The Atlantic: "The Humanities Have Sown the Seeds of Their Own Destruction"

Started by Wahoo Redux, December 19, 2023, 04:43:09 PM

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Wahoo Redux

Atlantic: The Humanities Have Sown the Seeds of Their Own Destruction

Lower Deck:
QuoteIf the humanities have become more political over the past decade, it is the result of pressure to prove that they are "useful."

QuoteIf we have any hope of resuscitating fields like English and history, we must rescue the humanities from the utilitarian appraisals that both their champions and their critics subject them to. We need to recognize that the conservatives are right, albeit not in the way they think: The humanities are useless in many senses of the term. But that doesn't mean they're without value.
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.

marshwiggle

Quote from: Wahoo Redux on December 19, 2023, 04:43:09 PMAtlantic: The Humanities Have Sown the Seeds of Their Own Destruction

Lower Deck:
QuoteIf the humanities have become more political over the past decade, it is the result of pressure to prove that they are "useful."

QuoteIf we have any hope of resuscitating fields like English and history, we must rescue the humanities from the utilitarian appraisals that both their champions and their critics subject them to. We need to recognize that the conservatives are right, albeit not in the way they think: The humanities are useless in many senses of the term. But that doesn't mean they're without value.

Interesting quote from the article:
QuoteAdministrators, not professors, usually approve hiring decisions, and these administrators are under intense external and internal pressure to diversify the faculty and curricula. Diversifying the faculty is a noble goal—I'm a beneficiary of these initiatives—but universities have looked for clumsy shortcuts. The reigning assumption is that scholars of color are disproportionately represented in activism-oriented fields such as "decolonial theory," which means that deans—always seeking more brown faces to put on university websites—are more likely to approve new tenure lines in ideologically supercharged, diversity-rich disciplines. It is often faculty who are trying to safeguard their fields from the progressive machinations of their bureaucratic overlords. But faced with a choice between watching their departments shrink or agreeing to hire in areas that help realize the personnel-engineering schemes of their bosses, departments tend to choose the latter.

Outside observers mock job ads looking for scholars working on "anti-racist Shakespeare," and these listings are frequently tortured and ridiculous. However, such ads do not always reflect the scholarly priorities of the professors on the hiring committees. Rather, they're often a product of the plotting of superiors who care more about their university's public-facing diversity data than they do the intellectual needs of the English department, the interests of its students, or the health of the discipline more broadly. A humanities faculty member at an elite research university—who did not want to be identified, because he does not have tenure—is only one of several professors who told me that his department struggles to balance its curricular needs with the more political subfields being pushed by administrators.

Anyone involved with humanities hiring, is this true?

It takes so little to be above average.

Mobius

The Atlantic does what most outlets and people do, which is conflating hiring at elite institutions or outliers like Oberlin with what happens at NW State or Generic College (SLAC).

Ruralguy

Every statement in this article is highly dependent on the institution.

There are some very broad generalizations that hold, such as increased efforts to hire people of color. But assuming that's more an admin than faculty thing is presumptuous (and probably untrue at my school). Also, assuming its more of a humanities thing might be true nationally (I don't see data presented in the article), but is not really true at my school where it definitely has been across the board, including even the physical sciences.

And conservatives can push certain fields too, and do. But most fields seem to be pushed either due to practicality as emphasized by large number of majors, or by student interest in lots of lower level courses in the subject because its cool, but not really interested in a major. if a subject has little interest in it a either as a major OR as a cool elective thing, then its probably going to die, and will only live so long as its subsidized by college-wide curricular requirements.

Wahoo Redux

Quote from: marshwiggle on December 20, 2023, 07:44:59 AMAnyone involved with humanities hiring, is this true?

Kind'a, from my limited experience.  Although, the drive to diversify, in part for optics, also takes place at the faculty level.  Harper does the typical political thing and blames administrators for politicizing the humanities, and from what I have seen that is not entirely inaccurate.  But the faculty are willing accomplices----usually because of earnest idealism.  Harper has simplified the grassroots DEI movement in the humanities to politics, but that is a typical rhetorical move for the popular press which likes an editorial slant.

When I was the grad student rep on a tenure track job search, the dean made it known that we should have some minority candidates, and in fact, we were supposed to hire a minority candidate if we could, according to the chair.  For whatever reason, we did not have good minority candidates on paper.  We invited a person of color to the campus visit anyway, and hu did not do very well.  We hired a majority person in the end.

After my wife had been at her first professor job for several years, someone let slip that the SC thought her name on paper sounded African-American (why we don't know) and since a lot of her scholarship revolved around minority authors, they thought she was a person of color.  They were surprised to find that they'd brought a Caucasian to the campus visit, and apparently went back to the applicant pool looking for people of color; they'd already expended the money to bring their three final candidates to campus, however, so had to hire another majority person.       

