MLA Delegate Assembly narrowly approves controversial measure criticizing Israeli decisions on travel of scholars to the country and the West Bank. Should the meeting have been chaired by someone who backs boycott of Israel?
We write as a group of concerned scholars in response to the recent Modern Language Association report on doctoral study in modern languages and literatures. We appreciate the efforts of the committee that produced the document and understand the reasoning behind several of its individual recommendations. At the same time, we feel strongly that this document misses two crucial opportunities: (1) To articulate the underlying structural conditions of the crisis it describes (including but not limited to dramatic cuts in education funding, the deep and ongoing reductions of tenure and tenure-track jobs, the systematic exploitation of adjunct and graduate student labor, and the expansion of senior administrative ranks); and (2) To campaign actively for the value of the scholarly practices, individual and collective, of its members. We are not opposed in principle to the ideals of innovation, expansion, diversification and transformation advocated in the report, but we are concerned that these ideals may operate as buzzwords that detract attention from a more fundamental problem: the devaluation of academic labor and the marginalization of humanities scholarship and expertise. We call upon the MLA to advocate rather than capitulate.
Of the numerous responses to the MLA report, many have been critical of its call for doctoral programs to take into account the bleak realities of the academic job market; other responses have congratulated the MLA for its virtual admission of defeat. We take issue with the sense of capitulation that hangs over the report. Whereas we share the committee’s “concern about the future of humanistic study” and its recognition of “structural problems” in higher education, we worry that the report accepts “doubts about the legitimacy of doctoral study” as its starting point.
The report incorporates rather than disputes the frequent and often ad hominem attacks on the legitimacy of the humanities, suggesting that we should change to meet those criticisms rather than challenge them. Its conclusion that doctoral training must be reformed “to bring degree requirements in line with the ever evolving character of our fields” remains unsettlingly passive toward the realities of such an “evolution.” Yet without a more active response from the largest professional humanities organization, the casualization of academic labor and devaluation of humanities scholarship will only increase. Instead of “responding” to these conditions with unrealistic recommendations for change, the MLA should work to combat and change them.
Although we are well aware that no single professional organization has the power to undertake structural changes throughout all of higher education, part of the MLA’s mission is to set the terms of public discourse about the study and teaching of languages and literatures. A language borrowed from the world of business administration — flexible, adaptable, deliver, evolving — pervades the report. Upon what economic realities are such demands based? Year after year there are more students enrolling in colleges and universities in the United States, which implies a greater demand for well-trained, full-time faculty.
And yet each year there are fewer and fewer full-time faculty positions. The MLA report inadvertently justifies this situation rather than redressing it. Where else beside the humanities and social sciences can we hope to find a longer-term vision for higher education? We applaud the MLA recommendations that seek more fully to recognize the public contribution of humanistic scholarship. We take issue with the implication that “nontraditional careers” would be located “outside the confines of the academy,” as those of us who work primarily within the academy do not necessarily feel “confined” by our positions. Moreover, such language itself contributes to the perception that the academy is irredeemably divided from the “real world” — precisely the division we should be working to efface, as it contributes to the devaluation of academic labor, as well as the difficulties that humanities Ph.D.s often face in finding alternative positions.
Two of the primary reforms outlined in the MLA report are a reduction of time to degree and a new, inter- and paradisciplinary approach to training. Both of these, jointly and individually, appear to us as sources of potential erosion of scholarly values.
The MLA is right to point to the financial burdens that an extended period of time to degree presents to graduate students, particularly given the precarity of the academic job market. The report calls on departments to “reimagine the dissertation” as a way to reduce time to degree. This raises several concerns for us about the function of a non-traditional dissertation. Along with the recommendation to “abandon expectation of comprehensive coverage,” it seems possible that a reimagined dissertation would be less than what is now expected — and less valued. For those who seek alt-ac careers, would a non-traditional dissertation be any more of an asset? As long as departments continue to be structured by literary-historical fields and tenure continues to be tied to monographs, a non-traditional dissertation seems likely to do a great disservice to students on the job market and the tenure track.
This concern is compounded by the increased burden placed on doctoral students in the calls for inter- and paradisciplinary training and more teaching. With the report’s recommendations for collaboration across disciplines, sustained work with professionals in libraries, museums, IT, and administration, as well as significant training in new digital methodologies, we cannot see how time to degree could be reduced without abandoning training in the study of literatures and languages themselves. Moreover, such new career training places increased burdens on graduate program faculty (directors, in particular). The report somehow expects faculty to provide training for students in areas where faculty themselves may not be adequately trained. Moreover, the MLA’s recommendation that Ph.D. programs “use the whole university” by seeking out non-faculty with diverse expertise to mentor graduate students does not address whether and how these individuals are to be compensated for this substantial additional demand on their labor time.
