Tag Archives: humanities

Enough already

Ugh. Another snarky article about how graduate students in the humanities are deluded and responsible for their own misery, this time from Rebecca Schuman at Slate. I hate these rants for several reasons, one of which I’ve touched on earlier: there is no land of magical great jobs that people are sacrificing by going to graduate school, particularly in the humanities. Everybody’s having a tough time finding a secure, fulfilling job these days. The US labor market is undergoing some pretty fundamental shifts, and it’s far from evident which careers and fields will emerge from the Great Recession unbattered and offering opportunities to young workers.

Obviously, academia isn’t a secure career choice, but there are very few secure career choices these days, and even fewer secure career choices that someone committed to teaching and critical inquiry can feel passionate about. Most graduate students aren’t choosing between a run at the academy and a well-paid, highly-satisfying job in the non-profit sector. They’re choosing between grad school and a job they hate, or a low-paying job in a field that’s overrun with other folks looking for a career doing something they feel passionate about.

“Don’t go to grad school” makes all sorts of blanked assumptions about class and race that Tressie McMillan Cottom covers beautifully.

But that’s not even what irritates me most. Because, yeah, as individual advice, “don’t go to grad school” is pretty good. Everyone should be strongly advised not to go to grad school. But that cannot be the only message about grad school that makes it onto the national media radar. Not while we’re still holding out any hope for American higher education as an institution.

When we say “don’t go to grad school,” and especially when we say, “don’t go to grad school in the humanities,” we’re confirming the popular notion that the humanities are useless. They’re so useless that the best advice we can come up with is to just shut them down wholesale by depriving humanities departments of anyone to teach in them. They’re so useless that advanced study in the humanities can’t possibly prepare you for anything other than a professorship. They’re not only useless, but they’re toxic. Spend too long in a humanities discipline and you become a broken-down shell of a person whose primary contribution can only be angry rants about the academy.

All of that may be true in many individual cases, just as “don’t go to grad school” is good advice in many individual cases. But if this is the only advice we can offer, if this is the best solution to the problem of graduate education, then we might as well hand the job of educating American college students over to EdX and Coursera now.

These perennial rants are an opportunity to say, yes, graduate education in the humanities needs some serious attention and, yes, the people who teach college students to think and write should not have to live in poverty, but we need people to teach students to think and write. If no one goes to grad school, then the machines will have to grade the papers, and American students will be poorer for it.

Why keep giving advice that suggests exploited workers are to blame for their own exploitation? Why keep giving advice that offers absolutely nothing in the way of systematic or institutional solutions? Why keep giving advice that, if actually followed, would shut down education in the humanities? The only reason I can think of is that you don’t actually believe educating students in the humanities is worthwhile. And if that’s the case, why do you get to be the voice that everyone outside of academe hears? Why do you get a national platform? And why are those of us who still care about defending the humanities engaging with this stupid argument again and again?

MOOCs and the humanities

Maria Bustillos at the Awl has written a sort of primer on the MOOC debate for those outside of academia. I have to admit to being continually stunned that people–lots of people–seem to think MOOCs are anything other than a money-grabbing gimmick by people trying to get a piece of the ever-shrinking higher ed pie. Bustillos’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t quote from it, but I do want to note that the case she lays out, and that the commenters further explore, seems to be resting on a couple of incompletely-examined assumptions.

The first is the equivocation between humanities and STEM instruction, which is to say, an equivocation between content and skills as the primary deliverables of a course. I’m certain there are a lot of good reasons that MOOCs are insufficient for science and math courses–primarily the absence of labs in which to put concepts into practice. But the fact remains that STEM courses, particularly entry-level courses, are in the content business, since students require a certain baseline of knowledge before they can move on.

I can teach wildly different content in my intro-level English class each semester, and students should still leave with the same set of skills. Skills they develop because I respond to their writing several times a week, help them strengthen their arguments over the course of multiple revisions, and engage with them and each other during discussion. We might not need to be sharing the same physical space to do all that, but it’s absolutely essential that my class be the opposite of “massive” so that I can provide the sort of attention necessary for students to make real gains in thinking and writing.

Which leads to the second problematic assumption of the piece–that humanities courses are largely useless because they don’t credential for specific, desirable jobs. The personalized attention my students receive, then, is a luxury having nothing to do with the necessary process of credentialing oneself for the marketplace. And I can see how someone could get to that assumptions, because a MOOC in which a student simply absorbed information about nineteenth-century American literature and culture probably wouldn’t be of much use on the job market. It would be all content, and that’s not content employers are all that eager to have access to.

I’m not going to get into the value of literary study from a content perspective, though there’s certainly an argument to be made. But what I teach are skills. Valuable skills that prepare students for higher-level thinking, difficult writing tasks, and the ability to consider and respond to a variety of positions. The humanities teaches the sort of skills that employers consistently rank high in their list of desirable traits. We in the humanities need to be more forceful about reminding people of that. And that’s why MOOCs are so dangerous for the humanities in particular: they imply that the important part of an education is content, and that the content delivered in the humanities is trivial.

MOOCs may not be going anywhere, but the humanities should not just make the most of what little MOOCs offer us. We should be looking for alternatives that democratize access to education while emphasizing the essential and tangible skills a humanities education provides.