Wednesday, July 23, 2014


The editors are currently taking a hiatus from posting here in order to pursue other projects.

For  information on Paul Jay's new book, The Humanities "Crisis" and the Future of Literary Studies please click here.

"Anyone seeking arguments in support of the humanities will find a rich resource in the materials that Paul Jay has put together in this book. He combines a thorough synthesis of debates across the field with well-reasoned and persuasive arguments that go beyond the tired bromides and platitudes too often hauled out in support of the study of literature, philosophy, and other humanistic disciplines. In the process, he lays to rest some of the myths and misunderstandings that have created a rhetoric of 'crisis,' and offers his readers solid evidence that the humanities are as vital today as in any other moment." - Johanna Drucker, Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Silver Lining in the Ouster of UVA President Teresa Sullivan

Photo Credit: Tom Daly, The Daly Dose
It always helps to know your enemy, and boy, do we know our enemy now.

The recent ouster of Teresa Sullivan, a mini coup d’etat that had enough court intrigue to give Hilary Mantel's new novel, Bring Up the Bodies, a run for its money, may be the best thing that’s happened in higher education in a long time.

Why? Because her summary dismissal by the Board of Visitors, spear-headed by real estate developer Helen Dragas, the Board’s Rector, and its Vice Rector, Mark Kington (the head of a capital management firm who sits with Dragas on the BOD of the energy company, Dominion) makes it absolutely clear what is at stake in the corporatization of higher education: Goodbye shared governance, hello strategic dynamism.

There’s a painful irony in all of this, of course: The same folks who championed the combination of tax kickbacks to the wealthy, deregulation, and insider trading that helped shatter the economy and hobble the budgets of colleges and universities are now increasingly running them. What these people like to call “strategic dynamism” produced binge profits, sure. But it ended up shredding the economy, and now it’s coming to a college or university near you. (If you haven’t seen The Chronicle of Higher Education piece on the idea of “strategic dynamism” and the role it played in Sullivan’s firing, you ought to check it out.) Boards like UVAs, increasingly made up of hedge fund operators, mortgage lenders, developers, and investment firm CEOs, are trained to put fast-paced change, short-term economic gain, and dramatic changes in asset allocation and in personnel ahead of long term, methodical academic planning, subordinating even the pretense of shared governance to the economic bottom line. It represents a culture of governance alien to the one we’re used to in higher education. As Kris Olds points out in a superb Inside Higher Education piece on UVAs Board, this is "a patently unbalanced and inward-oriented board, drawing from a very narrow segment of society," one prone to "group think."

You remember shared governance, right? In the old days, when the business of education was education, and not business, the academic mission of the university -- its courses, curricula, and programs -- could safely be delegated to the people who have the expertise: the faculty. So could the process of promotion and tenure. Now, however, the curriculum has become a product, the faculty are employees (increasingly limited to adjunct or part-time status), and the students consumers. In the process, academic issues have been transformed into economic issues, and so the faculty can no longer be trusted with them. The value -- and thus the viability -- of courses, programs and departments can no longer be separated from the maximization of revenue flows, or from the cant of productivity and quantifiable learning outcomes. Strategic dynamism is fast becoming the new bottom line, and all it wants to know is how departments and their faculties can perform in the context of short-term, wildly fluctuating financial exigencies. Why allow faculty a governance role in the curriculum when faculty want to protect the viability of traditional academic programs that supposedly put a drag on the university's finances and are irrelevant to the vocational needs of their students? Shared governance just looks absurd to people like Dragas and Kington. They're CEOs, developers, and investment fund executives. Whoever heard of shared governance in their world?

And finally, what happens to the humanities under such a regime? They shrink into irrelevancy and their departments close. It’s telling that the only concrete reason we’ve gotten for Sullivan’s ouster is that she apparently refused to cut the departments of German and Classics. It’s not hard to imagine that this is where the deeper story lies. According to an article in The Washington Post, “Leaders of the university’s governing board ousted Sullivan last week largely because of her unwillingness to consider dramatic program cuts in the face of dwindling resources and for her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive.” Surely if the recent past is any indicator, many of these cuts would have come from the humanities and the liberal arts. Indeed, the statement she issued yesterday suggests this is the case. You can read it here.

