Chris Bouton: As we’ve both written about this week, this seems to be the week of other disciplines dumping on the humanities. You wrote about that NPR piece and I tackled the article from Inside Higher Ed. So to start, I’d like to start with two related questions. First, is there a crisis in teaching in the humanities? Second, if there is, are these articles correct in their diagnosis of the problem and potential solutions?
Erin Bartram: It is almost impossible for me to tease apart the thousands of thoughts I have in response. To the first, I’d say “perhaps, though not restricted to the humanities.” To the second, I’d say “no” but through the loudest megaphone money can buy.
Chris: I’ll answer my own questions. On the first, I’d agree that there’s a lack of instruction and pedagogy taught at the college level. There are lots of universities and colleges that have teaching institutes, but they’re largely voluntary. By that I mean, graduate students seeking careers in academia aren’t required to take classes on classroom instruction. Second, the solutions offered by these authors are wholly and utterly wrong.
Erin: As an addendum to my second answer, I’d point out that one of the two articles said that teaching in the humanities sucked because it wasn’t enough like the sciences, and the other said it was trying too much to be like the sciences. Both are wrong for different reasons, but I think there’s a far more provocative point to be made with relation to the IHE piece.
Chris: To expand on my answer to the first one, I’d say that the lack of focus on teaching is a reflection of the way academic institutions view their own programs and their goals. Graduate programs view themselves as creating scholars first, teachers second. Research, we’re told, should be your primary focus. Even though, and I think Kevin Gannon pointed this point on Twitter a while back, 75% of academic positions are teaching focused.
We’re totally being academics right now by offering short answers and then going back and muddying them up.
Erin: And teaching helps your research, not just because you get to assign books you need to read (not a thing I get to do), but because you have to work through/talk through things with your students and your ideas bleed in. My teaching is all “active learning” or whatnot, and some of the best moments this past semester came when I shared something I’d just been reading about with my students and they wanted to know more.
Chris: Looking at both of these pieces together, it struck me how little knowledge the authors had of teaching in other disciplines.
Erin: I mean, here’s my question, which is sort of the question of the moment: Are they ignorant or are they lying?
Chris: I’d lean towards ignorant, combined with arrogance.
Erin: Which is, in fact, a question our students ask all the time when analyzing texts, and we as historians help them understand how it can be both and neither and something more interesting altogether.
Chris: I try to never underestimate the arrogance of academics. Especially when, as Jonathan Wilson pointed out, Schapiro as the president of Northwestern is making 2.4 million, and adjuncts are making 5K.
Erin: I’m sure this is exactly what they’d hate about historians, but I can’t think about what they’re doing without using Foucault.
Chris: Of course, I could be deluding myself into thinking it’s institutional arrogance, which is more understandable, than just lying or having some other more outwardly malicious intent.
Erin: I mean, I think there’s one thing that probably needs to be said about the IHE piece, and about a lot of these sorts of takes. I’d like to pull back the veil for a minute. I don’t think most people, especially people in power, are actually interested in teaching students the kind of critical thinking that the humanities engenders. At all.
The IHE piece argues that the humanities have tried too hard to be like the sciences. But I’d point to this piece in Harper’s from a few years ago. The piece deals with the ways that the humanities have tried to make the case for their value in a capitalist system.
So, this line in the IHE piece: “But if Shakespeare and Milton are no more important than any other “cultural artifact or practice,” and if they are to be studied only “insofar as” they connect with other social factors and not because of “some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values,” then why invest the considerable effort to read them at all?”
They skip right over the reason. Like, they just erase it. The reason to read and think and do all of this is to understand humanity. But their vision of the humanities suggests that we can only do that by saying “these works are genius and better and represent what humanity should be” rather than what it is. What the humanities do for people is enable them to understand the way the world is and think about COMPETING ideas of what it should be. Yeah, it might inspire them to say “A Winter’s Tale” is great, but it might also inspire them to say “Wait…supply side economics sounds like a scam.”
Chris: The major problem I have with this entire line of critique is that critics begin with the assumption that we should evaluate the humanities solely in the context of capitalism.
Chris: Why is capitalism the sine qua non for evaluating the humanities?
Erin: I mean, I think that evaluating it in that framework and constantly deeming it a failure is a way to contain its power.
Chris: And a way to elevate the power of those doing the framing.
Man we are deep into the discourses of power now (Thanks Foucault!)
Chris: I reject that entire framing device. As if capitalism is the only lens through which we should filter our evaluations of things. Human beings, in general, are terrible economic actors. By that I mean, they generally don’t act in their own best interest anyway. So why should the assumptions of that system govern everything?
Erin: [This is why I can’t stand the use of economic framing devices for historical arguments. I don’t think they explain economics well, so why should I buy them in their historical use?]
Chris: My favorite economists are those who detail how human beings act against the principles of economic theory. (Go behavioral economics!)
Erin: Historians, with their crazy ideas that we should look at what people actually said and did!
Chris: Yeah, why bother with that?
Erin: I actually don’t know how this conversation moves forward, though, without confronting this central issue that the skills of the humanities are actually not desired by most people.
Parents want their kids to go to school and learn how to critically think but also come out still agreeing with their parents
Chris: Well that I think is the tragedy that we’ve been tiptoeing around.
Erin: I have so many friends who are talented writers and thinkers, highly educated, but if your boss doesn’t actually recognize good writing, or if the forces of inertia in your organization are so strong that your co-workers will continue along with terrible procedures and structures rather than change, or if being 30 still marks you as an uppity child….
