humanities, universities and sustainability

It’s that time of year, when enrollments have been counted and academic job postings have begun to appear, that those in the humanities–though certainly not only the humanities–turn their minds to uncertain future. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed carries on this tradition, comparing the shrinking tenure-track job market to job losses in the Rust Belt. At UB, TAs continue their protest for improved pay, many of them also worried about what they will face after graduation, while the school notes that people with Phds earn 72% more than those with undergrad degrees… though as the commercial warns, past performance is no guarantee of future earnings. The author of the Inside Higher Ed article remarks on his journey from a Yale Phd in Classics to a career in technology and marketing. (It’s good to hear those Ivy League grads are finding a way to land on their feet!)

In my thinking about these matters, the focus is on sustainability. Shrinking–or at least consistently low–undergraduate enrollments, growing–or consistently large–graduate programs, and stagnating tenure track job markets do not make a recipe for sustainability. Obviously sustainability is a difficult mark to reach and in part because one has to ask what one wishes to sustain. On one level, these are necessarily local matters as what will work for one department on one campus will not work for another. However, there is also a degree to which we share a collective fate as well. Some might view sustainability from a conservative perspective, meaning that what we are seeking to sustain is a particular tradition of intellectual-scholarly-disciplinary knowledge and culture. From this perspective one might say that it doesn’t matter how small a discipline becomes as long as we sustain those traditions (which is not the same as desiring that the discipline shrinks of course). A different, more progressive perspective (if progressive is the right word, not sure) would emphasize the material strength and presence of the discipline, even if that meant abandoning traditions (which is not the same as seeking the destruction of those traditions). In the latter approach the question is how does a department evolve from its current state in a way that makes it materially stronger, which probably means one or more of the following:

  • increasing the number of majors (and student enrollment in general)
  • becoming more integral to general education
  • increasing success with graduate programs (which has to do with things like time to degree and job placement)
  • improved scholarly productivity.

And these advances may or may not come at the expense of disciplinary or departmental traditions, though that said it almost certainly requires figuring out ways to leverage one’s existing strengths.

As I’ve written about in other recent posts, this semester I’ve come back to teaching undergraduates in the classroom. One thing that hasn’t changed, from my perspective, is that while students are concerned about the careers they will pursue after graduation, those plans are often fairly nebulous. This seems entirely reasonable to me. I think of my own 18 year old daughter in her second year at Pitt; she’s a computer science and math major. While she has plans and intellectual interests, I don’t think she has a particular career in mind.  There are many opportunities that might arise from her studies. My impression is that a good number of students have a similar perspective. They want to understand the value of the courses they’re taking but I don’t think there needs to be a direct correlation between the curriculum and a job activity in order for students to view a course as valuable.

In English we often cite central curricular principles around the activities of reading and writing. I think it’s fair to say as a general rule that regardless of whether one is in a class in creative writing, literary studies, rhetoric, or one of the other sub-disciplines of English Studies that reading and writing are regular activities. Though of course such activities are quite common across classes on a campus, English Studies is fairly unique in the attention it pays to those activities not only in the classroom but in its research. From this, one might logically conclude that the discipline houses campus expertise in such matters.

And it does, to a certain extent.

What is trickier–and this brings me back to the question of sustainability–are the limits of that expertise. Poets, novelists, literary critics, rhetoricians and such have never really undertaken to be experts in literate practices in general. Instead, our expertise lies in specific literate practices–those of the writers and discourse communities we study and those of our own disciplinary-scholarly genres and communities. Rhetoric is the most expansive of these terms and could–in theory–include all literate practices but any given scholar has a particular focus and the discipline as a whole clusters around certain foci (e.g., composition studies and college student writers in first-year composition classes). At best one can say that rhetoric provides methods that are broadly applicable to the study of virtually any literate practice and might be used to assist one in adapting to new rhetorical situations. (That is, they might be the basis for both declarative and procedural knowledge.) However, even if one accepts that argument, that’s a long, long way from the baseline principle claim of saying “take classes in our disciplines and you will learn how to read and write:” a claim that is either deliberately misleading, while technically true (you will learn to read and write in a particular way), or demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of how reading and writing function. And I’m not sure which is the more charitable interpretation.

I’m not sure how we get from where we are to a more sustainable but yet recognizable version of ourselves. Our arguments often focus on insisting that others value us more for what we already do. That strikes me more as the other strategy–the one that is aimed on our not changing. However if we take ourselves at our own word and say that our principles really are focused on reading and writing, then the question we might ask is what do expert readers/writers do? What capacities do they have–as readers and writers–that set them apart? What makes them valuable? If the Greeks trained citizens to argue in the agora, what’s our version of that? Or rather what are our many versions of that?


  • David Grant

    Where do you see folks in literacy studies in all this? Deb Brandt has argued for pretty general trends in reading and writing that hold across the US and abroad. I do take your point, though: what is the central and more generalizable “outcome” for English Studies. We may bristle at that question and for good reason, but it is being asked of us in ways that will affect the future of the fields.

    • I was thinking about that as I wrote this. I’m not sure what you mean by general trends in regards to Brandt. My point is that a scientist doesn’t read a lab report in the same way as a literary critic reads a poem: that reading, like writing, relies on particular networks and assemblages to function. That said, those who study literacy, both in and out of the boundaries of English Studies, are part of this larger picture.

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