Nine years ago I wrote a column for Inside Higher Ed entitled “The Professor as Personal Trainer.”Back then I was A.B.D., adjuncting, and had basically never exercised in my life. Today, I’m a middle-aged, tenured professor and I’ve hired a personal trainer to try to get in shape. Now that I actually am a professor, and really do work with a personal trainer, how does my original piece hold up?
I still stand by a lot of what I said in the original piece: Education is not a commodity that can be bought and sold, but is a process of personal transformation. Student learning is the student’s responsibility, not the teacher’s. It requires commitment outside the classroom, not just in it. And, I maintained then (as now), the best "job skills" we can give our students are the generalized capacities cultivated by a liberal arts education.
But I’ve also learned a lot. Some of it I learned working with my trainer, and some of it has come to me as I grew into my profession. For instance, I’ve come to value concision in writing, and I cringe now when I look at how deep I buried the lead in my original article.
In some ways, however, my views have shifted. In 2005 I argued that students didn’t know what they wanted when they sought to be educated. I’m not quite sure I agree with this today. Today I think my students and I do have a concrete idea of what and when we seek to become “educated” or “fit.” What we lack is not a sense of the what, but the how: the means by which to improve.
Getting fit has been transformative for me. Sure, I’ve learned to keep my weight on my heels when I hit the squat rack. But it’s also taught me how to think about nutrition, movement, posture and my daily routine. Learning to exercise involved major culture shock -- and I say this as an anthropologist whose work has sent him to the highlands of Papua New Guinea. It started before I even set foot in the gym. Just buying the right kind of workout shoes involved immersing myself in a kind of masculine culture that’s always been alien to me.
This experience has helped me realize what it is like for my students – particularly those who didn’t grow up in the white middle class, which is most of them -- to enter college. I’ve gotten so used to doing university work that I’ve forgotten how strange and disheartening it can be. Hopefully, this experience will help keep me empathetic.
So getting fit has meant testing unknown waters. But it’s also reaffirmed a lot of what I’ve already known. The culture of fitness has a huge pop-psychological component focused on commitment, motivation, inspiration as well as a slightly more kinky side focused on fighting through the pain, conquering, enduring, and so forth. In the past, I couldn’t tell the difference between websites about losing weight and Onion articles lampooning websites about losing weight. But after a little committing, enduring, persevering myself I have come to see that the idioms of fitness are just another way of discussing familiar academic virtues.
My students often ask me how I can live my life reading boring, poorly written books. I’ve never been sure how to answer since, let’s be honest, a tremendous amount of academic work is boring and poorly written. Now I have an answer! You have to push though the pain and persevere, never relent and keep fighting, if you want to get mentally strong. Never give up. Never surrender. Previously, I thought this was a cliché from Galaxy Quest. Now I know it’s about Deleuze. Working out has helped me understand my intellectual regimen in a new way.
I’ve learned a lot from my trainer about teaching, and from the other guys in my workout group about learning. When I say I have a “personal” trainer, that’s not quite right. I actually work out in a small group with three other guys, since an actual personal trainer is ridiculously expensive. Working out with people who are further along than me gives me a strong sense of what I’m supposed to look as I progress -- and it also helps confirm that the current amount I’m benching is, in fact, peanuts. I suppose they put things into perspective for me.
My trainer has also been great. Although professors are right to rail against the retailification of teaching, we might actually learn something from someone who actually gets paid by their students to help them improve! In our rush to defend our prerogatives we may accidentally dismiss the value of being supportive and considerate (even indulgent) of our student’s needs. And of course, it's just valuable to watch another teacher at work -- something that rarely happens in the academy.
I’m still beginning the process of becoming a healthier person. Like, really really beginning. But my experience with my trainer has confirmed for me what I originally learned dabbling in the performing arts: Although Seneca excluded wrestling and other “knowledge that is compounded of oil and mud” from the liberal arts, any attempt to educate the whole person should recognize that that person is, importantly, a body.
More then that: I think my liberals arts education has taught me to imagine my trainer as a professor, to imagine me as a student, to take lessons learned from dancing and transfer them to lifting weights, and to find the familiar in the strange. Would I be able to bring this capacity to my workouts if I hadn’t gotten a broad, general education? I hope so, but frankly I don’t think so. But then again, maybe it’s something I could learn from my trainer. After all, he went to a liberal arts college himself.
The prominence of Marxist thinkers in many academic fields ensures that graduate students study commodification; the prevalence of self-serving pedagogical practices ensures that those students too often become commodities themselves. You’ve read the book, now act, or be acted on, in the movie.
