Higher Education

instrumentalism in the arts and humanities

I imagine it comes as no surprise to academics across these fields that instrumentalism is typically a dirty word. It is epithet applied liberally including the rejection of coursework that is overly practical or focused on “how-to” (e.g. teaching writing), of degree programs deemed to be too focused on preparing students for specific careers, and of the study of works or topics viewed as commercial, popular, or mundane.

Ironically (or perhaps not), our fields suffer from their own lagging instrumentality. That is, they. no longer function as well as they once did. A recent Washington Post piece, which asks “Why Pursue a Career in the Humanities?,” gets at this problem. While the article focuses on the MLA conference, for me this isn’t a specially literary studies problem. Across these fields nationally there are declines in majors but more poignantly declines in faculty positions. These are issues of significant concern for disciplines, departments, and colleges but only because, in the end, we rely upon and care about the instrumental value (or lack thereof) of our work.

A TAship is an instrument for funding graduate study, coursework provides a basis for a dissertation or theses, which leads to a PhD or MFA. The degree, plus our public/published scholarship and/or creative work, is an instrument (ideally) for getting academic jobs, tenure, and promotion. Beyond our personal interests for well-paying academic careers, our research, teaching, and service are all also instruments of varying kinds. A conference presentation is a vita line but it’s better when there are more people in the audience than on the panel. If we have no interest in instrumentality, why would we care if anyone heard or read our work?

As much as we can ask why these fields have declined or stagnated, we can also ask what lead to their growth in the first place. And while I’m not going into that history here, I will suggest that they served an instrumental function in the mid-20th century. It’s hard to believe that any faculty in these fields would believe that the historical rise of their disciplines was the result of some kind of intellectual purity, not when the general operation of critique is to recognize the overdetermining material force of hegemony, ideology, etc. If these fields have been cast aside by the interests of 21st century neoliberal capitalism, it is only because they were first of interest to the nationalistic, Cold War capitalism of the 1950s and 60s.

Furthermore, we can recognize the material, historical, and instrumental operation of many of our practices. The creation of journals and national conferences, like MLA, more than a century ago, were instruments for establishing disciplinary identity and credibility. The establishment of “book for tenure” at universities in the mid-twentieth century was a similar move. Both responded to the instrumental value of disciplinary regularization and the use of available media technologies. Similarly the creation of curricular requirements across the fields, intertwined with areas of disciplinary specialization, reinforced disciplinary identity: they were instruments for maintaining and growing the profession. I could go on.

I am not arguing that we should now take up whatever things we have rejected as “instrumental.” However, we should recognize that our disciplines have always been instrumental. Hell, academic disciplines are themselves instruments! I would suggest that rather than writing narratives of our disciplines, departments, and careers as anti-instrumentalism vs. instrumentalism that we should instead reflect upon the decisions we make about the tools we use.

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