Chris: Morson and Schapiro decry the lack of people with good critical thinking skills and we constantly hear how employers want people who can think and write. Yet when it comes to the fields that teach those skills, there’s a disconnect there. It also doesn’t help that Morson and Schapiro bust out the tried and true straw-man argument and then spend their entire piece arguing against it.
Erin: As I think Caleb McDaniel said, nothing like a badly-argued essay to make the case for humanities education.
Chris: Congratulations you argued against a position that no one has taken. Well done.
Erin: One thing that really ticked me off was this idea that “analyzing” writing and thinking of it as a “text” somehow ruins it. I am not sure whether they hate historical methods all together or just “cultural” history, but it’s total BS.
Chris: One of my favorite courses I took at Hamilton was a course on the Brothers Karamazov. It was all about contextualizing the book within Russian literature and reading it closely.
Erin: One of my favorites was philosophy through Dostoevsky, in which I read Karamazov, and also The Idiot and Notes from Underground. No need to worry, my dudes, despite all that “analysis” of it, I still almost missed a cue while running the light board in our concert hall because I was reading the end of The Idiot and weeping.
Chris: Now, did spending half a semester on the Brothers K help me land a job? Directly, no. Did it further my critical thinking skills, teach me to write better, and expose me to a new genre (to me) of literature? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I reread the Brothers K a few summers ago and loved it again.
Erin: And I bet it didn’t diminish your recognition of it as a great and powerful work, but rather enhanced it.
Chris: No, it enhanced it.
Looks like we had the same idea there.
Erin: I mean, my other major was music, and I thought seriously about doing an advanced degree in music theory. [History writing can be hard, but it’s nothing compared to writing about music, let me tell you.] All I did in that was analyze and pick apart great works. In Theory 3 or 4, we spent several weeks on the third movement of Brahms’ Third Symphony
We didn’t listen to it, we just analyzed it. We tore it apart. And then at the end, our professor said “Let’s listen to it again.” Every student in that class cried.
Chris: Those are valuable skills! Understanding how something came together is crucially important. And not just in academia, everywhere. If I’m fixing a toilet in my house, yeah, I’m going to learn how to take it apart and put it back together. I’m going to deconstruct it. Study it, examine it.
Erin: I think those are the skills that are often most dangerous
Chris: Figure out how it works.
Erin: If you’re invested in keeping the system largely as it is. Like, at the end of reading that IHE piece, I honestly couldn’t understand exactly what they want us to do with the humanities. Step 1: Make students read Shakespeare but don’t analyze it too much and force them to love it and recognize genius, Step 2: Profit?
Chris: There were so many confusing things about that piece. I can’t explain that ending either.
Erin: I think one of the problems is you can’t encourage the kind of humanistic thinking that can be monetized without encouraging the kind of humanistic thinking that can help people analyze, take apart, and imagine new systems, institutions, and ways of being. Like this sort of thing.
Chris: That’s a good way of putting it. Because what did every historian on Twitter do in response to the IHE piece? Put their skills to work
The humanities help us remember we’re all human, even the “geniuses.” That’s why this passage in that story stuck out to me: “It is a relationship Malloy says is discomforting to some friends, the ones who compliment her interest in the abstractions of second chances, while flinching at the realities, the idea that the first lady of Connecticut is comfortable getting in a car with an ex-convict.”
Chris: I’d like to circle back to the opening question for a second, to make sure we’ve exhausted that discussion. Is there a teaching crisis in the history/the humanities?
I think there is a perception of one, due to the decline in humanities majors. But not that there is actually one.
Erin: I mean, I think whatever crisis there is is rooted not in the nature of the humanities but in the larger issues of higher ed at the moment. As I noted in my piece this week, I think most historians would prefer to teach in the ways that Wieman advocates. No one is disputing that.
Erin: People outside academia should think hard about why tuition keeps going up while the pay of the people who do the teaching – the primary labor of the university – are paid less and less.
Chris: Right and I think Wieman, Morson, and Schapiro are looking at symptoms of the disease and saying that they’re the cause.
I also do not want to read any more higher ed hot takes from elite institutions any more. I just don’t. But of course that’s all we see, because Morson/Schapiro’s view of what is “worthy” in literature is how American society thinks about knowledge
Chris: Yeah, I also wanted to reiterate that point.
Erin: Whatever’s coming out of elite institutions must be the best/freshest thinking
Chris: Higher education is not just the Ivys, little Ivys, and R1s.
Erin: If you want the best genius, read Shakespeare/look to elite institutions
Chris: Yet publicly that’s all that gets discussed. (I know we’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth restating).
Erin: Most of the really pioneering and effective research/experimentation being done in higher ed pedagogy is being done at places that these writers have never heard of.
Chris: I just spent an entire week surrounded by high school teachers, giving up a week of their summer or school year to try and get better at teaching their students critical thinking skills. There are people practicing and teaching these skills, you just have to look down rather than across your Ivory Tower to see them.
Erin: I heard an amazing presentation at AHA years ago, in one of the Tuning Committee meetings early in its history, by a professor at a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota or Wisconsin, that served primarily first generation students, largely women of color. And it was about how the school’s liberal arts mission statement pervaded teaching. Each department had to take it and rewrite it for their department, and then professors had to do it for each course. It showed a level of understanding of and commitment to the liberal arts that took my breath away, and was so much more powerful than anything I’d ever heard from an elite institution.
Chris: The lesson is, good pedagogy is out there. You just have to be willing to look for it.
Erin: And acknowledge that people less prestigious than you are doing it.
Chris: I’m about out of stuff to rant about.