Humanities

Author discusses her new book, 'Manifesto for the Humanities'

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Author of new book explains a path forward -- in large part through changes in doctoral education -- for disciplines whose scholars feel under siege.

UC Irvine experiments with a new graduate degree and postdoc hybrid program

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UC Irvine moves toward a system in which doctorates can be earned in five years, half the norm for these fields at many institutions. Some departments embrace plan; they fear impact on dissertations and on adjuncts.

New MLA analysis sheds light on the much-discussed humanities job market

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New MLA analysis sheds light on the much-bemoaned job market for humanities Ph.D.s.

Analysis says humanities Ph.D.s get take longer in coursework than dissertations

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New analysis suggests that time to degree for Ph.D.s may not be as lengthy as some assume, and that the key to shorter humanities doctorates may be coursework, not the dissertation.

Positive reports for humanities earnings, art school job prospects

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Two separate reports show evidence of humanities and arts majors finding success in the professional world.

Survey finds stability in humanities departments

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Survey finds departments and numbers of faculty positions more stable than is widely assumed, and policies on use of digital materials for promotion absent from most institutions.

In evaluating digital humanities, enthusiasm may outpace best practices

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Digital Humanities
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Language and literature scholars have embraced technology in their research, but can they win tenure on it?

A Rhodes Scholar compares rowing to his humanities education (essay)

Most mornings, upon waking, I pull on my sneakers -- they call them “trainers” here -- and head to the river. This time of year at the University of Oxford, where I study as a Rhodes Scholar, the sun rises late and sets early. My walk to the boathouse is lit by moonlight. I follow a trail, canopied by trees, that juts between two tributaries. The water on one side is placid but pure, a meeting place for the ducks and geese that stream past my feet. The other tributary is clotted with filmy moss. Birds halfheartedly peck at the green sludge and flutter on.

Sometimes, when I get to the river, the banks are draped in mist. Through the fog, I hear faint shouts from teams heaving their boats on the water.

How did I get here? To England, to Oxford, to rising early to row for my college?

The rowing question yields a practical answer. My clumsiness, lack of coordination and general physical mediocrity leave me fit only for sports based on endurance and hard work rather than agility or adroitness. (Hence my high school years spent running cross-country in the North Carolina heat for a coach who extolled vomit as the visible evidence of a race well run.)

The environment that I now inhabit -- ancient, alien, yet suffused with peculiar charm -- is distant in many ways from the Charlottesville, Va., that I love. But some striking parallels exist between my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia and the time at Oxford that I spend training on the water.

Rowing, it turns out, is highly aesthetic. The sport relies on many of the same skills I honed as an undergraduate earning a humanities degree. In developing an analogy between rowing and a humanities education, however, I will note one important difference between those two endeavors: rowing is a luxury, whereas a humanities education is not. This difference, I think, points to one quality that makes public colleges and universities like UVA -- institutions that offer a world-class humanities education to students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds -- distinctively valuable.

College rowing involves eight (sometimes four) people moving in tandem: rolling forward to place the blades of their oars, cocked, in the water behind them; pressing back, straining against the foot plates, to propel the blades through the water. I knew none of this when I arrived at Oxford last year. Learning to row, like attaining familiarity with an academic subject, requires rigorous practice and coaching.

Rowing, however, demands more than comprehension of the mechanics involved. To row well, one needs to cultivate certain habits of attention. A lapse in concentration can set the boat off balance. At all times, one must be aware of one’s posture, the height of one’s hands, one’s position on the slide. As I continued to row, it became clear to me that the sport required not just attention but, specifically, a form of aesthetic attention -- not unlike the capacities that my undergraduate course work in literature sought to hone.

When people say that rowing is a beautiful sport, there are reasons for taking this assessment literally. The boat heaves, as if breathing, as everyone rolls up and presses back in synchrony. The rhythm of each person’s movement meets a parallel rhythm: one’s heartbeat, which accelerates as the boat gains speed. And the boat, a bounded whole, cuts through the water, the blades of the oars scuttling across the surface, charting a path along sinuous banks and yawning trees that dip their branches in the water like spindly fingers.

Rowing’s aesthetic attributes -- tempo, symmetry, balance, repetition and unity -- are not accidental. In fact, they are essential to the sport. A crew that is asymmetrical in power -- with rowers on one side possessing more strength than their counterparts -- will steer off course. A team that falls out of synchrony becomes inefficient. A stroke that traces an elegant arc before dipping cleanly into the water is not just a beautiful stroke; it is a powerful one.

