On the State of the Humanities and the value of the PhD

I have seen countless articles and blog posts in the last few years – and I am sure you have too – commenting on the state of the humanities, dramatic shifts in the nature of the university as an institution, and the challenges faced by those seeking to forge a successful career in academia. More specifically, many of these focus on the increasing difficulty of obtaining tenure-track positions, the explosion in colleges’ use of adjuncts, lecturers, etc., and the worrying consequences for those of us pursuing a PhD in the hopes of actually making a living as a professor.

Many of the most interesting and compelling posts on these “state of the academy” subjects have been on the personal blogs of individual professors, graduate students, and others, and I think it absolutely thrilling that such discussions are going on in such an active, vibrant, engaging environment (i.e. on the internet), and not only in the much more slow-moving world of print publications, nor solely within the halls of individual academic departments or campuses. There are a ton of recent articles & blog posts on these subjects out there, addressing a myriad aspects, from a variety of viewpoints and perspectives; today I thought I would share just a few, the articles that have most recently grabbed my attention and really gotten me thinking on these issues (by chance, mostly from a publication called The Chronicle of Higher Education).

The gates to Brown University. The gates of academia. (Photo by the author.)

Last week, a friend pointed me to a recent article in the Chronicle which alerts us to the fact that many university departments today are only hiring if you’ve completed your PhD quite recently. The crazy part is, it would seem that in the eyes of many of these search committees, the undesirability of having completed your PhD more than a few years ago is scarcely ameliorated at all by having spent that intervening time engaging in post-doctoral fellowships, adjunct teaching experience, or other academic/professional activities. This kind of behavior is inappropriate even if there were a genuine gap in your professional activities since completing your PhD – whether because you spent those intervening years trying and trying, unsuccessfully, to secure a tenure-track position, or because you took off time to raise your children, or for any number of other reasons. But to take valid, genuine professional/academic activities such as post-doctoral research or adjunct teaching experience as negatives, to consider them almost equivalent to having no such experience at all, seems on the surface almost absurd.

Personally, I have every intention, upon completing my PhD, of taking whatever exciting opportunity may present itself. Post-doc fellowship? Museum position? Teaching college in Japan? Sign me up! … I sincerely hope that pursuing such a path doesn’t hinder, or destroy, me, if/when I do seek a tenure-track professorial position here in the US a little later down the road. But, more importantly than my own personal motivations, I think that the academy continuing to put a stronger emphasis on a very specific type of scholarly activity as a prerequisite to earning a tenure-track job, rather than opening up and embracing a wider range of types of scholarly activity (e.g. teaching, museum work) is terribly wrong-headed.

I am not the only one thinking this way. Many have noted, questioned, and criticized the single-minded focus of the academy on training PhD students for careers in the academy, i.e. solely as scholars/researchers & as professors (teachers), leaving many such students woefully unprepared for careers in related fields. Curatorial positions, for example, along with certain other museum professionals’ jobs, today increasingly demand applicants to have completed the PhD. And yet, most PhD programs (and at least some Museum Studies programs, as I saw from personal experience) fail entirely to include teaching or training in some of the most essential, fundamental curatorial skills, such as exhibit design, connoisseurship, and art handling.

Columbia University commencement, 1913. Courtesy of the Library of Congress on Flickr.

Ten years ago, in an article in the American Historical Association’s own Perspectives on History magazine, Lynn Hunt asked “Has Professionalization Gone Too Far?” It’s a short article and a very engaging read – I recommend reading the whole thing, but in summary, Hunt worries that the structure, or culture, of academia has come to be one that encourages the intense, focused pursuit of professional goals, to the detriment of what she terms “the most essential component of graduate education: the intense passion of intellectual inquiry.” I certainly feel this pressure myself, in no small part due to the numerous articles out there bemoaning the dearth of tenure-track jobs and the incredible competition for them. I find I feel another kind of pressure as well, for there is also another type of professionalization at work in graduate school: the pressure to become a certain type of historian, with a certain type of approach, such as fits into certain people’s definitions of what it means to be a “professional” historian.

Why should teaching, or museum work, or certain other professional paths, be seen as somehow lesser than a path more exclusively devoted to research (that is, a very specific type of research, that which the academy accepts and values and will be willing to see published)? Many commenters see another problem with the system in the incredible length of time it takes to complete a PhD, and suggest that steps be taken to shorten the process. Personally, I’m not sure it’s the length of the program that is such a problem, so much as it is the trade-off of the pay-off1. We pursue the PhD for all kinds of personal, intellectual, scholarly reasons, but also with the hopes of being able to have a successful career afterwards, something that seems ever more in doubt these days.

