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Friday, March 11, 2011


Having ventured into depth psychology and other treacherous realms in search of a defense of the Humanities, I shall now return to the quotidian struggle for jobs and paychecks. Today, I wish to talk for a bit about what is happening to Humanities departments in universities. My comments will be anecdotal, and restricted by and large to this country, simply because of the limitations of my knowledge and experience. I invite my readers from other countries to tell us what is happening there.

The assault on the Humanities is almost entirely budgetary. Wealthy schools [particularly, in America, well-endowed private colleges and universities] are content to leave their Humanities departments in place, and even to underwrite their expansion and multiplication. But the budget crises that periodically afflict public institutions seem almost always to take the heaviest toll on the Humanities. The experimental sciences have for many decades now relied on government and corporate funding for most of their research, and a combination of capitalist self-interest and national defense anxiety has sufficed to keep their money pouring in.

Many of the readers of this blog will understand quite fully how all of this works, but for those of you who do not hold faculty positions at tertiary institutions, permit me a few words of explanation. A grant proposal emanating from a university-based research scientist routinely includes money for research assistants, which is to say doctoral students, who will form part of the team working in the "Principal Investigator's" laboratory. Science these days is virtually always carried on by teams, in sharp contrast to the research of Humanist scholars. [Compare the publications of the two groups. The science papers always have multiple authors, with the grant-getter's name appearing first. Only rarely do humanists publish jointly.] The grant proposal also routinely includes money for phones, travel, "research materials," and other expenses that Humanists rely on their Deans to provide.

In addition -- and this is profoundly important in the finances of a university -- funders such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Health permit grant applicants to include a very large overhead allowance -- a standard percentage of the dollar amount of the grant application -- ostensibly to compensate the home institution for the expenses incurred by hosting the research team. At most universities, this overhead, which can be as much as 40% added onto the total grant, is then divided up, by a standard formula, among the Principal Investigator [PI], the home department, the Dean of the Science Faculty, and the Provost or central office. The money going to the PI and to the home department funds graduate students, travel, phones, equipment, and all the other amenities of academic life.

In return for this largesse, as I have already noted, the grant applicants must search the existing databases of funders for money available to underwrite the research they wish to carry out, while creatively shaping their research proposals to fit the announced priorities of the funders. If there is money to fund a search for a vaccine for AIDS, but little or no money to fund a study of previously undiscovered flora and fauna in the Amazon rainforest, then the challenge is to persuade funders that potential breakthroughs in AIDS vaccine development lie waiting in the canopy of the Amazon jungles. A mathematician interested in the topology of connected tree-structures will shape her proposal so that it appears to promise a solution to traffic jams in big cities. And so forth.

Research scientists will tell you that they spend a great deal of their time writing grant proposals, and departments in the sciences weigh a candidate's success in securing grants very heavily when making tenure and promotion decisions.

By and large, humanists know nothing of this world of external funding, and many of them resist as a matter of principal shaping their research to fit the funding priorities of foundations, corporations, and government agencies. There is much less money available for humanistic research, and virtually none for teaching in the humanities. Over time, a class structure has evolved in the American academic world. Science doctoral students are routinely fully funded; doctoral students in the Humanities scrounge for funding, making do with partial teaching assistantships, back-breaking assignments in Freshman Composition, and jobs in fast food emporia. Science departments have travel budgets, research budgets, conference budgets, travel budgets, and multiple phone lines. Humanities Departments pay by the sheet for Xeroxing.

During the Golden Age of American higher education -- the 60's, 70's, and 80's of the last century, which is to say during a time coterminous with my own career -- the number and size of tertiary institutions expanded rapidly. First in response to the demand from returning World War II GI's funded by the GI Bill, then as a National Security response to the Cold War and the Soviet Union's early successes in space exploration. money poured into higher education. State Colleges were jumped up to campuses of the State University, and Community Colleges promoted to State College branches, all needing Humanities Departments to justify their new status. The available jobs so far exceeded the supply of scholars holding doctorates in the Humanities that graduate students were being offered full time positions even before having passed their qualifying exams. Thanks to the multiplication of campuses and money from the National Defense Education Act, some of which inevitably trickled down into university library budgets, publishers found that they could at least break even on virtually any academic title they published. A scholar in the Humanities willing and able to crank out manuscripts could get contracts and advances simply on the basis of an idea and a one page rationale. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven."

Well, Thermidor comes to all revolutions, and pretty soon the money started to dry up. At first expansion stopped. Then travel money and research assistance disappeared. Funding for graduate students dwindled, and Deans desperate to avoid firing faculty removed professorial phone lines. These cheese parings served for a while, but as we entered the new millennium, serious cuts replaced these trimmings. Poorly paid part time faculty began to replace tenure track faculty, and when that was not enough, Universities required by law to declare "financial exigency" before contemplating the firing of tenured faculty ventured into that previously forbidden territory. Doctoral programs were summarily terminated as "too expensive," and teaching loads were raised.

