Crisis of the Humanities?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Michael Rothberg, Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory

Is there a crisis of the humanities? If so, how do we characterize it and what can we do about it? If not, why is the rhetoric of crisis so persistent?

Duke University Romance Studies scholar Roberto Dainotto takes an approach to these questions that I think runs nicely against the grain of current common sense. In his recent book Europe (In Theory)—which is not primarily about the crisis of the humanities, but rather, as its title suggests, about the construction of Europe—Dainotto writes: “The problem . . . is no longer whether the humanities with their tools—rhetoric, philology, historicism—will be adequate or relevant to the technologized, quantified, and statistic-oriented sciences, but whether the latter are still capable of responding to the humanities” (9).

Is this a useful starting point for considering either the crisis of the humanities or the rhetoric of crisis? How can we reframe the rhetoric so as to avert the crisis?

The questions I’ve posed here are not meant simply as “rhetorical” questions, although questions of rhetoric are obviously at the heart of the issue of “crisis.” University administrators, state legislatures, and that vague entity known as “the public” are constantly asking us to justify ourselves—and not just in Illinois, I’m sure.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be attending the first meeting of a Humanities Board convened by our Provost. We need to develop lines of argument adequate to these times without betraying the importance of what we do. This ought to be a collective effort, so please let me know what you think.


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Matt Hart said...

Thinking quickly, there seem to be at least two problems with Dainotto's point (I haven't read his book, so apologize for any misinterpretation).

First, it strikes me as a tactically stupid to play the theoretical sophisticate to a dumbly Gradgrind-like science. This is something I've heard before in the theory circles I otherwise love and it always strikes me as arrogant special-pleading. I've certainly never seen it persuade an empirical researcher that he or she has spent a lifetime barking up the wrong tree. If we're going to argue our case before scientists, we need to do so from a position of respectful engagement. (I realize, of course, that this might not be a two-way street; but the Golden Rule isn't just an ethical principle: it can be a strategy for holding the argumentative high ground.)

Related to this, Dainotto's reduction of the humanities' Other to "technologized, quantified, and statistic-oriented sciences" reads like a caricature of actual work in the sciences, where "theory" is also a meaningful word. The distinction between qualitative and quantitative research is important, to be sure, but Dainotto's point reads to me as mere rhetoric, disdainful of the possibility that it might have unanticipated implications for "rhetoric, philology, [and] historicism."

I'm happy to cheerlead for the local values of the humanities. This would have to involve, however, a recognition of the importance to humanism of such things as empirical work and quantitative research, as well as a defense of speculative thought and textual criticism. I want my MTV and eat it, too. Rant over.

Bruce Rosenstock said...

There have been signs recently that the "two cultures" framing of the sciences versus the humanities is breaking down, and that the sciences are pushing against the humanities. I am not sure that this is altogether a bad thing. I refer, for example, to Brian Massumi in Parables of the Virtual who uses chaos theory to challenge poststructuralist rigidities. And the theoretical biologist Stuart Kaufmann in Reinventing the Sacred is a scientist who wants to go beyond the "two culture" divide and take his own theories into the territory of the humanities, with what I think are interesting results. I welcome the possibilities opened by a new convergence between the sciences and the humanities. I think that only the humanities and the sciences together can chart a path to a non-reductionist understanding of the human, one that makes it possible to imagine new human futures and new futures of the human. This does require giving up the idea that the humanities represent a way of thinking radically different from that of the sciences such that conversation across the boundaries is impossible. I have been hoping to organize a conference that would open a conversation between people in genomics and cognitive science and people interested (however remotely) in Deleuzian topics (film, performance theory, body and affect, etc) that might be called Bergson Now (there was a conference sort of like this at Berkeley a couple years ago). I think that the conversation would be mutually beneficial. The point is that the humanities are in crisis only if they try to defend the borders of their unique "culture." We in the humanities certainly don't want to let the scientists figure out new potential uses, for example, of nanotechnology for redesigning the human body, but we have to know what's involved if we are to join with the scientists in a serious conversation and not just offer one more Marxist critique of technology or Nietzschean paean to the post-human cyborg. Of course, we will want to have Marx and Nietzsche participate in the conversation, but we also have to be ready to learn something new about nanoscience.

Matt Hart said...

I second Bruce Rosenstock's comments, which I'll flatter myself by calling an erudite version of my own remarks.