To its credit, the AAUP saw this coming way back in 1966. Consider this introductory passage from the AAUP Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities:

“[T]he academic institution, public or private, often has become less autonomous; buildings, research, and student tuition are supported by funds over which the college or university exercises a diminishing control. Legislative and executive governmental authorities, at all levels, play a part in the making of important decisions in academic policy. If these voices and forces are to be successfully heard and integrated, the academic institution must be in a position to meet them with its own generally unified view.”

“Less autonomy?" "Diminishing control?” "Unified view?" Indeed. If strategic dynamism is the ideal the Board at UVA was pushing, one doesn’t have to look far to see how recklessly that ideal operates, and how damaging it can be, for the firing of President Sullivan was clearly meant to be strategically dynamic. And boy did it backfire. But we shouldn’t be surprised. If it can screw up an entire nation’s economy it can certainly do the same thing to a university. The manner of Sullivan's firing is the best argument against the managerial ideal that drove it, and we can at least thank the UVA Board for dramatizing so brazenly what's at stake in the corporatizing of higher education.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rethinking the PhD-Elite Solutions?

Inside Higher Ed continues its coverage of ideas on humanities graduate education reform with this update about the proposals coming from Russell Berman at Stanford. Obviously if some of the elite private schools lead the way, it could open the doors for others. But maybe not. Here's a comment from Facebook by Richard Grusin, Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at UW-Milwaukee:
"Clearly there are some interesting ideas here. Nonetheless this discussion is silent, has nothing to say--nada, zip, niente--about the economic or labor issues constraining graduate education in the humanities. While some such change as this could perhaps work at a wealthy institution like Stanford, which might be able to afford to fund graduate study without asking doctoral students to teach 3 or 4 courses per academic year throughout their career, I don't see it working at state-assisted institutions where student support means 5 years as an over-worked and under-paid TA, added on to 4 years of undergraduate debt. While the University of Minnesota is mentioned, I would be interested to see the details of their proposal, if there is one yet." See also the video, below, of the discussion with Jay and Cassuto on the dissertation.

Teresa Mangum responds on Facebook: "Two other questions--how many grad students would know at year 2 they want to do something different and are there really alternative careers out there other than a limited number of DH positions? But it's refreshing to see departments at least explore possibilities. I also like this program at Stanford that is helping grad students articulate the ways grad studies have prepared them for nonacademic careers:"

Monday, May 14, 2012

More Bad News About the Corporatizing of Higher Ed, Online and Off

Articles discussed in this post:

David Brooks, “The Campus Tsunami,” The New York Times (5/3/12)
Frank Bruni, “The Imperiled Promise of College,” The New York Times (4/28/12)
Andrew Policano, “Universities must adapt to financial realities,” The Financial Times of London (5/ 7/12)

It’s depressing to see a conservative columnist like David Brooks, who at least pays lip service to the value of a humanities education, so thoroughly seduced -- and for so many bad reasons -- by the burgeoning business of online education. The "tsunami" Brooks refers to is the entrance of “elite, pace-setting universities” like MIT, Yale, Stanford, and Harvard into online education. While he acknowledges the doubts some educators have about this development (what happens to the rest of the faculty when “star” professors’ lectures become available for free online? will the standards for online courses be rigorous? what about the value of eye contact between professor and student?) Brooks finds lots of “reasons to be optimistic.” But look carefully at what he’s optimistic about and you'll be troubled. Why? Because it's the global commodification -- and even colonization -- of higher education by elite universities in the West that seems to have caught his attention. For Brooks, the tsunami in online higher education is all about turning lectures by American professors from elite universities into cheap global commodities. What excites him is that "online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world. India alone hopes to build tens of thousands of colleges . . . Curricula from American schools could permeate those institutions." Isn't that great? Of course, because in Brooks' view "online education" is about "transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available." That’s worth repeating. Brooks is advocating turning knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available. 

