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Editors, I’ve discovered, are desperate to find scholars willing to review articles, prospectuses and book manuscripts. Department chairs are at their wit’s end as they struggle to get scholars to review tenure and promotion files. Leading humanities journals find it increasingly hard to attract qualified, experienced candidates to serve as editors.

A growing number of humanities scholars are drifting away from what were once considered professional obligations. The result: editors and departments, more and more, are forced to turn repeatedly to the same reviewers if they want a timely evaluation.

Yet these challenges only represent the tip of an iceberg. Not so long ago, it was unimaginable that a humanities faculty member would refuse to write a letter of recommendation for a student. Now, to my dismay and disgust, the higher ed press contains articles that openly disavow any responsibility to write such letters—and not simply on political grounds.

Equally disturbing is the disarray within the scholarly book trade. With an average print run of 200 copies or even fewer, the publication of scholarly monographs is in deep trouble. In fact, many leading scholarly presses are only interested in books with at least a modicum of trade potential. Otherwise, even a subvention is insufficient to ensure publication. At the same time, interest in publishing anthologies, even those with wholly original essays, has tanked.

Certainly, scholarly articles continue to appear, even though an increasing number of journals seek deliberate provocations rather than the building blocks of scholarly knowledge. Revised dissertations, too, are still published.

Nevertheless, the problems are spiraling. Their root cause isn’t simply financial. It lies in the growing number of humanities faculty who disavow any responsibility for sustaining the academy’s scholarly underpinnings.

The humanities scholarly infrastructure has always depended on volunteer labor. Journals did not compensate reviewers, and university presses only offered a token payment. Nor were faculty compensated for reviewing candidates for tenure and promotion. Many journal editors accepted the position in exchange for a single course release and help from a lone graduate student. These responsibilities came with the job.

So what’s going on?

Is this simply a matter of excessive demands on faculty members’ time? Or is this driven by something even more disconcerting—for example, alienation or disengagement from the profession or displaced anger over a perceived lack of the recognition, evident in salaries or status incommensurate with professors’ education?

The answer is no doubt all of the above plus more:

  • An aging humanities professoriate that has begun to check out.
  • Disenchanted midlevel scholars desperate to publish their way out of institutions that they consider beneath them.
  • The allure of social media, where one might, just might, develop a broader public reputation.
  • A misguided set of university incentives that largely links rewards to publications and grants.

But if I were to point to a single factor that is most consequential, I’d draw attention to a dramatic shift in humanists’ professional identity. For better and worse, many and perhaps most humanities scholars, from the 1960s onward, identified first and foremost with their discipline, not with their institution or their department, let alone their students.

Nothing illustrated that more vividly than attendance at the major professional meetings, like the MLA and the AHA, which attracted thousands and thousands of humanities faculty members. Yet even before the pandemic, attendance at those mega-meetings had gone into free fall, partly no doubt because of cost and because the panel and paper presentation format seemed sorely out of date and because the professions themselves were fragmenting, with humanists’ intellectual needs better met by small, focused meetings.

As we’ve learned during the pandemic, virtual professional meetings are not an effective substitute for their face-to-face predecessors. The serendipity and the opportunities to forge connections and interact with peers simply aren’t the same.

Given the sharp decline in attendance at professional meetings, there’s a danger that some societies might literally go bankrupt, thanks to contracts signed with convention hotels pre-pandemic.

I fear that we are witnessing the rise of a more extreme individualistic “out for themselves” ethic among humanities scholars. In my own department’s building, the hallways are empty except for a handful of students, office doors are closed and locked, and almost all their lights are out. Colleagues teach their classes, then depart to destinations unknown.

Of course, the shedding of professional obligations is but one expression of much larger phenomena of disaffiliation, disaffection, distrust and division that has been termed the eclipse of community or the drift toward privatization or the triumph of hyperindividualism.

This shift can be seen, as Robert D. Putnam pointed out, across American society. It’s evident in:

  • The retreat from organized religion.
  • The decline of active, hands-on participation in bowling leagues, PTAs, scouting and other organizations and in falling attendance at museums, historic sites and even sports events.
  • Political polarization and, in Putnam’s words, increasingly vitriolic public discourse, a fraying social fabric, the prevalence of public and private narcissism, and an unapologetic acceptance of stark inequalities.

It’s also manifest in the fact that the United States, the world’s most individualistic country, fared among the worst in the fight against COVID despite its success in vaccine development.

I offer no solutions to reverse the unraveling of humanists’ professional obligations except to advance these suggestions:

  1. Our professional organizations, colleges and departments need to reaffirm the importance of the active embrace of professional duties and rethink incentive structures to ensure that professional engagement—participation in peer review of manuscripts, paper presentations at conferences, service on professional committees and book prizes and book reviewing, among other activities—is properly acknowledged and rewarded.
  2. Our departments need to do much more to foster a sense of community among faculty, undergraduates and graduate students beyond Christmas and end-of-the-school-year parties. Reading groups, potlucks, regular informal gatherings, development of departmental digital labs and collective community outreach are but a few possibilities.
  3. Our colleges and universities need to define a collective mission that goes beyond highly abstract and excessively vague commitments to societal impact, innovation, creativity, diversity and inclusion. A mission ought to be more than a statement of an institution’s core purpose. It should involve a commitment to collective action and to a host of specific tasks and responsibilities.

Let’s remember the words of the religious sage Hillel: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Those of us fortunate enough to be full-time academics in the humanities, in my view, have professional obligations that extend well beyond the classroom. Let’s not forsake those responsibilities.

The humanities are or ought to be a collective endeavor. The quality of our scholarship, the appreciation of novel perspectives, the participation in enduring conversations about aesthetics, divinity, equality, free will, freedom, justice, morality and other big issues—none of these can be done in isolation by lone individuals.

If we fail to fulfill our professional duties, if we merely teach our classes, conduct our research and publish periodically, then the humanities’ special role—to foster a rich interior life, interpret and analyze works of creative expression, critically and logically examine and evaluate complex ideas, and recover our collective past and connect that history to the present—really will be dead.

Our departments will endure, but the humanities as a collective project will have ended.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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