Theory Teacher's Blog

So… You Want Humanities?

Last Monday, somebody made a funny cartoon called “So, You Want to get a Ph.D. in the Humanities” that quickly went viral on YouTube and FaceBook. And the very next day someone else made a similar cartoon called “So You Want to get a Ph.D. in Political Science.” My buddies from graduate school especially appreciated the humor since most of us have somewhat recently suffered the slings and arrows of the infamously intimidating “job market,” and many are still searching for that treasured yet elusive tenure track job and at this very moment are anxiously sending out their applications. I want to do a quick reading of this rather bitter satirical video by putting it in its political context — the so-called “crisis in the humanities” — and attending to the different audiences who might be watching it. Here’s the video:

Some of my students might wonder if this video really reflects the secret inner thoughts of their professors whenever they are asked for a letter of recommendation…. No, not really. This is a classic case of satire through exaggeration that blends truth with untruth. So, the truth is that yes, the job market for humanities is very depressing and isn’t likely to improve much, that public universities face state-wide budget cuts, and that the reality of being a professor is very different from what many undergraduates imagine it to be. In fact, I have myself said exactly these things to so many students in my office on so many occasions that I eventually just wrote a summary of my “advice” in my blog [here] — and according to the nifty little calculating technology of my blog’s host WordPress,  I know that this post is by far the most popular thing I have ever written, having been independently viewed more than two thousand times. The untruth of the video, of course, is that few professors actually think our students are misguided or “stupid” to want to pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities or for having the very same beloved ideals that we had when we started down that path. And likewise most students are far more sophisticated than the one in this cartoon. Reality is not so horrific, and it’s a pretty sweet job I have, all things considered; obviously, it’s the exaggeration-for-effect that makes the video funny…. Duh, that’s obvious, so what?

Actually, the real point of the cartoon and what makes it funny to me is not at all what professors may or may not think about their students or about their own jobs. If we shift the target audience of this video from students to other professors and administrators, its meaning changes a bit. (And, if you’ll excuse my “theory teacher” moment, this is why most introductions to literary theory stress to English majors that they pay attention to context and audience, as Roland Barthes suggested in his famous “Death of the Author” essay, as Stanley Fish suggested in his famous book Is Their a Text in This Class?, and as countless other “reader response” and “new historicist” theorists have argued.) For professors and administrators today the real issue in this video is something the newspapers are calling the “crisis of the humanities.” For instance, see this NY Times op-ed by Stanley Fish from a few weeks ago.

So, in order to really appreciate what’s going on in this cartoon, let’s consider its political context. What precipitated the flurry of discussion in newspapers and the blog-o-sphere is exactly the event mentioned in the cartoon — the State University of New York at Albany’s decision to cut its French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater departments. Now that’s some serious cutting, and a lot of already tenured professors will soon lose their jobs. You can read about that frightening decision [here]. It is, therefore, not surprising that this particular video was made at this particular moment in time, especially since many other colleges and universities across the country are also cutting back, albeit in less drastic measure. (Lucky for me, mine isn’t.)

Moreover, as the cartoon suggests, there is fear among academics that radical conservatives like the ranting Tea Party movement are out to screw us. This is not an entirely irrational fear considering that bills have actually been proposed in several state legislatures to control what professors are allowed to teach or say in class. See, for instance, [here]. In other words, if these bills passed and you happened to teach at a public university, the content of your class would be limited by the narrow agendas of state politicians. There was even talk (back in the scary post-9/11 days) of putting professors who didn’t support George Bush’s war in Iraq under surveillance by Homeland Security. Fortunately, none of these bills passed.

Unfortunately, the so-called “crisis of the humanities” is neither something new nor what I would call a crisis. You can see this American Scholar article from last year, this Inside HigherEd article from 2007, and Michael Bérubé published this book and Robert Scholes published this book about it way back in 1999. In fact, the Modern Language Association gathers data about the state of the job market and enrolments in English and language departments and put together this solid, data-driven analysis in the 2004 issue of its journal Profession.

So, what, in a nutshell is all the hullabaloo about? Why all the lamentations about the declining enrollment in humanities courses?