There’s a perfect storm here, and it’s awfully troubling: pedagogical colonialism meets Fordism. Reestablish American hegemony in higher education by mass producing cheap knowledge in homogenized, westernized bits that can take the place of courses formulated and taught by Indian, African, or Brazilian scholars for the needs of their students. Brooks’ vision of the future of higher education is all virtual, all western, all stars, all elite, cheap, homogenized, and hegemonic. He seems a lot less interested in quality education for students than in reasserting the power and the authority -- and maximizing the profits -- of elite Western institutions.

All of this is especially troubling at a time when real, in-the-classroom higher education is so financially strapped, and so driven by the bottom line, that commentators are beginning to call for tax and fellowship subsidies to actually lure students away from the humanities and into more “practical” majors. That’s right. Take, for example, the New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, who recently insisted we need to find a way to make higher education a better pay-off for students. Why, according to Bruni, is the promise of college imperiled for so many students? Because too many of them major in the humanities or the liberal arts, of course. Bruni laments that college has become a “luxury” with “uncertain returns” for so many students and their parents. His troubling solution to this problem is to “reroute” students from majors like “philosophy and anthropology . . . art history and humanities” into practical, vocationally oriented majors like “accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find.” Indeed, if these students won’t leave the liberal arts and humanities for more utilitarian majors, Bruni has a great idea. Reduce their funding and reinvest it in students who want to use college purely as vocational training: “I’d . . . call for government and university incentives to steer students into the fields of studies that will serve them and society best. We use taxes to influence behavior. Why not student aid?”

Andrew Policano, dean of The Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, has recently made a similar proposal -- and for the same reason. It would not only make the increasing corporatization of higher education a fait accompli but would essentially tax students who opt for the humanities. Policano’s solution to the escalating costs of higher education is to follow the path of business schools, which have “for many years charged a premium for their programmes with little protest from students.” Why? Because they “offer their students a perceived value beyond the cost of their education . . . they understand how to add value in a way that captures market share.” In his view, public universities need to “consider limiting their scope.” Since they can’t be “all things to all people” they ought to “adopt an accountability framework” that “aligns revenue and costs.” This realignment is perfectly in synch with Bruni’s vision of higher education. It’s aimed at producing “resource allocations” that shift the educational  emphasis to areas with “high profitability” while downsizing programs with “negative cash flow.” It’s not hard to imagine who will take the big hits here, is it? Like Bruni, Policano would shift students from the humanities to “science, mathematics, and technology” through taxpayer and donor subsidies. If not enough students decide to vocationalize and credentialize their educations, reduce their funding, and reinvest it in academic programs that produce workers. In Policano’s view, higher education -- especially at public institutions -- will survive only if it becomes “entrepreneurial, market focused,” and economically efficient. These two proposals literally de-value the humanities in a thoroughly marketized, jerry-rigged approach to higher education.

Taken together, these three articles represent a troubling consolidation of the corporate values that have come more-and-more to dominate higher education, and in a way that represents a direct threat to the humanities. Brooks’ enthusiastic endorsement of a Fordist and colonizing model for online education, and the proposals by Bruni and Policano that we use financial incentives to drive students out of the humanities and herd them into more “practical” vocational fields, are troubling at a time when we ought to be doing a better job of democratizing access to higher education, and re-articulating the real social, civic, and even economic values of majoring in the humanities. [This post represents the opinion of Paul Jay and should only be attributed to him]

Monday, May 7, 2012

Where to Start Fixing Graduate Education in America

By Leonard Cassuto and Paul Jay

When we were invited to appear together on the cable television show “Higher Education Today” to discuss the present and future of the dissertation, we anticipated a wide-ranging conversation about the nature of dissertations in different fields, how professors direct them, and how digital technology might change them.  

