In 2006, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave the American Academy of Arts and Sciences funds to develop a set of indicators to provide a comprehensive portrait of the state of the humanities in the United States.
In recent years, the picture Humanities Indicators painted was disheartening, charting dwindling engagement with books, a downturn in per capita library visits and circulation, and a stark educational divide in visits to historical sites.
To be sure, not all the trends pointed downward. After reaching its nadir in 2012, art museum visitation rebounded and differences in attendance among age groups diminished. Facility with a foreign language also increased, now amounting to about a fifth of the adult population.
I, for one, eagerly await updates on other humanities indicators, such as the number of academic books published and the number and revenue of nonprofit humanities organizations, including archives and museums.
But what about higher education -- the place where most students encounter the humanities disciplines and most humanistic scholarship arises?
Were the humanities in the academy -- on the eve of the pandemic -- truly in crisis, or were there hopeful signs?
The most striking takeaways from the AAAS/Humanities Indicators’ hot-off-the-press report, “A Profile of Humanities Departments Pre-Pandemic,” were two in number:
- that it was not true that adjuncts were replacing tenured and tenure-track humanities faculty, and
- that the average number of faculty in major humanities departments was not significantly declining.
As of 2017, 62 percent of humanities faculty were tenure stream and 77 percent were full-time. Also, despite substantial variation by field, women comprised more than half of humanities faculty -- and in most disciplines the share of women was higher in tenure stream than in adjunct positions.
What about enrollment in humanities courses? Despite a significant decline in the number of degrees granted in departments of art history, English, history and philosophy, the number of minors remained stable and course enrollments remained high at around six million.
What should we make of these findings? Does the report offer some solace in the face of Benjamin Schmidt's widely publicized warnings that the humanities are indeed in crisis?
Here are my observations.
1. The areas of enrollment growth in the humanities lie outside the core disciplines.
Communication, linguistics and ethnic, gender and sexuality studies are the departments, programs and schools that are exhibiting growth. (I would also add honors colleges.) Several of these fields, however, consider themselves social sciences and not part of the humanities at all. Some, in fact, refused to participate in the AAAS/HI survey.
2. Cutting the size of existing humanities departments is a difficult task.
Declines in humanities enrollment in the core humanities disciplines and in their number of majors has occurred slowly. Meanwhile, the costs of such programs tend to be relatively low, while gen ed and language requirements sustain lower-division enrollment. Also, since humanities faculty tend to be the most vocal and most actively involved in faculty governance, administrators display little interest in incurring the humanists’ wrath.
3. Humanities departments have quite wisely engaged in strategic hiring.
The humanities are viewed as areas where it is easier to meet diversity objectives than elsewhere. Chairs and departments have aligned their hiring priorities with broader institutional objectives, and as a result have received approval for new and replacement hires.
Yet I continue to be struck by the failure of many humanities departments to more closely align themselves with popular career tracks, in the health sciences, business, law and engineering, in particular, but also with computational and digital studies.
4. The report’s finding that the number of adjuncts and part-timers has not increased must be regarded with some skepticism.
Are the humanities truly avoiding the trend toward the gig academy? Why the discrepancy between perception and reality?
According to the report, tenure-stream employment plateaued, at least through 2017, but this is already at a relatively low level. These figures seem to be partly a statistical artifact, with very large departments (at flagship campuses) skewing the results. There is also the possibility that full-time lecturers, professors of practice and VMOE faculty are improperly counted. And remember, the limited growth that is occurring is taking place outside the traditional humanities departments.
5. Humanities departments are actively and to a certain extent successfully defending their turf.
Humanities departments have moved aggressively to ensure that their courses meet college or university requirements. Some have made it difficult for students to apply early college and AP credits to gen ed or major requirements. Some others have instituted new major and minor requirements and high-interest courses to increase demand for upper-level courses. The latter, of course, include foreign language courses taught in English, literature courses that focus on cinema and television, and history courses on sports and other popular topics.
Let me also offer some other reflections.
The report focuses on departments rather than upon individual humanists.
A focus on humanists might tell a somewhat different story: how humanists are entering new kinds of programs (digital and computational studies, for example) and new roles (as directors of teaching or writing centers or specialists in instructional design and educational technology) and in academic administration -- as well as in nonacademic areas outside the traditional preserves for humanists.
Most humanities departments have not yet embraced higher ed’s most rapidly growing sector: professional master’s and certificate programs.
Across the country, the academy is witnessing a proliferation of professional master's and certificate programs. I myself have taught in a program in museum studies. One can imagine other areas where such programs might prove popular, such as the professional writing and the medical humanities. One could also imagine joint programs in conjunction with business and engineering.
Humanities departments need to do a better job of tracking their graduates.
It’s apparently still the case that most departments do little to track postgraduation outcomes. Such information can be really useful. At the University of Texas, the psychology department discovered that few of its graduates pursue graduate training in psychology, which led the department to enhance its strengths in research methods and HR and other areas important to its graduates.
I've long been struck by the difference between digital historians and digital humanists -- with digital historians much more interested in creating public databases, instructional resources and tools, and other public-facing resources. The humanities departments should do much more, I think, to prepare our students in such high-demand fields as computational thinking, data mining, data visualization, geospatial analysis, time series network analysis, provenance, data privacy, 3-D digital reconstructions and simulation modeling.
It's hard not to think that we're at an inflection point both for the humanities and for higher ed as a whole. Many institutions are not going to survive the pandemic, or if they do, they'll be a shadow of what they once were.
Those seemingly wacky predictions of Clayton Christensen might well come true, and while most of the institutions that are doomed are small, many regional public comprehensives face the prospect of budget cuts of 10 to 15 percent.
I worry that higher education’s worst trends -- toward growing institutional stratification and growing numbers of institutions reduced to the status of chronic invalids -- will intensify.
Hopefully I'll be proved wrong.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.