valid or not, regardless of your personal bias.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:29 AM on November 20, 2010 [10 favorites]


In your defense, you called the timing 'unfortunate', but pleaded that there was a 'limited availability of appropriate large venue options.' I find that rather surprising. If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don't have much clout at your university.

Not by far the best point in the piece but DAMN...haha.

That was an excellent essay. I will be passing that one around.
posted by dubitable at 9:53 AM on November 20, 2010


My professors in college hammered away for years of the value of an "education " versus "training". I was not surprised when the author suggested that SUNY Albany refer to itself as a trade school or vocational college.

Unfortunately, Gregory Petsko will discover that money will win this fight, and he hasn't made a friend in the process.
posted by Xoebe at 9:53 AM on November 20, 2010


The thing is, I'm not totally convinced "critical thinking" is something real either

Critical thinking, the way I learned it, is analyzing an argument to try to extract the following bits of information:

1) What the arguer wants you to believe about the subject;
2) What the arguer actually believes about the subject (which can be quite different, and is much harder to tease out);
3) What evidence he or she is providing;
4) Whether the evidence is complete and authoritative;
5) Whether the conclusion is reasonable, given the evidence presented;
6) Whether the conclusion should be accepted, given all of the above.

I've seen lots of different skills claimed as critical thinking; we had an actual real-life teacher, in an elementary-school thread on Ask, once claim with a straight face that teaching children how to fix broken computers was critical thinking. I was horrified -- that's simple problem solving, a much lower-level skill. If even our teachers are getting that wrong, we're in trouble.

From what I've seen, only the humanities seem to really teach the art of making and dissecting arguments. And I think that's an extremely important, dare I say critical skillset for dealing with the complexity of modern life.
posted by Malor at 10:02 AM on November 20, 2010 [49 favorites]


I think that there will be a fair number of social sciences who will teach those skills. Any policy related topic for example.
posted by biffa at 10:06 AM on November 20, 2010


In the academy, it is never appropriate for me to address a colleague or peer with "Disrespectfully Yours," even if I feel that way.

Not just in the academy, which is why the phrase "With all due respect" is great, because some things aren't due much of it...
posted by birdsquared at 10:11 AM on November 20, 2010


Xoebe, your point about "education" versus "training" is interesting. As we see in the thread before this one, certain fields are desperately in need of graduates with more up-to-date training and less "education." Is continually trying to stay on top of what the "job market" wants in this regard ultimately difficult and problematic in many ways? Certainly. But it seems like there needs to be room for both in a college curriculum—that's what, unfortunately, this university president isn't seeing.
posted by limeonaire at 10:11 AM on November 20, 2010


The condescending, unsympathetic tone of the letter is not really going to help promote the writer's point of view.
posted by amtho at 10:13 AM on November 20, 2010


I was horrified -- that's simple problem solving, a much lower-level skill. If even our teachers are getting that wrong, we're in trouble.

Care to present evidence that problem solving and critical thinking involve very different mental faculties? Just because they are different in how you semantically construct the world does not necessarily mean they require vastly different skills. Or that the skills one person uses for problem solving cannot be applied for critical thinking and vice versa. In a sense you have aptly broken critical thinking down in to six problems to be solved.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:14 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


This would be funnier if the letter was to Drew Faust.
posted by snofoam at 10:19 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm going to question your assumptions here by changing a variable or two:

What's to stop you or I or anyone else from setting up shop in the agora and teaching our own humanities electrical engineering?

Seriously, is there something magic about the sciences that makes it impossible for mere mortals to pick up in their spare time? I ask it this because I am currently in the process of teaching myself electronics for reasons of simple curiousity.

Similarly I had three hours of biology in college (roughly a zillion hours of chemistry) but my career path has put me chest deep in questions about why this bacterial protein is so much more immunogenic than that one, so I've had to teach myself a lot of immunology in the past two or three years

And I've just started slogging through differential equations and linear algebra because I have a hypothesis I want to test and about the time I ran into the phrase "single-layer neural network" I realized that all the algebra, trignometry and smattering of calculus that I actually remember were not going to get me where I wanted to go.

At the end of the day, any of the "Who needs a classics department?" arguments work for "Who needs a university?" There are those who probably don't. And there are those who think they don't. You could write a sweet psychology paper on the phenomenon, but that's been done (pdf).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:21 AM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


What a great letter. If there were a way I could convince more people to study the humanities, I would, but I recognize that the job market is tough. And I work in a profession where nearly everyone has concentrated on the sciences. Especially the science of Getting In.

Medical school is one of those weird places where emotional growth, previously stunted, is kickstarted forward and stunted again. You've got a hundred or so classmates who've all gone through the same process: they worked their assess off in high school, took AP classes, did well on their SAT/ACTs, and got into a good undergrad program. They worked their assess off again, majoring in biology, chemisty, physics, and the like, did well on the MCATs, and go into medical school. These are the same folks who say they major in "pre-med" when there's no such major (as far as I know), because they're convinced that they're going to go into medicine.