One of the most bizarre of the many budget cutting moves has been the merging into one of previously distinct departments of language and literature. Apparently, the corporate managers who have found soft berths for themselves as university chancellors look at the array of language departments in the Humanities faculties -- Germanic Languages and Literature, Classical Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Spanish and Portuguese, and all the rest -- and decide that since they aren't English, they all belong together. This maneuver always reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the novels of Mark Twain, the famous argument between Huck and Jim about whether the Duke and the Dauphin really speak something called French. Here it is, verbatim, from Chapter 14 of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I hope you will not mind my quoting the entire passage. Huck is narrating, of course:

"I told about Louis Sixteenth that got his head cut off in France long time ago; and about his little boy the dolphin, that would a been a king, but they took and shut him up in jail, and some say he died there.

"Po' little chap."

"But some says he got out and got away, and come to America."

"Dat's good! But he'll be pooty lonesome—dey ain' no kings here, is dey, Huck?"


"Den he cain't git no situation. What he gwyne to do?"

"Well, I don't know. Some of them gets on the police, and some of them learns people how to talk French."

"Why, Huck, doan' de French people talk de same way we does?"

"NO, Jim; you couldn't understand a word they said—not a single word."

"Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?"

"I don't know; but it's so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. S'pose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy—what would you think?"

"I wouldn' think nuff'n; I'd take en bust him over de head—dat is, if he warn't white. I wouldn't 'low no nigger to call me dat."

"Shucks, it ain't calling you anything. It's only saying, do you know how to talk French?"

"Well, den, why couldn't he SAY it?"

"Why, he IS a-saying it. That's a Frenchman's WAY of saying it."

"Well, it's a blame ridicklous way, en I doan' want to hear no mo' 'bout it. Dey ain' no sense in it."

"Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?"

"No, a cat don't."

"Well, does a cow?"

"No, a cow don't, nuther."

"Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?"

"No, dey don't."

"It's natural and right for 'em to talk different from each other, ain't it?"


"And ain't it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from US?"

"Why, mos' sholy it is."

"Well, then, why ain't it natural and right for a FRENCHMAN to talk different from us? You answer me that."

"Is a cat a man, Huck?"


"Well, den, dey ain't no sense in a cat talkin' like a man. Is a cow a man?—er is a cow a cat?"

"No, she ain't either of them."

"Well, den, she ain't got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of 'em. Is a Frenchman a man?"


"WELL, den! Dad blame it, why doan' he TALK like a man? You answer me DAT!"

I see it warn't no use wasting words—you can't learn a nigger to argue. So I quit."

I think I will close today's post on that triumphant note.


Murfmensch said...

I think departments need to figure out the prospects their grad students will face in the job market and respond.

Most departments and schools would be right not to take many (or any) philosophy grad students right now. Undergrads tend to believe (whatever they are told) that if they are accepted by a department, it is a good sign in terms of the market.

The APA sent me a letter with charts showing that the number of positions in philosophy was about to rise strongly. Have they apologized for this?

Humanities faculty do not engage with the public enough. Historians are an exception. Science journalism fills in for the researchers. I wish there were a humanities version of Nova. It must be said that trying to do such work can earn you derision from fellow professionals.

Faculty also need to fight the construction of posh student centers, dorms, and sports program. These have all gotten out of hand.

European university presidents do not need to think about gymnasiums and soft classes to maintain a department that is not organized around learning through texts.

Unknown said...

It is a quibble, but the order of names on a science paper varies from field to field; I can't think of one where the PI's name automatically comes first. In many areas, especially experimental biology, it's supposed to indicate how much intellectual work they contributed, so that the PI usually comes last, if all they did for that paper was get the grant. (One might ask why they count as an author at all in such cases, but that's a different story.) Other disciplines customarily use alphabetical order.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. Something else that it turns out I do not know. Thanks for the tip.

Noumena said...

I haven't been able to comment on the previous posts in this series, so let me start off by saying that I've generally agreed with you so far -- an eyebrow was raised a bit at the Freudian line of thought in the last post, but I agreed with your overall point.

Now: I have an intense and visceral dislike of the Science vs. Humanities trope. Yes, funding in the sciences looks quite different from funding in the humanities. No, that does not mean that science departments are the Big Rock Candy Mountain. First, contemporary science is extremely capital-intensive, and a lot of those large grants go directly into paying for equipment and supplies. A single fume hood can cost as much as all of the books in a humanist's office.

Second, I've been both a math grad student at a public R1 school and a philosophy grad student at a private R1 school. I had to TA or teach a couple classes a semester and got about the same amount of money for doing so. Grad students in the sciences who are written in to their advisor's grant applications might have a slightly higher income, but are much more dependent on their advisor. It's difficult at best for them to change advisors if their interests change or the advisor starts sexually harassing them, for example. It's also perfectly common for science grad students to work as TAs, especially as lab techs and graders for undergrad classes.

Third, the differences in funding also mean that the sciences and the humanities aren't direct competitors. NIH and NSF don't have any say over whether and when to hire new philosophy faculty, and the regents, presidents, and deans of colleges of arts and sciences don't have any (much) say over whether and when to hire new biology faculty. To the extent that there's some systematic pressure being exerted on humanists (and I'm not sure this is the case), it's not coming from the scientists. Administrators and business schools, quite possibly, but not scientists.