One note: In editing my last comment, I missed out a noun. The last sentence in para. 2 should read: "disdainful of the possibility that *science* might have unanticipated implications for 'rhetoric, philology, [and] historicism.'"

Michael Rothberg said...

Matt and Bruce make a number of persuasive points. I agree fully that the "two cultures" framing is becoming more and more problematic and I agree that it's important not to reify the sciences as simply instrumental rationality and the humanities as utterly unconcerned with the quantitative and the empirical.

That said, what I liked about the quotation is its reversal of the way things are actually being framed by administrators and politicians (and my real interest here is not in Dainotto, of course, but in coming up with convincing arguments and frameworks for argumentation that we can use). Regardless of what is actually happening intellectually, the question is always being posed as "our" problem--we are the ones who are continually forced to justify ourselves. I'm wondering what might happen if we tried to turn the question around.

Another thing we have to recall is that this conversation is not taking place on a level playing field--something that becomes ever clearer to me the more university-wide meetings I attend. We are speaking from a position of relative powerlessness within the context of the contemporary research university, which is why I worry that if we try to play on the turf of the sciences we will get eaten up. Projects at the interface of the sciences/humanities are exciting, but they can't be all we have to offer because most of us are doing other kinds of things and they also need to be defended.

Since simply reproducing a simplified humanities/sciences binary is obviously insufficient, what are some others ways of framing our response?

Joe Swenson said...

I am a graduate student in philosophy. This fact makes me a seasoned veteran in answering the question, “And just what are you going to do with that?” And perhaps some amount of eyebrow-raising is to be expected from the world ‘outside’ of academics (after all, I use phrases like ‘Being of being’ for Pete’s sake.) But I am often surprised at how often the same question comes up within academics and, more specifically, within the humanities itself. And the question is raised with the same amount of puzzlement on academic faces as it is on ordinary folk’s faces—a face that says something like “why on earth would you spend your academic time doing that?”
One ‘crisis’ in the humanities might be that each field has become so overspecialized in relation to their own problems and individual crises that it is often difficult to feel out the contours of what exactly a general ‘crisis’ in the humanities might even look like. I take it one general feature of the ‘crisis’ is to show how and why the humanities are still relevant and why the natural sciences shouldn’t be given all our money and so forth. But it should be noted that even within the humanities itself there is suspicion about what counts as relevant and what does not and, accordingly, what counts as worthy of justification and what does not. Now, I can think of very good reasons for the various fields of the humanities to have ventured off in the last few decades down the often eccentric directions they have gone. I doubt many people dream of a consilience theory of the humanities the way many do in the natural sciences. I guess I am just thinking through the idea that this crisis not only comes from the barbarians at the gate but also from a number of significant tensions internal to the humanities itself. I don’t want to be overly cynical here, but is it still possible today to put up a unified front on this crisis—to still put forward a unified defense of the humanities?

Ryan said...

I'm just a graduate student, but it seems to me that there are a number of avenues we might try. First off, what do we consider the humanities and the purview of the humanities? If history and art are included along with studies of language, literature, philosophy, and culture, then it seems a number of points can be made. One is that everything has a history and historicism, whether directly linked to studies in science, or focused on material realties, or tracing the genealogy of arguments and words, or recovering voices of various groups of humans, is something that easily sells well to most people, even those who don't think like us. Humans like stories, and the Humanities have stories to tell. Second, there is the quality of life approach--art, music, literature, popular culture, philosophy--these are the creative fields that enliven human experience; creating and studying/analyzing creation, as well as identifying trends in human experience that are creative, is a particular strength of the humanities, and it is an approach that can find compatriots in the sciences and business fields, in that many call for creativity which can't be found in rote repetition, but instead in the spontaneous, contingent insights, leaps of faith, or what have you of the human mind. Is that not what the Humanities have been after for generations?

I like the intervention, as well, that we ask what relevance is quantitative data and knowledge without meaning. That we ask why should not the empirical sciences respond to theories and studies found in the humanities. One might find fruitful ground in arguing how theory and speculation is a part of being human, that while we might drive at different ends, our method is similar. For example, I once had an aesthetics class that opened with a debate about chaos theory, and it stuck with me to this day.

I'm tempted to resort to the idea that science tells us how the world works and the humanities tells us why it matters to US that it does. I recently participated in a language study where I had to read words--it was interesting, and I like learning more about speech production. Yet, without the language itself--without the meanings of words and the contexts in which they are applied--it was mostly just gibberish.