Then BLAMMO! They're in med school. All of a sudden, the overwhelming feeling of "I DID IT" washes over them, and they party like it's two thousand zero zero, and then oops. Party's over. They gotta hunker down and work their assess off AGAIN for licensing exams, in an effort to get into a good residency program.

All the while, all they do is work. Moles n trolls, moles n trolls, workworkwork. These goofballs wander round town in scrubs, or with their med school ID badges on, and try to pick up members of the opposite sex. They hunker down in coffee shops, new books with fresh binding cracks turned to the page with the most easily identifiable anatomical structures. Conversations center around medical bigspeak.

And when they complete their training, they're set upon the world, and people complain about bad doctors. No shit. Granted, any population of people is going to have a certain percentage of assholes, but we expect our physicians to be listening to us, and compassionate. But there was no time to learn this in their years of studying. There was no textbook on how to be a decent dood, and no exams giving extra credit for being nice.

We're an insular lot.

Thank goodness for programs like Mount Sinai's Humanities and Medicine program. I'm not sure about the whole MCAT-skipping and guaranteed-acceptance-in-sophomore-year parts, but it's a great program.

And bless those who had the insight and foresight to study the humanities before going into medicine. I can tell you from my personal experiences that these are people who become good doctors. I ain't saying that everyone else is crap. But many of the physicians I work with, respect, and admire, studied and have great interests outside of medicine. I'd like to think that this is what helps them understand what it takes to be human, and informs their practice of medicine.

Me? I didn't have foresight or insight. I went to a liberal arts school, had plenty of college credits before I began, and found myself picking over the course catalog for the spring semester. I just couldn't stomach the idea of taking upper level classes on algae. My roommate suggested I take some "fun" classes. Like what? "Like in the English department." But I'd already fulfilled my requirements. "The girls are hotter there."

And so I ended up majoring in English, studying modern poetry and Victorian lit.

Every once in a while, I'm asked for advice on what to do for med school. I tell them to study something they're really interested in, because it'll likely be the last opportunity for them to do so. And every once in a while, a patient asks me where I went to school and what I studied, and why. And it's always "English. The girls were hotter."

To this day, I still anonymously send in dough every year through the alumni association for the English department, because god knows they need it.
posted by herrdoktor at 10:25 AM on November 20, 2010 [40 favorites]


Zalzidrax: Care to present evidence that problem solving and critical thinking involve very different mental faculties?

You can criticize a broken computer all you want, but it's not going to change anything.

Understanding the elements of an argument and the beliefs of the person making the argument is very much into the theory-of-mind circuitry. You don't need any of that to beat a recalcitrant computer into shape. Most of that can be done with simple rote learning, and a tiny bit of insight.

The Wikipedia page on critical thinking has a much more exhaustive definition than mine. From their viewpoint, it encompasses quite a bit of meta-cognition. It's way, way out of the league of just fixing a faulty program or piece of hardware.
posted by Malor at 10:25 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Malor: From what I've seen, only the humanities seem to really teach the art of making and dissecting arguments. And I think that's an extremely important, dare I say critical skillset for dealing with the complexity of modern life.

It would be nice if critical thinking actually helped you in modern life, but I doubt it. Most people don't have a clue and they do fine (i.e., they make plenty of money, which is our usual definition of success). I don't want people to learn critical thinking because I'm worried that they'll end up in poverty otherwise; mainly I want them to learn because they vote.

Zalzidrax: Care to present evidence that problem solving and critical thinking involve very different mental faculties?

I believe Malor draws a distinction between the method and its application. We do not teach computer repair by showing students how to analyze the strength of an argument and then making them apply that skill to arguments about computer repair. We just tell them facts about computers and have them practice fixing broken computers over and over until they've got the hang of it; for the "pure reasoning" aspect they rely on what they've picked up in everyday life. This is born out by the unsurprising fact that people who fix broken computers are not as good at analyzing arguments as are students of the humanities.
posted by Chicken Boolean at 10:26 AM on November 20, 2010


Borne out. I hope that was just my typing and not my lack of education in the humanities.
posted by Chicken Boolean at 10:28 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Zalzidrax: In a nutshell, deductive versus inductive reasoning. They turn out to be pretty different in practice.
posted by zug at 10:32 AM on November 20, 2010


Uh, I don't know how much research mathematics you do, but we get lots of grants all the time.

differential geometry. just keep telling yourself how valuable your work is until your grants run out and you can't get anything. the NSF likes to give large indisciplinary grants in applied mathematics. it's very difficult to get single researcher + grad student(s) grants that basically just pay someone to do math.