Furthermore, interdisciplinary scholarship, done well, requires mastering multiple disciplines, something for which most doctoral students do not have the time — or funding — even under current conditions. The report calls for “sufficient teaching opportunities…accompanied by course work, practical experience, and mentoring.” Again, leaving aside how graduate student teaching is bound up with the deterioration of full-time faculty employment, this stipulation also increases rather than decreases time to degree.
The national average of 9+ years to complete a humanities degree seems shocking and insupportable to many, and we are certainly not advocating that graduate students routinely remain in school for a decade or more. That said, the MLA report’s emphasis on reduction of time to degree would potentially homogenize the variety of intellectual pursuits essential to doctoral education, and would put pedagogical and research training into greater tension. There are a variety of factors that extend time in graduate school, from language acquisition to archival research to precisely the sort of pedagogical and alternative/extra-disciplinary training that the MLA report advocates. Moreover, the report’s lack of guidelines for how program administrators are supposed to balance an increase in areas of Ph.D. training with a sharp reduction in time to degree makes this into something of a hollow recommendation.
We are also concerned that the report focuses upon the “professional” need for program redesign at the expense of programs’ intellectual needs — and at the expense of labor issues. While the MLA is clearly responding to the bleak outlook for full-time professorial employment, it suggests adjusting ourselves and graduate education to that “reality,” rather than calling for a broad-based critical and potentially transformative engagement with current conditions. This seems to stem from two issues: a focus on elite Ph.D. programs and a failure to link various issues of teaching to issues of academic labor.
Behind the question of whether Ph.D. programs can be said to “devalue” teaching is the link between graduate teaching and labor practices. While we agree that it is crucial for graduate students to be well-trained teachers, this aspect of graduate training cannot be severed from academic labor conditions. Too often the instrumental use of graduate students as teachers is pushed by (the ever-growing ranks of) senior administrators to justify expenditures in the form of stipends and tuition remission and to provide cheap labor in the place of full-time faculty. Graduate student teaching is a significant part of the contingent labor problem that plagues universities in the 21st century. While the report acknowledges the issue of contingent labor, it is too frequently bracketed from the rest of the salient points.
In an effort to engage positively with the report, we offer here a list of suggested steps faculty — and the MLA — can take to deal with the structural issues we face, rather than simply accommodating ourselves to the devaluation of our disciplines and of academic labor.
1. Public advocacy. This could include speaking about these issues in classes, in meetings, in public forums; writing op-eds; insisting that senior administrators consistently justify the hiring practices of the university, not only in terms of faculty hiring, but also of administrative and professional staff. Of particular importance would be to obtain and circulate the Adjunct/Tenure faculty ratio in departments and at universities.
2. Independent metrics. We propose that the MLA designate a task force to develop a more viable set of “outcomes assessment” guidelines and metrics for evaluating the success of humanities graduate programs. This was Gerald Graff's platform as MLA president in 2008, but remains under-implemented and relevant today.
3. Reduced program size. Short- and possibly long-term reductions in admissions so that cohorts are smaller and have summer funding. Propose alternative curricular strategies for sustaining smaller graduate cohorts: e.g., reduced teaching credit (rather than cancelation) for under-enrolled graduate seminars; team-taught graduate seminars, and so on. Here we expressly disagree with the MLA report’s refusal to consider recommending a reduction is cohort size; we find this impractical to the point of irresponsibility. To accomplish expanded training in fewer years, it is imperative that Ph.D. students be given additional support and funding. Already-strapped programs will simply be unable to find the resources to increase funding and support without reducing cohort size.
4. Organized labor. Actively support the unionization of part-time/adjunct faculty, support that should stretch across all ranks of faculty. We acknowledge that certain aspects of organization must come from contingent faculty, but we insist that for broad structural changes, institutions like the MLA as well as tenured and tenure-track faculty must be involved in the process to change the culture of higher education. For the MLA, this might include speaking out against anti-union colleges and universities.
5. Alt-ac integration. Reimagine alt-ac as a fundamental extension of the sphere of the humanities — rather than as an alternative to it — in sustaining intellectual environments. This means: advocacy in the classroom, the association, the department, the scholarly network, the publishing “market,” and the university itself. Extend the scope of humanities research throughout the education system, arts and cultural organizations, and such — occupying, rebuilding, and refitting existing ones as well as infusing public discourse. We affirm the report’s insistence on recognizing the broad diversity of career paths — not simply to provide Ph.D.s with more access to jobs but also as a means of infusing and transforming public discourse with the aim of revaluing an expanded vision of intellectual labor in the humanities.
6. Direct action. The academic labor situation is clearly at a breaking point which cannot be remedied by the MLA alone. Structural transformation will require action on many fronts — strikes, protests, and other creative forms of organizing and outreach, including work across universities as well as within individual institutions.