Perhaps I haven't been too articulate here, but I hope in something I've shed some minor light into our dilemma. It's not to me that the humanities are so much in crisis as that the universities have moved to another definition of what truth and evidence is, and how one can quantify success. And if they demand evidence, then perhaps point out that studies show students and scholars well versed in the humanities have more creativity, success more often, and have higher qualities of life...but they may not buy such a statement.

sabine broeck said...

dear critical colleagues at uiuc, i am also responding to the thread without having seen the book (a new genre in the humanities?), just signing in to support michael's idea to turn the issue around and to open a discussion from 'our' side with the socalled hard sciences . my concern specifically: i would love to see a debate from a decolonial perspective on the history of 'western' academic socalled empirical sciences as such, its assumptions, its epistemologies, its ethics´ WITH natural and other empirical sciences colleagues, not just among seems to me - given the shape our world is in - that, if there is a crisis, it is certainly not ours alone. at least as far as german acdemia is concerned (which is from where i am writing) the empirical sciences have not responded to a challenge of the postcolonial moment as yet. at best, i see only small germs of such discussions, as in the slowly evolving debates between law, and humanities, and, say, environmental engineering people, about environmental justice being connected to black studies and postcolonial studies.
greetings from u of bremen
sabine broeck

Bruce Rosenstock said...

Michael Rothberg rightly asks us to think about how we might reframe the question that administrators and politicians ask of us in the humanities, what reason we have for making demands upon the resources of the university (money, that is). Michael wants to find a way that we don't have be put on the defensive, but can somehow deflect the question. Since the question is really framed in economic terms, we are forced to answer defensively (because we don't bring in major federal and private grants that, for example, support grad students and help pay for the physical plant with budgeted indirect costs). It seems to me to be very difficult to change the perception that the humanities are an expense, however worthy, on the balance sheet of the university. Perhaps if we ran a hedge fund on hot theoretical properties (a futures market on the future of the humanities) we might be able to get somewhere.

Madame said...

Greetings. I'd like to return just a bit to Dainotto even though Michael intended it mainly for a launching point. Putting Dainotto into context makes him seem less resistant, I think, to the perspectives Matt and Bruce emphasize.

Dainotto situates himself as a Southerner (i.e., an Italian) living in the moment of European union--a moment for which his book offers a kind of back story. Where Dipesh Chakrabarty's _Provincializing Europe_ shows how nineteenth-century historicism made the West into the template for an idea of modernity as implicitly European, Dainotto's book shows how earlier historicisms made the North into the template for an idea of Europe as implicitly non-Southern. It's a really stimulating book that I think anyone interested in postcolonial studies should consider. It doesn't simply transpose Orientalism to a North-South axis; it tells a story about internal otherness within Europe that subtends and, in some subtle ways, changes the Orientalist story that we think we already know.

In his introduction Dainotto is concerned that a highly technocratic policy-making approach to European unification is calling the shots--even getting to define through statistics the level of "affective support" that Europeans express toward integration. He writes: "It is the task of what Edward Said has called 'humanism as democratic criticism' go beyond the limit of statistics and start investigating not only the attachment of historical societies to 'words [such as Europe] as bearers of reality' but also to make such words 'disclose what may be hidden or incomplete...'" This line of thinking leads up to the articulation that Michael cited: portraying the "problem" as one of whether "the technologized, quantified, and statistic-oriented sciences are still capable of responding to the humanities" (8-9).

My sense, then, is that Dainotto's purpose isn't to reduce "science" to Gradgrindian caricature (in context he's clearly demarcating a particular mode of scientific practice); and I think he'd be up for the enterprise of Bergson Now Part Deux. I think he's questioning whether the sort of social science practice that feeds into European policy has the ontological depth and self-reflexivity to sustain or even admit that kind of dialogue--in ways, for example, that would do the sort of work Sabine would like to see.

If that leaves the humanities in crisis it's a crisis generated less between different academic disciplines than between the academy (as perhaps the last bastion of the humanities) and the non-academic or quasi-academic technocratic discourse that has taken on the task of describing ordinary citizens to themselves. If that's so I suspect that the kind of richer science-humanities dialogue Bruce and Matt support would be productive in this vein--and would be welcomed by Dainotto.

(This is Lauren Goodlad btw--though my post appears as "Madame"--don't ask!)

Brandon J. said...

Wow, Lauren just posted a far more erudite, extensive, and situated version of the quick response I was in the midst of typing. I'll post mine anyway to add to the consensus.