But the exchange ranged far wider than that.  It encompassed the conservatism of graduate education, the stricken job market, graduate student funding (and with it the deplorable use of contingent labor  in the American university), the increasing amount of time to degree, the role of collaboration in our individualistic graduate school culture—and what Wikipedia has to tell us about graduate school in the United States.  Who woulda thunk it?

In retrospect, the proliferation of topics should have been as obvious as the connection of the leg bone to the knee bone.  The problems facing graduate education are braided together so tightly that they really can’t be separated.  If you talk about one aspect of graduate education, you’ll wind up talking about all of them.  

The same rule applies if you try to change something.  Consider the initiative by the Mellon Foundation aimed at reducing the steadily-increasing time to degree in Ph.D. programs in the humanities: beginning in 1991, a small number of students were given generous external fellowship support designed to free them from teaching so that they might get their dissertation work done faster.  The result?  This privileged group got their Ph.D.’s no more quickly than the rest of the graduate student population. Why? Because it turns out that time to degree is not an independent variable, but is in fact determined by a complex set of entrenched institutional practices. You can read an extended analysis of the Mellon initiative in Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities.

Our brief trip to television land reminded us there are essentially no independent variables in graduate education.  If we want to change the culture of graduate school in the United States—and there is much that needs changing--we must look at the whole system, not just fiddle around the edges. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Incredible Shrinking Grad Programs

The future of the humanities is shrinking, at least when it comes to graduate programs. Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education documented the trend, discussing substantial cutbacks in graduate programs in Art History, English, and History at major research universities. I recommend you read the article and the many comments that it engendered (follow the link for a PDF); you'll note a dizzying variety of responses: life as faculty know it is ending; undergraduate education will benefit; it's all about the collapsing job market; it's all about the dependence on adjuncts; it's America's hatred of the humanities; it's about time, et. al. Overall the article and responses showed a surprising lack of imagination about innovative new forms of humanities training, work and curricula. Personally I objected to the claim that creating more interdisciplinary graduate seminars across the humanities will "water down" our fields. I'm currently teaching a graduate seminar on "Critical Race Theory and Cultural Studies." It enrolled three students from my department (English), three from Education, two from Information and Library Science, one from history, and one from Media Studies. The discussions have been challenging and invigorating, and have stretched me as an intellectual and as an instructor. I recognize that not all grad seminars can or should follow this path, but we ought to be far more active in creating such interdisciplinary seminars and alternative curricular programs. (Posted by Greg Jay)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wall Street and the Liberal Arts: What's Not Wrong with Higher Education

Why do so many college graduates continue to seek jobs on Wall Street in the wake of a financial collapse caused largely by the Street’s own predatory financial practices? Why aren’t students, especially given the galvanizing effect of the Occupy movement, shunning the financial sector in order to seek work in fields that support sectors of the economy ravaged by these practices? Shouldn’t liberal arts students be leaving colleges and universities with the kind of idealism that would direct them into education, public service, or other positions with not-for-profit corporations, or in positions that serve their communities? With evidence suggesting many students continue to flock in significant numbers to jobs in the financial sector from ivy league schools like Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, a lot of people are wondering who to blame.

According to an article in the February 16th edition of the Washington Monthly, the blame lies with the liberal arts. That’s right, the liberal arts. Ezra Klein, in Harvard’s Liberal-Arts Failure Is Wall Street’s Gain,”  claims that the liberal arts lure students into taking courses that have no market value, and that once they wake up and realize what they’ve done, it’s too late. They’ve become sitting ducks for recruiters from Goldman Sachs. He imagines a kind of shell game in which Wall Street is actually “taking advantage of the weakness of liberal arts education.” Here’s the logic:

For many kids, college represents an end goal. Once you get into a good college, you’ve made it, and everyone stops worrying about you. You’re encouraged to take classes in subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills. After a few years of study, you suddenly find it’s late in your junior year, or early in your senior year, and you have no skills pointing to the obvious next step.

In Klein’s view, “Wall Street is promising to give graduates the skills their university education didn’t.” Studying the liberal arts turns out to be a luxury students literally cannot afford. Worse still, because the liberal arts fail to teach students marketable skills, these students are more than happy to pick them up, with pay, from Wall Street.