Competition for graduate students, some of it inevitable, occurs frequently within and among graduate programs. They may vie with each other to attract the most desirable candidates for admission. (Justifications of the decision at Johns Hopkins University to increase graduate stipends tellingly conflate the laudable motives of helping students to avoid debt and the dubious one of encouraging them to select this program even if other institutions might offer a livable though somewhat smaller stipend and a program that is more appropriate to the applicant in other ways.) And decisions by administrators to downsize doctoral programs may lead to competition for warm bodies to fill a seminar that might otherwise be canceled.
Most troubling, however, are the techniques some professors use to encourage students to choose themselves as dissertation director. These issues assume different form in disciplines, notably the sciences, where graduate students often join a team addressing the adviser’s own project. Hence this essay concentrates instead on areas where students’ projects do not involve actual participation in the adviser’s research — and on institutions where the regrettable behavior in question flourishes. Its absence or delimitations elsewhere (including Fordham University, where I now teach) demonstrates that many issues are not only field- but also institution-specific.
A professor’s motives for attracting — when does it become luring? — potential dissertators, like the practices deployed to do so, occupy a spectrum: the unexceptional, the ambiguous, the dubious, and too often the downright egregious and pernicious.
At one pole, being a good teacher typically involves delight in sharing interests and enthusiasms; one may also wish to support new or, alternatively, neglected trends in the field. All those understandable, even desirable, reactions may lead us to encouraging students to choose a topic for which we would be the obvious director. Some faculty members may believe they are in a better position to help a given student intellectually and professionally, though that realization can be compromised by more self-serving motivations.
Similarly, attributing to certain colleagues prejudices and stereotypes — racial, misogynistic homophobic, and so on — that would render them bad choices for a given student, a faculty member may attempt to steer that dissertator away from such people. The intentions may on occasion be largely or entirely honorable and the anticipated outcome preferable — but even in such instances one always has to be sure that a desire to supervise the thesis oneself is not being rationalized and that the information about the putative prejudices is grounded in solid evidence, not the gossip that jealousy and resentments often breed.
Departments that base course reductions or other perks on the number of dissertations supervised thus encourage competition for dissertators. Faculty members who discover — or fear — that they are supervising fewer theses because other people are dubiously attracting dissertators may feel that justifies similar behavior, thus turning regrettable behavior into a snowball, or an already-stormy departmental climate into a thunderstorm or blizzard.
Sadly, the most common motivation for pressuring students to choose oneself as director may be ego and the attendant rivalries with other faculty members. Indeed, as noted below, sometimes longstanding animosities and more generalized competition between Professors X and Y, not necessarily the desire to supervise the dissertation in question, may impel X to discourage students from working with Y.
But more to the point, faculty members too often judge themselves and others by the number of theses being supervised. The widespread practice of listing on vitae not only the dissertations we have directed but also the current professional position of the student indicates the significance of such status systems. Even more troubling: the desire to replicate oneself, so risky in more literal parenting, sometimes encourages people not only to corral dissertators but also to try to encourage undue imitation of one’s own work. In short, the line between enthusiastic and disinterested engagement with a student and pernicious pressure is an important — and sometimes blurred — boundary.
Some war stories culled from reliable sources around the country abound (repeated here with a few minor details altered):
Graduate students in one department soon learned via the grapevine that Professor A would consent to work on dissertations only if selected as director or co-director — and only if Professor B was not on the committee.
Elsewhere a faculty member heard reliably that another department member was telling students that if they chose her as director they were very likely to get a job but very unlikely if they chose my informant. Any scholar who knows this person’s field and her sterling reputation within it would realize the advice was not worth the venom it was written on.
Too many students continue to report being instructed in virtually so many words by a potential director that she or he, not a colleague with similar credentials, is the only appropriate director. This pressure intensifies if the person applying the pressure is someone with a major reputation or someone in a respected administrative position in the department.
Debating between working with Professor X on one topic or Professor Y on a topic for which he would be the more logical supervisor, the student is firmly instructed by Y not to mention in any way to X that he is considering an alternative topic and director. Does Y fear that that knowledge would propel X into pressuring the student? Or does Y see the situation not as a collegial collaboration where he and X are working with the student to identify his best interests but rather as a rivalry where the stealthy bird will get the worm? (And at their worst scenarios like this do indeed treat students like worms, though ones that are attractive fodder for the more predatory birds.) Or are both explanations true, proving that we attribute to others our own behavior and values in such situations?
One faculty member was puzzled about why, after being asked to serve on committees and sometimes direct for several years, these requests abruptly dried up. He learned that a colleague senior to him had recently started offering informal evening workshops, both on campus and at his house, for people approaching the point of choosing a director. Given that this person had a reputation for dropping students who didn’t follow his advice, my informant could not help but suspect that these sessions were designed to attract students their organizer wanted to work with. And others might wonder whether or not a senior colleague, aware that someone junior to him was increasingly attracting students, perhaps felt a need to define and protect what he saw as his territory.
Pressuring students to choose oneself as a director is dangerous in several ways. The student may select an adviser who is not ideal in terms of interests and pedagogical practices. To ensure the desired outcome, faculty members may urge those students to choose a director early, before they know their own interests and the options well enough to make an informed decision. These types of behavior build tension among colleagues and, as noted above, may snowball.
Moreover, the faculty members who pressure students to select themselves as director often also pressure them to become intellectual clones. As one distinguished professor observed to me, “If students try throughout graduate school to become better versions of themselves, they may well succeed; if they try to become versions of someone else, they are likely to turn into second-rate imitations.”
Other fallout from the practice of competing for dissertators too often includes what insurance companies often describe as cherry-picking: seeking the most desirable clients or dissertators while hoping to avoid the others. The attitudes that lead certain faculty members unabashedly to compete for the top students often make them uninterested in working with the people whom they perceive as less promising — hence more time-consuming for the director and less likely to yield reflected glory. This too can compromise collegiality: faculty members who are willing to work with such students may resentfully note the fact that their colleagues never will assume what is often a more burdensome responsibility. And mightn’t being rejected by a potential adviser, especially one known to encourage other students to work with her or him, create insecurities in the students not sought after, thus compromising productivity and turning the perception that these students are less promising into a self-fulfilling prophecy?
The most perilous consequence of pressuring students in these ways is also the most subterranean: faculty members who do so are modeling regrettable behavior for their students — instructing them not only in how to write a thesis but also how to compete with colleagues and manipulate students.
How can we limit the deleterious effects of aggressively hunting for potential dissertators? Perhaps the most promising potential solutions are also the hardest to effect. Competition is inevitable in our profession, like so many others, and not always destructive. But some of the attitudes that encourage pernicious rivalries might be modulated, although of course a comprehensive discussion of these broad issues demands a different conversation. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, the huge salary inequities resulting from matching outside offers can encourage rivalries and resentment. One professor aptly responded to my queries about avoiding competition for dissertators with, “Morale is all.”
Moreover, celebrating both undergraduate and graduate teaching may discourage some from putting all the fragile eggs of their fragile egos in the latter basket; such celebration can occur when the most respected professors volunteer to teach elementary classes and when hiring committees make a good faith effort at the difficult task of determining whether a candidate would perform both pedagogical roles well. Graduate seminars can not only teach critical approaches but also model attitudes critical in more senses than one; for example, classes in which students edit each other’s papers can, if that system is carefully structured, encourage cooperation and respect.
Other possibilities for limiting competition for dissertators involve responsible mentoring and thoughtful institutional practices. Faculty members can counterbalance pressure students may receive from other quarters by encouraging them to delay choosing a director until they are further along in the program and, in particular, have worked with more people and by stressing that the decision about a director needs to be made by the student himself, not anyone else.
Some graduate programs have also adopted structural solutions to destructive competition for graduate students. Co-directing arrangements can be successful. The transformation of the position of director and second reader into a committee structure is working well at certain Ph.D.-granting institutions, of which Harvard University is one of many examples.
Graduate students at some universities now have the option of either retaining the traditional first reader (director) / second reader model or setting up a three-person committee. One member of those committees is designated the nominal director for administrative purposes; in many instances the triumvirate does assume equal responsibilities, though in some the nominal director proves to have a significantly larger role. But even when one person in practice becomes the main supervisor, the committee structure may well encourage the student to consider a number of professional models, avoiding the risks of cloning. And such procedures reduce the possibility of one a faculty member without warning calling for a major overhaul very late in the game. This system is not without its own risks— for instance, one observer at another institution reports situations where one member is happy to get the credit for supervising the thesis while passing the lion’s share of the hard work onto other committee members. But the committee structure is proving a fruitful option in many instances.
In contrast, the fruit of the poisoned trees of coercion, which thrive in all too many academic orchards gardens, is the knowledge of commodified goods and professional evils.
Heather Dubrow is the John D. Boyd SJ Chair in the Poetic Imagination at Fordham University and taught previously at several other institutions. Among her publications are six single-authored monographs, a co-edited collection of essays, an edition of As You Like It, and a volume of her own poetry.
We write as a group of concerned scholars in response to the recent Modern Language Association report on doctoral study in modern languages and literatures. We appreciate the efforts of the committee that produced the document and understand the reasoning behind several of its individual recommendations. At the same time, we feel strongly that this document misses two crucial opportunities: (1) To articulate the underlying structural conditions of the crisis it describes (including but not limited to dramatic cuts in education funding, the deep and ongoing reductions of tenure and tenure-track jobs, the systematic exploitation of adjunct and graduate student labor, and the expansion of senior administrative ranks); and (2) To campaign actively for the value of the scholarly practices, individual and collective, of its members. We are not opposed in principle to the ideals of innovation, expansion, diversification and transformation advocated in the report, but we are concerned that these ideals may operate as buzzwords that detract attention from a more fundamental problem: the devaluation of academic labor and the marginalization of humanities scholarship and expertise. We call upon the MLA to advocate rather than capitulate.
Of the numerous responses to the MLA report, many have been critical of its call for doctoral programs to take into account the bleak realities of the academic job market; other responses have congratulated the MLA for its virtual admission of defeat. We take issue with the sense of capitulation that hangs over the report. Whereas we share the committee’s “concern about the future of humanistic study” and its recognition of “structural problems” in higher education, we worry that the report accepts “doubts about the legitimacy of doctoral study” as its starting point.
The report incorporates rather than disputes the frequent and often ad hominem attacks on the legitimacy of the humanities, suggesting that we should change to meet those criticisms rather than challenge them. Its conclusion that doctoral training must be reformed “to bring degree requirements in line with the ever evolving character of our fields” remains unsettlingly passive toward the realities of such an “evolution.” Yet without a more active response from the largest professional humanities organization, the casualization of academic labor and devaluation of humanities scholarship will only increase. Instead of “responding” to these conditions with unrealistic recommendations for change, the MLA should work to combat and change them.
Although we are well aware that no single professional organization has the power to undertake structural changes throughout all of higher education, part of the MLA’s mission is to set the terms of public discourse about the study and teaching of languages and literatures. A language borrowed from the world of business administration — flexible, adaptable, deliver, evolving — pervades the report. Upon what economic realities are such demands based? Year after year there are more students enrolling in colleges and universities in the United States, which implies a greater demand for well-trained, full-time faculty.
And yet each year there are fewer and fewer full-time faculty positions. The MLA report inadvertently justifies this situation rather than redressing it. Where else beside the humanities and social sciences can we hope to find a longer-term vision for higher education? We applaud the MLA recommendations that seek more fully to recognize the public contribution of humanistic scholarship. We take issue with the implication that “nontraditional careers” would be located “outside the confines of the academy,” as those of us who work primarily within the academy do not necessarily feel “confined” by our positions. Moreover, such language itself contributes to the perception that the academy is irredeemably divided from the “real world” — precisely the division we should be working to efface, as it contributes to the devaluation of academic labor, as well as the difficulties that humanities Ph.D.s often face in finding alternative positions.
Two of the primary reforms outlined in the MLA report are a reduction of time to degree and a new, inter- and paradisciplinary approach to training. Both of these, jointly and individually, appear to us as sources of potential erosion of scholarly values.
The MLA is right to point to the financial burdens that an extended period of time to degree presents to graduate students, particularly given the precarity of the academic job market. The report calls on departments to “reimagine the dissertation” as a way to reduce time to degree. This raises several concerns for us about the function of a non-traditional dissertation. Along with the recommendation to “abandon expectation of comprehensive coverage,” it seems possible that a reimagined dissertation would be less than what is now expected — and less valued. For those who seek alt-ac careers, would a non-traditional dissertation be any more of an asset? As long as departments continue to be structured by literary-historical fields and tenure continues to be tied to monographs, a non-traditional dissertation seems likely to do a great disservice to students on the job market and the tenure track.
This concern is compounded by the increased burden placed on doctoral students in the calls for inter- and paradisciplinary training and more teaching. With the report’s recommendations for collaboration across disciplines, sustained work with professionals in libraries, museums, IT, and administration, as well as significant training in new digital methodologies, we cannot see how time to degree could be reduced without abandoning training in the study of literatures and languages themselves. Moreover, such new career training places increased burdens on graduate program faculty (directors, in particular). The report somehow expects faculty to provide training for students in areas where faculty themselves may not be adequately trained. Moreover, the MLA’s recommendation that Ph.D. programs “use the whole university” by seeking out non-faculty with diverse expertise to mentor graduate students does not address whether and how these individuals are to be compensated for this substantial additional demand on their labor time.
Furthermore, interdisciplinary scholarship, done well, requires mastering multiple disciplines, something for which most doctoral students do not have the time — or funding — even under current conditions. The report calls for “sufficient teaching opportunities…accompanied by course work, practical experience, and mentoring.” Again, leaving aside how graduate student teaching is bound up with the deterioration of full-time faculty employment, this stipulation also increases rather than decreases time to degree.
The national average of 9+ years to complete a humanities degree seems shocking and insupportable to many, and we are certainly not advocating that graduate students routinely remain in school for a decade or more. That said, the MLA report’s emphasis on reduction of time to degree would potentially homogenize the variety of intellectual pursuits essential to doctoral education, and would put pedagogical and research training into greater tension. There are a variety of factors that extend time in graduate school, from language acquisition to archival research to precisely the sort of pedagogical and alternative/extra-disciplinary training that the MLA report advocates. Moreover, the report’s lack of guidelines for how program administrators are supposed to balance an increase in areas of Ph.D. training with a sharp reduction in time to degree makes this into something of a hollow recommendation.
We are also concerned that the report focuses upon the “professional” need for program redesign at the expense of programs’ intellectual needs — and at the expense of labor issues. While the MLA is clearly responding to the bleak outlook for full-time professorial employment, it suggests adjusting ourselves and graduate education to that “reality,” rather than calling for a broad-based critical and potentially transformative engagement with current conditions. This seems to stem from two issues: a focus on elite Ph.D. programs and a failure to link various issues of teaching to issues of academic labor.
Behind the question of whether Ph.D. programs can be said to “devalue” teaching is the link between graduate teaching and labor practices. While we agree that it is crucial for graduate students to be well-trained teachers, this aspect of graduate training cannot be severed from academic labor conditions. Too often the instrumental use of graduate students as teachers is pushed by (the ever-growing ranks of) senior administrators to justify expenditures in the form of stipends and tuition remission and to provide cheap labor in the place of full-time faculty. Graduate student teaching is a significant part of the contingent labor problem that plagues universities in the 21st century. While the report acknowledges the issue of contingent labor, it is too frequently bracketed from the rest of the salient points.
In an effort to engage positively with the report, we offer here a list of suggested steps faculty — and the MLA — can take to deal with the structural issues we face, rather than simply accommodating ourselves to the devaluation of our disciplines and of academic labor.
1. Public advocacy. This could include speaking about these issues in classes, in meetings, in public forums; writing op-eds; insisting that senior administrators consistently justify the hiring practices of the university, not only in terms of faculty hiring, but also of administrative and professional staff. Of particular importance would be to obtain and circulate the Adjunct/Tenure faculty ratio in departments and at universities.
2. Independent metrics. We propose that the MLA designate a task force to develop a more viable set of “outcomes assessment” guidelines and metrics for evaluating the success of humanities graduate programs. This was Gerald Graff's platform as MLA president in 2008, but remains under-implemented and relevant today.
3. Reduced program size. Short- and possibly long-term reductions in admissions so that cohorts are smaller and have summer funding. Propose alternative curricular strategies for sustaining smaller graduate cohorts: e.g., reduced teaching credit (rather than cancelation) for under-enrolled graduate seminars; team-taught graduate seminars, and so on. Here we expressly disagree with the MLA report’s refusal to consider recommending a reduction is cohort size; we find this impractical to the point of irresponsibility. To accomplish expanded training in fewer years, it is imperative that Ph.D. students be given additional support and funding. Already-strapped programs will simply be unable to find the resources to increase funding and support without reducing cohort size.
4. Organized labor. Actively support the unionization of part-time/adjunct faculty, support that should stretch across all ranks of faculty. We acknowledge that certain aspects of organization must come from contingent faculty, but we insist that for broad structural changes, institutions like the MLA as well as tenured and tenure-track faculty must be involved in the process to change the culture of higher education. For the MLA, this might include speaking out against anti-union colleges and universities.
5. Alt-ac integration. Reimagine alt-ac as a fundamental extension of the sphere of the humanities — rather than as an alternative to it — in sustaining intellectual environments. This means: advocacy in the classroom, the association, the department, the scholarly network, the publishing “market,” and the university itself. Extend the scope of humanities research throughout the education system, arts and cultural organizations, and such — occupying, rebuilding, and refitting existing ones as well as infusing public discourse. We affirm the report’s insistence on recognizing the broad diversity of career paths — not simply to provide Ph.D.s with more access to jobs but also as a means of infusing and transforming public discourse with the aim of revaluing an expanded vision of intellectual labor in the humanities.
6. Direct action. The academic labor situation is clearly at a breaking point which cannot be remedied by the MLA alone. Structural transformation will require action on many fronts — strikes, protests, and other creative forms of organizing and outreach, including work across universities as well as within individual institutions.
The MLA report offers as its motivation the “persistent criticism from within the academy and from a larger public” that doctoral study has received. If there is one thing that scholars in languages and literature are trained to receive, interpret, and produce, it is criticism. It is time for the MLA and its members to take a strong stand against the political and institutional forces that threaten the humanities’ growth, in order to maintain and reimagine the institutional and intellectual environments in which we all can thrive.
The following are the authors of this essay:
Hester Blum, associate professor of English, Pennsylvania State University
Sarah Chinn, associate professor of English, Hunter College of the City University of New York
Brian Connolly, associate professor of history, University of South Florida
Jonathan P. Eburne, associate professor of Comparative Literature and English, and Director of Graduate Studies for Comparative Literature, Penn State University
Joseph Fruscione, editor of the “Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts” column at Inside Higher Ed (formerly of George Washington University)
Jennifer Greiman, associate professor of English and director of English graduate studies, State University of New York at Albany
Jeffrey Insko, associate professor of English, Oakland University
Dana Luciano, associate professor of English, Georgetown University
Justine S. Murison, associate professor of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Lisi M. Schoenbach, associate professor of English, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
the lyf so short, the crafte so long to lerne
--Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Parliament of Fowls”
Let’s begin with the Ivy League-educated Barack Obama: “But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree… I'm just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.” Apparently what was good enough for him is no longer good enough for factory workers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (where he delivered that speech — though, to be fair, he did go on to apologize for the remarks).
And, of course, President Obama is not the only public figure who has the liberal arts in their sights. Governor Patrick McCrory of North Carolina made it clear that if he had his way the State of North Carolina would fund only the sort of education he deemed practical: "If you want to take gender studies that's fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job." His Republican colleague in Florida, Rick Scott, was equally blunt: "If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so." (All quotations are from Inside Higher Ed.)
The liberal arts are taking it on the chin and, since they were on their knees anyway, they have been an easy target. Over and over the voices raised against the liberal arts (and the humanities wing of them in particular) complain that they leave their students ill-prepared for gainful employment; that focusing on the liberal arts prevents students from studying the subjects they and the nation truly need developed; that they are for the idle wealthy (a particularly sharp-edged version of these arguments is available at the blog of the American Enterprise Institute, “Harvard, We Have a Problem: Too Many Liberal Arts Majors”).
Apparently, people have been listening. The evidence has been clear for some years that the liberal arts and especially the humanities side of them are fading from the cultural scene of 21st-century America. One study found that, since 1990, 39 percent of colleges identified as liberal arts colleges have vanished. Another study found that humanities majors now constitute fewer than 10 percent of all college majors in the U.S.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, so why should the liberal arts? “All things must pass,” George Harrison sang all those years ago, and even Shakespeare, that centerpiece of many a liberal arts curriculum, in one of the sonnets that seemed to claim immortality for poetry, recognized that his art is term-limited, concluding his wonderful Sonnet 18 with this couplet qualifying the shelf life of art: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, / so long lives this and this gives life to thee.” There will come a time, that couplet acknowledges, when no men breathe and there will be no eyes to see. To everything there is a season and perhaps the season of the liberal arts has turned.
So if the liberal arts are sinking into enervated senescence, are passing the way of all the generations, I would like to linger for a few moments looking back over my life to muse on why I have spent the last four decades deep in the liberal arts, that is, on why the liberal arts mattered. Not that my life has been all that interesting (or, at least, not that my life would be interesting to anyone else), but the liberal arts are all that interesting and I would like to gesture toward that interest by way of my experience, as a way to suggest what we may all too soon be missing.
It all really did begin for me in a lecture hall in the old Main Building at New York University, on the east side of Washington Square Park. Dingy, drafty, somewhat grimy, windows smeared with the grease of years of students within and exhaust and smoke without. Wooden seats scarred and discolored and often cracked. The course was “Primitive Oral Heroic Poetry,” and the professor was the late Jess B. Bessinger, Jr. The reading list included Gilgamesh, Homer, The Book of Dede Korkut, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, Bantu warrior poetry and Beowulf. It was the Anglo-Saxon poem that prompted the performance that determined my life. Professor Bessinger had been describing the poetics of the Anglo-Saxon verse and especially the power of the alliteration that is a central feature of that verse, when he paused in his lecture to dwell on the strength of the linked words, to suggest to us that alliteration could still be a powerful tool in the hands of a master poet. And he proceeded to recite, to intone really, from memory a section of Tennyson’s In Memoriam that concludes with a particularly thrilling use of alliteration:
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasped no more —
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
Bessinger had a magnificent deep baritone and he spoke those lines as if they were coming from the center of his being — modulating and pausing and letting the emotional sense of the words linger out the vowels across the metronomic pressure of the metric pulse, coming to those last consonants with a devastating finality that rendered perfectly the desolation Tennyson’s words evoke.
At that moment I determined that I wanted that experience, that I wanted to live in words so deeply that they would become so a part of me that I could summon them immediately and without premeditation. I wanted to know a poem so well that it would be with me whenever I wanted or needed it. And it was precisely because those words of Tennyson’s in the voice of Bessinger so feelingly captured the experience of grief — the world going on outside the grieving consciousness of the bereft does seem “ghastly” — those words so beautifully rendered the individual experience and thereby provided a kind of general access that any and all could share, that those words did that much was what I intuited, what I felt in my marrow, at that moment in the silence of the stunned classroom (at least in my memory all of us sitting in that faded lecture hall shared the sense of awe in the presence of a poem coming to life in the air). Although I had not yet experienced the sort of grief out of which Tennyson’s poem grew, I knew then that it had a shape and a sound and that when that sort of grief did descend on me I would recognize it.
I had been infatuated with certain poems before, mostly poetry I had seen mentioned by my heroes (the Beatles and Bob Dylan particularly): Ginsberg, Whitman, Blake were the main ones. And late in Richard Nixon’s first term I came across “The Hollow Men” and thought it spoke directly to the world being mangled in plain view. But Bessinger’s summoning of the spirit of Tennyson’s poem in the mingled air of that Main Building lecture hall determined for me the course of my life, determined that for the next 40 years (and, no doubt, for the years remaining to me and my memory and mind), poetry, stories, plays — Literature (with the upper-case to designate my reverence for "the best words in the best order") would be the central obsession of my consciousness.
So what has this obsession given me? I am not wealthy, though my family and I live far better than most of the people with whom we share the planet. But wealth was never my object. All the bromides that are generally marshaled on behalf of the liberal arts clamor for attention here. Critical thinking; tolerance; flexibility of mind; problem-solving; and the rest of them that sound so vacuous up against the voices we heard at the beginning of this essay. Yes, I suppose, I do think more critically than I would have had I never taken English and philosophy and political science and psychology … all those classes that constituted my undergraduate liberal arts education. I am certainly more aware and tolerant of differing views. I am certainly more aware of different cultures and different times and places and peoples from the people, places and times among which I have lived. And it must be admitted that whatever critical thinking and tolerance and recognition I have been able to practice have been practiced, have been honed, have become habitual to my way of being and those habits were planted in those long-ago classrooms on the edge of Washington Square Park.
But those habits aren’t why I have remained immersed in the world of words and ideas. And those habits, thankful as I am to have them, are not what kept me in those classrooms in the first place and are not what have kept me in their long, long stretching, encompassing aura since. The real reason is pleasure. The pleasure of having my mind tickled into action by the vibrations of words sprung into patterns “where more is meant than meets the ear.” The pleasure of having within my reach congeries of words that render a life, that render living, more completely and more profoundly and more compassionately than hours of my groping for my own formulations could ever hope to achieve. I can’t tell you how often, confronted by a student, a colleague, an adult acquaintance whose ways of being in the world have clearly been marred by something in the past, how often in such moments Larkin’s supremely packed line has come to mind: "an only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never." I’m not sure how English speakers have managed for all the centuries of our language without that line.
Unaware of what President Obama would discourage years later, I did take an art history class once. After four decades I’m not sure how much I remember beyond a detail here and there. Our textbook was Gardner’s — or was it Hansen? It was red and large (as large as the Riverside Shakespeare that I also had to haul around that semester — that I do remember). Did I learn critical thinking in that class? Among the defenses mounted on behalf of art history in response to Obama’s dismissal was the usual: Art history teaches critical thinking. Among the details I do remember from that course is that I learned how to look at paintings from the 15th century, one painting in particular. That course taught me really to see Bellini’s "San Francisco nel deserto." And I was fortunate that I lived in the city where the Frick sits and so Bellini’s painting was available in all its magnificence whenever I could make my way to the Upper West Side (with a student ID, the suggested entrance fee was minimal if not waived).
I learned that beyond the shimmering magic of the light and shade and nuances of light and shade Bellini deploys across the canvas, and beyond the minute detail of the natural world surrounding the enraptured saint, beyond or really within all of that splendor the painting speaks in a series of languages that course taught me to hear, as it were. The rabbit poking its head out of the lower corner of the canvas, the donkey standing patiently, the long-legged shore bird, the cracked rock, all of these perfectly captured natural objects carry meaning in a register beyond the surface register of accurate detail. And that course taught me to look for those kinds of meaning. That course deepened my experience of that painting and, as a consequence, of all painting.
This is, I suppose, critical thinking. Once you begin to see linear and atmospheric perspective and chiaroscuro and all the technical arsenal whose names I’ve forgotten but whose presence I’ll never forget … once you learn to see you can look and see a great deal more than what immediately meets the eye. If that is what the art historians mean by critical thinking, they should declare it. Because it is valuable precisely because it deepens one’s pleasure in the world we share. And that is what the liberal arts do. They are life-affirming, life-enriching, indeed, life-enabling forms of human engagement with the world (in addition, of course, to their indispensable value as preparation for any number of successful career tracks). Especially at this time in the history of our culture, we must champion the liberal arts as modes of being, really, in the world that have the power to transform those who are fortunate enough to experience them into more articulate, more thoughtful, more comprehensively human citizens. The liberal arts provide an education for life.
I don’t think I’m just being idiosyncratically pessimistic to worry about the future of the liberal arts in our culture. And I find myself, as this worry settles itself in my mind, looking back. I have spent what I consider to be many profitable hours reading over the lectures and notes of Thomas Frederick Crane (first professor of romance languages and first dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University, where I work), particularly those thoughts of his he committed to paper concerning the college he helped found. And among the aspects of Crane’s reflections I would hope to carry forward into the uncertain future spreading before us are those virtues, values, habits of mind … whatever we call them … those qualities of a liberal arts education I think have been at the core. Perhaps others would name them differently, but here is what I name them: curiosity, generosity, diligence, care, patience — above all, patience. Patience is what Crane meant when he said that a liberal arts education is “a process that for better or for worse will continue as long as our lives, and any scheme of collegiate education will be a dismal failure which does not implant the seeds of later fruitage.”
As I was working on this, I finished rereading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Rereading it constitutes one of the great reading experiences of my life. Beyond its own nearly unfathomable wonder, reading it in the context of writing this and of what this essay gestures toward in the world around us has given the novel an added poignancy for me. It is a novel whose central actions, if actions they can be called, are two: some 390 pages into the novel, a woman, the lady of the title, notices another woman and man in a room, not doing anything, just in the room and the composition the man and the woman make in how they sit and stand carries a profound meaning for the observing woman. Later that woman, goaded into thought by her observation of the other woman and man, will spend an entire night and James will spend an entire chapter describing her night and all she does through that night is to sit in a room thinking while the candles gutter toward dawn, “she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes; and for a long time, far into the night and still further, she sat in the still drawing-room, given up to her meditation."
That is from the third sentence of the chapter and she does not move from that chair for another 13 pages. Would any novelist, any writer, any film-maker or television producer, would any artist now venture to devote a substantial portion of her or his work to a woman sitting still and thinking? Would any such artist have that prolonged session of sweet, silent thought count as the central action of her work? For that matter, would any of us actually sit in a room in stillness and silence and darkness for hours on end given up to the wandering meditation of our minds? James is thought of as a novelist who adheres to reality, but is such a reality possible for us?
The qualities of the liberally educated that T. F. Crane believed in and that the education he helped create here at Cornell inculcate were, above all, qualities of curiosity and patience, circumspection and attention, what I gather some now call mindfulness, a useful word in my taking of it to mean: having your mind at full play in its engagement with the world. No form of education yet devised is better at bringing the mind to the fullness of its capacities than the education offered in the liberal arts. Without the patience instilled by immersing oneself in the mind-stretching range of the liberal arts, we are reduced to jittering appendages to the plastic devices in our hands, dried leaves scattering to the whims of market and fashion, addicts to money and status and consumption. Without the liberal arts how will we ever in our information saturated and buzzing stimulated overloaded reality actually sit still long enough to hear our own minds at work?
David N. DeVries is associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University.