collapse porn: MLA edition

So two articles, one from MLA’s Profession helpfully titled “The Sky is Falling” and another in The Atlantic that suggests “Here’s How Higher Education Dies,” perhaps from some kind of sky impact. Put together one might wonder if the MLA and its disciplines might manage to hold on long enough to die with the rest of higher education.

This is what academics call optimism.

I don’t think higher education is dying. I still think Americans (and people around the world) view getting a college degree as their best strategy for getting and maintain economic prosperity. The problem is that that is a long-term view and the short-term risks are increasingly high, particularly the risks of student loan debt. Our general economic strategy has been to emphasize profiting in the short-term directly from students learning through making them pay tuition (and loan interest) rather than emphasizing profiting indirectly in the long term from the increased capacities of a better educated workforce. This kind of short-term profit-making version of capitalism combines with a willingness on the right to feed into anti-intellectual populism among their voters to cast higher education as a cultural foe. It’s really just incredibly stupid. It’s basically eating a bunch of your seed corn and then leaving the rest to rot. The result has been considerable damage to higher education, particularly at smaller and the more accessible public institutions (community colleges, comprehensive colleges, small liberal arts, etc.). However, I don’t think this means higher education dies.

Nevertheless this context doesn’t bode well for the humanities, as we know all too well. I find it curious that there continues to be such a struggle to understand why students do not choose to major in English. It’s because they don’t want to. That should be obvious but somehow we tend to reduce want to some rational decision-making process. Sure many students attempt degrees they hope will lead more directly to specific well-paying careers, but many more do not. If you look at the NCES data, roughly the same percentage of students are getting engineering and business degrees now as 25-30 years ago. It’s communications and psychology to whom English has lost students. In 1991 we were all roughly the same size ~50K degrees awarded. Now those two have doubled their numbers while English has shrunk. And no one’s choosing those fields because of jobs or salary. In fact, they average less than English majors.

So the thing is, imho, while the general cultural-economic situation of higher education certainly doesn’t help us, that’s not our problem. Our problem is that students are rejecting the experience of English and/or the particular disciplinary knowledge we offer. Eric Hayot makes a similar observation in the Profession article when he writes “my guess is that the humanities are going to survive by expanding and extending their general interdisciplinarity, by realizing that the separation of disciplines produces appeals to certain kinds of expertise that at this point may not be enough to retain our traditional audiences. Our market has changed; we probably need to change with it.”

I think that’s fine as far as it goes, and maybe it goes far enough to attract some students into an elective or to a particular course in a gen ed curriculum. But I think he gets at the key issue, maybe unintentionally, further on: “The problem, that is, is not disciplinarity in general (economics, as I’ve said, is doing fine); the problem is humanistic disciplinarity, in this particular socioeconomic situation.” Now by “particular socioeconomic situation” I’m guessing he means to suggest something he believes can be reversed and probably will be reversed. However for me, I would define that particular situation as “not the 20th century,” which is, as far as I know, an irreversible situation.

But here is the good news(?). The problem isn’t STEM or business. And the problem isn’t that students can’t get good jobs with English degrees. And the problem isn’t disciplinarity itself. The problem/challenge is a paradigm shift within English Studies and the complication is that the broader context of higher education likely means doing it with few resources. It may come as surprise but in this context the often separately-discussed challenges of graduate and undergraduate education come together. If we can shift the paradigm such that people with English phds have clearer value in roles beyond replicating the discipline then we will simultaneously create a discipline that makes more sense to undergraduates who will also seek to use their education for purposes other than replicating the discipline.

How should that paradigm shift? Maybe you can start by discovering how it formed in the first place. Then you might ask how did psychology and communications beat English over the last 30 years? Was it something they did? Was it some larger cultural shift? How might we shift our pedagogical paradigms as well?

There’s no real option to collapse. People will require tertiary education to be successful in first-world economies. They will need to learn how to communicate in increasingly specialized/technical ways across a variety of media; they will require a cross-cultural understanding of aesthetic and rhetorical experience; they will need tools to address ethical concerns with others who might not share their cultural, let alone personal-embodied, context. There will be many professionals who make careers out of addressing these matters.

I think that’s what we were always doing, just in a rather ham-fisted way. I would suggest psych and comm beat us by going more directly at those matters than we have been willing to do. But I know we can offer something different/complementary to those social scientific approaches, especially when it comes to know-how.

 

 

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