The science vs. humanities culture war has made monsters of us all.

that really wasn't my point. people in the sciences tell themselves that what they are doing is really very valuable and society will reward you for it. but, when you look at the sum of what goes on in the sciences, there are lots of specialties like say, differential geometry, which have little social utility or prospect for commercial application or student participation or even government funding. if your standard for what gets to stay in academia is based on these things then you end up impoverishing a lot of the sciences. mathematics becomes applied mathematics, physics becomes materials science, biology becomes health sciences and genetic engineering.

just the same way that short-term profit mentality decimated the big corporate research labs, the same mentality will reduce the sciences to whatever is popular this year with business and the military. the fact is that it is very hard to justify 100 year investments in basic research if you judge everything based on profit, which is what this comes down to.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:32 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


What's to stop you or I or anyone else from setting up shop in the agora and teaching our own humanities electrical engineering?

Mostly I suspect you would struggle to do this economocally. Much of what brings in students is the reputation of institutions in being able to deliver degrees which are proven to get people into work or which are regarded as being of high quality for some other reason. However, how you get that reputation for quality is complex. Once you get to a certain level than you can apparently raise the perception of your quality by charging more money. Ie you put your prices up to improve demand. Down at the bum end of delivery then you don't get value attached and it is more difficult to convince people to pay for your services. Having said that we have started to see some more private institutions come into the HE sector recently and I think we'll see some more, but they will be very much about teaching for profit and very much not in the model of the institutions like the two mentioned in the FPP letter.
posted by biffa at 10:36 AM on November 20, 2010


The thing is, I'm not totally convinced "critical thinking" is something real either. I see it used most often as a way to endorse whatever the accepted critical methodology of your preconceived position is....
Is nasreddin is thinking critically about critical thinking?
posted by adoarns at 10:46 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

You could-- but at the cost of fewer classes for each student in that student's field. It's not like biology students are dropping Russian in favor of Bowling.

There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future.

And, of course, it may not. Nobody is arguing that virology is archaic (nor, despite the fact that it used to be less sexy, were any people arguing that it was archaic forty years ago). Nobody is arguing that English is the only language every student needs to know. What is being argued is the importance of studying Dante, Aesop, Goethe or Dostoevsky.

There are subjects that are archaic that should be dropped. Maintaining an Alchemy department at the cost of several hundreds of thousands of dollars per year strikes me as a clear example of a bad idea.

These courses didn't just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

I'm sorry that you had such poor science instruction. The heart of science is the ability to think clearly and to communicate one's thoughts and observations. Instruction in the ability to do so, as much as such a thing can be taught, should happen in early science classes. It's clear to me that advanced study in the humanities is not a guarantee of clear thought or communication, nor is the absence of formal study in the humanities evidence of poor thought or communication.
posted by nathan v at 10:52 AM on November 20, 2010


I'm sure there are many fields that are "desperately in need of graduates with more up-to-date training and less "education" but I have a feeling that those fields want machinists, not engineers. Or, more likely, want machinists who will suddenly turn into engineers when engineers are needed but will be content to be paid and treated like machinists. (And believe that all a machinists needs to know is how to chuck a piece of metal into a machine and press a big green button labeled, "Start".)

This is where the book "Shop Class as Soul Craft" takes Frederick Taylor out behind the wood shed, challenges him to a duel and deftly skewers him. I wish I had a dollar for every column inch of the Wall Street Journal that involved a company being all swoony weepy because they just lost a giant pile of money and/or market share because their workers didn't spontaneously identify and fix some problem the company didn't realize it had, despite the fact that spontaneity is the last thing they want from their workers and have gone to great lengths to let them know this.

If you're modeling your higher education system on the Soviet Union, circa 1968, you might want to take a time out, dust of a history book and see how that played out.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:58 AM on November 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


Maintaining an Alchemy department at the cost of several hundreds of thousands of dollars per year strikes me as a clear example of a bad idea.

I submit that the Large Hadron Collider is under the purview of the Alchemy department.
posted by Trochanter at 10:59 AM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


From the wiki page on critical thinking:

Critical thinking calls for the ability to:

Recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems
Understand the importance of prioritization and order of precedence in problem solving
Gather and marshal pertinent (relevant) information
Recognize unstated assumptions and values
Comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination
Interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments
Recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions
Draw warranted conclusions and generalizations
Put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives
Reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience
Render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life


That sounds (other than clarity of language) an awful lot like what scientists do.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 10:59 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


nasreddin: The thing is, I'm not totally convinced "critical thinking" is something real either. I see it used most often as a way to endorse whatever the accepted critical methodology of your preconceived position is--that is, when it's conservatives, it's all about learning to "think critically about" (i.e. denounce and reject) liberal messages, and vice versa. The concept is incredibly vague, and judging by the scholarship I read, not in any way necessarily connected with humanistic learning.

Well, I think the term is misused a lot, but I do think it has an objective meaning. I would consider it to consist of things like formal logic, fallacies of reasoning, the study of epistemology, etc. In a lot of ways, Philosophy is basically the study of how to think about things in a consistent manner. In a lot of ways, I consider the philosophy - and in particular, the parts of it relating to how to think about things in a rational matter - to be the single most important thing I learned in college.

