Amid talk of outcomes-based education, a new report from the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences stresses the disciplines' role in long-term career success and international competitiveness.
Europe's universities need to focus on teaching, and to assure that all professors and instructors know how to teach, says a new report from the European Union's High-Level Group on the Modernization of Higher Education. The report calls for "certified teacher training" for all instructors by 2020. A statement from the co-chairs of the working group said: "[M]any higher education institutions do not place enough emphasis on teaching in comparison to research, even though both are core missions of higher education. This needs rebalancing. The role of teaching in defining academic merit needs a stronger emphasis and recognition, especially in career terms. Ultimately, we should not forget that this is about the students -- how to offer them the best possible learning environment and education."
As epiphanies go, it was hallucinatory and a little disconcerting… I had been reading about human evolution for a couple of weeks, off and on, trying to wrap my mind around the sheer span of the time involved -- the hundreds of thousands of generations, running back (the current estimate goes) some four million years.
Arguably the story begins a million or two years earlier still, when some kind of proto-hominid emerged from the line that led to the chimpanzees and the bonobos. Humans share more than 99 percent of our DNA with them. We’ve done a lot with the upright posture and those opposable thumbs. The past two million years – the period between Australopithecus and Homo sapiens digitalis – looks positively frenzied by contrast with the usual pace of evolution. And yet we are still distant cousins of the chimps, despite our gift for exalting humankind as existing above nature, or outside it.
One day, while reading these facts and thinking these thoughts, I looked up to see that a very strange thing had happened to everyone around me. They were, all of them, tangibly and unmistakably primates. (Or rather, we were, since my own hand suddenly looked like a well-articulated variety of paw.)
It is one thing to understand evolution at a conceptual level; a fairly difficult thing. Experiencing the continuity between human beings and other species is something else altogether; something like a waking dream. And perhaps especially when seated in a bakery frequented by lawyers, lobbyists, and media people from nearby offices – wearing clothes and mostly fur-less, but still recognizable as mammals distantly akin to monkeys or apes, despite obvious differences in carriage and demeanor.
They (we, rather) were eating scones for breakfast, not chunks of raw antelope. But for a few dizzying moments there, this did not seem as large a difference as it ordinarily might.
Fair warning, then: Reading Travis Rayne Pickering’s Rough and Tumble: Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution (University of California Press) may well leave the bright line between nature and culture looking thinner and blurrier than usual. (Pickering is professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.) I should also warn vegans against reading the book, unless they are in a particularly argumentative mood.
More on that in due course. First, a look at the perennial dispute that Pickering has joined about the source of mankind’s history of violence. One familiar bull-session or editorial-page option is to understand the penchant for violence as an intrinsic and inescapable human disposition, something for which we are genetically programmed, even. In support of this idea, one can cite Jane Goodall’s discovery about the chimps she observed in the wild. While sociable amongst themselves, members of one band were capable not just of killing outsiders but of teaming up to wipe out the young males in another group.
And remember, we share 99 percent of our DNA with the chimps. Case closed! Well, perhaps not, since we have the same margin of genetic overlap with the bonobos. “In general,” Pickering writes, “bonobos engage in sexual contact frequently and casually, in many cases to seemingly allay what could otherwise turn into aggressive interaction.” Besides making love, not war, bonobos in the wild “hunt less frequently than do wild chimpanzees.”
Bunch of hippies. Anyway, the old Hobbes vs. Rousseau dichotomy cannot be decided by consulting the genome -- and the fossil record suggests a more blended perspective on what human beings are and how we got here.
Pickering moves through the evidence and hypotheses about our prehistory with an eye on the disputes they have inspired among paleoarcheologists. Some of them sound quite nasty. (The disputes, that is, though a couple of the researchers also come across as petty and vicious.) I’ll sketch the author’s own conclusions here briefly, but what makes the book especially interesting is its tour of the disciplinary battlefield.
The brains and teeth of our distant ancestors give reason to think they were hunters: regular, successful hunters, at that. The brain consumes a lot of energy. Once proto-humans left the jungles to roam the savanna, their brains grew considerably and at a relatively rapid pace – something a steady diet of meat could only have helped. (And vice versa, since “acquiring meat presumably requires a smarter brain than does picking stationary nuts or grubbing for fixed roots.”)
Besides being available “in the form of large herds of grazing ungulates,” meat “is also soft and does not require that its consumers have a massive dental battery to break it down in the mouth.” Furthermore, the teeth in hominid fossils do not show the kinds and quantity of abrasion found in mammals that normally consume seeds and nuts (also sources of protein) in quantity.
Meat “adheres to bones, comes in large packages, and is stubbornly encased in hairy, elastic hides, so a cutting technology would have been most useful for a blunt-toothed [primate] that had begun to exploit this resource.” Pickering considers the fossil evidence not just of tools and weapons but of animal bones scored with knife-marks left by prehistoric butchers.
But our ancestors’ diet is only part of the story, since the author is less interested in what they ate than in how they developed the capacity to do so regularly. Hunting big game required more than spears and courage. In addition, Pickering stresses the need for emotional control: coolness, grace under pressure, the proper combination of strategy and stealth. He also suggests that the capacity to organize and manage aggression played a role within pre-human society, by obliging members to keep the group’s well-being in mind. An excessively greedy or violent leader might not last for long: the skills required to sneak up on and kill a buffalo could be turned to political uses.
