when the future isn't like the past

A group of scholars respond to MLA’s proposal regarding doctoral education in Inside Higher Ed, another group propose to replace MLA’s executive director with a triumvirate who will focus on the problems of adjunctification, on Huffington Posta university president write in defense of a liberal arts education: these are all different slices of a larger issue. On this blog, there are a few recurring topics:

  • emerging digital media and their aesthetic, rhetorical, and cultural effects;
  • teaching first-year composition;
  • practices in scholarly communication;
  • technologies and higher education teaching;
  • the digital humanities and its impact on the humanities at large;
  • the academic job market, including the issue of part-time labor;
  • doctoral education in English Studies;
  • undergraduate curriculum, including both general education and English majors.

There’s also a fair amount of “theory” talk, though, at least in my mind, it’s always about developing conceptual tools for investigating one or more of these topics. So perhaps it is not surprising that from my perspective these things are all part of a common situation, not one that is caused by technological change in some deterministic way, but one in which the development of digital media and information technologies has played a significant role. And obviously it’s not just about technology, but when we remark on the changing nature of work in the global economy, the resulting growing demand for postsecondary education, the shift in government support and public perception of higher education, and the impacts of these on academia, it’s clear that technological change has played its role there as well. In other words, the challenges we face today were not necessary and the future has not already been written, but there was and is no chance that the future will be like the past.

And this is where I see the biggest contradictions in our efforts to address these problems, contradictions which are rehearsed again in the pieces referenced above. Who can doubt that the way we approach doctoral education, university hiring practices in relation to adjuncts, and our valuing of a liberal arts curriculum are all tied together? The obvious answer is for there to be greater public investment in higher education. Maybe states should think about incarcerating fewer citizens and educating more of them. Maybe the federal government doesn’t need more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined. Maybe we need to close some corporate tax loopholes. Maybe.  Maybe. But even if there were more money flowing into the system, would that mean that things would stay as they are/were?

In his Huffington Post piece, Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, points to a tradition in American higher education dating back to Franklin and Jefferson that emphasize the value of a liberal education for lifelong learning over specific vocational training, as he concludes:

Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to individual freedom, and to the ability to think for oneself and to contribute to society by unleashing one’s creative potential. The pace of change has never been faster, and the ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we need to support greater access to a broad, pragmatic liberal education.

Ok, but what should that “broad, pragmatic liberal education” look like? Does this ability to “shape change and seek opportunity” also apply to higher education itself? The “10 Humanities Scholars” writing in response to MLA’s proposal object to the suggestion that graduation education should be different and instead contend “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.” That’s my emphasis. In short, as long as things remain the same, they should remain the same. (I should note, btw, that with possibly a few exceptions at elite private liberal arts colleges, tenure is only tied to monographs at research universities, which make up less than 10% of American universities. So that claim is not true and has never been true.) But that’s just a side note.

Here’s the point. We want students to receive a liberal arts education in that most medieval of senses: the skills and knowledge needed to succeed as a free individual. And we want to deliver that education without exploitative employment practices. But these movements also want to hold on to the curricular and disciplinary structures of the 20th century. And in the end, the latter are valued over the former. And while the MLA report is obviously focused on MLA fields, this issue extends beyond those departments.

If the solution to our challenges includes changing the curricular and disciplinary paradigms of the arts and humanities are we still committed to finding that solution? Or are we more inclined to stay on this ride until it ends?

What is this future like? Where literary-historical fields are a minor part of the humanities, where the focus turns to digital media and the contemporary global context, where the curriculum focuses on the soft skills of communicating, collaborating and research rather than traditional content, where faculty research efforts, including the genres of scholarly communication, reflect this shift in emphasis, where the elimination of adjunct positions changes both the curriculum offered and the technological means of its delivery, where the focus on graduate programs that train future professors is greatly diminished. In short what if the solution to our problems is to create a future where the job of the humanities professor looks nothing like what it is today?

I’m not saying it has to be that way. My point is only that our conversations about finding solutions to these problems always seem predicating on returning to some imaginary historical moment rather than really trying to shape a future. Didn’t we all receive that “pragmatic liberal education” of which Roth speaks? If we can’t use it to find such solutions, then maybe it isn’t worth saving in the first place.

 

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