The MLA report offers as its motivation the “persistent criticism from within the academy and from a larger public” that doctoral study has received. If there is one thing that scholars in languages and literature are trained to receive, interpret, and produce, it is criticism. It is time for the MLA and its members to take a strong stand against the political and institutional forces that threaten the humanities’ growth, in order to maintain and reimagine the institutional and intellectual environments in which we all can thrive.
The following are the authors of this essay:
Hester Blum, associate professor of English, Pennsylvania State University
Sarah Chinn, associate professor of English, Hunter College of the City University of New York
Brian Connolly, associate professor of history, University of South Florida
Jonathan P. Eburne, associate professor of Comparative Literature and English, and Director of Graduate Studies for Comparative Literature, Penn State University
Joseph Fruscione, editor of the “Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts” column at Inside Higher Ed (formerly of George Washington University)
Jennifer Greiman, associate professor of English and director of English graduate studies, State University of New York at Albany
Jeffrey Insko, associate professor of English, Oakland University
Dana Luciano, associate professor of English, Georgetown University
Justine S. Murison, associate professor of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Lisi M. Schoenbach, associate professor of English, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
As many of you know, controversy swirled at the 2014 Modern Language Association convention, before, during, and after. I’m still receiving dozens of messages from individuals with no connection to the MLA, some of which contain hate speech, others offering a more reasoned perspective. Only about two dozen members have communicated with me directly about the controversy, but hundreds participated in discussions at the convention, including the open hearings of the Delegate Assembly, the assembly meeting itself, and the session responsible for one part of the controversy. I want to give my perspective on these events and clear up some misunderstandings of how things at the MLA work.
Although approximately 7,500 convention attendees had a chance to experience more than 800 sessions and the Chicago meeting was successful in achieving its intellectual and social goals, one session generated inordinate attention: “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” This special session was evaluated by the Program Committee, which accepted about 60 percent of the approximately 500 session proposals it received. At the Program Committee meeting in May 2013 (long before the American Studies Association met in late November), members discussed the merits of this proposal and determined, using the committee’s guidelines, that the proposer made a cogent argument for the topic, its treatment, and the qualifications of the panelists to achieve the stated objectives. As sometimes happens, the Program Committee, which I, as executive director, chair, made suggestions for revising the session description. The committee wanted attendees to know that the “roundtable is intended to promote discussion of strategy, ethics, and academic work in larger world contexts through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and that the topic was “how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally.” The proposer accepted these suggestions, as the description of the session in the program reflects.
Subsequently, following its November meeting, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities, an action that received considerable (and mostly negative) media attention. And that is when the phone calls and email messages started coming in to the MLA. I received warnings of what would transpire if I didn’t cancel the session. I was approached by two individuals representing large outside groups that opposed the MLA session. One person asked me to use my position to call off the session or instead allow people with an “opposing view” to be added to the program. Another asked for space at the convention so a group could stage a “counterpanel.” I denied both requests, just as I would have for any other topic.
Why? Because the MLA supports the fundamental right of its members to organize convention sessions according to the policies and procedures of the association. Convention programming is member-driven. Not all sessions can please everyone, of course. Some convention attendees will go to a panel and think “Hmm, those presentations I just heard were rather one-sided,” and then they will make their voices heard by offering a pointed comment or asking a tough question. That’s why we convene: to address issues — sometimes difficult and complicated issues — in scholarship, professional matters, and, yes, public policies that affect scholars, teachers, and students.
Of the hundreds of messages I received, almost all cast aspersions on the MLA just for holding the session that was approved by the Program Committee. One person after another declared that the panelists (and, by extension, the whole association) were motivated by hatred, bias, and a covert intention to promote an association-wide academic boycott. The letter writers invoked academic freedom, which seemed to mean that the MLA must be compelled to present what they thought attendees should hear. That’s certainly not how the American Association of University Professors views academic freedom. Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP and one of the most outspoken critics of the session’s content, said that the “AAUP’s position on academic events is that they do not have to incorporate opposing points of view. I agree. It is the job of those who disagree with speakers to organize their own events to promote the positions they support."
Think about it: the MLA faced a virulent attack for allowing a conversation to happen. And a conversation it was. The session moderator posed questions to the panelists that challenged their views. Audience members lined up at the microphone to state a range of opinions during the half-hour discussion period. The “countersession” (held independently of the MLA at a hotel near where the MLA session took place) went forward — and was even announced at the MLA session.
An academic conference is a meeting of peers: the structures are overseen by members, and the meeting is intended for them. Members — and only members — can organize sessions. Can nonmembers offer opinions of the work we scholars do? Of course. But should they be allowed to reengineer our convention programming to reflect their views and values? Of course not — nor are MLA members entitled to stage a panel at a conference of another professional membership association, even when they hold strong opinions on issues of vital importance.
