Thursday, September 09, 2010

Save the Humanities: Start Making Money!

'No-Brainer': Public domain image
If you're a humanities Ph.D. like me and you've read the recent piece in The Chronicle Review, "Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?" ( you may be wondering why you bothered to spend years of your life training to educate and enlighten the masses about the value of critical thinking, reading, and writing. Because let's face it: the masses, generally speaking, and the techno-savvy, permanently distracted, twittering and text-messaging youth of the 21st century in particular, just don't care anymore. They're more interested in attaining the basic technical skills necessary to land a job that will propel them post haste into the middle class. Shakespeare, Plato, Jefferson, Douglass, King, Woolf, DuBois, hooks, and the like; these venerable oldies are for 20th century sissies . . . or trust fund babies.

My (much) younger siblings and their friends spend more time on their i-phones trolling facebook and sending IMs than they ever would on reading, writing essays, debating heady topics, and pondering the fate of humanity. They're certainly not reading the newspaper, or intelligent popular novels, or humanist non-fiction; nor are they watching PBS or independent films. These things are for older, idealistic saps like me, motivated people who spent WAY too much time with their noses in books rather than learning useful skills and making $ in their 20s. Consequently, while we smarties may have interesting things to say about the state of the Congo, or climate change, or Beck's whacked out tea party, we're nonetheless still looking for work, still poor, and living in our parents' basements or some other pathetic location. Ouch.

And, according to Frank Donoghue, even if we're lucky enough to find academic jobs as tenure-track professors, our struggle to publish in obscure journals and write dense monographs for tenure simply contributes to the self-contained, esoteric system responsible for making the humanities increasingly irrelevant to society and hence worthless.

"The shift in the material base of the university leaves the humanities entirely out in the cold. Corporations don't earmark donations for the humanities because our research culture is both self-contained and absurd. Essentially, we give the copyrights of our scholarly articles and monographs to university presses, and then buy them back, or demand that our libraries buy them back, at exorbitant markups. And then no one reads them. The current tenure system obliges us all to be producers of those things, but there are no consumers."

I have to agree with Donoghue here: the current tenure system requires academics to buy into a culture of intellectual production with limited (or virtually no) public demand or consumption, and this just doesn't make smart long term financial sense. Such a ridiculous system cannot be sustained indefinitely. We're simply shooting ourselves in the foot with our low-traffic journal articles and overpriced academic tomes that only mom and dad are willing to buy (mainly so they can show their friends what a Ph.D. and five+ years of research and writing has produced).

What is the solution, then? How can academics save the humanities? "The humanities will have a home somewhere in 2110, but it won't be in universities," Donoghue concludes. I don't think we should give up on the humanities just yet within the context of higher ed, but it is becoming clearer to me that humanist thinkers and practioners need to start considering how to go about making meaningful, relevant contributions that the masses can understand and appreciate. Otherwise, our self-contained, profitless research culture will put us all out of work sooner rather than later.

But academics as a whole are so resistant to change and so slow to respond to social and culture trends. Tenured humanities professors would rather pooh-pooh criticisms about the devaluing of the humanities than really explain why history or English matters or, worse still, reconsider "the system " itself.

This humanist, however, is here to say that the humanities are important; critical thinking does matter; and yes, people who know how to think, read, and write well should get paid well. Very well. Can't we show the public what we've got to offer instead of keeping it all to ourselves? Isn't it time we started demonstarting our worth and demanding compensation for our efforts? Show me the money, I say, either inside or outside a university context, and I'm there. It's a no-brainer.

*PS-I'll be traveling over the next week and lax on my blogging duties.


WorstProfEver said...

Yup, agree 100%. It's a stupid way to go about things, publishing crap for each other and not bothering to assert the relevance our expertise or demand money for it. Hopefully, there will be a critical mass someday!

Eliza Woolf said...

Thanks for your support, WPE. I for one am a tad bored by the thought of researching and publishing for 10 other (possibly interested) people. But, then, some would also say I just have a bad attitude.