One of the great insights in the posts by Lauren, Matt and Bruce is the recognition that this nebulous pressure doesn’t originate from the “quantified” sciences. This false binary between the sciences and humanities seems to have become a de facto ‘divide and conquer’ strategy that has only strengthened the general (American – and spreading) compulsion to pragmatize all academic studies. The sciences face the same pressure to market their experimental research, to make it product-friendly—when, from what I understand, university scientists often desire a field of inquiry free from the obligation to “swear absolute allegiance to the realm of purposes” (Adorno).

As I teach Rhetoric courses, the most dire problem I see, again and again, is a crisis in students’ general problem-solving, their inability to theorize and speculate (whether inductively or deductively). Scholars in the sciences must find this equally disturbing. (I would hope that the wider community would find this a crucial concern in its citizenry). And it’s no surprise considering the academic expectations students face from an early age, where study is often reduced to standardized testing, practical skills supposedly necessary for college, improving one’s marketability, etc – and where college education has become increasingly necessary in terms of simple economics.

Though thought-provoking, the clever rhetoric of Dainotto’s thesis risks exacerbating the problem. As everyone else has suggested, if we could ease the tension between the sciences and humanities and engage with one another (perhaps expanding the conversation to include the wider educational system), we could strategically combat the bureaucratic pressure from administrators and other officials.

Brandon J(ernigan) said...

PS - for a more insidious example of the government's recent penchant for (and funding of) contemporary histories and cultural studies, check out the Pentagon's Minerva program.

Michael Rothberg said...

Many, many good comments here. Just to piggy-back on the latest, I think Brandon is right (as others also see) that what we're up against is "pragmatization" much more than a science/humanities war. That said, it still seems harder, as Bruce's somewhat tongue-in-cheek follow-up suggests, for those of us on the humanities side to work within that framework than many of the scientists--even though pure research on that side of campus is also under increasing pressure.

I think the fundamental issue here is *value*--how to articulate a notion of value that is not easily quantifiable or reducible to the bottom line.

How do we talk about the (incommensurable?) value of the kind of critical, speculative thinking Brandon calls for and we all try to practice? Is it better to attempt to fit that conception of value into the dominant one (i.e. "In order to compete in the global marketplace, our students need to be able to think critically and have knowledge of cultural difference, etc.")? Or should we articulate and stand-by its incommensurability with market-oriented pragmatism? For me, that's the dilemma.

Michael Rothberg said...

p.s. Re: the "pragmatic" side of crisis talk, my friend Phil Wegner at Florida just sent a link to their faculty organization blog, which is documenting the very real budgetary crisis going on there. Sadly, this may represent the vanguard, given economic projections.

Michael Rothberg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Renée Trilling said...

Is it worth mentioning, do you think, that the humanities provide the biggest bang for the university's buck in terms of credit hours taught? The amount that the university spends on English, for example, when divided by the number of credit hours the English department provides, works out to much less than the cost per credit hour provided by, say, physics. In that sense we're one of the most effective and efficient uses of the university's money, especially since we provide the bulk of the general education credits that serve the entire university, not just LAS. Surely that must count for something in market terms. Or is that just my uncontrolled optimism talking?

Of course, the danger is bringing up our significant contributions in providing gen ed credits is that some bright spark might question how important those are as well.

Renée Trilling said...

I meant, of course, to say "the danger IN bringing up our contributions."

Mara Wade said...

Hi Everyone,
Renée is right on target. For departments outside of English, the service to this university is staggering. I have learned that arguments to the higher admin work best when presented as an excel-spreadsheet. Here comes a data blast—but stick with me—it is worth noting.
The arguments are for my own department, the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures (GLL), but can be made for just about any one of the departments in the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics—all core humanities units.
Not only we do deliver more instruction more efficiently and cost effectively, we also don't require expensive labs. When the university funds all of the start-up for a scientist, they do not necessarily recover all of this money. Scientists get grants, but that does not mean the university really gets a good return on its initial investment. We provide a HUGE bang for our buck. We are the reason scientists, the really good ones, can write well, think deeply, and articulate compelling arguments.
Here is the point of view from a besieged administrator of a small, highly efficient, and very productive department. We have 9 tenure stream faculty, including only one full professor, and two continuing faculty as APs. That ‘s right, 11 faculty. This is what we can do on a shoestring.
From the earliest data in DMI GLL's Gen Ed IUs in English increased from a total of 441 to 1,206, a ca. 300% increase. Most of this has occurred in the last five years.GLL's budget has not increased more than the annual 2-3%.

Less than 4% of the IUs taught in GLL are to undergrads in our department; over 54% are taught to students in LAS and more than 27% are taught to students in other colleges. These are impressive figures demonstrating both that the department’s UIUC connectedness runs deep and that our mission is central to the undergraduate curriculum on this campus. More than 85% of our total instruction is provided to undergraduates; and more than 81% to non-departmental students.
The Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures increased all enrollments by 22% in the pat three years.
In the decade 1997-2007 GER 250 (Fairy Tales) increased from 300-477 IUs, more than 50%. With a high in 2000 of 705 IUs that is an increase of 200% and with the recent high of 525 IUs in 2006 representing an increase of 75%.
GER 260, The Holocaust in Context
In the decade 1997-2007 GER 260 IUs increased from 39-105, a 27% increase. The AY 2006 high of 180 IUs meant an almost 500% increase.
Scan 251 went from 42 to 279 IUs, a 65% increase. Its high in 2007 was 300 IUs, a ca. 70% increase.
Scan 252 went from 30 to 81 IUs, nearly 30%. Its data hovers normally around 150, which is a 50% increase, its high was 177 IUs, a ca. 500%.
Two new Gen Ed courses (both capped at 30) in 2007: GER 270 created 105 IUs, while Scan 225 created 84 IUs. SCAN 225 will be taught in Fall 2008 with 100 students, that is, 300 IUs an app. 350% increase from its first offering.

This is the data only for 200-level courses taught in English. We run a full Basic Language Program, otherwise know as the language requirement part, for GER 101-104, a flourishing exchange program with Austria, and the entire major as well as the graduate program. You get the picture.

Best wishes to all,


Michael Rothberg said...

Naturally, I agree with Renée and Mara that humanities departments are doing more than pulling their weight--even when it comes to quantifiable matters such as tuition dollars and "instructional units" (i.e. students). The question is, though, why do administrators find it so difficult to get that and what is it that we need to do differently in order to get them to see it?

Let me say that I believe teaching is an essential part of our mission, that it should be part of the "pitch" we give about our importance, and that we shouldn't think of teaching and research as completely separate activities. That said, given that we're a Research I university, my sense is that it's the prestige of research (and the funds attracted for it) that seems to drive the relative valuation administrators and politicians grant different disciplines. We can’t focus only on the service we provide in terms of teaching without confirming our lower place on the totem pole.

Let me provide an anecdote to back up the previous point. A few years ago I attended one of the Chancellor's "retreats." After an introductory speech by the Chancellor, we were invited to choose from a number of "breakaway sessions" for further discussion. I gravitated toward the one on “interdisciplinarity,” since I thought I understood what that meant and since it’s a topic I’m always interested in. Boy, was I in for a surprise. It turned out to be a session in which big-time scientists argued quite violently with each other about “ICR.” At the time, the only referent I had for those initials was the Institute of Communications Research. Believe me, they’d never even heard of that renowned cultural studies program. As I learned—and as many of you probably already know—ICR means “indirect cost return.” The argument was not about an interdisciplinary intellectual project, but about how research money is administered and divided up. After this discussion went on for about 45 minutes, a distinguished humanist intervened and said, “Well this is all important, but interdisciplinarity is also about teaching.” That prompted the following memorable line from Important Scientist, uttered with extra helpings of scorn: “I’m not here to teach!!!”

We’re caught on the horns of a real dilemma here. Earlier I’d commented that I think what’s at stake in the “crisis of the humanities” is the different notion of value that pure research (in the humanities or sciences or social sciences) possesses and that can’t be reduced to quantified categories. Now I’m thinking that even when we do seek to compete on the grounds of quantification we end up losing or not being heard because of pre-existing notions of what kind of research is the most prestigious. This sounds pretty bleak—and perhaps it’s overly pessimistic—but I do think our first step has to be getting as clear a picture as possible of what we’re up against.

Bruce Rosenstock said...

Michael is absolutely right in his analysis of the situation, I think. I think the problem is that Mara and Renee are also right about the quantifiable value of humanities to the university, but that the upshot is that the humanities are considered to be the university's digestive tract where students are processed and sent on their way expeditiously (to borrow a term from Garrison Keillor). The "brain" of the university is where the labs are (and the grants are). I tend to think that this is not going to change until there is something like a self-funding Beckman Center to anchor the humanities (that brings in indirect costs to the university).