Members gave me advice. One suggested I quietly work behind the scenes to create a countersession to the roundtable on academic boycotts. Another encouraged me to find a way to have the Program Committee ensure that sessions of an “activist” nature have a “pro-contra” character in the future. Although my job would have been a lot easier if both suggested courses of action had been undertaken this year, I refuse to interfere once the Program Committee makes decisions, unless a procedural error is made (for example, if we were to misplace a submission). I believe that our members have the right to have proposals peer-reviewed by the Program Committee without the constraint of having them set apart as “activist” and as thus requiring special measures for balance.
As for the “right to enter” resolution, there are three things to say. One: members in good standing have the right to submit resolutions (see art. 11.C.3 of the MLA constitution), to discuss them (at the convention and on the MLA Web site), and to vote on them. Two: resolution 2014-1, approved by the Delegate Assembly, concerns the right of American academics to enter the West Bank. Please read what it says. Three: the resolution cannot become a statement of the association unless it clears two more hurdles (see art. 11.C.7 of the MLA constitution), including the requirement that “resolutions forwarded to the membership must be ratified by a majority vote in which the number of those voting for ratification equals at least ten percent of the association’s membership.” Despite the conclusions to which numerous outside groups, nonmembers, and even some members have leaped, the MLA membership has not yet ratified this resolution. If the resolution passes the Executive Council’s fiduciary review, it will be up to the MLA’s approximately 28,000 members to decide what happens next. The vote of the membership follows a monthlong period in which any member may post a comment on the members’ section of the MLA Web site.
This is a conversation that should happen, and I encourage MLA members to participate in it and to vote on the resolution. Despite majority votes, neither of the two 2013 resolutions cleared the 10-percent bar. Not enough members chose to submit an electronic ballot and have their say. If my in-box is any indication, 2014 is turning out to be quite a different year.
Rosemary G. Feal is executive director of the Modern Language Association.
The Modern Language Association is the largest professional organization for humanities faculty in the country. Its Executive Council will soon make two decisions that may well have substantial impact both on public perception of the humanities and on the influence that humanities disciplines can have on public policy. Long after the flawed and embarrassing process that brought two resolutions to the floor of the association’s Delegate Assembly for debate is forgotten, the actions of its leaders — and potentially its members — will signal what role humanities faculty can play in public life.
The Executive Council must first decide whether to send Resolution 2014-1 to its 30,0000 members for a vote accepting or rejecting it. The resolution singles out Israel for restrictive travel policies for foreign visitors that are hardly unique in the world. Indeed the resolution’s proposers were unable to present any statistical evidence proving that American faculty were often prevented from entering the West Bank to pursue teaching or research. One of the resolution’s proposers went so far as to proclaim it was outrageous to expect anything more than a few anecdotes in the way of supporting evidence. MLA Scholars for Faculty Rights, a new group formed to combat these and future ill-advised association actions, was able to demonstrate that only one anecdote was actually credible.
Instead of putting it to a vote, the Executive Council can return the resolution to its Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee for reconsideration or revision. That may well prove the path of least resistance, but the DAOC has not proven itself to be a reliable judge of policy initiatives. The resolution originally protested restrictions on entry both to the West Bank and Gaza. After MLA Scholars for Faculty Rights pointed out that Egypt (not Israel) controls the major entry point for Gaza, the resolution’s sponsors made a great show of removing Gaza from the text. The DAOC then announced that, as a result of that change and the deletion of the claim that Israel’s visa denials were “arbitrary,” it was now willing to recommend the resolution for adoption. But in fact Delegate Assembly members were aware the DAOC had been planning to put forward the original version with its endorsement as well. The DAOC’s public change of heart was merely play acting.
What the Executive Council could do instead is to issue a new statement both affirming its earlier stand on faculty travel and updating it to reflect current professional concerns, meanwhile asking the U.S. State Department to monitor all, not just one, foreign country’s treatment of visiting faculty. Such a resolution might also take note of the fact that the U.S. record of providing free access to international faculty has been rather less than ideal.
Here is how such a resolution might read: "Throughout the world there are countries that present serious obstacles and extended delays to foreign faculty, including American citizens, seeking entry to do research or take up either temporary or permanent teaching positions. Since the U.S. record in approving visas to foreign faculty members is uneven at best and includes instances of faculty being excluded for ideological reasons, reasons that undercut both academic freedom and our democratic values, the MLA Executive Council is addressing this issue without any illusion that our own country is blameless in this matter. We also recognize that some nations have valid security concerns that justify delays in offering visas or even denial of entry. But exaggerated security concerns and even xenophobic cultural traditions can also impede travel that would benefit all parties. We believe maximizing freedom of entry and access for faculty worldwide will facilitate international understanding and enhance research and teaching everywhere. We urge all countries to adopt policies that honor that principle. The MLA Executive Council also asks the U.S. State Department to investigate reports of unwarranted delays or exclusions of entry and report annually on patterns of faculty access to other countries.”
