'Manifesto for the Humanities'

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

January 7, 2016

Many humanities scholars these days feel underappreciated if not under siege. Departments are shrinking. Tenure-track lines are more difficult to come by. Politicians seem focused on job training. In this environment, one might expect a book from a noted humanities scholar to be sounding the alarm. But the subtitle of Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (University of Michigan Press) suggests that this is not a call to the barricades. Sidonie A. Smith, Mary Fair Croushore Professor of the Humanities at the University of Michigan and director of the university's Institute for Humanities, sees humanities disciplines that are vibrant and full of important new ideas. She moves beyond the narrative of crisis into one of focused reform, largely in graduate education.

Smith (at right) responded via email to questions about her book.

Q: In the beginning of the book you review many of the challenges facing the humanities, especially in public higher education. Many people look at the same trends and talk about crisis, but you talk about how "the times are good enough." How do you define "good enough," and why is it useful to frame the discussion that way, as opposed to a time of crisis?

A: I am not arguing that this moment is like every other. There’s been a decades-long retreat from public funding of higher education as a public good, a trend with demonstrable impact on levels of student debt, educational access and increasing inequality. There’s been a seismic shift in the makeup of the professoriate -- now disproportionately non-tenure-track, contingent faculty, exploited in their conditions of service. There’s been the raucous cacophony of pronouncements from pundits and politicians devaluing the liberal arts and the humanities in particular. There’s been the concentration of corporatist discourse and practice in the academy. There’s been an intensification of the chronic condition of the job market for those with doctorates seeking careers in the academy.

But for me, repetitive talk of crisis obscures an historical perspective on crisis and change in the academy and leads too easily to a sense of enervation, and a nostalgic view of “the old” 20th-century academy. Invocation of “the crisis” is not enough now. Intervention is all. Which brought me to the mantra that the times are good enough. It’s a usable slogan, effective in marshaling energy to avoid a sense of despair. To explain why I cleave to my mantra that the times are good enough, I proposed my agenda for surviving, even thriving in these times: beware the route of nostalgia, avoid the blame game targeting theory and identity politics, hold the vision of an inclusive academy as the key to excellence in sight. Those who talk of crisis bring their usable data to the table, along with the narrative of decline and impoverishment of this sector of the university. But if we eschew the language of crisis and reject the call of nostalgia for “the good times” of the past, then we can get into the fray by mustering data for evidence-based counternarratives to commonplaces about the sorry state of the academic humanities. We can gain energy from all the activism in play right now dedicated to conceptualizing, advocating for and enacting interventions in aspects of the conditions noted above. The changes won by hard work in the past and all the advocacy, innovation and change now in process sustain a sense of historical perspective and daily purpose.

Q: You note that the world of scholarship production is increasingly not tied to a specific physical place. To date, has doctoral education followed that trend or is it still too tied to the idea of earning a Ph.D. at a single university, guided largely by faculty members and resources there?

A: Doctoral education is still located institutionally, primarily guided by resident faculty and institutional resources. But bricks and mortar are no longer the only “where” of the university. The university today functions as one node in a distributed ecology of inquiry and knowledge production. In this emergent ecology, doctoral students are beginning to have opportunities to participate in cross-institutional learning and research programs. One such collaboration is in Research Triangle, where Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have built on longstanding relationships to initiate what they describe as “the first public-private joint venture in German graduate education in the nation.” In another kind of interinstitutional curricular initiative, administrators from the Big Ten Plus flagship universities have formed a cooperative agreement through the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) that enables students to take courses at other participating institutions for credit.

Then there are the increasing number of externally funded grants, projects bringing faculty and graduate students together in collaboratories of inquiry. The Mellon Foundation funded the Humanities Without Walls Global Midwest initiative, joining 15 humanities centers in the Big Ten Plus institutions. Mellon also funded the Integrative Graduate Humanities Education and Research Training project through the Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI), joining faculty and graduate students at four institutions dispersed around the globe to “engage graduate students in a series of collaborative training and research activities,” designed as models for scalable and portable professional development. Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council funded McGill University’s Early Modern Conversion project, joining 15 academic and arts organizations on three continents in a five-year research and performance inquiry into cultures and practices of conversions broadly defined.

