Thursday, January 9, 2014

More Commentary on Crisis in the Humanities

The latest to address this theme is Alex Rosenberg, the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke.  Here is a taste of his piece at 3:AM Magazine:

For the problems of the humanities are self-inflicted wounds well recognized by their colleagues in other faculties.

First, over the last two generations the humanities (except for philosophy) have lost faith with their callings as the bearers of a continuous cultural inheritance–a canon, for want of a better word. They have viewed the need to widen their curricula as a zero sum game, in which the entrance of more women, underrepresented minorities, nonwestern peoples has required the exclusion of more dead white dudes. Maybe it has. But the result has been an advanced curriculum their students find foreign and their colleagues educated before this sea change cannot appreciate. The “boutique” courses they teach in their majors, the heavy doses of “theory” they lay on in graduate classes, make it difficult to connect with their students in ways that would provide the purpose, meaning, appreciation of complexity, or recognition of adversity that the presidents of Michigan and Stanford hope for.

Second, too many humanists, especially those with tenure and graduate programs to tend to, have also ceased to teach fundamental skills to the undergraduates they share with colleagues in the sciences. Teaching writing was long ago hived off from the permanent fulltime tenured faculty in English departments, literature departments, journalism and communication schools, to writing programs, to composition classes taught by teaching assistants, adjunct instructors, “writing fellows.” Teaching effective communication to freshman is just not in the full professors’ job description anymore.

Similarly, the faculty in the foreign languages have rationally decided that their “research” and the preparation of the next generation of university scholars is far more important than teaching introductory Spanish, or French or German. Indeed, many hold themselves unqualified to do it. Teaching writing in English or teaching the first years of a foreign language, is now deemed a technical skill requiring special training that tenured professors don’t have time to acquire and use, given their need to produce scholarship.

We can’t really blame humanities faculty for their priorities. The incentive structure of the tenure system is as much to blame for the disconnect between what most students need and what tenured humanities faculty are rewarded for doing.