The blame game goes in all sorts of directions. Some blame our more materialistic culture (since the 1980s) that encourages students to choose more professionally oriented majors such as business-management and encourages university administrations to run their schools the way one runs a business. Others blame the professors themselves for not teaching the right things (or the politically right things.) According to that belief, it is precisely because English departments and other humanities departments got all “postmodern” and “deconstrucitvist” and French-ified that they began to decline. In other words, so the argument goes, because corrupt, leftist English professors began critically demystifying and deconstructing the great authorial genius of Shakespeare and Emerson and began to attend to the voices of women, African-Americans, Native Americans, etc., they signed their own death warrant. (At the very least, we “theory teachers” inspired radical conservatives to wage media campaigns against academics for not being patriotic or traditional enough.) Others focus attention in another direction and blame the military-industrial complex and the changing nature of  the “research university” since the 1960s because most administrators understandably seek large grants and pools of money to fund research at their universities, and let’s face it, there’s a lot more money coming into schools to promote technology and business than there is coming in to promote arts and critical thinking.

Interestingly, the surprising discovery of the MLA study (linked above) is that what’s really causing declining enrolments in humanities might be none of these things. Rather it is the rise of new, interdisciplinary programs such as Communications, Peace Studies, Global Studies, Gender Studies, and Environmental Studies. The attraction of such interdisciplinary programs is perhaps somewhat obvious, even though the skills learned in them are pretty much the same skills one learns in any humanities department — how to think, do research, and write. Most “career services” centers tell their undergraduates that it really doesn’t matter what one majors in. What really matters (career counselors at my school have told me and my students on multiple occasions) is whether you are excited about what you are learning. Considering the findings of that study, maybe declining enrolments in humanities and other traditional departments such as political science are not such a crisis after all.

Nevertheless, I do think it is true that university administrators these days favor business, hard sciences, and what I would call the NGO-majors of environmental sciences, global studies, gender studies, and peace studies. (And interestingly, the NGO-majors came into existence in the early 1990s at exactly the same time when the world witnessed a significant increase in the number of global NGOs.) When universities create these programs and talk about them glowingly and excitedly to newspapers and on graduation day (in ways they rarely talk about traditional humanities)… well then yes, there’s a bit of truth to the viewpoint that universities ought to do more than they have been doing to support their humanities departments.

But all this still begs the two related questions of why and how universities ought to support the humanities. In his op-ed earlier this month, Stanley Fish argues that university administrators should admit that humanities isn’t profitable but should aggressively defend their worth to state legislatures. In response to Fish, The New Arts, Politics, Philosophy, Science blog argues that actually the humanities are not only profitable but are very important to the fiscal life of the university in terms of overall cost-benefit analysis. In other words, not only has Fish got some of his facts wrong, he has also bought into the neoliberal, Wall Street ideology that misinterprets economic data. They cite this AAUP article that demonstrates that the sciences may bring in more money from private corporations, but sciences are also more expensive to run. Dollar for dollar, humanities departments are cheaper to maintain and provide a range of important services to the whole university.

What is that service? Now here we get into the nitty-gritty of what we as humanities professors ought to be doing about this so-called crisis. Fish’s argument suggests that we ought to maintain the traditional academic departments in their traditional formulation. But as Michael Bérubé and Robert Scholes argued way back in the 1990s, English departments ought to shift from focusing only on traditional literature and expand their range to include other roles — for instance, roles valued by the whole university such as writing courses and critical thinking courses catered to environmental studies, global studies, business, etc. Bérubé and Scholes are arguing explicitly against the conservative tendency of English departments to retreat into traditional notions of literary study. They are also arguing against the notion that English departments are themselves to blame for their declining enrolments. And I agree with Bérubé and also agree that broadening the horizon of English departments to include both interdisciplinary courses and what are called “service courses” (e.g., freshmen composition and business writing) is probably one strategically intelligent way forward. In contrast to the departments of Russian and classics cut at SUNY Albany, English departments at most public universities are safe from such cuts precisely because they perform an essential service to the whole university.

But this can’t be the whole story. Fish is absolutely right to argue that this is really a political matter, not a curricular matter, and the traditional approaches to literary study (i.e., explaining to students why Shakespeare is as great as everyone says he is) are still important and valued by students as well as by the general public. (By the way, Fish responded to his critics and the AAUP article I mentioned [here].) At the end of the day, it’s wrong to think of this in either/or terms — either we do more interdisciplinary cultural studies or we do more traditional valuation of literature. What makes departments strong (in my opinion) is their diversity of personalities, subjects, approaches, etc., because departments need to attend to the diverse (and divergent) expectations our students, administrators, and general public all have for us.