Here are the benefits to graduate students of large-scale humanities collaboratories. They leverage relationships to offer alternatives to on-campus, course-based teaching and learning. In this way, they expand the number of potential faculty mentors and the size of the cohort of students pursuing mutual interests in fields, topics and methods. They enact a new mode of scholarly inquiry in the humanities, modeling the benefits (and the difficult work) of building collaborative relationships. They intensify the synergies, intellectual heft, motivations, responsibilities and routes through which to achieve at once the aims of an individual scholar and the goals of an assemblage of scholars. And a number of these large projects focus considerable intellectual firepower on contributing to the grand challenges confronting the world now: sustainability and the effects of and responses to the radical displacement of peoples, to suggest only a few.

Q: What is the "possibly posthuman humanities scholar" and how does this idea relate to doctoral education?

A: Writing this book, I came to see the new scholar subject as a performative of passionate singularity, hybrid materiality and networked relationality. This is one sense in which the humanities scholar that is becoming is possibly posthuman, and a posthumanist scholar. The locus of thinking, for the prosthetically extendable scholar joined along the currents of networked relationality, is an ensemble affair. It involves the scholar, the device, the algorithm, the code. It involves the design architecture of platform and tool, the experiential architecture of networks, and the economy of energy. It involves the cloud, the crowd and the “rooms,” bricks and mortar and virtual, in which scholarly thinking moves forward. Ultimately, thinking is a collaborative affair of multiple actors, human and nonhuman, virtual and material, elegantly orderly and unruly.

Yes, the mode of doing humanities scholarship in the academy has commonly been described as that of the isolated scholar producing a long-form argument in the shape of the book, and faculty needs have commonly been described as individual study, computer screen, archive and time. In this time, however, possibly posthuman humanities scholars are accumulating new skills, including that of design architecture and algorithmic literacy. They are at once multimediated self-presenters; self-archivers; bricoleurs of intellectual inquiry, individual and collective; anonymized databases; networked nodes of a knowledge collaboratory involving scholars, students, laypeople, smart objects, robots. Networked scholars are not only connected to knowledge communities close at hand -- in the room, so to speak -- but also connected across the globe in an interlinked ecology of scholarly practices and knowledge economies. But even as we shift our notion of the scholarly subject, it is necessary to recognize the less salutary aspects of the transformation of the humanities scholar. That subject is already captured in the big quantification engine of higher education. How these working habits and scholarly subjectivities will evolve in the midst of future technologies and cultures of sociality can only be dimly glimpsed. That is a subject of inquiry the posthumanist scholar can pursue in thinking about what thinking is now.

Q: The first item in your manifesto for the humanities is to "preserve the intimacy of the small." You write this at a time when many colleges are killing programs based on their being small, class size is being pushed up, small classes and small departments are being described as wasteful, etc. How can the intimacy of the small be preserved in this environment?

A: What I was referencing in that manifesto item was the “small” of the bricks-and-mortar college or university, the specificity of the geographically located center of higher learning. The small in this instance can be rural or urban, with a student population of 1,500 plus or 50,000 plus, religiously affiliated or public. It signals recognition of the value gained in place-based learning, teaching and scholarly inquiry. My concern is the ongoing viability of the distinctiveness of the local, the singular and the diversity of visions, values and people- and place-based institutions draw to them.

Yet, this small is itself a node in larger networks of scholars, teachers and learners in an era in which universities are increasingly multilocational and cyberinfrastructure connects academics to ever increasing and heterogeneous networks, scholarly, pedagogical, administrative. That cyberinfrastructure brought the academy the craze of the MOOC a few years back. The vision of easily accessible education for all (rather, for those with the devices to access online courses) built expectations about the opportunities for delivering knowledge to thousands, hundreds of thousands people throughout the world. But that bubble has burst -- not because there are no more MOOCs or because there aren’t possibilities for responsibly accessible online education, but because the hype was hyperbolic, the mode of pedagogical delivery too traditional, the faculty involved not demographically diverse, the completion rates in the single digits, the grading dependent on exploitation of contingent labor -- and that is only the beginning of the critique.

The intimacy of the small is thus not only the small of the singular institution but the local innovations and everyday adjustments in teaching and learning, not only course based but also postcourse based, in internships, public scholarship, etc. This kind of small can be observed in the diversity of course designs, technological environments, pedagogical aims and learner-based cultures of inquiry that are characterizing how humanists teach now. It can be observed in the ways in which the large class fractures into smaller assemblages of learners. It can be observed in the flexibility with which faculty engage classes of diverse student literacies and diverse demographics.

