Sunday, November 06, 2011

Hope for the humanities (part 1 of 2)

Historiann has put out the call for bloggers to respond to Tony Grafton's review of and reflections on the shitload--I believe that's the technical, historiographic term--of recent books on the crisis in higher education. Grafton argues that although there's no one single or simple explanation for higher ed's problems, there is a problem, which is the gradual divorcing of the college experience from real intellectual development: students go to college for the professional credential and the social experience, and colleges are increasingly complicit in allowing or encouraging them to "look for entertainment and easy grades."

But because most studies of the crisis in higher ed lump very different kinds of schools together, and generalize to the point that no clear picture of any college student's experience can be gleaned, Grafton ends his essay expressing a desire for more precise and particular descriptions of the state of higher education at a variety of different institutions--and it's this desire that Historiann has been marshaling bloggers to answer.

Both Notorious Ph.D. and Dr. Crazy have already responded, giving the perspective from their rather different public institutions, so I'll now give mine from mine. And I gotta say that, despite the problems that my institution faces and the things I'm displeased with (which will be the topic of my second blog post on this subject), I'm pretty impressed with the intellectual climate and the support for the humanities at my institution--non-elite though it may be.

I teach a 3/3 load at a public, comprehensive college with an undergraduate population of about 7,000 and another 1,000-1,500 graduate students. And in some ways, our college could be said to be among those that are focusing increasing energy and resources on improving our students' social lives: we're building an enormous special complex somehow devoted to student life (it's not a student center, and it's not a gym, and indeed no one has adequately described to me what it is); we've built a whole bunch of student townhouses as an addition/alternative to our dormitory housing; and there's been an increasing, exasperating emphasis on "branding" our college in various ways: new slogans, logos, advertisements, alumni networks, fundraising initiatives; you name it.

But the thing is, when a college with a significant commuter population and a significant community-college transfer population works to increase its students' sense of collective identity and to improve their residential experience (a surprising number of our community college transfer students elect to live in the dorms), those things aren't necessarily working against a commitment to the intellectual life.

Because here's the other truth: of those 7,000 undergrads? English now has 600 majors, and history has about the same. We're the two biggest majors on campus, and still growing. The bad job market has been good for us in those two departments, and we've hired great faculty. Our chief academic officer--a scientist by training--has consistently touted our two departments as the strength of the college, and the first new academic building to be built on our campus in decades will be a showcase for the humanities.

For our students, then, creating a social life--encouraging them to live on campus, to participate in social and extra-curricular activities--goes along with fostering an atmosphere of shared intellectual engagement. (I wouldn't go so far as to say that binge drinking on the weekends is a part of this community-building! But more moderate forms of non-academic recreation arguably could be.)

Because I'll tell you what: those 1,200-odd English and history majors aren't majoring in our subjects because of a belief in the ennobling or civilizing virtues of the humanities, or even, in some cases, because they're voracious readers or innately curious or whatever else is alleged to bring students to the humanities. A large percentage of our majors have selected English or history because they want teaching jobs--which is partly to say, they want stable, unionized, middle-class jobs. (In my state, unlike many of its neighbors, students can't major in "education"; even students who want to teach kindergarten have to major in an actual academic subject.)

But however they wind up in our majors, the sheer number of them means we keep hiring. And that, in turns, means they're being challenged by an increasingly strong cadre of teachers and scholars--which attracts better majors and makes many of the weaker ones better, too. And while it can be challenging to teach to a range of different ability levels in the same classroom, I believe I've seen the ways that a shared ethos and identity, a sense that being an English major (or being an RU student) is a thing, and that those other people in the classroom are potentially your people, makes students more engaged and interested in rising to the level of their peers and to the level of their instructors' expectations.

So, okay: many things are pretty good at my institution. The question is, are the phenomena that are responsible for the general health of the humanities at my non-elite institution replicable elsewhere?

I think they are, with a few caveats.

First, the humanities will never attract majors--and this is increasingly true, I think, even at elite schools--by blather about how these subjects allow us to think the greatest thoughts, engage with the greatest ideas, etc. Students may be compelled by those arguments once they are humanities majors, but it's not the way to attract first-generation college students or convince their parents. The humanities really need to sell themselves as a smart professional move. In my state, the teachers unions, like all the civil service unions, are still very powerful, so that's a draw. But we need to make a much more powerful and explicit case for the utility of a humanities major for careers in business and other professional fields (and not just by talking vaguely about "critical thinking skills"; our students are concerned about the bottom line, and that's not a failing on their part, but one we have to be able to address directly).