In rowing, athletic success and aesthetic achievement are intertwined. Rowing, like much of my humanities course work in college -- specifically in literature and art history -- takes as one of its central premises the idea that the aesthetic is a worthy object of careful study.

And rowing, much like an undergraduate literature class, instills the belief that such study entails developing certain habits of attention. Both endeavors -- learning to row and earning a literature degree -- require a keen awareness of what artists and writers call form. In rowing, form refers to body positioning, rather than genre, texture or anything else that literature and art critics might speak of. But in both cases, form connotes an aesthetic shape essential to the enterprise at hand: the motion of the boat, the beauty of the poem.

Most mornings, then, I do two things at once: I row, and I drift into aesthetic contemplation. (Sometimes to a fault: “Eyes in the boat, Tyson!” my coach will shout.) This conjunction brings me to an important fault line in my analogy between rowing and an education in the humanities. There is a broad perception in American culture that both rowing and aesthetic inquiry are luxuries: inessential and restricted to a leisured class. Rowing is, I think, a genuine luxury. The boats and equipment require staggering capital investment. The sport tends to thrive at posh secondary schools in the United States and at institutions like Oxford, where one of my teammates (who, I hasten to add, is a lovely person) told me he was thinking about buying an island -- islands off the Scottish coast apparently sell for around 20,000 pounds -- but decided it was a poor investment because of climate change.

The view that aesthetic contemplation is a luxury is, by contrast, false -- and especially pernicious when applied to liberal arts education. The resistance of American colleges and universities to this view is what enabled me to make it to Oxford in the first place. I attended public school in North Carolina and then matriculated at UVA, a public university, where my professors encouraged me to pursue my interest in literature. They pressed me to approach literature not as an avenue for self-indulgent reverie, but as a way of gaining insight into matters of urgent, daily significance in human lives: issues such as self-understanding, social disenfranchisement and moral obligation. That I received such an education testifies to the hard work of my professors and the seriousness of UVA’s commitment to the liberal arts.

In fact, of the seven Rhodes Scholars selected from UVA in the last 10 years, four have either embarked upon, or are strongly considering, an academic career in the humanities. A fifth student majored in modern literature and religious studies while an undergraduate. This sample is too small, and the Rhodes selection process too random, for us to draw unqualified conclusions. But it seems indisputable that UVA’s humanities departments mark an area of strength that Rhodes selection committees have, in recent years, recognized.

Public universities (as well as independent colleges and universities with generous financial aid programs) that continue to emphasize humanistic education deserve praise. UVA still has work to do in recruiting and supporting students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Nonetheless, Virginians are lucky to have a flagship institution that prizes liberal arts education as a necessary investment in the state’s human capital. I attended UVA financed largely by need-based grants. Without the university’s understanding of aesthetic inquiry not as a luxury but as a vital human good, I doubt I would be at Oxford today. My hope is that my alma mater, as well as other colleges and universities, retains this commitment to the humanities so as to awaken other students, from any socioeconomic background, to the possibilities that a humanities education engenders -- possibilities that include, in my fortunate case, solitary walks down moonlit trails. Maybe one day I’ll walk down that trail again, and I’ll see those future students training on the river -- rowing in tempo, but every so often snatching glances at the sky.

Charlie Tyson graduated from the University of Virginia in 2014 and last year earned an M.St. in English literature from the University of Oxford, where he is currently working toward an M.Sc. in history of science, medicine and technology. He is a former intern at Inside HIgher Ed. This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in UVA Today.

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Job openings are down in English and foreign languages

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Faculty positions decline for third year in a row, MLA report finds.

How misguided university policies are harming the humanities, arts and sciences (essay)

The news media is awash with the question of the future of the humanities in higher education. Are the humanities dead? Do they have value? Do they pay off? Do today’s students have an interest in the liberal arts? Does it matter?

Right or wrong, the easy assumption is that economic forces play out in university funding, job opportunities in STEM fields, and economic calculations of students and families. Those economic forces combine with public perceptions about the limited financial returns of areas of study that seemingly lack direct vocational resonance -- notably, the humanities.

That common view attracts some criticism. Professors and pundits defend the worth of the humanities -- from building character to thinking critically to valuing tradition. They attack philistinism, and they cite estimates of rising enrollments in the humanities and lifetime versus starting salaries. A few voices speak to preparing for multiple or sequential careers and lifelong learning. Fewer still point to the exaggerated numbers of high-paying, high-tech STEM jobs.