This is a bone-headed argument for a number of reasons. First of all, the statistics Klein is working with do not break down students who take jobs on Wall Street by major. There’s no evidence that history, philosophy, sociology, or English majors are taking jobs on Wall Street because these majors have failed to provide them marketable skills. And what about those students who did major in business or accounting but took a few general education courses in the liberal arts? Are we to believe that a smattering of courses on Romantic poetry, the history of the Cold War, and existentialism left them so ill-equipped for a job that they became vulnerable to the seductions of Morgan Stanley? Would these students really be better equipped for the job market if they had just skipped liberal arts courses altogether?

Of course they wouldn’t. Indeed, there’s good reason to argue they’d be less equipped without liberal arts courses, for, as Gerald Graff and I pointed out last month in “Fear of Being Useful,” there’s plenty of evidence that study in the liberal arts and humanities does in fact equip students with a range of practical skills attractive to employers in both for profit and not-for profit workplaces. Klein is simply wrong in suggesting liberal arts students are taking jobs on Wall Street because they are not learning marketable skills in their liberal arts courses. They are learning those skills. So, if we want to understand why the finance sector is attracting so many recent graduates, we’ll need to look elsewhere for an answer. Blaming the liberal arts is the last thing commentators ought to be doing.

The irony in Klein’s argument is that he uses the same market-driven values he criticizes to measure the value of courses in English literature, history, and political science. In his view, if such courses don’t provide students with the kind of focused, technical expertise that translates into a job, then they aren’t worth anything at all. According to Klein, we might as well just get rid of them, and turn colleges and universities into credentialing agencies for high-paying jobs in the private sector. Klein has somehow missed the fact that a liberal arts education is as much about values as it is about value. The values liberal arts students learn are worth more than the value of the degree they will earn.

If students in the liberal arts aren’t finding their way into fulfilling, well paying jobs outside of finance, the problem is not with liberal arts content but rather with a lack of innovative, up-to-date career counseling and placement services for liberal arts and humanities students. We need to do more to support our students, and to direct them early on in their college careers toward the kinds of jobs their skills can prepare them for. The last thing we need to do is to follow Klein’s advice and direct them away from liberal arts courses. For these courses not only teach them a range of critical thinking, analytical, and communicative skills broadly transferable to a variety of professions. They also help our students develop an ethical perspective -- and a commitment to social justice -- that Wall Street, and the corporate world beyond it, sorely need. [This post represents the opinion of Paul Jay and should only be attributed to him]

UPDATE: I recommend a wonderful article about Klein's piece by Tess Amodeo-Vickery called "Dear Ezra: Wall Street Was No Match for a Liberal Arts Degree." Amadeo-Vickery challenges Klein's view with her own story. She credits her liberal arts degree from Wesleyan with getting her a job on Wall Street, a job she later left when she realized that "cutthroat" world wasn't for her. She's now an editor, and a professional jazz singer, in Rome. About her liberal arts education she writes: "I value myself and my ability, and I was taught I am capable of doing anything—qualities nurtured through a well-rounded education, not a cutthroat finance job." It's an inspiring piece.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

How Not to Debate Humanities Reform: The Case of Gary Olson

Brian Taylor
On Feb. 9, the Chronicle of Higher Education published Gary Olson's op-ed "How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship," in which Olson contends that many of the changes being promoted of late--especially dissertation reform and the digital humanities--"would damage not only the careers of aspiring and new professors but also the reputation of the humanities." Reading through the comments section following Olson's piece, it appears he succeeded only in damaging his own reputation. It's not the positions that Olson argues which cause outrage, but the lack of scholarship behind them. With unintended irony, Olson defends against the "lowering of standards" without himself doing much, if any, research in the fields he presumes to judge. As commentators point out, his assertions about the lack of peer review in online journals and digital publishing are untrue and hopelessly out of date, simply confirming that the fears he expresses about how colleagues on tenure committees will respond to digital scholarship are indeed based on misconceptions rather than fact. Since when did we make policies to accommodate ignorance and prejudice? Utterly lacking here is any familiarity with the actual work being done in multimodal, multimedia, and digital humanities scholarship--innovative, rigorous, exciting, and--yes--peer reviewed.