There's other stories as well.

I think Harper's last paragraph is far more insightful.

QuoteIronically, activist faculty and their conservative critics share the same nihilistic vision of the future of higher education: Both believe that the only valuable forms of research and teaching are those that accomplish something obviously useful. Such views are born of austerity, and they are utterly foreign to me. When I fell in love with English on a college campus many years ago, it was precisely because studying John Milton and James Joyce and Octavia Butler was so intoxicatingly useless in market terms. It rejected the assumption that value and utility are synonyms. The humanities captivated me—and foiled the best-laid plans of mice and pre-med—because literature and philosophy seemed to begin from a quietly revolutionary premise: There is thinking that does not exist merely to become work, and knowledge that does not exist merely to become capital. As a blue-collar undergraduate, that was a radical proposition. And it's the only kind of politics we should expect—or require—from the humanities.



Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.

marshwiggle

Quote from: Wahoo Redux on December 20, 2023, 04:54:16 PM
Quote from: marshwiggle on December 20, 2023, 07:44:59 AMAnyone involved with humanities hiring, is this true?

Kind'a, from my limited experience.  Although, the drive to diversify, in part for optics, also takes place at the faculty level.  Harper does the typical political thing and blames administrators for politicizing the humanities, and from what I have seen that is not entirely inaccurate.  But the faculty are willing accomplices----usually because of earnest idealism. 

That sounds about right. My feeling was that if faculty felt they were being held hostage by administrators, there is a lot of Stockholm Syndrome going on.




QuoteHarper has simplified the grassroots DEI movement in the humanities to politics, but that is a typical rhetorical move for the popular press which likes an editorial slant.

When I was the grad student rep on a tenure track job search, the dean made it known that we should have some minority candidates, and in fact, we were supposed to hire a minority candidate if we could, according to the chair.  For whatever reason, we did not have good minority candidates on paper.  We invited a person of color to the campus visit anyway, and hu did not do very well.  We hired a majority person in the end.

After my wife had been at her first professor job for several years, someone let slip that the SC thought her name on paper sounded African-American (why we don't know) and since a lot of her scholarship revolved around minority authors, they thought she was a person of color.  They were surprised to find that they'd brought a Caucasian to the campus visit, and apparently went back to the applicant pool looking for people of color; they'd already expended the money to bring their three final candidates to campus, however, so had to hire another majority person.       

There's other stories as well.

I think Harper's last paragraph is far more insightful.

QuoteIronically, activist faculty and their conservative critics share the same nihilistic vision of the future of higher education: Both believe that the only valuable forms of research and teaching are those that accomplish something obviously useful. Such views are born of austerity, and they are utterly foreign to me. When I fell in love with English on a college campus many years ago, it was precisely because studying John Milton and James Joyce and Octavia Butler was so intoxicatingly useless in market terms. It rejected the assumption that value and utility are synonyms. The humanities captivated me—and foiled the best-laid plans of mice and pre-med—because literature and philosophy seemed to begin from a quietly revolutionary premise: There is thinking that does not exist merely to become work, and knowledge that does not exist merely to become capital. As a blue-collar undergraduate, that was a radical proposition. And it's the only kind of politics we should expect—or require—from the humanities.

I don't know if this is related or not, but my thought was that the value of academia, in all fields, was that it was the place where "critical thinking" meant that analysis was supposed to be more detailed and nuanced than what was popular in society, and so intentionally *avoided "taking sides" on issues of the day. I feel like that's the ideological analog of what he's saying.


(*Not because the issues don't matter; in fact, because they matter so much, it's vital that we not let our own conscious or unconscious preconceptions rule our actions. It's based on intellectual humility, not on apathy.)


It takes so little to be above average.

apl68

Quote from: Wahoo Redux on December 20, 2023, 04:54:16 PM
QuoteIronically, activist faculty and their conservative critics share the same nihilistic vision of the future of higher education: Both believe that the only valuable forms of research and teaching are those that accomplish something obviously useful. Such views are born of austerity, and they are utterly foreign to me. When I fell in love with English on a college campus many years ago, it was precisely because studying John Milton and James Joyce and Octavia Butler was so intoxicatingly useless in market terms. It rejected the assumption that value and utility are synonyms. The humanities captivated me—and foiled the best-laid plans of mice and pre-med—because literature and philosophy seemed to begin from a quietly revolutionary premise: There is thinking that does not exist merely to become work, and knowledge that does not exist merely to become capital. As a blue-collar undergraduate, that was a radical proposition. And it's the only kind of politics we should expect—or require—from the humanities.






