digital humanities Higher Education

academic capitalism: futures of humanities graduate education

Yesterday I attended a roundtable on this topic on my campus. These things interest me both because I have the same concerns as most of us do about these issues and because I am interested in the ways faculty in the humanities discuss these matters. So here are few observations, starting with things that were said that I agree with:

  1. The larger forces of neoliberal capitalism cause problems for higher education and the humanities in particular.
  2. There is a perception of humanistic education as lacking value which needs to be corrected.
  3. We need to take care with any changes we make.

Certainly it’s the case that broader cultural and economic conditions shape, though do not determine, what is possible in higher education and the humanities. This has always been the case. When we invented the dissertation, the monograph, and tenure as we experience them today (which was roughly in the early-mid 20th century), there were cultural-economic conditions that framed that. It’s important to recognize that graduate education is part of a larger network and ecology of relations, that you probably can’t just change it without changing other things.

In terms of actual graduate education issues, our discussion focused on two key points, I think: the possibility of revising the dissertation and concerns about the job market. These are two of the common themes that come out of the MLA report. Here’s my basic thoughts on these two matters.

  1. It’s very difficult to change what the dissertation is like without also changing the scholarship one does after completing the degree.
  2. The casualization/adjunctification of the job market is tied to the operation of graduate education and the work of tenured faculty. You can’t change it without changing those other things.

The upshot, from my perspective, is that while I completely agree that we need fix the way higher education is funded, to reaffirm our understanding of it as a social good and, if necessary, as a strategic national interest, AND that we need to intervene in the popular discourse about humanities education to make clear the value of the things we can do, none of that will be enough on its own. It will also be necessary for us to change what we do as well.

Unfortunately that’s the part I hear the least about and also the part that produces the most resistance. It’s unfortunate because it’s the element over which we have the most direct control. Mostly what I hear are defenses of the value of the work that we do and how people who want us to work differently don’t really understand us. Both of those things might be true. There is value in the work of the humanities, and probably at least some of the people who want humanities to change may not understand the work very well or appreciate that value. But ultimately I don’t think that’s the point either.

So I would put graduate education reform in the following question: what would it take for us to dethrone the monograph as the central measuring stick of scholarly work in the humanities? You would think that the answer should be “not much.” After all, it’s got to be less than 10% of four-year institutions that are effectively “book-for-tenure, two books for full professor” kinds of places. Even if we just switched to journal articles and chapters in essay collections (i.e to other well-established genres) that would be enough. The problem, I would say, is that humanities professors want to write books, or at least have a love/hate relationship with the prospect.

No doubt it is true that one can accomplish certain scholarly and intellectual goals in book-length texts that cannot be achieved in other genres. That’s the case with most genres: they do things other genres do not. How did we become so paradigmatically tied to this genre? So tied that many might feel that the humanities cannot be done without monographs.

If our scholarship worked differently then our graduate curriculum could as well. Not just the dissertations, but the coursework, which in many cases is a reflection of a faculty member’s active book project. Without the extended proto-book dissertation, maybe there would be more coursework, more pedagogical training, more digital literacy (to name some of the goals in the MLA report). If there was more coursework then maybe you’d need fewer graduate students to take up seats in grad courses and make the courses run. If you had three years of coursework instead of two, then you’d need to enroll 1/3 fewer students each year to fill the same number of classes. If you didn’t have dissertations to oversee, then you could free faculty from what can be a significant amount of work, especially for popular professors.

I’m not sure if that would impact adjunctification much, but at least it would reduce the number of students going through the pipeline, which is probably about as much as one could ask graduate education reform to accomplish on its own in this matter.

Now I don’t think any of these things will happen. I am very skeptical of the capacity of the humanities to evolve. Other disciplines across the campus have been more successful at adapting to these changes but they are not as deeply wedded to print literacy as much of the humanities are. However, until we can recognize that it is our commitment to the monograph that drives the shape of graduate education, I don’t think we can do more than make cosmetic changes.


2 replies on “academic capitalism: futures of humanities graduate education”

I think there’s an interesting tension/contradiction going on with this kind of academic “capital” that you’re tapping into here. On the one hand, the humanities are important in all of the ways you mention (and more). On the other hand, I for one think that anyone who pursues a PhD in a field like German or English Literature or Art History or (insert your favorite unemployable field/discipline here) ought to get their heads examined.

So maybe the humanities generally are important, but not that important? Or maybe the role of things like the “digital humanities” is to make the connection with STEM and to break out of the monograph/print culture? Maybe fields like composition and rhetoric are still (basically) relevant because it has feet in a couple of different places in the academy (I think it’s as much a “humanities” field as Literature, but it is also a social science, right?) and because of the praxis piece– that is, there is an application to our work directly in classrooms and workplaces?


I see where you are coming from Steve. Maybe this is just a diplomatic response. I agree with you that our field of rhetoric is oddly situated in this conversation. Our job prospects aren’t that bad (but please, let’s not build more phd programs!) and I do think we can more easily fit into the current discourse about college and jobs/professionalization in the form of technical/professional writing degrees. However I do worry about our overall disciplinary ability to rise to the challenge of digital literacy and our role as WPAs (even though I am one myself, I share the concerns we see from Sid Dobrin, Marc Bousquet and so on).

As for the more threatened areas of the humanities, fortunately it’s not up to me to figure out how they should translate into the 21st century. I am happy, fwiw, to hold open the possibility that there can be a future there. I am only skeptical because, in practice, I don’t see much movement.


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