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The humanities Ph.D. is a calling, not vocational training (essay)

Georgetown University recently announced plans for an English Ph.D. tailored to non-university careers, reflecting ongoing deliberations within the Modern Language Association about what to do about the anemic employment market.

In their important, humane contribution to the same conversation, “No More Plan B,” the American Historical Association’s Anthony Grafton and James Grossman argue that, at a time when the employment market for history Ph.D.s is dismal, historians with Ph.D.s have high-level skills that should be recognized by employers. Some evidence suggests, not surprisingly, that Ph.D.s in the humanities are already thriving in the private sector.

These conversations reflect the efforts of concerned academic leaders to find ways to deal with the human cost of declining faculty positions in the humanities (and, one might add, in the natural sciences).

These proposals are controversial because, to their detractors, they turn graduate education in the humanities into job training. At a time when the liberal arts are threatened, and when many policymakers are emphasizing narrowly vocational goals over a broad general education, this is not an unreasonable concern.

Graduate education in the humanities cannot be defended because it prepares people for any job. That’s not what brings students to graduate school. Students enter graduate school because they love their subjects. They have had good teachers who have inspired them to see the world in new ways. They have learned to ask the kinds of questions that only the humanities can answer. They have been converted.

We therefore cannot treat the humanities Ph.D. as a high-end professional credential — an alternative to the M.B.A. When we do so we corrupt what graduate study in humanities is for. Unlike the undergraduate major, which is intended as broad preparation for life, the graduate degree is designed for those who wish to engage in deep study in order to enter professional work in the humanities.

Instead, I propose we think of graduate education in the humanities as closer to ministerial education. We must prepare students not just with the knowledge required to understand their field, but with the skills necessary to carry out their ministry in the different places to which they might be called. By imagining ministers instead of M.B.A.s, we might be able to find a language that makes it possible to reform graduate education without giving in to vocationalism.

Addressing Supply and Demand

Before reforming graduate education, however, we must not forget the primary issue faced by the humanities: the structural problems that plague the university.

On the demand side, we must expand the number of tenure-line positions in the humanities across the nation and resist the deprofessionalization of teachers and professors.

On the supply side, institutions that prepare graduate students must recognize that, too often, graduate students are valued for their cheap teaching labor. This is not to suggest that individual faculty members do not invest their hearts and souls in mentoring graduate students, but instead that universities have underinvested in tenure-line faculty. As Marc Bousquet pointed out, in some ways graduate students are the waste products of the system, their value to the university used up when they receive their degree.

Focusing on structural solutions would help those called to the humanities find university positions.  If the jobs are not there, however, the answer may not be to continue to overproduce Ph.D.s and market them to private employers, but to curtail production. Unlike the undergraduate humanities major, which is part of a general liberal arts education and needs no vocational justification, the graduate program is designed to lead students to meaningful employment.

Humanities as a Calling

Students come to graduate school because of their passion for the humanities. We must respect what brings them to us. We must refuse to see them as budding entrepreneurs; they are ministers committed to spreading the gospel of the humanities. We must prepare them for the ministry they came to undertake, whether in schools and universities, in government, or in other organizations.

For most humanities Ph.D.s, the primary work will be teaching. Humanities Ph.D.s teach at the secondary and college levels, but humanities programs have been relatively disengaged from the task of preparing teachers. We have allowed teacher preparation to take place almost entirely within education schools, but there are many reasons why liberal arts programs should be more involved in preparing teachers.

Moreover, the cost of the split between secondary teachers and professors has been significant. In the history profession, as the AHA’s Robert B. Townsend makes clear in his book History’s Babel, the division between professors and other historians has devalued the daily ministry of most historians, led to an overemphasis on scholarship, and denied secondary school teachers opportunities to engage in the life of the discipline.

Even if most humanities graduates’ primary task will be teaching, we should not denigrate scholarship. Too many policy makers and commentators have suggested that humanities research does not matter. It matters greatly, both in the public sphere and in the classroom. To sustain scholarly inquiry, we need scholars around the country and world engaged in research and capable of critically assessing each other’s work. We need to ensure that humanities graduates at all levels — in K-12 schools, museums, local societies, media, universities, and government — have the space and time to engage in scholarship and be part of the conversation.

Reforming Graduate Education

If it is deemed necessary to reform graduate education, we must always keep in mind that we are preparing humanities ministers. To keep this first and foremost opens up alternative ways to reimagine graduate education.