Second, administrators need to have the vision to recognize that the humanities are, at most schools, well-established, time-tested, and cheap to operate. It doesn't cost much to hire really good faculty in these areas, and then boast about the fact. Regional and poorer schools need to stop chasing after the next new thing, building expensive bio-tech centers (or whatever) from scratch because those things seem sexy and forward-looking, and build on their existing strengths. No, not every English or history department is great. But you can buy a strong English department a lot faster and cheaper than you can buy a strong computer science department. Ideally, if they got on board, the administration would help to publicly promote the notion that a humanities education builds an educated workforce and citizenry.

Third, frankly? I think regional public institutions may be structurally positioned to support a healthier undergraduate intellectual life than some of their peers--which isn't to say that they are healthier, by and large, but I think they have often-overlooked advantages. Let's start with teaching: at my institution, anyway, graduate students do not teach, and although we have as many adjuncts as we have full-time faculty, they teach composition almost exclusively; a 3/3 load means that our 20 tenure-line faculty--plus a handful of full-time lecturers--actually can teach 600 majors a semester, in discussion-sized classes. This is not possible at R1 state schools with lighter teaching loads, a larger student body, and faculty who are often wooed with explicit promises of course releases, time off for research, and teaching obligations that are limited to grad students and advanced undergrads.

Then there's the money. Even when state schools are hurting for money (and I'll admit that my state system is relatively healthy and that my institution has been conservative in its cuts, so I'm probably blither about those things than most public-university faculty), regional private institutions are often in equally bad financial straits. Moreover, they have a harder time attracting smarter-but-poorer students; have to justify their high price-tag; and can be prone to unhealthy levels of self-satisfaction (a friend who teaches at a private religious college up the road reports that her students are under the belief that, since School X is the most expensive college in the area, it must therefore be really prestigious).

And finally, there's the lack of big-time athletics. Yes, we have jocks, and yes, some of them got recruited with lower scores than their peers. That can be a drag. But the athletes aren't expecting to go on to careers as professional athletes, which means they know they need a college degree, and the relationship between the coaching staff and the faculty is pretty respectful (I've been asked about a student-athlete's anticipated course grade, but merely because the coach needed to know who would be stating the next season and the kid would be benched if his GPA was too low; there was no pressure involved). And we avoid all the ancillary negatives of being part of a big athletic conference: no mayhem on game day, no raging fans, etc.


Obviously, I'm not saying that there aren't problems in higher ed; I'm not even saying that there aren't problems at my institution; I'll get to those, and to my concerns about the sustainability of what I've just outlined above, in a couple of days. But I do believe that there's a strong future for the humanities--even and maybe especially in non-elite colleges and universities--if we discard some of our outdated ideas about what motivates a humanities major and what he or she looks like.


Historiann said...

Flavia, this is terrific--exactly what I was looking for w/r/t to the fine-grained details of your work environment and your perspective on it. I really like your points that regional comprehensives can take advantage of the soft job market in the humanities & distinguish themselves by investing in them. Would that my tech-oriented aggie would take your advice--but as I've written on my own blog, in some environments I think that being inexpensive is proof of our unimportance, rather than an incentive to invest in us.

Like you points too about the benefits of NOT having a competitive farm team for the NFL and the NBA. In many respects, I think your post is complimentary to Dr. Crazy's post from last night.

Spanish prof said...

Great post! Without knowing, I think I wrote mine from the perspective of the private college down the road. Let me know what you think.

Janice said...

Here's a key difference between our seemingly comparable institutions: students CAN pursue a B.Ed. (it's a second degree, you also have to have a B.A. or B.S.). We have a concurrent degree program and the oversupply of teachers has led to a 25% cutback in the number of such students. History and English majors? Hard-hit by this Education majors cutback.

We're still highlighted as a 'signature' program of the U, but the real drop in student numbers will be thrown in our face for years to come, I imagine, even though we're still head and shoulders above all the other Arts departments excepting for Psych.