The Executive Council will also have an opportunity to decide on what, if any, action to take on an “emergency resolution” whose consideration was rejected by the Delegate Assembly. There seemed a certain interested pique in the way the person running the meeting announced it would be referred to the Executive Council despite its consideration being voted down. Once again, the document came forward with assertions, not evidence, this time claiming supporters of the American Studies Association resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli universities were the victims of intimidating emails and public attacks. Having received a number of critical emails myself, I find it easy to believe there is plenty of hyperbolic rhetoric on both sides of these debates. So what to do? The resolution will be received in public as a back door gesture of support for the ASA position.
But once again the MLA Executive Council could try to represent all its members, rather than take a position guaranteed to alienate many. And it could take a stand in the interest of broad principle. Here again is a draft of the kind of even-handed statement MLA’s leaders could issue: “As both local and national debates about the Arab/Israeli conflict and the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis have intensified in recent months, some faculty members and students have been subjected to hostile criticism from people outside the academy. The MLA recognizes that when faculty or their professional organizations take positions on matters invoking passionate commitments both here and abroad they have to expect strong responses not conditioned by campus standards of civility. We nonetheless decry instances when verbal attacks cross the line into intimidation. We also strongly reject attempts by outside groups to intervene in hiring and promotion decisions to oppose candidates whose views they reject. Such interventions in campus decision-making threaten academic freedom and the independent self-governance that make our academic institutions strong. Yet faculty and students have no way to control the rhetoric of the public sphere. Perhaps the best we can do is to lead by maintaining the example of campus civility.”
I do not personally pretend to be a disinterested observer in these matters. I have long argued that the occupation of the West Bank was destroying the soul of Israeli democracy. I support a two-state solution. More recently, I have suggested that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. And I endorse a boycott of West Bank industries as a targeted form of economic pressure, though I stand with the AAUP in opposing all academic boycotts. The fact that I take these stands does not prevent me, however, from standing back and trying to decide what would be in the best interest of a profession that includes a wider range of views than my own. The draft statements I offer here are offered in that spirit. They also reflect 20 years of experience in writing comparable policies for the AAUP.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
As Scott Jaschik points out in his January 13, 2014 article, “The Third Rail,” the terrible stress our newly minted Ph.D.s in English, comp lit, and foreign languages confront when they begin the job search seems only to be escalating rather than abating. Understandably, then, many Modern Language Association convention sessions, as well as a growing body of publications, have been taking up a variety of proposals for addressing the job crisis. Jaschik mentions the session I chaired, “Who Benefits? Competing Agendas and Graduate Education,” and he carefully articulates the basic positions of the panelists as we were all in general agreement that shrinking the size of graduate programs in English would not be the best way to remedy the situation. But the reasons we hold those beliefs in favor of expansion rather than contraction seem to have slipped out of view. I would like to highlight them here.
Let me begin by stating the obvious nature of the suffering: When you defund public higher education, someone is going to have to pay, and it has been our colleagues forced to accept unethically precarious working conditions both during and after grad school, and students at all levels burdened with massively increasing educational debt. These are circumstances we must protest with all the solidarity we can muster. But all this misery, the sense of lives ruined, institutionalized failure, personal anguish — these horrors come not just from oversized grad programs, but from a much larger capitalist economy that is wreaking havoc on many workers and unemployed poor in and out of academia. As Marc Bousquet has explained, it is not a market; or, at least, it is not a “free market” in any real sense despite our common rhetorical reference to the horrors of the “job market.” It is a system we are caught in, and one orchestrated, it’s true, by our own institutional structures that have now been fine-tuned to serve the champions of privatization, defunding, and austerity. In this type of economic system, higher education has become a kind of laboratory for the production of a precarious, contingent, low-wage faculty. The economic inequality within the profession mirrors the economic inequality in the society. From any ethical perspective, it is a system that has gone terribly wrong.
What has been most missing from the discussion about graduate school size has been a concise understanding of why the market logic doesn’t work for English grad programs, and the main reason is because it is not an accurate description of how the system really works. If it were a case of supply and demand, it might make good ethical sense to reduce the overproduction of Ph.D.s to meet the lower demand for tenured professors. In short, if you could reduce the supply without altering demand, this equalizing would clearly make it easier for graduates to get tenured jobs for the simple reason that there would then be fewer Ph.Ds competing for the same number of jobs. But the system does not work that way. Rather, when you reduce supply by shrinking graduate programs, you also end up reducing demand (as I will explain in what follows): our system is so structured that we cannot reduce the one without reducing the other, and that’s a real ethical and political conundrum.
When you shrink graduate student enrollments (the supply side), you inevitably also shrink the size of graduate programs, which means, willy-nilly, that you decrease tenured faculty lines (the demand side) because they are the folks teaching in grad programs. Administrators would be happy to shrink our programs and eliminate some tenured lines through attrition and retirement because new, cheaper temp hires can easily fill in to teach the few undergraduate lower-division classes that some tenured faculty teach.
