One of the Big Issue books to hit academia this year is Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas. The book got some notice at the close of 2009 when an excerpt–“The Ph.D. Problem“–was published in Harvard Magazine. In this article, Menand argues that the production of people holding the doctorate is broken due to the length of time required to complete the degree and the lack of job prospects facing those who emerge. Menand’s solution to the problem is to admit fewer people to doctoral programs and to shorten the time to degree.
I haven’t had the opportunity to read the rest of Menand’s book, but in connection with the recent 10-day seminar for CLIR Postdoctoral Fellows, I did read two different reviews of it. And it’s on one of those reviews–Anthony Grafton’s “Humanities and Inhumanities” in The New Republic–that I want to comment. These comments originate in something I briefly wrote for the CLIR seminar and in kinship with Mark Sample’s assertion that such informal writing is “the first drafts of scholarship,” I’m not going to clean them up that much. I’d rather circulate the ideas and revise as I get input.
After reading Grafton’s review of Menand’s book, I’m a bit puzzled. I don’t really take issue with his characterization of Menand’s argument as “curiously apathetic, and almost complacent.” But I don’t really see Grafton making much of an impact himself. After all, Menand makes a suggestion for changing something in the system (to wit, shortening graduate school). Grafton offers nothing except to say that (1) graduate school should be difficult, as “it is designed–badly, and clumsily, but not insanely [sic]–to attract and then to test people who think they have this sort of calling”–with his reference to a sense of a “call” and “conviction” sounding suspiciously close to the “love” that is supposed to motivate humanists and which Thomas H. Benton has skewered in The Chronicle; (2) that humanists must work to collaborate with others to try to create new pathways for knowledge–although he is remarkably (and admittedly) short on the details as to how this should happen; and that humanists “must learn how to use–and to create–new digital tools.” This last point is absolutely correct, but again he’s got no details to work on except for a vague notion of what we should all do and the recognition that including these tools in graduate education is going to make things “harder, since it will require even more skills than before.”
Forgive me if I sound defeated, Mr. Grafton, but I think I prefer Menand’s solution. At least he has the guts to offer us something we haven’t tried in a while. There’s been plenty done to make the humanities Ph.D. as difficult as possible, and it hasn’t really effected change. That being said, I don’t really believe that Menand’s answer is correct. But Grafton seems emblematic of what frequently plagues the humanities: we are far too good at being critics and far too unpracticed in the work of (artistic / tool) creation.
What seems to be called for at this moment of professional and personal destruction created by graduate school in the humanities is a real revision to how things have been done. Unfortunately, I too am a better critic than I am creator. But I know other people with good ideas, and one of them is Ian Bogost, who wrote a fantastic essay in January of this year that posited the problem with the humanities is the humanists themselves. Grafton should read “The Turtlenecked Hairshirt“; it’s shorter than Menand, and it ends with a solution to our increasing irrelevance (i.e., detachment) from the world around us: stop trying to be separate from (read, “above”) most of the rest of humanity.
But Bogost’s piece isn’t a very specific answer to how we’re going to fix things either. For that, perhaps we should turn to Marc Bousquet, who has written about how the university works (blog and book) and has suggested that the problems of the contingent faculty class could simply be done away with if we made all adjuncts into “real” faculty. It’s obvious that there is a great need for teachers since more than 70% of undergrads in the US are taught by contingent faculty. If we would pay people equitably (and then either subsidized or charged students for the real cost of an education), we would solve the problem facing the humanities at the present. No more cannibalizing the young.
I believe that this employment balance has a lot to do with how we are perceived by the nation as a whole. How, in other words, can we expect the nation at large to take us seriously as people who are able to comment on the acts of humans in context of a broader cultural moment if we outsource the teaching of this cultural critique to underpaid non-faculty? If we are outsourcing the teaching and interpretation of this context and history, why shouldn’t the rest of the nation outsource the role that humanists have traditionally played? Talk radio and shout television are, in part, the products of this outsourcing. We have Glenn Beck, in other words, because we have too many adjuncts.
I realize that such a comment may open me up to Bogost’s critique–and in truth, I don’t believe that only Ph.D.s are uniquely endowed to comment on culture. But is it any coincidence that the cultural role of the humanist has become marginzalized as those who teach the humanities become invisible and impermanent? Why should students or anyone else listen to someone whose own institution will not give her a job?
Perhaps neither Menand’s nor Grafton’s solutions (shorter graduate school or persistently lengthy graduate school) will fix this impasse. But it were a far, far better thing to do something than to do that nothing which we have already done.