So, given all that political context, now we can return to our reading of the cartoon. What makes the cartoon funny is  the contradiction between what the student expects and believes and what the professor fears to be true. And this contradiction reflects the larger contradiction in public expectations for college English departments. The general public expects on the one hand exactly what the student desires — a life of the mind. But it also expects original, empirically grounded research by intellectually brilliant, hardworking individuals. And it also expects the curriculum to be practical and relevant to the “real world” (whatever that is). So, because public expectations for English departments (and other humanities departments) are so contradictory, the pressures on us faculty are indeed stressful. Unfortunately, what this video does is displace the anxieties faculty have about the future of their discipline and the security of their jobs onto the idealistic student. In other words, in this video, the naive student is made to symbolically (or metonymically) stand in for the naive public expectations, the contradictory demands put on faculty, and the worsening job security. In this sense, the video is a bit unfair to the student, and considering its multiple audiences (students, professors, and administrators), it does little to move us forward towards a serious reflection upon our collective strategy for addressing the so-called crisis. And by “collective,” I mean the collective of students, professors, and administrators who ought to all be allies in this task, not antagonists. On the other hand, if students and administrators are able to see the humor in the video and sympathize with the overworked, yet-to-be-tenured faculty who fears their job might at any moment be cut by overzealous politicians, then maybe the cartoon does do some useful cultural work.

p.s. And I suppose what my blog post is really saying is that for me the value of the humanities, and English in particular, is that it gives me the critical tools to perform the kind of complex reading of a simple cartoon. This is why I love being an English professor.


October 31, 2010 - Posted by | media, teaching


  1. Hi, great blog, great article. I think that it’s “is *there* a text in this class”. Really enjoy this blog, just discovered it. thank you.

    Comment by vicki | October 31, 2010 | Reply

    • oops, thanks Vicki for catching the typo… and for the complement.

      Comment by steventhomas | October 31, 2010 | Reply

  2. I vote for massive multiplication of business and technical writing courses, and hiring only those who have been explicitly trained in those subject areas to teach those courses.


    Comment by topspun | October 31, 2010 | Reply

    • I detect a little self interest in your comment, Topspun, LOL, and perhaps we’ll have to get you up to central Minnesota to talk about what those things really are (rather than what they are perceived to be)… perhaps to talk about your vast expertise in Chicago’s graffiti writing culture. But seriously, one implication of my post is that perhaps the typical focus on business and technical writing by public universities misses a lot of opportunities by buying into the neoliberal Wall Street ideology. (This is what I meant when I said the neoliberal Wall Street ideology is actually bad economics.) What about environmental or conflict-resolution writing? What about interdisciplinary courses that look at stuff such as the cultures of globalization or the future of the book in the age of the internet? And looking outside the English department, what about ethics courses? Certainly, the Arthur Andersen scandal and the implications that had for our own graduate school suggests the importance of humanities. And aren’t epistemology and cultural studies valuable for scientists and medical professionals by situating science and medicine in its social context — i.e., why and how it matters?

      And I think your own blog posts about rhetoric and writing agree with me a little bit, e.g., this one:

      And of course my argument is that the demands placed on us are inherently contradictory, so we must respond strategically by being diverse departments — including traditional literary study. Some of my Renaissance lit friends have already complained to me on FaceBook that my blog neglects the plight of Shakespearians struggling to gain notice out from under the long shadows of Norbrook and Greenblatt. (I might suggest to them it’s because they haven’t figured out how to post comments on blogs instead of on FaceBook, hahaha.) In other words, what happens when a traditional field is strongly valued (such as Shakespeare) but is so completely saturated that the demands placed on a professor feel insurmountable. How to write original scholarship on Shakespeare that gets noticed? I actually blogged on that question before, coincidentally also in response to something Fish wrote:

      Comment by steventhomas | October 31, 2010 | Reply

  3. Thanks for this Steven, I like the fact that you emphasize the “context and audience” part. Yes, the humanities do provide the critical tools to do that in order to read a cartoon like this.
    The jabs that I find the most unfair are those that condemn what we “are” rather than what we “do” (or rather what it is assumed that we are and do)—and by what we are, I don’t necessary mean liberal/Frenchophile/pomo and “deconstructivist”/tweed-wearer/….(fill in however you like); but “critical thinkers.” The reason that it bugs me is that it implies that it is all that justifies us being there when ultimately all at a University should be thinking critically. Why should we be there just to teach students to think when all their courses should do that?
    Well, because we’re probably the only ones that actually do, in the sense that our critical tools are applicable (and should be applied in our courses) to virtually all of our surroundings (a viral cartoon for example) while many fields focus instead on thinking critically about their own discipline only.
    Perhaps it is time to re-brand ourselves and find a better label for those things that we can read, instead of the blanket and vague “humanities” or “literatures”—the latter being too easily condemnable for being a lesser priority in comparison to things such as medical research, another very “human” endeavor.

    Comment by Ziad | October 31, 2010 | Reply

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