Author’s Roundtable 2: Response from Dianne Harris

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism

Written by Dianne Harris (IPRH & Landscape Architecture)

I should state at the outset that I choose to view Professor Donoghue’s book as a sobering cautionary tale rather than as an account of a fait accompli. There are probably not many among us here tonight who would argue that corporate business models did not begin to hold sway in universities some time ago, and I think we all acknowledge that they have had and continue to have a serious and often deleterious impact on the ways in which resources are allocated, on the direction of administrative action, and on higher education itself. As we approach the implementation of a new budget model that is largely driven by an accounting of the number of student bodies in courses, and that—up this point—has largely overlooked questions about the forces that drive student demand for courses, or the values that structure those forces, it is sobering to imagine the future consequences for humanities curricula. But as I thought about what to say tonight, I found myself alternately battling between refusing to admit defeat (which is to say refusing to admit that his books’ thesis is correct), resorting to the same language in defense of the humanities that Professor Donoghue critiques throughout the book, and searching for ways to prove him wrong, because I really want him to be wrong about our collective fate and that of the humanities—and I think he wants to be wrong too.
I imagine that in writing his book, Professor Donoghue must himself have been caught between the desire to build his argument forcefully and effectively, and by the simultaneous desire to have it be proven specious, flawed, or incorrect. So I therefore hope he’ll actually be heartened by the flaws I find in his text since it means that the career he has built, and the educational and scholarly endeavors that all of us work toward and believe in, might actually survive.

It is also worth noting that Professor Donoghue’s primary frame of reference for this book is the English Department. In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Bérubé—who served as one of my predecessors as Director of the IPRH—wrote that “although people in English departments habitually forget this, English departments are just a tiny part of the university.” I am not refuting Professor Donoghue’s text on this ground, nor am I necessarily refuting it at all, but I am asking that the questions he poses be looked at from perhaps a wider range of vantage points. There are, after all, humanists in nearly every corner of this and many other colleges and universities and the experiences of those faculty vary tremendously. To teach, as I do for example, as a historian in a professional degree program, is to have a very different experience from someone who teaches the history of law, or from an ethnomusicologist, a classicist, a cultural anthropologist, or a scholar working in the newer realm of the digital humanities just to name a few examples. Funding levels vary of course, but so do departmental cultures and values, and all these have an impact on the issues taken up by Professor Donoghue. So the problems he outlines are real, but they are not equally “real” everywhere on a campus, and the issues humanities faculty face are far more diverse than those faced by faculty in English departments alone.

Professor Donoghue asserts repeatedly in his book that the humanities, and humanities faculty as we have known them, are essentially finished. He bases his claims on repeated references to corporate models that for him fix all the rules and establish all the terms of engagement. We, the professoriate, cannot win on the corporate playing field; indeed, we have already lost and are a dying breed. And we know enough, we see enough, to know to be afraid. We also know, I think, that as Professor Donoghue asserts, humanists will not gain traction by repeatedly asserting the significance of our endeavor. But might we not gain a bit of traction by instead examining the flaws of the very system he claims is triumphant? If corporate values, systems, and models of productivity and labor are indeed so ideal and so prevalent, why are corporations failing at a record rate? Haven’t we just witnessed the economic collapse of a financial regime based on the very corporate ideals that Professor Donoghue sees as inevitably taking over higher education throughout the United States? Corporate models have a nasty habit, it seems, of reversing on themselves when their singular adherence to profit causes an atrophy of leadership and a concomitant lethargy of the very levels of productivity so valued by that system. What we are already observing is that a system that cuts out its heart and its brain dies. And for that matter, shouldn’t we be asking why our universities are struggling financially—are in fact in economic crisis— if corporate business models are in fact so compelling and effective? The idea of the corporate university thus already seems somewhat antediluvian, and perhaps humanists can most effectively shape their future by insisting on and helping to formulate or design an entirely new model by doing what we do best: framing intelligent questions.

Professor Donoghue’s text also repeatedly asserts that the corporate university is inevitable, that the abolition of tenure is inevitable, that the transition from the university to vocational training schools is inevitable. But if there is one thing historians know, it’s that nothing is inevitable. As the Pulitzer Prize winning historian Gordon Wood recently wrote, “History does not teach lots of little lessons. Insofar as it teaches any lessons, it teaches us only one big one: that nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected....(History shows us that ) the best laid plans of people usually go awry.” This is so because the structures that come to bear on our lives are seldom monolithic, and they are seldom all-encompassing or absolute. Professor Donoghue has constructed a narrative that privileges structure almost entirely, and in which individual or even collective human agency is largely absent. And in denying individual or collective agency, he overlooks one of the most powerful and I believe paradigm-shifting phenomena of our time: the digital world.