The gurus of supply and demand would like nothing better than for us graduate faculty to do our own regulating by cutting down of our own accord on producing so many new highly educated people schooled in the legacies of critique and dissent. We then serve the wishes of those seeking more power to hire and fire at will the most vulnerable among us who have no protections under a gutted system of tenure and diminished academic freedom. The system can play itself out under the contraction model, then, as a vicious cycle of reducing supply, which reduces demand for tenured faculty (while increasing the non-tenure-track share of the faculty), which calls for further reducing of supply. To believe that contracting the size of graduate programs can, in and of itself, improve the situation is a misattribution of cause and effect: The real cause of the job misery is the agenda for privatization and defunding public expenditures orchestrated by the global economic system that has been producing misery and suffering for millions of lives around the world as socioeconomic inequalities continue to magnify.
Now, having said all that, I also want to be very clear that there are strategic, local situations where reducing graduate student populations in order to expand funding and support for them, or in order to revise a program (hopefully without shrinking tenured faculty lines), can certainly be the most ethical thing to do. So I am speaking at a general level of overall tactics for the profession, and at that level, shrinking (without other forms of compensation) inevitably leads to weakening graduate education, not strengthening it through some mythical model of “right-sizing” to be achieved by a proposed matching of supply and demand.
But, of course, the pain is real, and it reaches fever pitch in the transitional moments of crisis when graduate students face the “market” for jobs. The wretched system we endure makes it impossible not to sympathize with graduate students who understandably often argue that we must reduce the supply of Ph.D.s to give them a better chance to get a job. Under these enormous tensions, the short-term, crisis-management model of supply and demand can especially seem like the only fair-minded option.
In those moments of anguish, which I myself witness every time one of my own students reaches this transition stage, our only ethical task is to support them and listen to them as best we can to help them navigate the transition. So I want to make sure that my remarks here are not intended to provide any specific advice other than the obvious need for support. Specific situations and contextual demands will have to be navigated with all the pragmatic skills and rhetorical resourcefulness possible. In contrast, then, to a focus on the crisis moment of the job search, I have framed my comments here in terms of a big picture narrative.
From the longer and larger perspective, what becomes most clear is that our system of having elite graduate faculty surrounded by masses of non-tenure-track teachers mostly fulfilling service functions of teaching lower-level humanities distribution courses and writing courses fuels that cycle of devolution. We need, then, to change the academic system over which we do have some control. Systemic changes can be difficult to even imagine, but it is by no means impossible as long as we understand that it will not happen in an overnight revolution. And the first step inevitably leads us to examine more critically the ethical and political work of both curricular revision and resource allocation. In short, it leads us to a careful analysis of the systemic class structure within the profession, bolstered as it is by procedures and policies, many of which we actually have some degree of professional autonomy to alter.
Of course, the resistance to institutional transformation remains overwhelming at times, and the struggle to mitigate our academic hierarchies and internal class stratifications is a long-term project, well beyond the scope of these comments. To even imagine such changes in our local institutional circumstances, we will have to make many arguments convincing our colleagues that a more collective and collaborative approach to teaching assignments will be beneficial for us all in the long run. And I have at least some evidence that something like what I have been suggesting can actually happen. Where I teach in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), our collective bargaining agreement affecting all 14 universities with a total enrollment of over 100,000 students has created an anomaly in U.S. higher education: more than 75 percent of all faculty on all campuses are tenure-track lines (the inverse of the national percentage average), and all faculty teach all levels of courses.
Much work remains to be done, and we too continuously struggle against state underfunding and the pressure to hire more temporary faculty. But the potential benefits of these efforts, I believe, would make our profession less stratified and more responsive to public needs for high quality education at all levels, so that, ultimately, the humanities will become a more vital part of the social fabric of everyday life for more citizens. That is a goal we should never abandon.
David B. Downing is director of graduate studies in literature and criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Works and Days, and his most recent book (co-edited with Edward J. Carvalho) is Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era.
Whether or not the humanities are truly in crisis, the current debates around them have a certain gun-to-the-head quality. “This is why you -- student, parent, Republican senator -- shouldn’t pull the trigger,” their promoters plead. “We deserve to live; we’re good productive citizens; we, too, contribute to the economy, national security, democracy, etc.” Most of these reasons are perfectly accurate. But it is nonetheless surprising that, in the face of what is depicted as an existential crisis, most believers shy away from existential claims (with someexceptions). And by not defending the humanities on their own turf, we risk alienating the very people on whose support the long-term survival of our disciplines depend: students.