We might, in addition to or instead of the Ph.D., offer a doctorate of humanities (like the JD or MD), a four-year program that would offer a solid academic education, require a significant work of scholarship in the form of a publication-worthy thesis, but also provide practical skills to help young humanists enter the humanities fields at various levels in different kinds of organizations. The doctorate of humanities could be interdisciplinary or field-specific, as different institutions and programs and the needs of scholarship determine appropriate.

To get a sense of what this would look like, we need only examine the curriculum for the M-Div at Princeton Theological Seminary, in New Jersey. The degree “is designed to prepare students for the diverse ministries of congregational leadership, for further graduate study in theology and related disciplines, for various types of chaplaincy, for mission work at home and abroad, and for other forms of church vocation. The curriculum is planned to provide the flexibility and independence consonant with a broad theological foundation.”

Students are expected to take coursework in Biblical studies, history, and theology. But academic work is insufficient. There is also a “practical theology” component to help ministerial candidates learn how to preach, educate, and perform pastoral care. Finally, the program requires “field education” under practicing ministers. At Princeton Theological Seminary, without reducing or diminishing academic preparation, candidates are taught to use their academic knowledge to carry out the very important work that they will undertake as ministers.

A similar combination of academic and practical education could prepare graduate students better for their jobs as teachers, but also for work in the public, nonprofit, or private sectors. Such a degree would be more portable, and as a result, it would also reduce the human and financial cost for those who cannot find professional humanities work and move on to other careers.

There is no reason to believe that this will reduce the quality of humanities scholarship. A four-year doctoral degree with a serious research component should prepare graduates for research as well as other kinds of work. After all, most ministers do not need Ph.D.s, nor do most lawyers or MDs. They need an education that enables them to undertake their daily work with thoughtfulness, the skills to make them effective at it, and the ability to engage in scholarship.

In many ways, that seems like what the proposed Georgetown English Ph.D. seeks to do. It would create a four-year program for students who already have an MA, provide a strong academic foundation, require a significant work of scholarship, and also provide field experience in an organization that promotes humanistic endeavors.

In conclusion, we need to continue to move forward on two fronts. The crisis of doctoral education is, to a large extent, a crisis of the university. We must continue to emphasize the need for more tenure-track hiring in the liberal arts. Nonetheless, there is a good case to be made that graduate education in the humanities could be more expansive, not because we need to bow down to the anti-intellectual forces reshaping higher education, but because we can better prepare graduates for the diverse ministries that they could serve.

Johann Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University and a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Essay on finding perspective about the tough academic job market

William Bradley explains how he found perspective on the tough academic job market.

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Colleges award tenure

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The following individuals have recently been awarded tenure by their colleges and universities:

Elizabethtown College

  • Justin Badgerow, music
  • David Bowne, biology
  • Emma Neuhauser, finance
  • Jean Pretz, psychology
  • Stephen Soltys, mathematics education
  • Richard Wolf-Spencer, theater

University of Minnesota Crookston

  • Venu Mukku, math, science and technology

Criticism of List of Allegedly Anti-Israel Professors

A group of Jewish studies professors has issued a statement questioning a list that a pro-Israel group has issued of faculty members it considers anti-Israel, The Forward reported. The AMCHA Initiative, the pro-Israel group, released the list last month, based on public statements and other online information about various professors, saying that it was important for students to know about the views of these faculty members. But the statement from Jewish studies professors questions the validity and appropriateness of the list. "It goes without saying that we, as students of anti-Semitism, are unequivocally opposed to any and all traces of this scourge. That said, we find the actions of AMCHA deplorable," the statement says. "Its technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built. Moreover, its definition of anti-Semitism is so undiscriminating as to be meaningless."

 

 

 

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Most of the faculty at General Theological Seminary is gone. What happened?

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Most of the faculty at General Theological Seminary is out. But whether they resigned or were fired depends on who you ask.

Essay sees a double standard in how U. of Illinois responds to controversial professors

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign officials have argued that they were justified in refusing to hire Steven Salaita because his bigoted comments indicated a bias that would deprive students of their right to be “comfortable” (a right that does not and should not exist at any college committed to the discussion of ideas that may lead to uncomfortable truths).