In my view as a university professor, too many of our defenses are weak ones. We should be able to mount a much stronger case and demonstrate more vigorously and convincingly our advantages, which are very real. Meanwhile, not recognized are the ways in which universities themselves have actively attacked and even crippled the humanities, the arts, and also the sciences -- the so-called foundations of higher education.

My own large public university does this through a series of policies and then a supposed ignorance of the combined impact of those policies. Not only do they actively damage the institution’s ability to conduct its business and to meet the needs of its students, faculty and component colleges but together they also constitute administrative malpractice.

The fact is that the university has chosen to admit and enroll increasingly more students in professional and preprofessional areas, especially engineering and business. Among the consequences has been the decline of about 40 percent over the past four years in both numbers of majors and course enrollments in the humanities. But the university did not take this path through any public discussion, explicit decision making or consideration of the major effects.

The principal weapon is a policy called the One University Enrollment Plan. Officially, one of its stated goals is to raise the average ACT scores of the entering first-year class. And this it did -- by 1.1 points in the last five years, from 27.8 to 28.9 at the main campus in Columbus, Ohio. That allows the university to claim that the incoming class is the “smartest” in its history. In addition, it counts in U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Less publicized is the goal of increasing the proportion of entering students from outside the state. Why? Well, other state universities do it. It also brings in more revenue from higher tuition rates. Access for in-state students can wait, despite the fact that access is part of the university’s vision. The percentage of African-American students at the Columbus campus has continued to fall, as it has since 2000.

That is one set of issues. Another is how this policy is enacted. In that enactment, the university reveals the assumptions of how it defines itself. Focusing on the rate of increase in applications to the campus’s colleges, the university achieves the goal by admitting a larger percent of the engineering and business students who apply and admitting fewer of the humanities, arts and science students who do. In other words, that seemingly simple arithmetic operation is not a matter of mathematics or science but rather a statement about the nature, purpose and shape of higher education.

For example, and surprising to many people today, the number of applicants in the humanities increases steadily and is approaching historically high levels -- up 25 percent since 2012 and 52 percent since 2004 at the Columbus campus. But numbers admitted have declined by 37 percent since 2010, the year before the enrollment plan began, and by 18 percent since 2012. Similarly, since the enrollment plan started in 2011, the proportion of admitted students enrolling (the yield rate) in the humanities (only 30.5 percent of admits in 2014) has declined at a faster rate than in the university as a whole.

The arts show the same trends. The fact that the rate of increase in applicants has been less in the humanities and the arts and sciences than in engineering and business has been allowed to obscure the fact that the total number of applications and therefore interest in the former areas is increasing. Admissions and enrollment in the sciences, perhaps surprisingly, have also declined but not as steeply. It is more than ironic that science is left out of STEM when it comes to admissions and enrollment efforts.

The results? I have been told that the College of Engineering has more students than it needs. Meanwhile, the Arts and Science College, the largest, cannot pay its bills and is declining in all dimensions.

What’s more, the enrollment plan interacts with other policies that also have a detrimental effect on the arts, humanities and sciences. Those include lowering and redistributing general education program requirements and basing unit budgets overwhelmingly on student course enrollments (semester credit hours) -- so-called responsibility-centered management. Under the combined impact, the dean of Arts and Sciences declared a crisis, which the news media reported last May.

The originators of the enrollment plan never considered its impact on the balance of students across the colleges or its effect on the operations of individual colleges. When asked about this, university officials told me honestly that they’d never looked at that. Nor was the simple fact that the average ACT scores could have been raised without unbalancing the university and weakening its central areas. In the current economic climate, many talented high school students interested in all fields of study have heightened interest in public universities. Of course, they need to be recruited, admitted and enrolled.

A university cannot construct its student body by blindly pursuing percentage increases in applications to the neglect of the undergraduate population over all or the impact on its academic components. A university is not determined by a popularity contest. In fact, its reason to exist is just the opposite.

Apart from overloading disproportionately some parts of the university and underserving (and underfunding) others, such actions ignore, for example, that the College of Engineering reportedly graduates a lower proportion of its entering students than other colleges (and is also marked by a gender imbalance).

Without a larger discussion and declared institutionwide policies about the present and future of higher education, such actions cripple the contemporary university’s core, compromise its declared mission and move from a balanced university to a vocational and technical institute. Indeed, such actions answer crucial and challenging questions about the future and the value of the liberal arts and sciences without ever asking them.

Harvey J. Graff is Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and professor of English and history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

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