State of Humanities Departments

Major study documents reliance on those off the tenure track, the favorable ratios of tenure decisions, the dominance of publications in those decisions, the popularity of minors and majors, and more.
March 1, 2010

What is the state of the humanities? In many a budget cutting debate in the last year, scholars have worried about it, but national data have been limited.

In a major effort to fill that void, the Humanities Indicators Project is today releasing an analysis of statistics gathered from the departments of English, foreign languages, history, history of science, art history, linguistics and religion at 1,400 colleges and universities. A year ago, the project (part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) released a survey of previously existing statistics on the humanities in higher education.

The new information is originally collected data, most from the 2006-7 academic year, gathered in cooperation with various disciplinary associations. While the events of the last 18 or so months have no doubt shifted the numbers further in some categories, the aim of the project is not to collect these figures once, but to be able to analyze trends over time. Some of the data -- such as the analysis of the widespread use of non-tenure-track faculty -- are consistent with other reports, although the breadth of the study is new. In other cases, the project points to circumstances that haven't previously received much attention.

For instance, many observers of the humanities talk about these disciplines as educating a core group of undergraduate majors and many more undergraduates who take one or two courses to fulfill general education requirements. But the report find that in the three largest humanities disciplines -- English, foreign languages and history -- substantial number of students who are not majors are taking multiple courses to minor in those fields. In 2006-7, those fields had 122,100 majors in the colleges studied, and 100,310 minors.

At a time when many humanities professors are worried about the future of the tenure track, the data in the report will only add to those concerns -- especially because it predates the freezes on tenure-track hiring that have been instituted at so many colleges. Generally, the fields that have the highest percentages of tenured faculty members are among the smallest disciplines. And while the percentages vary, use of non-tenure-track faculty members is significant throughout. Further, the data back up a point made increasingly by activists for adjuncts: that significant numbers of academics are working full time, off the tenure track.

Faculty Distribution by Tenure Status, 2006-7

Field Tenured Tenure-Track, Not Tenured Non-Tenure-Track, Full-Time Non-Tenure-Track, Part-Time
Art History 52% 17% 7% 24%
English 38% 13% 18% 31%
Foreign languages 39% 13% 22% 26%
History 55% 19% 8% 18%
History of science 70% 18% 6% 6%
Linguistics 58% 17% 10% 15%
Religion 46% 18% 11% 25%

One subject of the debate over use of non-tenure-track faculty members is which courses they are assigned. Some administrators suggest that adjuncts are used only for introductory coursework, but the data being released today show that while most upper division courses and graduate courses are taught by those who are tenured or are on the tenure-track, adjunct instructors are hardly rare in either graduate education or upper division courses. (Note: A small "other" category means that some of the numbers in the following tables do not add to 100 percent.)

Instructors of Record in Upper Division Undergraduate Courses

Field Tenured or Tenure-Track Full-Time, Non-Tenure Track Part-Time, Non-Tenure Track Grad Students
Art history 74% 9% 14% n/a
English 79% 13% 7% 2%
Foreign languages 63% 20% 8% 5%
History 82% 7% 8% n/a
Linguistics 75% 12% 10% 8%
Religion 66% 18% 14% n/a

Instructors of Record in Graduate Courses

Field Tenured or Tenure-Track Full-Time, Non-Tenure Track Part-Time, Non-Tenure Track
Art history 75%
English 90%
Foreign languages 79%
History 95%
Linguistics 93%
Religion 72%

The data collected show that -- even with the concerns about an eroding tenure track -- humanities departments have been hiring more people than have been retiring or dying. This may be an area where the averages could be changing significantly in the current recession, in which departments have had hiring limits imposed and some academics have delayed retirement.

Entering and Leaving Departments, 2007-8

Field Proportion of Departments With Hiring or Recruiting Efforts Number of Tenured, Tenure-Track or Permanent Faculty Members Hired Number Who Leave, Retire or Die
Art history 38%
English 68%
Foreign languages 56%
History 65%
Linguistics 46%
Religion 48%

Tenure considerations are of course of great interest to those on the tenure track, and the report suggests that departments don't necessarily view publications and teaching as an either/or choice, with 64 percent saying that publications quality was "essential" to consider and 78 percent saying that teaching quality was. By far, the field with the highest percentage reporting that publications were essential in tenure reviews was linguistics, at 92 percent. Only 52 percent of English departments and 55 percent of religion departments felt that way.

The data on tenure decisions show that large percentages of those reviewed for tenure receive it. However, many more professors are leaving departments prior to a tenure decision than because they have been denied tenure. The tenure figures are average annual figures based on a two-year sample.

Tenure Approvals and Denials and Pre-Tenure Departures

Field Faculty Granted Tenure Faculty Denied Tenure Faculty Leaving Prior to Tenure Decision
Art history 80
English 530
Foreign languages 400
History 440
Linguistics 35
Religion 110

On the curricular front, the survey finds far more departments reporting a senior thesis or capstone requirement than special programs for freshmen. Further, no consensus appears to have emerged on assessment at the departmental level.

Curricular and Undergraduate Assessment Programs

Field Special Program for Freshmen Senior Thesis or Capstone Course Required Assessment Through Portfolios or Standardized Tests Assessment Through Portfolios and Standardized Tests Other Assessment Methods No Assessment System
Art history 34%
16% 32%
English 37%
16% 25%
Foreign languages 30%
13% 26%
History 29%
11% 37%
Linguistics 17%
5% 44%
Religion 23%
14% 42%

The Web site for the project has full data reports on each discipline studied, as well as several essays on the project, details on the methodology and links to last year's compilation of data.


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