But what’s been missing from the Salaita debate so far is the fact that, only four years ago, the University of Illinois dealt with a remarkably similar case of academic freedom involving allegations of bigotry against a professor. In that case, the University of Illinois came to a radically different conclusion. Kenneth Howell was teaching a class on Roman Catholicism when he wrote an email to his students on May 4, 2010, that offended the friend of one of Howell’s students, who complained about it. Howell wrote to his students, “in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the ‘woman’ while the other acts as the ‘man.’ In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men.”

The chair of religion department at the university decided not to reappoint Howell, an adjunct, to teach the class again in the fall of 2010. Howell’s defenders, including the Alliance Defense Fund, argued that he “was fired for explaining the position of the Roman Catholic Church on human sexual behavior.” Considering that Howell was rambling in his email about what an unnamed doctor told him about gay sex, it can hardly be regarded as an explanation of Catholic doctrine.

By the standards announced in the Salaita case, it is difficult to see how anyone could endorse the employment of Howell. Chancellor Phyllis Wise argued about Salaita, “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” Certainly, Howell was demeaning gay people in a personal and disrespectful manner.

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees wrote about Salaita, “Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.”

Can gay students feel valued and respected in a class where the professor publicly advocates that the government should discriminate against them, as Howell did in opposing gay marriage? If Salaita (who has never called for government discrimination against Jews) deserved to be fired, then every professor in the country who opposes gay marriage should also be fired.

One article praising Howell during the 2010 controversy over his class quoted him as saying, “Everyone who has a good conscience can see that killing an innocent human being is wrong. In the same way, certain sexual acts are wrong, because they go against the natural course of things." So, Howell believed that gay sex is like murder, because it’s unnatural. And Howell was saying that if you think gay sex is permissible, then you don’t have a good conscience.

Cary Nelson argued about the Salaita case, “Will Jewish students in his classes feel comfortable after they read ‘Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being’...?” But would gay students in Howell’s classes feel comfortable with a professor who claims that they’re unnatural, comparable to murderers, lack a good conscience, are physically damaged, and should be discriminated against?

Back in 2010, Nelson defended Howell: "What's better for a student? To in a variety of learning environments hear these positions and the consequences of these positions advocated with passion and commitment or to hear them all presented with a style of even-handedness? I would rather hear them advocated strenuously." Nelson in 2010 was right, but today he has abandoned that belief that passionate professors, even those accused of bigoted ideas, are a valuable thing.

The similarities between Howell and Salaita are extensive, except that Salaita’s case for academic freedom is stronger in almost every way. Both Howell and Salaita never had a contract approved by the Board of Trustees, and were not regarded by officials as employees of the university (in a bizarre practice now abandoned after his case publicized it, Howell’s salary was paid by the Peoria Diocese of the Catholic Church, which also had selected him to teach the University of Illinois class). Neither Howell nor Salaita received a hearing about their academic competence. Both Howell and Salaita were accused of bigotry for their offensive remarks (although Howell’s came in a classroom environment, where professional standards do apply).

And one factor in Howell’s dismissal was a strange discussion in his email of utilitarianism, which he claimed would justify bestiality and pedophilia on grounds of consent, an analysis that some faculty in his department felt was evidence of professional incompetence. By contrast, no one on the Board of Trustees ever questioned (or even examined) Salaita’s professional record.

Both Howell and Salaita were very popular teachers with their students. While there is no evidence of any student even making a complaint about Salaita, the complaint in Howell’s case raised an (unproven) allegation that Howell silenced dissenting views in his class: “my friend also told me that the teacher allowed little room for any opposition to Catholic dogma. Once again, he is guilty of limiting the marketplace of ideas and acting out of accord with this institution’s mission and principles.” And Howell’s own letter to his students declared (without any sense of irony): “Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter.” When a professor declares that only experts on a subject are allowed to judge moral truth, it does seem like an attempt to silence students.

But the reactions of the University of Illinois to the Howell and Salaita cases were radically different. Out of concern about academic freedom (even though issues other than his offensive comments had been raised), the University of Illinois administration (with the cooperation of the Board of Trustees) decided to overrule an academic department and hired Howell to teach in fall 2010 while awaiting a report by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT). By contrast, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Board of Trustees immediately decided to fire Salaita on July 24, 2014, without consulting any academics.

