Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The imbalance cannot last

Well this is sad news, but perhaps to be expected. Academe quits me by D.G. Myers. I have been reading D.G. Myers for three years now, to my great entertainment and education. He knows far more about the most distant of English literature pathways than I would ever want to know but functions as a scout to the rest of us, revealing what is of value and interest in those remote alleys. That is hugely valuable. It is wonderful reading an intelligent, formidably knowledgeable, humane writer.

With two in university now and another headed that way in a couple of years, it is interesting to calibrate experiences. One is in a STEM university and the humanities there hued closer to the traditional grain. The other was in at a mid-size liberal arts university. We went through an interesting experience in course registration. He was required to take a world literature course to complete his English requirements. We're thinking, great, English literature, continental European literature, Russian literature, Roman or Greek texts, Japanese literature, Indian, Chinese, Arab literature. You know, cultures with deep literary traditions.

The university placed him in a course, West African Literature. I have lived in West Africa. I have a passing acquaintance with West African literature. There is not much there, there. It is all post 1930s. 75% of it is in the narrow context of colonialism. And there is not a lot of it. In other words, we're thinking of world literature as an opportunity to expand horizons and increase perspectives and what is being offered is a deep dive in a very narrow and very shallow pool. Concerned, we began asking questions. Is the professor West African? No. Is his specialization in West African literature? No. Turns out, he just has an interest and put together this course. Reading the syllabus, it then becomes clear that this is less a literary course than an opportunity to discuss colonialism, i.e. really at best either a history course or a political science course but without the knowledge of either of those fields. The ultimate conclusion was that this was an amateur course offered as a means to indulge political opinions. An assessment bourn out by reports back from friends that took the course. No quality, no insight, no expertise, no critical thinking. A sad judgment on academia. In no other field would such shoddy posturing/bait and switch be tolerated.

Here is D.G. Myers and his experience.
Tomorrow I will step into a classroom to begin the last semester of a 24-year teaching career. Don’t get me wrong. I am not retiring. I am not “burned out.” The truth is rather more banal. Ohio State University will not be renewing my three-year contract when it expires in the spring. The problem is tenure: with another three-year contract, tenure becomes an option.


My salary may not be large (a rounding error above the median income for white families in the U.S.), but the university can offer part-time work to three desperate adjuncts for what it pays me. A lifetime of learning has never been cost-effective, and in today’s university—at least on the side of campus where the humanities are badly housed—no other criterion is thinkable.

My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to seven percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up forty-five percent of the faculty. The imbalance cannot last. PhD programs go on awarding PhD’s to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university—a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report—pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach thirteen courses a year.) If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, nine of every ten PhD programs in English should be closed down—immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties.

Consider some of the undergraduate courses being offered in English this semester at the University of Minnesota:
• Poems about Cities
• Studies in Narrative: The End of the World in Literature & History
• Studies in Film: Seductions: Film/Gender/Desire
• The Original Walking Dead in Victorian England
• Contemporary Literatures and Cultures: North American Imperialisms and Colonialisms
• Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: Family as Origin and Invention
• Women Writing: Nags, Hags, and Vixens
• The Image on the Page
• Bodies, Selves, Texts
• Consumer Culture and Globalization
• The Western: Looking Awry
• Dreams and Middle English Dream Visions
So it would appear that our experience was not out of line. I am firmly of the belief that the Humanities, particularly English (both composition and literature), are absolute necessities. And yet what our universities are offering at extortionate rates are amateur, irrelevant, specializations of fantastical degree.

I was very struck a few years ago by the bifurcation apparent between STEM professors and "Humanities" professors at Duke University in response to the Duke Lacrosse rape allegations . If you don't recall, some members of the lacrosse team hired a couple of strippers for a keg party. The lacrosse players were middle class white and one of the strippers was poor black. There was a perfect storm of black vs. white, rich vs. poor, town vs. gown, out-of-state vs. local. One of the strippers subsequently made a claim to the police that she had been raped at the party. From the beginning there was no physical evidence to support the charge and all the testimony indicated otherwise. The local prosecutor, up for re-election, chose to proceed with a prosecution, committing numerous egregious irregularities along the way. Ultimately, the charges were dismissed, the prosecutor disbarred, and the North Carolina Attorney General went beyond the normal practice of simply dismissing the charges but explicitly identified the students as innocent all along.

All of that was of course a fascinating, tawdry and instructional case study of how the normal checks and balances can fall away leading to outrageous outcomes. And indeed there were very real world consequences to an entirely fictitious allegation. The lacrosse coach was forced to resign. The lacrosse season was cancelled. Duke University, the prosecutor, the City of Durham and the Police Department were all subject to multiple lawsuits. Some are still in progress and others have been settled out of court with unknown payments. Two of the accused had to transfer to other universities.

What was startling to me though, was the Duke University faculty response. 88 of the humanities professors formed the Group of 88 and took out an advertisement that started from the assumption that if the accusations weren't true, they in fact reflected reality. The members of the groups wrote various op-ed, open letters and other pieces calling for the presumption of guilt and expulsion of all lacrosse players (whether they attended the party or not). As John Podhoretz wrote in the New York Post,
The school has perhaps 700 professors who teach undergrads. So, at a moment when Duke students were being shadowed by a rape accusation, one-ninth of their professoriate had effectively declared that those students did not deserve the presumption of innocence - primarily because so many of their fellow students were supposedly being victimized by the atmosphere of 'racism and sexism.
Nearly 15% of the professoriate, all in the humanities, were willing to dispense with evidence, due process, presumption of innocence simply to affirm their view of how the world should be. What was striking to me though was that there were no signatories to the Group of 88 activities from the STEM fields. None. So the humanities professors were busy undermining every critical precept of human rights and civilized values while the STEM professors were upholding all the fine traditions of the humanities. This was almost an Alice-in-Wonderland moment where up is down and vice versa.

In checking my facts, I came across this fascinating set of detail, also from the Wikipedia article. The percent of each department signing the Group of 88 statement.
80% African and African-American Studies
72% Women's Studies
60% Cultural Anthropology
45% Romance Studies
42% Literature
32% English
31% Art & Art History
25% History
0% Biological Anthropology and Anatomy
0% Biology
0% Chemistry
0% Computer Science
0% Economics
0% Engineering, all departments in the entire school
0% Genetics
0% Germanic Languages/Literature
0% Psychology and Neuroscience
0% Religion
0% Slavic and Eurasian Studies
If you were seeking a measure of academic irrelevance, this might serve. There is an inverse relationship. The more likely you are to sign such an statement, the more irrelevant your field of study.

The tidal wave of MOOCS, financial rebalancing, on-line certification, and advanced education model restructuring is likely to sweep away much of this nonsense. There simply are no longer the resources available to support that which has no relevance or significance.

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