However, while this important concept is part of the humanities, it's only a small part of them. So I don't think you can use it to defend the humanities or humanities requirements, as the poster you were replying to intended - it's only going to affect the students who happened to take the right courses. I think you have to learn about critical thinking specifically - most humanities courses aren't going to teach it any more than an unrelated course in your major. Of course, I also think being well rounded is of critical importance for other reasons.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:13 AM on November 20, 2010


King Bee: Also, maybe you wouldn't have to keep us around to teach service courses if kids weren't allowed to graduate from high school until they could convincingly add fractions.

Yeah, but part of the problem with this is that pre-college math teachers don't know math that well. And academic mathematicians might be at least partially to blame for that.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:35 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the point that is missed is that we live in a resource limited society dominated by an ideology of tax cuts. If you want a program to survive then you need to put up the money or be self sufficient. At this point everyone has to sing for their supper.

The sciences pay for themselves. Research brings in grants. The sciences bring in material benefits that everyone can recognize. The benifits of the humanities are vague. Most people get by without having read Dostoevsky. On the other hand everyone knows what aspirin is.

I'd suggest that people who care about the humanities go to people likely to be patrons and suggest that they throw a little money their way.
posted by dibblda at 11:45 AM on November 20, 2010


Seminary! Seminary is the answer to this question. There is no finer, broader, and intensive program of study in the humanities in the world than can be found in a good liberal seminary. You spend your days reading and writing intensively, in dimly lit seminar courses taught by ancient wizards and theologians. You enter into vast, dialectical analysis of your peer's beliefs and dissect them, earnestly searching for internal inconsistencies. I spent afternoons in Derrida seminars, commiserating with my peers as they translated French poetry, ate breakfast during Deconstructing Homophobia, hunched over my laptop during Public Discourse and Theology. I practiced Presiding and Ritual Arts twice a week, was exposed to the depth and distance of 3,500 years of religious expression. I studied with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists and Christians of every stripe. I attended guest lectures in every corner of Hyde Park and lived for a time in the Regenstein Library. And now I'm polishing a sermon for Sunday, at my job where I am paid actual cash money to be present in the lives of others, to speak for a moment in front of a crowd, to direct the ebb and flow of public rituals and rites of passage, and to manage a non-profit. My life is a temple of the humanities. Liberal seminaries are a bastion against the deteriorating humanities departments. I want to teach at a seminary and spend the rest of my life in Hyde Park, or Vanderbilt, or the Pacific School, or Union. These places are modern Edens. Eden is also a great seminary in St. Louis.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:49 AM on November 20, 2010 [12 favorites]


The thing is, I'm not totally convinced "critical thinking" is something real either. I see it used most often as a way to endorse whatever the accepted critical methodology of your preconceived position is....

Yo Dawg, I heard you like thinking critically...
posted by paradoxflow at 11:55 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


You can't ask people to question established values (something that is integral to humanities work) and simultaneously justify their livelihood by reference to a very unstable and problematic set of values on which there fundamentally can't be much agreement.

This is not even wrong.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:56 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm sold, Baby_Balrog! Do I have to wear one of those little collars?
posted by jokeefe at 12:06 PM on November 20, 2010


herrdoktor, you hit the nail on the head as far as the med school side of things goes. A lot of people I see in school fit the mold you describe exactly -- they work their respective asses off, get to med school -- where it's pass/fail -- and start boozing and partying as if the whole experience is just another set of boring classes filled with information that they'll probably need to know at some point but don't really need to focus on right now. Anything in the curriculum not having to do with the hard sciences is pretty much ignored or derided as being irrelevant. I think they do tend to grow up a bit when they have to start working clinically full-time, but by then, what opportunity is there to recognize the greater importance of where they're headed, the meta-medical side of things? *sigh*
posted by greatgefilte at 12:10 PM on November 20, 2010


Slightly different perspective:

Companies don't know why they work. They know they hire, fire, promote, and demote people, but really, they have no clue where the magic really comes from.

Superstitions, sure. But not answers.

Same with countries and their workforces.
posted by effugas at 12:10 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


jokeefe, you can wear whatever you like! I wear a lot of black t-shirts and frye boots. Here are some examples of what you might want to avoid, though.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:14 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm inclined to be sympathetic to the writer, but then I've not heard the other side of the story.

Seems to me that university humanities are simply reverting back to type, that is, a small enclave of the the obsessed and romantic (or rich and lazy). It had a good run in the post war years. Now - harder for the incoming freshman to justify a major in, say, Russian.

Unless, as suggested above, he wishes to stand out in the ocean of Poly Sci major applying to law school.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:19 PM on November 20, 2010


While I agree with much of what is contained in the letter, and I think it's deplorable that the president of a major university thinks it's necessary to terminate enrollment in these programs, somebody at a private university (one with a $620 million endowment) lecturing somebody who runs a public university about the budget choices that he faces in a time of economic downturn is kind of, well, rich.