With respect to your question about the vulnerability of small units within institutions of higher education, let me go in a different direction. Granted, humanities departments are vulnerable to corporate efficiency metrics in particular ways. In the wake of the 2008 economic downturn, enrollments in humanities courses and declarations of humanities majors have decreased, dramatically in some units and at particular universities and colleges. Small language units and small graduate programs have become common targets in projects of efficiency. And yet, there are indications that another narrative is possible. Data available through "The State of the Humanities: Higher Education 2015," issued by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, reveal that there is “very little evidence of decline in the number of humanities departments,” though there is some decline in the number of degrees awarded by humanities departments. Moreover, in the current economy of accountability metrics, as Christopher Newfield has demonstrated, some humanities programs are profit centers because the costs of mounting English or philosophy or linguistics courses is far less than mounting courses in the STEM fields.

Q: You reject the idea of solving problems in doctoral education by eliminating some humanities Ph.D. programs (the less elite ones, for example). Why do you take this stance?

A: For me, it’s misguided to advocate for major cuts to doctoral programs in the humanities or for closure of some number of them. Critics who call for the closure of programs should offer up their plan on how such an initiative might advance, should talk from the position of having acted on their argumentative principles. Let them say how. Let them say where. Let them say by what criteria. Let them say to what end.

I refuse arguments calling for fewer doctoral programs for several reasons. The strength of doctoral education in the humanities in the United States is the diversity of schools offering doctoral training: public, private, religious, secular, urban, regional, gigantic, small. The strength is in the diversity of emphases, constellations of faculty and cross-disciplinary filiations. The more the diversity, from my point of view, the more energy and impetus for innovation, for risk taking, for experimentation, for recognizing and achieving excellence. And here’s a second reason, about another kind of diversity. It comes via Dolan Hubbard, who argues that “the quiet consensus to limit access to graduate programs is an ethnically and socially irresponsible position when viewed from the perspective of the underproduction of African-American Ph.D.s.” Humanities departments also underproduce doctorates coming from Hispanic communities, from indigenous communities, [from those] who are the first in their families to go to university.

My reasons are personal as well. I am the product of a second-tier, less-elite doctoral program at Case Western Reserve University. I was the beneficiary of the program’s modest size, its small doctoral cohort and its openness to women graduate students back in the late 1960s. I was the beneficiary of faculty who maintained high expectations of their female students at a time when larger flagship state universities and the elite privates tolerated a woman or two but failed to mentor them adequately or with grace and generosity. I knew I would never have the bona fides of my many colleagues with Ph.D.s from the Ivies. But I have always taken pride in my pedigree from Case. This is exactly the kind of doctoral program that could be seen as expendable when those trained at the elite privates and publics make the case for downsizing doctoral education in the United States.

Finally, from my point of view, we can never have too many doctorally trained humanists in the world. Our ethical obligation is to ensure that entering students have information about the state of the current job market and that they are encouraged to prepare for multiple possible careers.

Q: You call for reform of the dissertation. What are the most important changes needed? What needs to be preserved?

A: Since 2010, I have been arguing for breathing life into the dissertation stage of the doctorate by expanding the possible forms the dissertation might take. My argument for embracing more flexible dissertation options proceeds from recognition that it’s imperative to affirm the intellectual mission of the Ph.D. as a project and redefine its paths to achievement. The current model is no longer adequate to the state of higher education, the state of the disciplines and the nature of future jobs in the profession. The current dissertation monograph remains inflexibly wedded to the traditional book culture format, and the habits of inquiry and production its conventional demands reinforce may not train doctoral students in methodologies enabled by, and skills necessary to navigate, this emergent environment.

Remaining wedded to the dissertation monograph as an isolated venture will limit students’ preparation for this increasingly collaborative scholarly world. Moreover, length doesn’t ensure quality. So many pages, so much excellence. This default to quantification is an unintended consequence of fetishizing the protomonograph. Opening opportunities for diverse models of the dissertation and diverse modes and media of its communication will signal the importance of preparation for new cultures of collegiality and new environments of scholarly inquiry and communication. If doctoral study is to launch the careers of future academic humanists and contribute to a robust humanities, then more flexible road maps through the degree, and a more flexible set of models for its capstone, are required.

Let’s design a dissertation of expansive possibilities, of which the monograph form will be one among several options. Some students will pursue the traditional dissertation, but they will also recognize that there are other options and thus other kinds of preparation important for their future careers. Some will opt for alternative models if that option is available to them, and they will surprise advisers and graduate directors with their conceptualization of this capstone to their studies. A suite of essays. A born-digital project. An ensemble of different genres of scholarly writing, perhaps directed to different audiences. A work of public scholarship, including its documentation. Or a documentary. A translation or textual edition. A project in comics mode.