Professor Leonard Cassuto, in an extremely recent article in the Chronicle, considers the benefits and short-falls of the possibility of creating multiple tiers of professional scholarly training, allowing students the possibility of earning a degree in a shorter period of time that still grants them entré into a career in a scholarly field (e.g. museums, or teaching), and better prepares them for that career, while maintaining a separate path (i.e. the PhD path more or less as it stands today) for those devoted to more purely intellectual pursuits. There are certainly pitfalls associated with this multiple-track scheme, chief of which is the danger of those in the less purely scholarly track becoming something of a professional underclass within the field/discipline, though to be honest, I get the impression that museum professionals, librarians, archivists, and professionals in other such highly scholarly fields are already regarded as somehow “lesser” as compared to university professors, who are supposedly devoted more chiefly, more purely or exclusively to research and scholarship, despite their clear role/identity as classroom teachers. So that wouldn’t necessarily be such a change. In any case, I think it would be wonderful if the PhD did prepare us better for a wider range of career possibilities, and if the professional realm of academia itself was less biased and stratified, instead embracing as equals people who choose a career path other than professor (e.g. archivist, curator), as well as allowing for freer engagement in a wider range of activities, e.g. being a professor who also curates exhibitions and/or works with an archive, or being someone whose chief employment is with some kind of arts & culture NPO but who also publishes scholarly material that is accepted as equally scholarly and valid.

At Brown University. Photo by the author.

Shifting gears a bit, we come now to an article by Prof. Frank Donoghue, published two years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and entitled “Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?” In it, he draws our attention to the idea that even though the terms “the university” or “the academy” are very often used to mean “the humanities” or “the humanities & social sciences,” in fact, it’s the hard sciences, business, and law that tend to dominate universities these days. This is a development I personally find quite unfortunate and unappealing, but there is a clear logic when one considers (1) the job market, and the increasingly professional-goals-oriented, or to put it another way, financially-minded, attitudes of undergraduates, as well as (2) the economic incentives for corporations to fund the kind of research (e.g. hard sciences, engineering) and (business/law/corporate) education that is most directly relevant to their own corporate endeavors.

And so, when we talk about the state of the university as an institution, we must be careful, he argues, not to conflate “the university” with “the humanities,” and must instead recognize that the university is doing just fine, and will likely continue to do just fine in the foreseeable future, albeit as a dramatically different institution from what we in the humanities idealize. The humanities, meanwhile, as I am sure comes as no surprise, are in trouble. Or, rather, to give away Donoghue’s surprise ending, it is the humanities in their current form as disciplines within the university that are in trouble. This is a long article, and there is a lot here (though I do strongly recommend reading this one through as well, as there’s a lot of excellent stuff here) but to sort of jump ahead to the ending, and to bring us back around to something I touched upon earlier in this post, Donoghue suggests that by the next century, the university may change so much that the humanities may no longer have a place in it, but that this doesn’t mean the humanities as disciplines, or humanities scholarship as a profession, will come to an end. Rather, the humanities will survive, and perhaps even flourish, outside of the academy. It is my hope that this means an increased potential for humanities scholars to find successful careers in the art & museum worlds, popular publishing, journalism (e.g. Donoghue cites Thomas Friedman of the NY Times as a prominent “humanist”), and other wide-ranging and/or creative pursuits, though Donoghue is not quite so explicit as to the form he imagines this development may take.

Perhaps I have gotten too much into my own personal desires and career goals here, but I hope that you find the links, the questions and problems they address, and the arguments they make, intriguing and engaging.

(1) As well as the content/structure of that program (focusing on the production of a lengthy, theory-dense piece of scholarship on a very narrow subject rather than a process of investigating a much wider range of subjects).

About Travis

I am a scholar of Japanese & Okinawan history with a particular interest in the history of arts and culture, and inter-Asia interactions, in the early modern period. I am currently working on how cultural and political realities were produced and maintained through diplomatic ritual performance in Luchuan (Okinawan) embassies to the Tokugawa shogunate.
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1 Response to On the State of the Humanities and the value of the PhD

  1. Good luck with your PhD, shinpaideshou! I wrote a post on this topic “Why get sucked in the academic hole? The alternative to no-alternatives” on blog here: http://bosabosareview.blogspot.jp/2012/04/why-getting-sucked-in-academic-manhole.html
    Wishing you all the best, hope you find a tenure-track position or a curatorial one as quickly as possible,

    The Bosa Bosa Review

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