For evidence from which we might construct a possible counter-narrative to Professor Donoghue’s then, we need only look as far as our laptops. By this I absolutely DO NOT mean to refer to the idea of the Global Campus, of distance learning programs, or of the University of Phoenix model. This is not what I refer to when I say that we should look to our laptops. But there is, after all, plenty of evidence in the digital realm that there is actually an enormous and largely untapped demand for humanities scholarship, much of which seems to have no immediate utility whatsoever (there are actually vast Shakespeare networks out there for example—if you Google the word “Shakespeare” you get nearly 49 million results. Some of that is ‘noise,’ but there’s also plenty of good stuff in there). Millions of ordinary citizens contribute to databases, to public history projects, and dare I say it—to “Wikipedia”—and they do so because they are passionate devotees to their subjects, and they are likewise often very knowledgeable. And contrary to Professor Donoghue’s point, they are reading our work because it is increasingly accessible in digital databases including the Google Books project (and this is a good thing). I don’t have time to cite all the evidence or data that corroborates this point, but the plethora of scholars studying this phenomenon can attest to its verity. Our problem as humanists is not that we’ve done a lousy job of explaining our relevance (though we DO need to be better at that, and to be more convincing as lobbyists so that NEH funding for example might increase), and not that we don’t attract enough funding to justify our existence in a corporatized university, thought these problems are serious enough. Just as important, if not more so, is the fact that we’ve neglected to recognize and tap into the huge demand for what we do, neglected to engage the general public more fully in what we do, and very likely been too concerned about questions of academic authority because we underestimate and therefore are insecure about our own value. What public engagement in the humanities via the internet and public humanities projects show us is that the humanities are not dying, and are not dead. Instead, there is plenty of evidence out there that demand for humanities scholarship is growing exponentially. But the methods by which humanities scholarship is produced, taught, and consumed, are undergoing a profound shift and that shift is not, inevitably, in the direction of the University of Phoenix. Professor Donoghue correctly points to a rupture in the humanities that is driven by a new economic and administrative model then, but it is not the only or perhaps even the most powerful one. Instead, the critical question for the future of the humanities involves reckoning with a revolution that is so big we haven’t yet been able to see it or to fully imagine it, and it involves questions about the role of citizen contributors to our fields, of shifts in what it means to be an “authority” in a field and of the boundaries of professional realms, and of the breakdown of the relevance of disciplinary boundaries that no longer work and are no longer relevant to scholarly inquiry. That, I believe, is the proverbial train that has already left the station. Our task is to try to figure out not only where it is going, but how to be that train’s Engineers, or at the very least to hop along for the ride.

Michael Bérubé, “What’s the Matter With Cultural Studies?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 14, 2009; and
Gordon S. Wood, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008), p. 71.


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Anonymous said...

First, thanks for your thoughtful response. First, let me say that you're correct in assuming that I hope the predictions I make in my book are wrong too.
Let me address two of your central points. You make the point that we can challenge America's reverence for corporate values and ideals by calling attention to the dramatic failures in corporate America during the last couple of years. We could do that, but we then have to note that the big corporations that failed most spectacularly--investment banks and insurance companies--were immediately bailed out at taxpayer expense and are now back to doing business as usual, including reinstating their standard practice of handing out multi-million dollar bonuses to their executives. The federal government, in other words, saw it as imperative that these corporations not fail permanently. No one will ever come to the rescue of America's institutions of higher learning. If anything, we'll be permanently worse off in the wake of the recent recession.
Second, you say that we need only look to our laptops to find widespread interest in and validation of the humanities. I agree, but I have two thoughts. First, all the hits one finds when entering "Shakespeare" certainly means that the transmission of culture is alive and well, but might it not also mean that this transmmission doesn't need universities in order to thrive? That universities have become irrelevant and that our society has become, to use Ivan Illich's phrase, "deschooled"? Second, I can easily imagine doing a Google search for "Shakespeare" twenty years from now and finding 20,000 sites, each available for viewing for a fee. Chris Anderson may be right that "free" is the new price, but he seems not to emphasize that the internet is an entirely corporate entity, and if internet information providers like Google can charge for their services and, more importantly, prevent piracy, they will. I'll close my post with that, but in order to publish it, I see that I need to choose a Google account identity.

Lauren said...

Yes, Frank, I'll chime in to make clear to other readers that the previous response was from Frank Donoghue of Ohio State. Our website is indeed supported by google and it may well be necessary to have a gmail account to register (originally it was not but I think they have changed that--I'm not 100% certain because I've had a google account for many years).