Britta said...

I hear that's why Rutgers has such a great philosophy department. They wanted a world class grad program, and figured philosophy was good value for money, and something they could actually achieve if they worked on, unlike, biochemistry.

Anonymous said...

Good post, and yes. I of course was an undergraduate at one of those super large R1s and loved it, but (a) it was a very well established place, had a culture, etc.; (b) I was really ready for college; and (c) it was in a nice city.

Many corresponding institutions in other states, though, aren't similar and have these huge, faceless undergraduate ghettoes that are like wastelands. The regionals offer lower tuition, more direct contact with professors, and thus a better deal.

So, dorm construction, creation of activities, yeah.

Flavia said...

Thanks, all!

Spanish Prof: perhaps, though I think your institution is a bit healthier/a happier place to work than (my impression is) the place down the road from me is.

Janice: yeah, there's a lot about the current healthy state of the humanities at my institution that's beyond our control, esp. the relatively positive attitude toward teachers and the relative strength of the teachers unions (there have been teacher layoffs here, too, but the public perception seems to be that it's a good stable job, and so students can still regard teaching as a plausible path or a fallback option). But who knows if that's sustainable over the long-term, which is one reason why I think humanists need to forge other alliances and think more explicitly about other careers that we can suggest as viable options for humanities majors. Saying "it's really versatile! you can do anything with it!" may be true, but it's not a reassuring or compelling argument for most students.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I like this post, mainly because it offers real solutions. Here's something that stood out to me, though, from your point 1: the humanities will never attract majors--and this is increasingly true, I think, even at elite schools--by blather about how these subjects allow us to think the greatest thoughts, engage with the greatest ideas, etc. I think this is quite true, and I agree that selling these as marketable majors would help. But one thing I tell my mostly-non-majors in my intro Western Civ class is something that I see as a real benefit of getting in and examining and interrogating texts with an eye to their contexts and implications: It helps to hone one's bullshit detector. That, in my opinion, is a valuable skill, no matter what one ends up doing after college. I don't know if they buy it, but I do keep saying it.

Anonymous said...

Here's another thing to say about this kind of institution: the feeling of being somewhere that's improving.

Naturally one (or at least I) would like to be in a cutting edge research atmosphere and so on. However on the up side, my departments and the program I teach in, and the school in general, has been improving since I got here. I'm traumatized still by how things used to be, but unlike those being traumatized now by destruction, I get to look at the improvements and feel relieved.

One should perhaps consider all the hidden advantages of directionals and former directionals: students are more likely to see real faculty; faculty can take more chances on more daring research projects (that they can't publish in PMLA, but can still pulish), etc., so you get some of the SLAC advantages without the uptight atmosphere and the cost. *And* many students' lives do improve in quality because of what they get exposed to in college. So. I am starting to feel happy.

Flavia said...

Profacero: yes indeed. It's a good feeling. It's astonishing and sometimes a little embarrassing how happy I am with my job--which isn't to say there aren't things I wish for or that I'll be here forever, but I didn't anticipate how happy I'd be at the place I am. Or the nature of that happiness.

cattyinqueens said...

600 majors?! Dag!! We have a few over 200, the most for any humanities dept. at my university, but we're losing non-majors (and like Janice, we're losing students because the Ed school is losing students).

Low Humanities enrollments are driving all decisions, and are, to some extent, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and an outcome the administration engineers.

This article pretty much describes where I am.

I appreciated Dr. Crazy's thoughts on Grafton too, because I think the narratives out there are actually perpetuating the failure meme or narratives, and this allows Universities like mine, that have a great Moody's rating and are starred by Standard and Poors as doing well financially despite the recession, and yet the administrators are embracing the idea that belts need to be tightened. WHat? shrinking enrollments in English? Maybe you don't need new lines then. Maybe your tenure candidates don't need to be retained? So what if they've been productive and part of why you have been able to keep your majors at a steady 200, despite falling enrollments? Everybody has to sacrifice because it must be true that you've all failed, since every higher ed beat is drumming that!

Sigh. /rant.

But this is why I'm really pleased to see counter-narratives to the "inevitable failure" claims. 600 majors is awesome. New faculty and administrative appreciation for the department is also awesome.