Gregory Petsko states that he "utterly refuses to believe" that George Philip had "no alternative." Professor Petsko's scorn would have been better employed if it had been equally directed at the legislature in Albany, Governor Paterson, and the people of New York State. They ultimately carry the power over the pursestrings -- not President Philip -- and they have the power to prioritize funding for public institutions of higher education or not.

UAlbany has lost $33.5 million in tax support from Albany since 2008. Public universities in other states face equally stark choices, if not starker choices, and will face even starker ones in the near future. UAlbany is not going to be a unique case that can be mocked mercilessly for too much longer.

Brandeis thought it had "no alternative" but to sell off the Rose Art Museum collection for $300 million, either, until money materialized to keep it afloat.
posted by blucevalo at 12:23 PM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


More fundamentally, I think it's ironic that the kind of spirited defense of Great Literature that the author mounts here would probably not be shared by the majority of academics in these fields. This isn't a question of the evil "postmodernists" replacing the dead white males with black queer feminists or something. It's simply academia exercising its proper function, which is to be critically attentive to cultural issues, of which canon-formation is a major one. - nasreddin

That straw man, I am going to disemstrawen it. A bit of personal background, so you know where I'm coming from: I took, and got As in, AP Literature and Composition, AP French, AP Calculus, AP Chemistry, and AP History. I was given a freshman university scholarship to become a math teacher. My AP chemistry partner went to Reed and is now researching possible ways to create cancer vaccines. (She rules.) I entered university as a piano performance major, the only one accepted that year, after grueling auditions and interviews; I'd started taking piano lessons when I was five years old (but asked for them starting when I was two, heh). I also took Russian language and literature classes, because I wanted to. What, why are y'all looking at me funny? I later changed my major to French (language and literature), while taking first-year astrophysics courses on the side, to keep up with my love of math and science. You're looking at me funny again. As part of my French degree, I had to learn a second Romance language, so I chose Italian. I also needed to fulfill lit/comp requirements that had to be taken outside my major, and since I loved literature more and more, I chose comparative literature courses.

It's been 12 years since I got my BA in French from the U. of Oregon; I'm currently getting a Masters in comparative literature at the Université de Nice (France). Regarding the U. of Oregon, in case anyone thinks it might not be a university with "black queer feminists" (quoting nasreddin), it's practically the adoptive home of granola (and I say that as a native Oregonian who's quirkily proud of that sort of thing). So, back to the strawman, which is going to get a thorough flailing now. In my Russian lit courses, we studied Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin, among others. In my French lit courses, we studied Voltaire, Rousseau, Molière, and Victor Hugo, among others. In my Italian language courses (sorry to say I didn't take any Italian lit, but then my Italian wasn't good enough for it), we spoke of Dante. In my favorite 4th-year comparative lit course, which doubled as a course that Masters students could (and did) take, we studied picaresque novels, including Don Quixote and a bit of Apuleius' Golden Ass.

In the Masters program I'm currently doing, we're required to have enough of a background in the classics to be able to quote, and preferably comprehend, them in at least Latin or Ancient Greek (depending on the cite and on our focus). We're also required to know the "big names" in whichever literatures we choose as our focus. You wouldn't be able to have French lit as a focus if you'd never read Voltaire, or Middle French poetry, or Corneille, etc., for instance. Why? Because you can't speak of the present, much less the future, if you know nothing of the past. Past cultural issues absolutely inform the present, and this is reflected in how serious academics teach. This guy's letter is an excellent example of that, and also a nice, if less academic, example of what can be done with comparative literature.
posted by fraula at 12:50 PM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]



That straw man, I am going to disemstrawen it.


I think you take me for someone I'm not. What I'm not saying is that the black queer feminists (which was obviously facetious, by the way) have displaced the great books from the academy or whatever. What I am saying is that the canon and the greatness of the Great Books are no longer taken as givens by most humanities scholars. We're very aware now of the way that canons get historically shaped and constructed (some of the most interesting current work is about the way different works move in and out of the canon as their cultural context changes). If you think the canon is a historically mutable (and not necessarily positive) phenomenon shaped by various political, ideological, and other pressures over time, it becomes very difficult to point to it as a fundamental justification for your field of study without some degree of bad faith.

I'd be interested in what you think an alternative system for the humanities would look like and why no one has yet tried to create one.


Why hasn't anyone created one? Well, I think the biggest thing is that the process of academic training socializes people into accepting the current system as the only possible one. What other systems would be viable? I honestly don't know. I think we need to start figuring this out and experimenting before the university decays completely.

Shh! He is busy putting the idiot in idiosyncratic. DO NOT DISTURB FAUX CONTRARIAN.


Oh, go away.
posted by nasreddin at 1:02 PM on November 20, 2010


Also, here's Adam Smith's take (long, sorry):
If in each college the tutor or teacher, who was to instruct each student in all arts and sciences, should not be voluntarily chosen by the student, but appointed by the head of the college; and if, in case of neglect, inability, or bad usage, the student should not be allowed to change him for another, without leave first asked and obtained, such a regulation would not only tend very much to extinguish all emulation among the different tutors of the same college, but to diminish very much in all of them the necessity of diligence and of attention to their respective pupils. Such teachers, though very well paid by their students, might be as much disposed to neglect them as those who are not paid by them at all, or who have no other recompense but their salary.