One reason why our defenses can have a desperate ring to them is that we’re not used to justifying ourselves. Most humanists hold the value of the objects they study to be self-evident. The student who falls in love with Kant, Flaubert, or ancient Egypt does not need to provide an explanation for why she would like to devote years of her life to such studies. To paraphrase Max Weber, scholarship in the humanities is a vocation, a “calling” in the clerical sense. It chooses you, you don’t choose it. The problem with this kind of spiritual passion is that it is difficult to describe. To paraphrase another 20th-century giant, Jimi Hendrix, it’s more about the experience.
It’s not surprising, then, that when we humanists feel (or imagine) the budget axe tickling the hairs on the backs of our necks, we don’t have ready-made apologia with which to woo or wow our would-be executioners. And because a calling is hard to explain, we turn instead to more straightforward, utilitarian defenses -- “but employers say they like English majors!” -- which, while true, don’t capture the authentic spirit that moves the humanities student.
There is of course sound logic to this approach. Government and state funding is a zero-sum game, and politicians are more likely to be receptive to practical arguments than to existential propositions. But in the long run, it takes more than state and university budgets to maintain the health of the humanities. It also takes students. And by constantly putting our most productive foot forward, we may unintentionally end up selling ourselves short (disclosure: I, too, have sinned). The fundamental reason why students should devote hours of their weeks to novels, philosophy, art, music, or history is not so that they can hone their communication skills or refine their critical thinking. It is because the humanities offer students a profound sense of existential purpose.
The real challenge that we face today, then, lies in explaining to a perplexed, but not necessarily hostile audience -- and perhaps even to ourselves -- why it is that the study of literature, anthropology, art history, or classics can be so meaningful, and why this existential rationale is equally important as other, more utilitarian ones. This line of argument stands in opposition to proclamations of the humanities’ uselessness: to declare that the humanities are of existential value is to affirm that they are very useful indeed.
So how might we go about defining this existential value? A good place to start would be with existentialism itself. A premise of existentialist philosophy is that we live in a world without inherent meaning. For atheists, this is often understood as the human condition following the death of God. But as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” even believers must recognize that they ultimately are the ones responsible for the production of meaning (in fact, many early existentialists were Christians). Abraham had to decide for himself whether the angel who commanded him to halt his sacrifice was genuinely a divine messenger. In Sartre's memorable formulation, man is “condemned to be free”; we have no choice but to choose. While it may feel as though a humanities vocation is a calling, you still have to decide to answer the call.
The realization that meaning isn’t something we receive from the outside, from others, but that it always must come from within us, from our conscious, deliberative choices, does not make us crave it any less. We are, existentialists insist, creatures of purpose, a thesis that psychological research has also confirmed.
Now what does this have to do with the humanities? It’s not that obvious, after all, how reading Madame Bovary, the Critique of Pure Reason, or The Book of the Dead can fill your life with purpose. At the same time, we also know that some people do find it deeply meaningful to peruse these works, and even to dedicate their careers to studying them.
What is it, then, that lovers of literature -- to consider but them for the moment -- find so existentially rewarding about reading? In a recent book, my colleague Joshua Landy argues that one of the more satisfying features of literature is that it creates the illusion of a meaningful world. “The poem forms a magic circle from within which all contingency is banished,” he writes apropos of Mallarmé’s celebrated sonnet en -yx. The order we discover in literary works may be magical, but it isn’t metaphysical; it comes from the sense that “everything is exactly what and where it has to be.” Art offers a reprieve from a universe governed by chance; what were merely sordid newspaper clippings can become, when transported into artful narratives, The Red and the Black or Madame Bovary. Landy suggests that fictions produce these illusions through a process of “overdetermination:” the ending of Anna Karenina, for instance, is foreshadowed by its beginning, when Anna witnesses a woman throwing herself under a train.
If art offered only illusions of necessity, it would hardly satisfy existential longing. Pretending that everything happens for a reason is precisely what the existentialists castigated as “bad faith.” Yet there’s an obvious difference between enjoying a novel and, say, believing in Providence. We don’t inhabit fictional worlds, we only pay them visits. No lover of literature actually believes her life is as determined as that of a literary heroine (even Emma Bovary wasn’t psychotic). So why does the semblance of an orderly universe enchant us so?
Well-ordered, fictional worlds attract us, it seems, because we, too, aspire to live lives from which contingency is kept at bay. Beauty, wrote Stendhal, is “only a promise of happiness.” As Alexander Nehamas suggested, in his book of this title, the beautiful work of art provides us with a tantalizing pleasure; beauty engages us in its pursuit. But what do we pursue? “To find something beautiful is inseparable from the need to understand what makes it so,” he writes. Behind the beautiful object -- sonnet, style, or sculpture -- we reach for the idea of order itself. The promise of happiness made by art is a promise of purpose.
But a promise of purpose is still a bird in the bush: it can disappear when you put down the book, or leave the concert hall. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, art only provides us with an empty sense of purpose; or as he put it, in his distinctively Kantian way, "purposiveness without purpose" (it’s even better in German).