I can't say as I was quite that idealistic when I majored in history and sought a career in academia.  I was an example of what Emily "Ms. Mentor" Toth called The Person Who Is Very Good in School.  I was the sort of youth who thrived in a school environment.  My academic performance was the source of most of my praise and achievements growing up.  Going to grad school and becoming a college professor appealed because it was a chance to stay in school for the rest of my life.  I did believe that the study of history was useful, and that teachers were worth looking up to, and that becoming a teacher would be a way to serve God in my profession.  I believe that many academics and would-be academics went into academia for a similar collection of motives.

The previous generation grew up in a nation so immensely prosperous that it was able to give many such youths the chance to study what they wanted and make a living at it.  My generation of students were taught that such a thing was possible, but found that in reality it was rapidly becoming an option available only to a fortunate few.  Today's youth appear to have learned that lesson all too well, to the point where they're afraid to even try studying anything that they're told doesn't offer a payoff in terms of employment potential.  As unhelpful as the sort of faculty activism the author of the article talks about may be, the economic realities, and the perceptions surrounding them, probably have much more to do with the decline of the humanities.
If any will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.
For how does a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?

Wahoo Redux

Quote from: apl68 on December 21, 2023, 07:46:51 AMAs unhelpful as the sort of faculty activism the author of the article talks about may be, the economic realities, and the perceptions surrounding them, probably have much more to do with the decline of the humanities.

Agreed, with the caveat that the "barista" perception of the economic realities is the real culprit.   
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.

apl68

Quote from: Wahoo Redux on December 21, 2023, 08:47:59 AM
Quote from: apl68 on December 21, 2023, 07:46:51 AMAs unhelpful as the sort of faculty activism the author of the article talks about may be, the economic realities, and the perceptions surrounding them, probably have much more to do with the decline of the humanities.

Agreed, with the caveat that the "barista" perception of the economic realities is the real culprit.   

True enough.  That perception is mostly a crock, but such a generally-believed one that it seems impossible to combat.
If any will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.
For how does a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?

marshwiggle

Quote from: Wahoo Redux on December 21, 2023, 08:47:59 AM
Quote from: apl68 on December 21, 2023, 07:46:51 AMAs unhelpful as the sort of faculty activism the author of the article talks about may be, the economic realities, and the perceptions surrounding them, probably have much more to do with the decline of the humanities.

Agreed, with the caveat that the "barista" perception of the economic realities is the real culprit. 

Are those two things (activism and "barista" perception) possibly related? I don't recall 2 or 3 decades ago as much disparaging of the economic prospects of humanities graduates. Is it that the activist "Change The World!" mindset creates a huge expectation of outcomes that can't be met by reality?
It takes so little to be above average.

Wahoo Redux

Quote from: marshwiggle on December 21, 2023, 09:00:01 AMAre those two things (activism and "barista" perception) possibly related? [...] Is it that the activist "Change The World!" mindset creates a huge expectation of outcomes that can't be met by reality?

I don't know but I doubt it, Marshy.  You are very invested in attacking the humanities and "activists" who you perceive has working off an "ideology," but I don't think this is it.

Remember, conservativism and Christianity are also pretty chauvinistic about "Change the World!" themselves.
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.

MarathonRunner

Quote from: marshwiggle on December 21, 2023, 09:00:01 AM
Quote from: Wahoo Redux on December 21, 2023, 08:47:59 AM
Quote from: apl68 on December 21, 2023, 07:46:51 AMAs unhelpful as the sort of faculty activism the author of the article talks about may be, the economic realities, and the perceptions surrounding them, probably have much more to do with the decline of the humanities.

Agreed, with the caveat that the "barista" perception of the economic realities is the real culprit. 

Are those two things (activism and "barista" perception) possibly related? I don't recall 2 or 3 decades ago as much disparaging of the economic prospects of humanities graduates. Is it that the activist "Change The World!" mindset creates a huge expectation of outcomes that can't be met by reality?


Oh, we were disparaging them in engineering. Engineering class of 2000, and the oft-repeated joke was "What did the arts grad say to the engineer? 'Would you like fries with that?'"  Nowadays I'm sure the engineering students have switched McDonald's employee for barista.

Ruralguy

Oh gosh, we were telling that dumb McD's joke in the 80's and it probably originated at least a decade prior. So, there's been some disdain for a while. Yet, it probably is worse now.

dismalist

There's something else going on, too.

Barrista, or fast food worker, in the 1950's was a job that didn't require a college degree to get. Since then, many of those jobs require fewer cognitive skills than they used to. Instead of adding up a bill with pencil and paper, nowadays a computer does it. It's not doing the jobs that has become harder, rather they're easier. It's getting the jobs that is more difficult.

Why? There are so many college graduates to choose from!
That's not even wrong!
--Wolfgang Pauli

Wahoo Redux

Why is it that STEM folks have always been caught on the "job" business in regards to the humanities?

Is there some sort of competition there?
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.