Survival of the Disciplines

Why are some departments being eliminated while others are secure? Where will all this pruning leave academe? Meg Worley wonders about the future.

February 12, 2010

First they came for the religious studies scholars and the geologists, and I posted comments on a couple of blogs. Then they came for the film studies people and the comparative littérateurs, and I briefly considered joining a Facebook group in protest. Then they came for the paleographers and computational linguists, and I signed a petition. Hold on, let me see who's banging on the door at this hour...

As long as I've been paddling around in academia -- i.e., since my father got his master's degree -- tenure has been the flagpole on which academic freedom has flown. It was all about protecting individuals from the pressures that the status quo puts on forward-thinking research.

Underlying that approach is the assumption that all areas of study are important, although individual arguments and conclusions may not be. But the recent developments at the University of Florida, the University of Iowa, King's College London, Washington State University, USC, and a host of other institutions reflect a new model of limiting academic inquiry, one that sidesteps the protections of tenure altogether.

The script seems to be the same everywhere. Go after the whole discipline, making sure to pay unctuous lip service to its importance and excellence. Make the point that ITTET (In These Tough Economic Times), colleges now have to be selective about what fields they can (read: deign to) support. Throw gobbets of meat to the angry students. Dodge the faculty as much as possible, and when you can't, turn them against each other by insisting that some program will have to go, and who would they load into the tumbrels instead? Use the word “painful” in every sentence.

I have no issue per se with specialization; most institutions can't have a program in every possible discipline. But over and over again, we're seeing an emphasis on STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The more you read about the STEM initiative, the scarier it gets. "STEM is the indicator of a healthy society"; "STEM is the key to future success"; STEM is the only thing that will keep us from living in refrigerator boxes under the freeway and eating our young. And just look at the signatories: Those are the institutions that have committed to prioritizing the sciences over the humanities and the social sciences. Goodbye, liberal arts – it’s been fun, but now it’s time to get serious.

You will already have noticed that S, T, E, and M are not just the fields that bring in the money but also the fields that prefer to assign as small a role to interpretation as possible. Of course scientific data require human interpretation, but all the STEM-mers I know believe that their fields deal in right and wrong answers. My colleague in the math department informs me that her discipline involves no interpretation whatsoever. And this is just as it should be; the natural world can refute hypotheses with tremendous clarity (see under: phlogiston; blood-letting; group selection).

But right and wrong answers occupy only one side of the academic quad. And this axing of whole fields closely resembles an attack on the humanities and social sciences -- in other words, the interpretive studies. It's not a concerted attack (complex conspiracies almost never succeed), but the effect is the same: promoting black-and-white disciplines and demoting unresolvable ambiguity to the realm of the hobbyist.

The effect on literary studies seems pretty obvious to me. Criticism will disappear quickly, and we'll return to the era of Appreciation. (Can you tell that I've just been teaching my theory students about 19th-century lit crit, to show them what the formalists were reacting to?) That's not a bad thing, except that aesthetic appreciation is generally (I'm inclined to say "necessarily," but I'm not sure I can defend that claim) a very effective means of shushing minority/subaltern groups and reinforcing the dominant ideology. The D.I. sets up opaque standards of appreciation and then measures everything by them -- and anything representing a different ideology (and standard of appreciation) is dismissed. That's exactly what happened to computational linguistics at King's College London.

I'm not sure where this leaves us, aside from up the creek. Perhaps subaltern studies is the last barricade against this broadscale attack on whole classes of disciplines. After all, the subaltern is mad as hell and not going to take it any more. So too might be the medievalists, the linguists, and the rural sociologists, but we don't know jack about organizing and making our voices heard.

The English Department could be the one to turn out the lights when we go. They keep us around because they value something they call "clear writing," and they think that whatever our silly little research is about, at least we teach writing (so they don't have to). Little do they know that we also teach the careful manipulation of metaphor -- better known as propaganda and marketing. But we're obviously not practicing what we teach, or else the interpretive disciplines would be in better shape.

The same can be said for Political Science, to choose just one example in the social sciences. A physicist friend points out with some bitterness that STEM has already come up with a set of solutions (her word, not mine) for global warming. Implementing them is the problem, she notes, and that is a job for the humanities and social sciences. If we gut those areas, every problem is left half-solved.

The thought of a world without Criticism -- a culture where any problem requiring interpretation is either ignored or recast as one with a single right answer -- isn't pretty. All those claims made for STEM fields (healthy society, future success, blah blah blah) are every bit as true for the interpretive studies. I agree that we could all do with more knowledge of S, T, E, & M (I pressure all my advisees to take statistics, for a start), but a society that sees every question in terms of black and white isn't going far. At least not in an upward direction.


Meg Worley is an assistant professor of English at Pomona College.


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