It’s true that few existential crises have been resolved by a trip to the museum or the download of a new album. But Kant may have underestimated how the sense of artistic purpose can also seep into our own lives. For instance, as Plato and every teenager know well, instrumental music can give voice to inexpressible feelings without the help of language. These emotional frameworks can convey a potent sense of purpose. When my youngest daughter spent six weeks in the neonatal ICU with a life-threatening condition, my mind kept replaying the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony to tame my fears. Its somber, resolute progress, punctuated by brief moments of respite, helped to keep my vacillating emotions under control. As in films, sometimes it is the soundtrack that gives meaning to our actions.
The promise of order found in beautiful works of art, then, can inspire us to find purpose in our own lives. The illusion of a world where everything is in its place helps us view reality in a different light. This process is particularly clear -- indeed, almost trivial -- in those humanistic disciplines that do not deal primarily with aesthetic objects, such as philosophy. We aren't attracted to the worldviews of Plato, Kant, or Sartre, purely for the elegance of their formal structure. If we’re swayed by their philosophies, it’s because they allow us to discover hitherto unnoticed patterns in our lives. Sometimes, when you read philosophy, it seems as though the whole world has snapped into place. This is not an experience reserved for professional philosophers, either: at the conclusion of a philosophy course that my colleagues Debra Satz and Rob Reich offer to recovering female addicts, one student declared, “I feel like a butterfly drawn from a cocoon.”
So where art initially appeals to us through intimations of otherworldly beauty, a more prolonged engagement with the humanities can produce a sense of order in the here and now. One could even say that Plato got things the wrong way around: first we’re attracted by an ideal universe, and then we’re led to discover that our own reality is not as absurd as it once seemed. And while particularly evident with philosophy, this sensation of finally making sense of the world, and of your own place in it, can come from many quarters of the humanities. In a delightful interview (originally conducted in French), Justice Stephen Breyer recently exclaimed, “It’s all there in Proust — all mankind!” Other readers have had similar responses to Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and many more.
But exploring the humanities is not like a trip to the mall: you don't set off to find an off-the-rack outfit to wear. Proust can change your life, but if you only saw the world through his novel, it would be a rather impoverished life. Worse, it would be inauthentic: no author, no matter how great, can tell you what the meaning of your life is. That is something we must cobble together for ourselves, from the bits and pieces of literature, philosophy, religion, history, and art that particularly resonate in us. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T.S. Eliot wrote at the end of The Waste Land. No poem offers a better illustration of this cultural bricolage: Shakespeare answers Dante, and the Upanishads disclose what the Book of Revelation had suppressed.
So here we find an existential rationale for a liberal education. To be sure, the humanities do not figure alone in this endeavor: psychology, biology, and physics can contribute to our perception of ourselves in relation to the world, as can economics, sociology, and political science. But the more a discipline tends toward scientific precision, the more it privileges a small number of accepted, canonical explanations of those aspects of reality it aims to describe. If 20 biology professors lectured on Darwin’s theory of evolution, chances are they’d have a lot in common. But if 20 French professors lectured on Proust’s Recherche, chances are they’d be quite different. The same could be said, perhaps to a lesser extent, for 20 lectures on Plato’s Republic. The kinds of objects that the humanities focus on are generally irreducible to a single explanation. This is why they provide such good fodder for hungry minds: there are so many ways a poem, a painting, or a philosophy book can stick with you.
In his diatribe against the way the humanities have been taught since the '60s, Allan Bloom harrumphed, “On the portal of the humanities is written in many ways and many tongues, ‘There is no truth -- at least here.’ ” But the point of a liberal education is not to read great works in order to discover The Truth. Its point is to give students the chance to fashion purposeful lives for themselves. This is why authors such as Freud, whose truth-value is doubted by many, can still be a source of meaning for others. Conversely, this is also why humanities professors, many of whom are rightfully concerned about the truth-value of certain questions or interpretations, do not always teach the kinds of classes where students can serendipitously discover existential purpose.
There are more than existential reasons to study the humanities. Some are intellectual: history, for instance, responds to our profound curiosity about the past. Some are practical. To celebrate one is not to deny others. The biggest difficulty with defending the humanities is the embarrassment of riches: because humanists are like foxes and learn many different things, it is hard to explain them to the hedgehogs of the world, who want to know what One Big Thing we do well. The danger is that, in compressing our message so it gets heard, we leave out precisely the part that naturally appeals to our future students. Yes, students and parents are worried about employment prospects. But what parents don’t also want their child to lead a meaningful life? We are betraying our students if, as a society, we do not tell them that purpose is what ultimately makes a life well-lived.
Dan Edelstein is a professor of French and (by courtesy) history at Stanford University. He directs the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute.