Holding the Fort for the Humanities

Michael Berube

Michael Berube

In a recent address to the American Council on Graduate Schools, out-going Modern Language Association president Michael Bérubé argues trenchantly that American graduate education in the humanities is in a state of crisis, and in urgent need of structural revision.

But to my mind, he does not go nearly far enough in his thinking.

“Graduate programs in the humanities have been designed precisely to replenish the ranks of the professoriate; that is why they have such a strong research component, also known as the dissertation,” Bérubé says.

But “the overall job system in the humanities has been in a state of more or less permanent distress for more than 40 years,” with doctoral programs “producing many more job candidates than there are jobs; and yet this is not entirely a supply-side problem, because over those 40 years, academic jobs themselves have changed radically. Of the 1.5 million people now employed in the profession of college teaching, more than one million are teaching off the tenure track, with no hope or expectation of ever winding up on the tenure track.”

So, he asks, how can we, in good conscience, continue to encourage students to enter graduate programs in the humanities, knowing the grim future that awaits most of them?

Bérubé reminds us that “the study of the humanities is more vibrant, more exciting, and (dare I say it) more important than it was a generation ago….The sheer intellectual excitement of the work, whether it is on globalization or subjectivity or translation or sustainability or disability, is one thing. This work is so valuable—and it offers such sophisticated and necessary accounts of what “value” is.

“And yet when we look at the public reputation of the humanities; when we compare the dilapidated Humanities Cottage on campus with the new $225-million Millennium Science Complex (that’s a real example, from my home institution); when we look at the academic job market for humanists, we can’t avoid the conclusion that the value of the work we do, and the way we theorize value, simply isn’t valued by very many people, on campus or off.”

Unfortunately, Bérubé doesn’t bring up the deeper questions about why our society currently values science and business so much more highly than the humanities.

Why is it that professors in the humanities make a fraction of what professors in business, law or science earn?

Why is it that academic programs in the humanities are under constant threat of the budget ax, while programs in business and science continue to attract huge inputs of resources?

Is it any surprise that students take a look at the depressed adjunct faculty in their dingy offices and take the nearest exit for the shiny new science building?

To me it’s pretty obvious: in our capitalist society, the academic fields that are most highly valued are those that create the possibility of more profit—with profit crudely conceived of as dollars in the bank.

My work in the field of comparative literature over the past 20 years, for example, has little to show for it in terms of money in the bank.

I’ve been focused on bringing the voices of marginalized or lesser-known women writers and activists to wider audiences within and outside of the Ivory Tower, because I believe that the perspectives offered by these women writers bring important, under-recognized and certainly under-valued ideas to the intellectual table.

For example, writers I study, like Rigoberta Menchu (technically not a “writer,” as her texts are transcriptions of her oral testimony), Vandana Shiva, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua, have been arguing for many years that human society must begin to honor our differences and value our interconnections with each other and with the natural world, in order to create a just and sustainable society.

Lorde, long ago, recognized that the “masters” are interested in keeping the oppressed divided, competitive, fighting with each other for the crumbs.  She urged us to think outside the box, “for the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The truth is that the humanities are dangerous ground for the “masters” of Euramerican society, because it is in the various academic terrains of the humanities that moral and human values are debated and interrogated.

It is no accident that critiques of capitalism itself, along with capitalist tools like elitism, militarism and globalization, have found their strongest purchase in the humanities.

Humanists who follow the lines of intellectual inquiry stretching back to the dawn of human written traditions and forward into the speculative reaches of science fiction and futurism, often find ourselves thinking outside the box of the current capitalist structures into which we have been born and indoctrinated to accept.

The moral questions raised in many humanities classrooms are themselves alternatives to “the master’s tools,” and they have the potential to dismantle the master’s house.

That is why, I believe, the humanities are currently being starved and derided by the masters.

That is why adjuncts in the humanities are being paid less than a living wage, discouraging the best and brightest from choosing that educational and career path—unless they are independently wealthy.

Bérubé ends his speech by suggesting that graduate programs in the humanities need to begin to combine the traditional focus on research, writing and teaching with the development of skills and connections that can help Ph.D.s secure good jobs outside of the professoriate, since he does not foresee any change to the current trend of an overwhelmingly low-paid, adjunct humanities workforce.

He points to the “digital humanities” as a prospect, since highly trained academics who can translate their knowledge into digital formats are more likely to find work in business, publishing or media.

I wish he would think a bit more radically.

As one of the humanities thought leaders of our time, I would like to see him come out and say that the deep questions of the humanities–questions about society, ethics and social and ecological justice–are precisely the ones that we need to be asking most urgently today, whether the masters like it and support it or not.

I know, up close and personal, how hard it is to wage this lonely battle, watching all the honors and riches going to colleagues who are willing to do the masters’ bidding more compliantly.

Sure, biotechnologists and creative financiers are going to get more funding and more accolades than someone like me, who studies ethics via personal narratives by little-known women writers.

But in the long run—or what is increasingly, in our era of climate change, seeming like the short run!—I believe that the wisdom these women have to offer will be more important than the latest patent on bio-engineered corn, or the most ingenious restructuring of debt derivatives.

Humanities education is one of the last outposts of oppositional thinking within the Academy.

Let’s hold our positions with honor, knowing that even if the material rewards are scant, we do get to keep our integrity, and do our best on behalf of the planet and all its denizens.

The power of words for a world in crisis

So what am I, a Ph.D. in comparative literature with years of teaching experience in global women’s literature, gender studies and media studies, doing writing and thinking so much about the environment?

Why am I spending time blogging rather than diligently writing research-based articles for peer-reviewed academic journals?

I entered grad school part-time in 1984, first in English, and then in Comparative Literature.  Why those fields?

As an undergraduate, I started out wanting to major in environmental studies, but was soon turned off by the level of statistical empiricism required by my biology professors.  Having always loved to read and write, I gravitated towards English, and ended up interning for the local newspaper and becoming somewhat of a prodigy cub reporter.  I went on to work as a reporter for a daily newspaper, then a staff writer and editor for trade publications in New York City.

After a while, I missed the excitement of the classroom, began taking a class or two at night, and was soon drawn into the orbit of the comparative literature department at NYU, where things were really hopping in the late 1980s and early ’90s.  It was the time of the culture wars; of deconstruction and post-structuralist theory; of post-colonialism and eco-criticism and Marxist feminism.  It was an exciting time to be a budding scholar, learning to talk the talk and walk the walk.

And now here I am at mid-career, looking back and wishing that I hadn’t allowed myself to be discouraged from environmental studies so easily.

These reflections are spurred by the lead article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, about the Modern Language Association convention, which starts today in Seattle.  I’ve already written about why I’m not there, and reading today’s Chronicle article, I don’t feel too sorry to be missing this year’s conference.

The article, by Stacey Patton, presents a pretty bleak picture of the field of languages and literature–a picture I recognize only too well.  Enrollments in literature classes are at record lows, and many leading voices in the field are being called upon to explain just why an education in the humanities is of continued value in the 21st century.

The Chronicle article quotes James Donelan, a lecturer in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara: “We have been going about our business as if the study of literature were self-justifying, and that making an overt case for its relevance to society was somehow too mundane a task for us….The immediate consequence of this attitude is that we’re losing undergraduate majors and financial support at a terrifying rate, and the far-reaching consequence is that anti-intellectualism and a general lack of empathy are running rampant in civic life.”

Meanwhile, as many as 70% of English department faculty nationwide are so-called “contingent” faculty–hired as adjuncts, on a semester-to-semester basis, often earning minimum wage or less despite their doctorates and their publications.  As one angry commenter (evidently an adjunct English teacher) put it, “I for one will not encourage ANYONE to be an English major.  I will teach them their required composition classes for their OTHER majors because I know those majors will actually change their financial lives and allow them to support their families and move out of poverty.  This IS an elitist profession filled with elitist ivory tower ‘folks.’  Everybody knows it; that’s why the numbers in this field are dropping so much.  Get real.  Stop b.s.ing and face what is really going on.”

Yeah.  So we have an anti-intellectual student body, most of whom are highly resistant to reading books at all; combined with a demoralized and exploited faculty.  Although things are somewhat different at my college, it’s impossible to ignore what’s going on in the field as a whole.

And although some literature professors may be willing to put time and energy into justifying why it’s essential that we continue to study so-called “high literature,” like Shakespeare, Milton, Dante,  and Joyce–or even Pynchon, Rushdie, and Roth–I am not.

Egyptian author, doctor and activist Nawal El Saadawi

My whole career has been dedicated to the kind of literature that provides windows into the real material conditions of people living on the margins of society–people outside of the ivory tower, whose voices are rarely heard in the American classroom.  My own personal canon includes Rigoberta Menchu, Wangari Maathai, Buchi Emecheta, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Paula Gunn Allen, Shirin Ebadi, Nawal El Saadawi, Mahasweta Devi, Malalai Joya, Vandana Shiva, and many others, few of whom would be familiar to most of the scholars gathered at the MLA this year.

These writers have taught me, above all, to listen.  They’ve taught me to be aware of the intractability of my own privileged social conditioning, and to work hard at overcoming the elitist worldview into which I was born and raised.  And many of them have shown me again and again how in a patriarchal culture women are lumped together with Nature as commodified resources to be managed and controlled.

I never wanted to be a scientist.  My interest in environmental studies sprang from my love and reverence for the natural world, which was so strong in me as a child, and my horror at learning what human beings were doing to the flora and fauna of our planet.

Knowing what I know now about the dire urgency of the manmade threats to our ecological systems on Earth, I cannot sit by and write yet another academic essay on literary theory and disembodied “texts.”

Yes, I care about the sad state of English and literary studies in the academy.  But we’ve doomed ourselves, each of us, by the short-sighted and self-centered decisions we’ve made as individuals and as institutions.  If students today see reading books as irrelevant, and if administrators see English professors as expendable, well…who should we blame but ourselves?

As we hurtle into the 21st century with its multiple crises of climate, ecology and economics, I find myself  still reading, still writing, and circling back around to where I began, in environmental studies, where I will do all I can to use the power of the written word to ignite the social changes we so desperately need.

In narratives of women and the natural world, I have found my home–and my voice.

Survival is not an academic skill

Yesterday I wrote that I intend to devote my second half of life (OK, let’s be real, we’re talking about  more like my last third of life at this point) to parenting and trying to change our global social systems to be sustainable and non-exploitative.  That intention rolled around in my head overnight, and I began to wonder how my role as a college teacher fits into this scenario.

Can I use my vocation as a teacher of comparative literature, media studies & gender studies/human rights to change the world?

As if in response to my unvoiced question, the inimitable professor Stanley Fish published an op-ed on the NY Times website last night, in which he used the occasion of the upcoming Modern Language Association annual convention to reflect on the state of the higher-ed humanities profession.

I’ve participated in many an MLA convention in my 25 years or so of professional involvement in the field of comparative literature, but this year I am not attending because my panel proposal, entitled “Strategies of Resistance: Women’s Writing and Social Activism in Iran, South Africa and the United States,” was not accepted.

Professor Fish’s analysis of the 2012 conference Program gave me a good insight into why my proposal, which I thought was comprised of excellent papers by well-qualified scholars, was rejected.

“Absent or sparsely represented,” he says, “are the topics that in previous years dominated the meeting and identified the avant garde — multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, racialism, feminism, queer theory, theory in general.”  My panel would have fit nicely into at least three or four of these categories.

The new hot topics at the convention this year, says Prof. Fish, can be lumped under the umbrella term “digital humanities,” which covers “new and fast-moving developments across a range of topics: the organization and administration of libraries, the rethinking of peer review, the study of social networks, the expansion of digital archives, the refining of search engines, the production of scholarly editions, the restructuring of undergraduate instruction, the transformation of scholarly publishing, the re-conception of the doctoral dissertation, the teaching of foreign languages, the proliferation of online journals, the redefinition of what it means to be a text, the changing face of tenure — in short, everything.”

Everything?

The problem with this brave new direction in literary studies is that even while it reaches out to the world through digital portals, it seems to have lost all interest in the real world beyond its own narrow and insular ivory halls.  Other than “the changing face of tenure,” which is certainly a meaningful labor issue for the small percentage of Americans who are college/university professors, there is no indication that the young literary Turks all fired up about the digital humanities care at all about material conditions for people, animals or the environment.  Politics becomes cyber-politics; people become avatars; electricity simply flows, and food appears like magic in supermarkets or restaurant dishes.

Let me be clear: I am no Luddite when it comes to digital technologies.  I’m writing a blog, after all, and I regularly teach a class in digital media studies, which changes radically every time I offer it because I try to keep up with the rapidly transforming media landscape.

But to me, digital technology is a vehicle, not an end in itself.  I want to involve myself in digital media and the digital humanities to further my material, political goals of remaking the world.  Otherwise it’s just so much more mental masturbation.  We don’t have time for that now, if indeed we ever did.

And here’s where I come back around to my starting question of whether my role as a teacher will be useful to my larger political goals of transitioning to a safer, kinder, happier human and inter-species landscape.

It depends what I teach, doesn’t it?

For years now I have been teaching a series of classes on “women writing resistance” in various areas of the world–Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, the U.S.  The political writings of strong women who have successfully resisted both private and public oppression have taught me and my students so much about what it takes to stand up for one’s principles and put one’s visions of positive social change into action.  We’ve also learned a lot about the price activists often pay.

In the years ahead, I want to continue to use my vocation as a teacher to explore literature that is not afraid to speak truth to power.  I want to seek out visionary texts that look ahead fearlessly into the future and light the way for those who are following more slowly and cautiously down the path.  I want to amplify the voices of authors who advocate for those who do not have the same privileged access to the literary stage.  I want to become one of those authors myself.

I should not be surprised that this direction is of little interest to the crowd inside the insular tower represented by the MLA.  What was it that Audre Lorde said at another academic conference, long ago?

Survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with others identified as outside the established structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.”

Yes, Audre.  I’m with you.

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