If the teacher happens to be a man of sense, it must be an unpleasant thing to him to be conscious, while he is lecturing his students, that he is either speaking or reading nonsense, or what is very little better than nonsense. It must, too, be unpleasant to him to observe that the greater part of his students desert his lectures; or perhaps attend upon them with plain enough marks of neglect, contempt, and derision. If he is obliged, therefore, to give a certain number of lectures, these motives alone, without any other interest, might dispose him to take some pains to give tolerably good ones. Several different expedients, however, may be fallen upon which will effectually blunt the edge of all those incitements to diligence. The teacher, instead of explaining to his pupils himself the science in which he proposes to instruct them, may read some book upon it; and if this book is written in a foreign and dead language, by interpreting it to them into their own; or, what would give him still less trouble, by making them interpret it to him, and by now and then making an occasional remark upon it, he may flatter himself that he is giving a lecture. The slightest degree of knowledge and application will enable him to do this without exposing himself to contempt or derision, or saying anything that is really foolish, absurd, or ridiculous. The discipline of the college, at the same time, may enable him to force all his pupils to the most regular attendance upon this sham-lecture, and to maintain the most decent and respectful behaviour during the whole time of the performance.

The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him, as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability. It seems to presume perfect wisdom and virtue in the one order, and the greatest weakness and folly in the other. Where the masters, however, really perform their duty, there are no examples, I believe, that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs. No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given. Force and restraint may, no doubt, be in some degree requisite in order to oblige children, or very young boys, to attend to those parts of education which it is thought necessary for them to acquire during that early period of life; but after twelve or thirteen years of age, provided the master does his duty, force or restraint can scarce ever be necessary to carry on any part of education. Such is the generosity of the greater part of young men, that, so far from being disposed to neglect or despise the instructions of their master, provided he shows some serious intention of being of use to them, they are generally inclined to pardon a great deal of incorrectness in the performance of his duty, and sometimes even to conceal from the public a good deal of gross negligence.

Those parts of education, it is to be observed, for the teaching of which there are no public institutions, are generally the best taught. When a young man goes to a fencing or a dancing school, he does not indeed always learn to fence or to dance very well; but he seldom fails of learning to fence or to dance. The good effects of the riding school are not commonly so evident. The expence of a riding school is so great, that in most places it is a public institution. The three most essential parts of literary education, to read, write, and account, it still continues to be more common to acquire in private than in public schools; and it very seldom happens that anybody fails of acquiring them to the degree in which it is necessary to acquire them.
- The Wealth of Nations, Book V
posted by nasreddin at 1:06 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why hasn't anyone created one? Well, I think the biggest thing is that the process of academic training socializes people into accepting the current system as the only possible one. What other systems would be viable? I honestly don't know. I think we need to start figuring this out and experimenting before the university decays completely.

You're a little behind the curve there... although I agree completely with you when you say "...the biggest thing is that the process of academic training socializes people into accepting the current system as the only possible one." It's kind of a catch-22, because we've got a lot of ideas and cool stuff going on, but people don't seem to get it and are afraid to try new things—the humanities are what they have always been in these people's minds, and changing them would be blasphemy. But then these departments are seen as outmoded because they are not changing with the times, or perhaps just unnecessary "in this day and age." It doesn't make any sense.

The problem is that people (administrators as well as conservative forces within the departments themselves) don't get it, not that there isn't a ton of interesting stuff out there and new ways of looking at the humanities, things where people go "oh, that's really cool and useful!" once you give them a five minute explanation. Speaking as someone who works in the field, in one of the predominant technical universities in the world, it's very frustrating.
posted by dubitable at 1:52 PM on November 20, 2010


You're a little behind the curve there...

Trust me, as a grad student, I'm very well aware of the importance of the digital humanities! I'm not sure that a technological solution is really the way to go here, though. Online universities have a lot of problems, but on the whole they're a positive development. In traditional universities, though, technology often ends up being used as a way to patch up the system without dealing with any of the underlying issues. (For instance, the whole "clicker" thing.) Any new system will of course rely very strongly on the Internet, but I suspect small, organic interpersonal communities of students or researchers will have to replace the department structure.
posted by nasreddin at 1:59 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Online universities have a lot of problems, but on the whole they're a positive development.

Um...this is really, really, not what digital humanities means, and the fact that you think so is, I suppose, as much of a failure of the field to define itself with people who have a more traditional understanding of what the humanities is as anything. Sad though.

Digital humanities is "just" a technical solution to the same degree that gene sequencing is "just" a technical solution in biology. It's a new way of thinking about basic research in the humanities, of understanding the questions the humanities provoke, a way of working in an interdisciplinary fashion...etc. Please read the wikipedia article I linked to if you actually want to know what it is, although keep in mind that it just scratches the surface.
posted by dubitable at 2:09 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Um...this is really, really, not what digital humanities means, and the fact that you think so is, I suppose, as much of a failure of the field to define itself with people who have a more traditional understanding of what the humanities is as anything. Sad though.