However the dissertation is configured, whether as the long-form protomonograph or some alternative ensemble of modes, projects and vehicles, the prospectus stage of the doctoral study will take on a more dynamic, rather than formulaic, dimension. No longer a formality to get through, with a nod to the recognition that the protomonograph will be very different in the end so the prospectus doesn’t much matter, the prospectus in a time of choice could become the occasion to think about the content of the project and the vehicle together.

Q: What are the most important changes needed in doctoral education before the dissertation?

A: Let me address this question with a description of what I see as an ideal program (aspirational, certainly). It would be wonderful if doctoral students will have come from programs that did not require them to conform to a one-model-fits-all academic program, that encouraged thinking outside the box, that broadened the concept of professionalization away from the one-model-of-success narrative. Some will be adept at navigating digital environments of data, information, content, platform and code and at communicating their scholarship in multimodal and multimedia forms.

Many will be prepared to assess the options of open access. More and more will be adept at working collaboratively and valuing cultures of participatory inquiry, and thus enacting a new ethos of academic sociality. Others will have expanded their range of scholarly voices and idioms of communication. Many will not see teaching as an obstruction to their careers defined solely in terms of publication rate and record; they will have gained sophistication in a range of pedagogical practices. By the time they graduate, they will have been prepared for careers that unfold through diverse trajectories.

There are many ways to work toward this vision. One would be the radical move away from the standard three-credit course packaging of doctoral education, the experimentation with ensembles of one-, two-, three-credit courses and/or yearlong courses. In a less disruptive mode, I see two major changes on the way to the dissertation that require less disruption. The first: across the curriculum as a whole and across particular courses, alternatives to the seminar paper could be introduced.

These alternatives include collaborative essays, collectively produced glossaries of terms and concepts, a cohort essay project, a grant application addressed to a real grant program, a deep reading journal, a creative portfolio, a lecture for an undergraduate survey course. Given the emergent ecology of scholarly communication in the humanities, seminars might be organized around a double format analytical project, with submission of scholarly objects in traditional print form and in multimedia environments such as WordPress or Scalar, a visualization or mapping project, a curation, a termlong blog edited into a publishable piece.

Second: programs could offer doctoral students greater agency and mentoring in preparation from the start for multiple possible careers. This change requires that faculty and graduate programs dislodge the one-model-of-success ethos that discourages students from imagining themselves in careers other than that of a professor at an R-1 university. It involves regularized workshops on alternative careers inside and outside the academy or on grant writing; funding to support student travel to summer institutes, such as those in the digital humanities or in public humanities work; placement in internships; and guidance at the time of the job search in the preparation of multiple sets of materials and CVs directed to different kinds of positions.

Q: There have been many past calls to reform doctoral education in the humanities. Many times people praise the ideas but report that they have a tough time getting change at the departmental level. What needs to happen to shift the ideas in your book from manifesto to real policy?

A: Given both the realities of a higher than desirable average time-to-degree and dismal job prospects for humanities doctorates, and the shifting ecology of the everyday life for academic humanists, the call for the transformation of doctoral education has now become a broad one. Across North America, deans of graduate schools, foundation officers, faculty and doctoral students are contributing to a national conversation about the humanities in higher education and about doctoral education for the next generations. A discursive threshold has been reached. If, in 2010, I often felt myself shouting into the void, now I feel myself swept up in the tide of transformation.

I see a diversity of initiatives underway and in the making, many of them funded by the Mellon Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. Some departments will make big changes, introducing new kinds of humanities doctorates. Many programs will make modest changes directed to major problems. Across campuses, for instance, departments are organizing opportunities for doctoral students to gain new kinds of skills through internships and summer institutes in the digital humanities, and to engage in networks with doctorally trained alums working in corporations, not-for-profit organizations, museums and other professions. Some faculty will make their own adjustments, in the kinds of work they expect of students as alternatives to the seminar paper, or in their familiarity with alternative modes of scholarly communication, or in how they talk to students about multiple career possibilities.

These small changes accumulate force. Then, too, doctoral students are arriving with their own interests and passions, an increasing number seeking more flexibility in the project called the dissertation, an increasing number seeing more hybrid career paths before them. Thus, transformation is taking place at small universities, through collaborations across large public universities, and at elite universities, such as Stanford and UC-Irvine. With respect to expanding options for the dissertation, the pace of change is slower, but it will quicken because doctoral students are completing new kinds of dissertations that are earning the degree and gaining recognition.

To make change in good enough times, we need to move beyond critiques of crisis to reports from the field on the impact of changes, large and incremental.


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