The CAFT report in the Howell case was critical of Howell as “unlearned” but declared that “students have no right not to be offended” and added, “We could not do our job, which is to instill the habits of a critical mind, if we had to be chary of giving offense.“

Howell was hired again to teach in spring 2011, but he then decided not to apply for a one-year visiting position (believing that it was a plot “engineered” to get rid of him). Howell is now director of pastoral care for the Coming Home Network International, but he remains free to express his homophobic views, such as this: “the imposition of a gay philosophy on American society is one of the biggest threats to American welfare that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

As I noted during the Howell case, I think the University of Illinois deserves praise for that decision. Compared to the Howell decision, the Salaita case is a much easier call to make: Howell’s words were more clearly bigoted, they came in a classroom discussion instead of extramural utterances (which, under American Association of University Professors guidelines and University of Illinois statutes, cannot be punished). Howell’s professional competence as a teacher was also questioned, as was his openness to dissenting views in the classroom, while Salaita’s teaching record has never been attacked.

In the Howell case, the University of Illinois administration, in order to protect academic freedom, overruled a department’s judgment because of the fear that non-academic criteria might have influenced the decision. In the Salaita case, the University of Illinois administration took precisely the opposite position by firing a professor purely for his non-academic comments online.

Rarely has any university taken such radically different approaches to academic freedom within the span of a few years, which is especially strange considering that Board of Trustees chair, Christopher Kennedy, and a majority of the current voting trustees served during both the Howell and Salaita controversies. (Chancellor Wise had yet to arrive at Illinois at the time of the Howell debate.)

The Howell case established an important precedent for the University of Illinois: that dismissing a professor scheduled to teach requires a fair hearing by an academic committee, that allegations of bigotry do not trump academic freedom, and that students have no right to feel comfortable in a class even if their professors made offensive comments. But the Howell precedent was completely abandoned in the Salaita case.

Unless you think that the alleged bigotry of an anti-gay professor is more palatable than the alleged bigotry of a critic of the Israeli government, it’s hard to conceive of any principle that would justify the University of Illinois’ aggressive protection of academic freedom during the Howell case and its complete abandonment of academic freedom during the Salaita case.

John K. Wilson is the co-editor of AcademeBlog.org, editor of Illinois Academe (ilaaup.org), and the author of seven books, including Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.

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U. of Nebraska to Offer Early Retirement to 30% of Tenured Faculty

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln is offering early retirement incentives to faculty members aged 62 and up to try to encourage more of them to move on and make way for a new generation of instructors. The offer, of a one-time lump-sum payment of 90 percent of a professor's annual salary, will go to about 250 professors with at least 10 years' experience at Nebraska, or about 30 percent of the university's tenured faculty members. Inside Higher Ed's recent survey of chief human resources officers found that HR directors – especially those at public colleges and universities -- are growing increasingly concerned about faculty members working well past traditional retirement age, leaving little flexibility for their institutions to hire a new generation of professors.

Academic Minute: The 'Bottom Dollar' Effect

In today's Academic Minute, Robin Soster, professor of marketing at the University of Arkansas, discusses the "bottom dollar" effect, which holds that the the satisfaction of one’s purchase dependent upon the money left after the transaction is complete. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
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Are STEM fields more gender-balanced than non-STEM fields in Ph.D. production?

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New study finds that STEM fields aren't actually worse than other disciplines in attracting talented students to doctoral study.

Faculty Strike at General Theological Seminary

Eight faculty members at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church went on strike last week, citing concerns about the seminary’s dean and president of one year, the Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle.

“These are times of great reform in centers of theological education,” reads a letter sent to students from the eight professors, who make up the majority of the seminary’s full-time faculty. “In such times, it is all the more important that we treat one another with civility and respect, and that we work flexibly and collaboratively. … It is our view that that the president has repeatedly shown that he is unable to articulate sensitively and theologically the issues that are essential to the thriving of the Body of Christ in its great diversity. Moreover his failure to collaborate, or to respond to our concerns when articulated, has resulted in a climate that many of us find to be fraught with conflict, fear, and anxiety. Unfortunately, it is the most vulnerable members of our community who most keenly suffer the distress caused by this environment.”

Dunkle did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Several striking faculty members also did not respond to requests for more information about the strike, or their employment status; on Tuesday, David J. Dunn, an Eastern Orthodox theologian who is not affiliated with the seminary but who says he has contacts there published an op-ed in The Huffington Post criticizing the college for allegedly firing the striking professors. That could not immediately be independently confirmed.

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