I include "digital humanities" under the more general rubric of "technological solutions to the problems of the university." You can sigh and lmgtfy me all you want, but if you think technology and its associated cognitive effects are going to singlehandedly create or enable a new institutional framework for the humanities, you're simply naive. (If that's not what you're saying, great, but it's certainly how you're coming off to me.) I'm reminded of Soviet economic planners who used loud handwaving about computerization and "the acceleration of scientific-technical progress" to avoid talking about the much more immediate structural problems their system was facing.
posted by nasreddin at 2:19 PM on November 20, 2010


If you think the canon is a historically mutable (and not necessarily positive) phenomenon shaped by various political, ideological, and other pressures over time, it becomes very difficult to point to it as a fundamental justification for your field of study without some degree of bad faith.

This sounds an awful lot like a scientist using the same reductive reasoning found in the anti-evolution argument that science can't be reliable if it's constantly changing.

What's considered canon is mutable because society's changing mores is part of humanities itself. It's similar to how the impressionists weren't allowed in the Louvre but are now often known by more people than Renaissance works. It's also similar to how quantum mechanics was rejected by some classical physicists until consensus moved to support it. It's not that people before were necessarily wrong, as in Newton wasn't wrong and his theories can still be used reliably to a point, but they didn't have as much information, or the information was different.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:33 PM on November 20, 2010


I include "digital humanities" under the more general rubric of "technological solutions to the problems of the university." You can sigh and lmgtfy me all you want, but if you think technology and its associated cognitive effects are going to singlehandedly create or enable a new institutional framework for the humanities, you're simply naive. (If that's not what you're saying, great, but it's certainly how you're coming off to me.) I'm reminded of Soviet economic planners who used loud handwaving about computerization and "the acceleration of scientific-technical progress" to avoid talking about the much more immediate structural problems their system was facing.

Seriously? Fine, don't read the article, you're free to singlehandedly define digital humanities however you want since obviously there isn't a body of scholars and technologists who've thought very hard about it and have a different idea than you. Sorry you're not willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, or read the thing I linked to, or even ask me questions about what I myself said ("It's a new way of thinking about basic research in the humanities, of understanding the questions the humanities provoke, a way of working in an interdisciplinary fashion...etc."), but instead must simply compare me to Soviet bureaucrats and call me naive. Nevermind, I'll go back in my cave and leave you alone.
posted by dubitable at 2:34 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I find myself agreeing with the writer, and then I find myself agreeing with nasreddin, and then I find myself agreeing with some of those who criticize nasreddin, and then I find myself not remembering my own name or where I live.

Briefly: My humanities education has left me confused.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:50 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


My humanities education has left me confused.
posted by Dumsnill at 5:50 PM on November 20 [2 favorites +] [!] No other comments.


Confused is good. Confused is treatable with more beer and conversation. What we want to avoid is reactionary and mad.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:47 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Maybe we need to rethink the idea of employment in the humanities:

What would it mean to see advanced degrees in the humanities as akin to pursuing fine arts, with its expectation of economic instability? How would we talk differently to prospective (and current) graduate students if we saw them as more like aspiring novelists or actors?

posted by melloscope at 5:48 PM on November 20, 2010


Re-think?!?!
posted by IndigoJones at 7:22 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The reason we don't have humanities outside of academia is that most of us are not independently wealthy. It takes a bloody lot of time to do good humanities research. No one wants to work all day, come home, cook dinner and then try reading 50+ page pamphlets about economic development in complicated seventeenth century elite language, before falling asleep. And if you're doing archival work, not a chance - most archives aren't open past five.

The academy is what FEEDS scholars. Scholarship is a full-time job, and you need the money so that you can eat so that you don't faint into your manuscripts. Oh, yeah, and so that you have a place to sleep. Talk to graduate students without adequate funding - they try to work for money and continue working on their scholarly work, but it's bloody near impossible.

This isn't to say that there aren't great independent and part-time scholars. But I've done 9-to-5 while trying to do research, and I couldn't get any research done. My brain was just too fried. I'm resigned to the idea that if I don't get an academic job, my life as an active humanities researcher is over. I may be able to parlay my experience over into public-policy research or a related field, but I and the seventeenth century will become passing aquaintances at best.
posted by jb at 8:24 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


This isn't to say that there aren't great independent and part-time scholars. But I've done 9-to-5 while trying to do research, and I couldn't get any research done. My brain was just too fried. I'm resigned to the idea that if I don't get an academic job, my life as an active humanities researcher is over. I may be able to parlay my experience over into public-policy research or a related field, but I and the seventeenth century will become passing aquaintances at best.

