If humanities scholars are driven from the university, what sort of institution shall become our new home?
As I prepare to teach the Aeneid, I’m thinking of a recent conversation on the future of liberal arts scholarship with Bill Pannapacker. Shortly after I met Bill at a Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in 1998, he started writing elegant rants against the “academic job system” for the Chronicle of Higher Education. They generated an enormous amount of electronic umbrage, especially among tenured faculty, who don’t like being told that they have no business preparing anyone, talented or otherwise, for a profession that treats half of its initiates as toxic waste. No more students means no more classes.
Ironically, however, when working-class academics like Bill and I tell our students not to pursue an academic career unless they are independently wealthy, our presence in the classroom belies our words. Many of their parents have somehow managed, despite the Great Recession, to accumulate the minor fortune it now takes to send their children to school. Our students also assume that some of the adjunct professors who teach nearly 75% of the courses offered at American universities lead a pretty good life. In New York City especially, adjuncts are often highly accomplished professionals with a distinguished non-academic career. While my own resume is nothing to brag about, and neither I nor my generous and patient husband are happy about the low pay and no benefits, my gigs as an adjunct generally involve few (if any) administrative duties. Plus, I get to live in New York, and during the summer, instead of writing dull scholarly articles that no one reads anyway, I work in my garden. So when my students ask, “Why not? You did it!” I realize that I’m not in a position to tell them to forget about bucking the system.
Furthermore, they say, the university is not the only place that humanities grads can launch an exciting career. What’s wrong with pursuing the pleasures of an intense intellectual life for a few more years before they enter the work force?
My problems with the "alt-ac" (alternatives to the academy) movement are what it leads us back to. Should a left-leaning professor be promoting, even inadvertently, a return to a state of affairs where, except for a handful of gentlemen scholars who were born into their privileges, a university degree means tutoring the children of the aristocracy? Remember Chaucer’s clerk? Raskolnikov? How could an Italian scholar, nourished on the writings of Antonio Gramsci, even tolerate such a thought?
But the challenge to the humanities is not merely one of regression, where only elite schools like Harvard and Yale will be running Ph.D. degree programs in language, history, philosophy, and literature. Bill Pannapacker and I thought we were witnessing the birth of an academic labor movement when graduate students at Yale went on strike in 1995; now, instead, we wonder if we are anticipating the fall of Troy. If the university continues to devote itself vocational training at the expense of the humanities, if it begins to offer most of its general and introductory courses in the humanities online, then what happens to truly transformative thinking, the kind of scholarship that overturns fundamental intellectual paradigms? Will STEMs carry the torch?
Almost all of my students are appalled when I tell them that if our language, literature, history, and philosophy courses don’t start attracting more majors, as a cost-cutting move universities will be tempted to offer their tenured faculty early retirement and outsource their introductory courses in literature and philosophy to MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses). Does it matter that most students don’t like them? It’s too easy for them to multitask when they are sitting in front of a computer. If they have to watch online lectures at Walmart U, they would rather do so in a classroom, where they have the opportunity to ask questions and interact with their teacher and their classmates. But more worrisome yet is the dismal online course completion rates. If we have trouble preventing our students from playing with their electronic toys in the classroom, God help us if we expect them to pay attention to a lecture in their dorm rooms. Are MOOCs truly the proper venue for laying the intellectual groundwork for the future of the humanities?
And what about the impact that cutthroat competition for tenure-track jobs, and the resultant inflation of requirements for academic promotion, has had on the quality of our scholarship? Ninety percent of the articles published in peer-reviewed literary journals are unreadable—an opinion I share with the likes of David Foster Wallace, who detested the style of writing fostered within the academy. The entire system of academic scholarship—from the pressure to publish often and early (too early, for most young scholars), to the mind-numbing quantity of material one has to read to keep up with one’s field, to the inbred editorial boards of peer-reviewed journals, to the proliferation of scholarly monographs written primarily to comply with the demands of academic promotion—is poison to the life of the mind.
Perhaps our handwringing is unwarranted. The university may yet discover that it cannot provide an adequate education without the liberal arts. But if it doesn't? Those of us who no longer have a future within the academy will simply have to push off from Troy. It may take us a few years to find a new home, but our day will come.
This is, after all, not the first time that the official standards for scholarship have become too rigid, stifling, and expensive for the academy’s best thinkers. When in 529 C.E. Justinian forbade the teaching of pagan philosophy at the School of Athens, several out-of work-scholars migrated to Baghdad, where the texts they brought with them were translated into Arabic. By the 12th century, Islamic, Jewish, and Spanish scholars were collectively translating Aristotle’s works into Latin, right about the time that Abelard was turning academic disputation into a popular form of entertainment. Students eager to study Aristotle flocked to Paris, where Abelard’s disciples focused on the liberal arts rather than on the writings of the early church fathers and the Scriptures. Whenever the church’s hostility to Aristotle surfaced as an ongoing problem (it might emerge, for example, as the topic of a sermon following a tavern brawl in the Latin quarter), the faculty and student guilds at Paris would threaten to migrate to a nearby city to shield their activities from outside interference. Local merchants and landlords who depended on the university for their livelihoods then forced the local bishop and city officials to come to terms with the faculty in exile. Several famous medieval universities—Oxford and Toulouse, to name two distinguished examples—profited enormously from such migrations.
Let us hope that the proliferation of online scholarship ex urbe marks the birth of new School of Athens, one that offers a haven for graduate students with little hope of a traditional academic career. But wherever humanity scholars settle, I’m confident that the liberal arts will remain the foundation of intellectual endeavor. University presidents may see the future of higher education in terms of their spreadsheets, but a true scholar’s final goal will never be mere vocational training.