Given how contentious the field seems to be (the title Rough and Tumble clearly refers to paleontologists as much as to prehistoric society) it will be interesting to see how Pickering’s colleagues respond to the book. As a layman, I can only say that it was fascinating and thought-provoking. And that, all things considered, I’d rather be a bonobo.
In today’s Academic Minute, Michael Habib of the University of Southern California reveals why rarely-used behaviors can determine an animal’s evolutionary success. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
A former professor on Monday was named the 500th person on the "most wanted" list of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, The Los Angeles Times reported. The dubious distinction went to Walter Lee Williams, who formerly taught anthropology, gender studies and history at the University of Southern California, and won a teaching award there in 2006. He is wanted for multiple sex crimes against children abroad.
Money has always given people better options, but for humanities Ph.D. students, money’s now necessary just to get acceptable ones. Just now becoming noticeable, this “re-gilded ivory tower” looms over a landscape that everyone should consider.
As one fellow graduate student recently observed, "You have to have a spouse nowadays; that’s how more and more people seem to be doing it." As is well-known, the economic crash hastened the decline of tenure-track jobs and increased competition for them. Once standard, these stable jobs with adequate salary and benefits have become rarer, displaced by short-term, one- to two-year positions at best, and by piecemeal adjuncting at worst. In turn, entry-level qualifications also rose at some institutions to include a secondary research specialization, at least one article, and attention to pedagogy resulting in the creation of one or more substantive classes, ideally taught at outside institutions.
Thus, some form of outside support has become essential for wading through longer Ph.D. programs, and very often an indefinite period of unstable and unremunerative post-graduation employment while waiting for a good job that may never come. Spousal income, a parent-owned condo, a trust fund – no matter which, these necessities increasingly make a humanities Ph.D. less of a career path and more of a leisure pursuit for those with financial stability from elsewhere, even for students at top institutions.
Recent cohorts at my home institution of the University of Chicago show how money has effectively formed two tracks of Ph.D. students. One student, a self-supporting single person, graduated several years ago and entered a one-year position with a heavy teaching load because he "had to." He’s been able to renew his position – but he also hasn’t published, and was passed over for a tenure-track job where he teaches because his teaching load made it impossible to write articles.
Another, a married person who leans on her non-academic spouse for income and benefits, adjuncts one or two classes per semester and uses the rest of her time for research as she awaits and creates better possibilities. "There’s no way in hell I’m doing a one-year," she confided. "But then again, I can afford to do that."
As if this anecdotal evidence isn’t enough, panelists at a recent academic careers conference at the same university openly averred that money is necessary to achieve the recommended level of professionalization – or at least as much of it as a student can get.
Since many institutions don’t track job placement for doctoral students, let alone gather comprehensive student financial profiles, experiences like these give the first glimpses into an academic world where finances determine fate. Given the steady loss of good jobs and devaluation of the humanities in favor of fields like science and engineering, class stratification in academia is set to grow and raises several crucial issues:
Who will become our professors? Despite rare exceptions, our humanities professors will come from wealthier backgrounds. To the extent that the academy can draw from wealthier members of different racial and national demographics, however, overall diversity may suffer less than one might think. Nevertheless, the academy will recede as a symbol of general social mobility.
What will our intellectual life be? As poorer students fall by the wayside, students with money – but not necessarily as much merit – will take their place in Ph.D. programs and professorships. Thus, scholarly standards and intellectual vibrancy should drop somewhat. Gone too will be questions stemming from the underrepresented socioeconomic backgrounds. Accordingly, the social utility of university research may decline – at least in disciplines where these questions are more common. Will the effects be the same in literature as in history or sociology, for example?
How to conceptualize the humanities? Students from poorer backgrounds will still encounter the humanities in general education requirements – but how do professors convey their enriching potential in a way that makes sense, when deep and sustained engagement is the province of the privileged? Descriptions of the humanities as a common cultural inheritance will need revision, if not outright replacement.
How to balance student and institutional well-being? Self-supporting students are already at a disadvantage for professionalization and survival in the humanities. Since student exploration into other careers almost unavoidably involves volunteering and then facing off against candidates with more appropriate degrees and job histories, the most humane advice may be warning poorer prospective students away from the risky bet of a Ph.D. Some professors do this, but institutions depend on students’ loan money and teaching. In the best-case scenario, poorer students self-select out. When they don’t, however, they foist a complicated set of ethical decisions upon faculty and administrators, with whom institutional inertia and pressures often hold sway.
Overall, a re-gilded ivory tower currently seems inevitable. Yet, how much will change? At the end of the day, professors will teach, students will study, and academic conversations will continue. For those who think, however, tainting everything will be a simple but ugly truth: money, not mind, makes a colleague. Perhaps, then, the single most pressing task of all for those in the humanities is our current national challenge, how to cultivate sensitivity across class lines.
David Mihalyfy is a seventh-year Ph.D. candidate in the history of Christianity program at the University of Chicago Divinity School.