Yeah, absolutely, and this is what makes it such a big problem to try to devise an alternative system. I didn't mean to suggest scholars should just be expected to work on things in their spare time--that's insane.
posted by nasreddin at 8:41 PM on November 20, 2010


nasreddin - but how do they pay their rent? feed their children?
posted by jb at 8:44 PM on November 20, 2010


(those aren't just easy rhetorical flourishes, though having written them, they sound so cheesy. But they are real, every-day concerns for me right now. The children are still theorectical, mainly because I couldn't feed them if I actually had them.)
posted by jb at 8:45 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic..............
posted by dibblda at 8:51 PM on November 20, 2010


nasreddin - but how do they pay their rent? feed their children?

I don't know. I don't have any answers. But it's pretty clear to me that academia as it exists today is not a great or even an adequate system for the majority of the people who want to be scholars. I feel lucky that my program is well-ranked, even though my field is not doing well, but the best even the people in my department can hope for is to get in somewhere by sheer force of luck and/or cronyism before all the tenure track lines disappear. I doubt that the people who are stuck doing 4 separate adjunct gigs to pay the bills are doing much productive scholarship either. (And yes, everyone knew about these problems going in, but that doesn't mean the environment of scholarly research isn't poisoned by the current structure.)
posted by nasreddin at 8:58 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The 2011 Budget for DOD provides $548.9 billion for the Department of Defense base budget in 2011, a 3.4 percent increase over the 2010 enacted level. (bake sale anyone?)

This obscene amount of money, which feeds the Gods of war, death, and greed that rule this country could instead be lavished on the muses of the arts... but why waste money on educating people when you can waste it on killing people?
posted by nikoniko at 9:22 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know what, I want to say something here. I posted that "bad vestments" blog in jest because I'd recently stumbled upon it and thought it was kind of funny. But after actually clicking through some of the links and comments, I've discovered that it's populated by some of the most mean-spirited, homophobic assholes I've ever seen on the internet. I'm not even going to link to my original comment because I really don't want folks to click on it. So I'm going to go ahead and discourage people from feeding that site (assuming of course, that they read this.) I sent an email to the blog's proprietor encouraging them to pull the racist and homophobic comments but I don't expect a response.
It's so frustrating to see a funny idea derailed by assholes and conservatives. It's like they're born without an ounce of good humor or mercy in their bodies.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:59 PM on November 20, 2010


Oh, jeez. As a scientist and former science prof who thinks that America is sorely in need of better liberal arts education, I was so excited to see this FPP. What a disappointment that the letter itself is so fucking snide, and his otherwise excellent arguments are wrapped in such an unprofessional and ugly personal attack. It'd pack a lot more wallop if it weren't so puerile.

I remember seeing Greg Petsko speak a few times when I was in grad school. He clearly gets a big charge out of being seen as an iconoclast. It's entertaining and all, but you think by now he would have figured out when to get the hell out of the way of his own argument.
posted by Sublimity at 9:37 AM on November 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


Afaik, mathematicians and theoretical physicists are doing just fine, ennui.bz. Yes sure, math grants are small enough that they don't curry favor with university presidents. Who cares? All that matters is : Are the PhDs getting good jobs in a timely fashion?

Mathematicians, and presumably all scientists, are usually quite happy with the non-academic careers they eventually pursue. So the question boils down to : Are they sending too many years as postdocs?

Biologists spend like ten years doing postdocs before eventually quitting academic research for industry, or occasionally teaching positions. Mathematicians usually spend only about six years as research postdocs before departing academia for industry, the NSA, or teaching.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:37 AM on November 22, 2010


Who should run a university?

On the Bologna model, a university is run by a student guild/union. It's never caught on in the English speaking world, but it makes some sense. Seeing as students are the ones paying the bills, it isn't crazy to think that they should call the shots. It's in their self interest to make sure the university continues to have a reputation for intellectual excellence.

On the Oxford model (the magisterial university) professors run the university. The logic is that lay people are not well qualified to assess what professors do. That's not as arrogant as it sounds. I can't evaluate the importance of Russian studies because I really don't know what they do (teach...Russian? Literature? History?) or how they do it. The theory is that the people best qualified to discover, preserve and propagate knowledge within a discipline are the academics themselves. They're not the only people who know what's going on in their fields, but they have some right to think that they really do know best.

Most universities today follow neither of these models. They are run by administrators who are not working academics. Unlike students and faculty, they do not come into direct contact with the real business of the university.

The fact that faculty have a union is the baldest possible admission that they have surrendered control of the institution to the administrators, an admission that they are not the management. The administrated university is now the near-universal model.

We deserve the current situation. Students deserve high and increasing tuition. Professors deserve to see tenure die, or wither away as retiring faculty are replaced by sessional teachers. Professors especially have tended to treat service obligations as a bit of a joke, not seeming to realize that if we do not grind through the boring work ourselves then decisions will be made for us. We got lazy, and treated the health of our institution as unimportant. We gave them the power of the purse. We think too small to try to take it back.

(daydream: a simultaneous strike by graduate students and faculty, combined with a tuition strike by students)
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:35 PM on November 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


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