Brian Croxall writes in response to Anthony Grafton’s New Republic review of Louis Menand’s book The Marketplace of Ideas. In brief, one of Menand’s suggestions is to admit fewer graduate students and shorten the time to the PhD to combat the lack of job opportunities; Grafton responds that grad school should be hard because it’s supposed to “test people who think they have this sort of calling.” Croxall rejoins Grafton for refusing to offer a solution.
I believe that this employment balance has a lot to do with how we are perceived by the nation as a whole. How, in other words, can we expect the nation at large to take us seriously as people who are able to comment on the acts of humans in context of a broader cultural moment if we outsource the teaching of this cultural critique to underpaid non-faculty? If we are outsourcing the teaching and interpretation of this context and history, why shouldn’t the rest of the nation outsource the role that humanists have traditionally paid? Talk radio and shout television are, in part, the products of this outsourcing. We have Glenn Beck, in other words, because we have too many adjuncts.
Now, there’s a certain naivetÃ© to this suggestion, but let’s not worry about that for now. Instead, let’s ask why this crisis of part-timers applies only to humanities education, as Croxall implies. Is that 70% figure distributed unevenly across the disciplines, or does it affect the humanities even more than other disciplines?
I can’t find data more recent than 2003, but according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, almost exactly 50% of humanities faculty in that year were part-time. Here’s a quick comparison (note, I had to calculate these figures from the NCIS data just linked):
Part-Time Faculty by Field (2003) % field 56% Education 53% Fine Arts 51% Business 50% Humanities 37% Social Sciences 33% Natural Sciences 30% Engineering
The figures above are calculated across all faculty positions (from “other” through full professor), which on first blush might help explain the disproportionate percentage of part-time business faculty. After all, a great many b-school profs are very well-paid and already financially secure from business success; they just teach part-time by choice. That might also be true in the fine arts (well, minus the financially secure part). Such details in mind, it might be better to limit these figures to the lower ranks, where part-time exploitation is more likely (i.e., assistant professor, instructor, lecturer, unranked, and other). Here’s the same data with those job titles isolated:
Part-Time Junior Faculty by Field (2003) % field 70% Engineering 69% Natural Sciences 69% Social Sciences 66% Business 66% Fine Arts 63% Humanities 61% Education
Look at that. At the rank of assistant professor or lower, the humanities and education turn out to have the lowest percentage of part-time faculty. The data don’t tell us why this is, of course, and I think it should be clear that faculty in different fields might have many different reasons for working as part-time employees. Incidentally, removing assistant professors from the calculation just skews the above data even further in the same direction, with the humanities and education having the lowest percentages of adjunct part-time faculty (74 and 71 percent, respectively, compared to 79 in business, 83 in engineering, and 82 in the natural sciences).
This information might make Croxall and others reconsider the specificity of their concerns, even if not their spirit. By the numbers (and really, we need more and more recent ones) it’s not just “the acts of humans” that are at risk of misperception, but those of every single discipline whatsoever, indeed those of engineering and the sciences even more than the arts and humanities. Yet, nobody seems to cry out in lamentation of the fates of engineering or science as often as they do for the humanities. Why?
In his post, Croxall very kindly mentions my piece The Turtlenecked Hairshirt, which is a screed against the contemporary practice of humanistic isolationism. Brian rightly notes that my essay doesn’t offer a systematic solution. That said, I think there’s something more than an implicit plan for the revitalization of the humanities in “The Turlenecked Hairshirt,” one that is easy to overlook because it’s so dead simple: Live in the world. Care about something beyond your little blister of an esoteric specialty. Make it your purpose to make the world grasp something new through your work. Be concerned about something other than the trifles of academic careerism.
Given the perspective offered by the above data, I think this same logic helps us understand why the adjunct problem seems to fester more in the humanities than in other disciplines. It makes me wonder if humanistic adjunctdom is not (just) a problem of institutional practice, but one inherent to the humanities itself. The part-time problem is real, don’t get me wrong. But at the same time, most humanities programs haven’t even considered change. We haven’t tried to reinvent ourselves, but instead have only reproduced the same structures that have existed for half a century. We have fashioned our own turtleneck hairshirts, and yet we complain about their discomfort as if we don’t even know that we’re wearing them.
I find myself nodding solemnly along with William Pannapacker, who says the following:
Some reasonably conscientious advisers tell students that they should go to graduate school only if they “could not consider doing anything else,” but the students haven’t tried anything else—and neither have most of the professors. Given professors’ lack of information, students’ naÃ¯ve trust, and the overall ambiguity of the future, the easiest thing to do is fall back on our faith in doing what you “love.”
Bracketing the valid and troubled problems of the structure and operation of universities for a minute, perhaps the reason the part-time academic life seems so dangerously afflicted to humanists is because “the cultural role of the humanist,” to use Croxall’s words, has been so hamstrung by its very proponents. Humanists don’t have the faintest clue about the cultural role of anything; like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, they only know the world as it has been filtered through the very institutionalization they claim oppresses them. The irony is thick here, of course, as the humanities often describe their value in terms of a promise to think creatively about human experience. But in most cases, humanism is not the idealistic life of the mind. Instead it is a kind of Stockholm syndrome. The “love” in Pannapacker’s lines above deserves the scare quotes, since it is morbidly bristled with an obscured hatred.
I agree with Brian when he rejoins us to do something (as Menand suggests, if tepidly) rather than nothing (as Grafton does). But what if that nothing turns out to be nothing like what we have done before? Are humanists really prepared to leave their perverted captors and make their way out of their cellars and into the light of a world years, decades older than it was upon their capture? In a frequently tweeted line from his post, Croxall asks, “Why should students or anyone else listen to someone whose own institution will not give her a job?” Perhaps we could pose a similar question: why should anyone listen to professional humanists who know so little about humanity?