Shocking, too, is Olson's claim that the near doubling of time to degree for the doctorate is not the result of structural and institutional dysfunction but  "a function of some dissertators' personal lives, as they attempt to juggle numerous priorities along with completing a dissertation." Where did these "priorities" come from if not from a system that demands ever-increasing teaching, conference going, and scholarly production from graduate students, and at poverty wages? Blaming the victim here is odious, as is Olson's suggestion that their problems are "personal." Scholars such as Louis Menand, Frank Donoghue, Marc Bousquet, and Cary Nelson have recently given us well-researched books detailing the structural factors that have created the crisis in doctoral completion rates and times. Olson should do his homework in these sources before offering such uninformed opinion. The doubling of time to degree is not an indication of deeper intellectual "concentration" or an antidote to the mythical "sway of attention deficit to which we are all prone now." Scholars before 1970 who completed the doctorate in half the time did not live in an Eden without distractions, though they did often speed through without teaching two or more composition sections each semester, without giving conference papers, and without submitting seminar papers to journals or trying to write dissertations that were already books.
Finally, the argument that current reform proposals would make current methods of scholarly evaluation difficult if not impossible to administer is an argument in favor of reform, not one against it. Many current tenure and promotion cases hinge on two or three outside letters of evaluation of dubious objectivity (whether for or against), whereas open access and digital humanities work provides a far greater range and quantity of evaluative expertise in response to new work. The unfairness, narrowness, and elitism of the current system is hardly an argument for preserving it. [This post represents the opinion of Greg Jay and should only be attributed to him]

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Major Shift in Breadth Requirements at Stanford Stresses Skills Over Disciplinary Knowledge

In our recent article in Inside Higher Ed, “Fear of Being Useful,” Gerald Graff and I argued that those of us who teach in the humanities ought to be more aggressive in stressing the value of the practical skills we teach our students, and that employers in both for profit and not-for-profit sectors are actually eager to hire students with those skills. Two recent articles suggest educators, and the larger public, are beginning to embrace these arguments. The Chicago Sun-Times reports in a January 25, 2012 article, “Liberal arts grads have an edge, survey finds,” that “college graduates who, as seniors, scored highest on a standardized test to measure how well they think, reason and write — skills most associated with a liberal arts education — were far more likely to be better off financially than those who scored lowest.” Accord to the report’s lead author, Richard Arum, a New York University professor, the report suggests “students would do well to appreciate the extent to which their development of general skills, not just majors and institution attended, is related to successful adult transitions.” And reports about the proposed new non-disciplinary, skills-based breadth requirements at Stanford University suggest faculty and administrators there seem to have already gotten the message. According to an article about the new requirements in today’s Stanford Daily, they will replace requirements rooted in disciplinary knowledge with “a new system based primarily on seven skills deemed essential for students: esthetic and interpretive inquiry; social inquiry; scientific analysis; formal and quantitative reasoning; engaging difference; moral and ethical reasoning; and creative expression.” This shift, of course, raises a lot of questions worth debating, and we look forward to writing more about them in the near future – and to your comments about them. You can read more about the new Stanford breadth requirements in “The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University.”

Friday, January 27, 2012

Coming to Terms with Assessment

Developing and implementing meaningful but manageable procedures for assessing learning outcomes has become one of the key challenges for both faculty and administrators in higher education. During his tenure as President of MLA Jerry wrote a piece entitled “Assessment Changes Everything” that stirred a lot of debate, and we are reposting it here in hopes it can foster a meaningful dialogue about assessment. We’re including below selections from comments Greg and Paul had about Jerry’s article based on their own recent experiences. We hope these reports, and Jerry’s article, will help foster some discussion here about the vexing issues we cover. Please feel free to add your point of view -- or experience -- in a comment.