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February 21, 2013

The MLA and the Crisis of the Humanities

Past MLA President Michael Berube's speech to the Council of Graduate Schools, a version of which was published this week at the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers a sober account of the terrible condition of the humanities circa 2013.  Professor Berube mentions the job market, which "has been in a state of more or less permanent distress for more than 40 years," the rising adjunct trend (English and rhetoric/composition departments have high rates of non-tenure/tenure-track teachers), the extended time-to-PhD (presently, an average of 9.5 years), and the narrowness of graduate training (their coursework and research prepare them only for research professor jobs).

Clear-sighted and irrefutable points, to be sure.  But there is one other condition that Berube rightly raises, but interprets in another direction.  Near the end of the piece, Berube acknowledges a longstanding problem, this one external: "the public reputation of the humanities."  Comparing the "dilapidated Humanities Cottage" to the "new $225-million Millennium Science Complex" at his own institution Penn State, Berube says, "we can't avoid the conclusion that the value of the work we do, and the way we theorize value, simply isn't valued by very many people, on campus or off."

Again, a straightforward, factual judgment, but in this case Berube makes a significant distinction.  In the preceding paragraphs, he identifies "the work we do" with "the rise of the study of race, gender, and class . . ." and "the rise of the study of sexuality or post-coloniality or disability."  Those trends, he admits, have been cast by outside critics as "a vitiation of the humanities" and "an indicator of the decline in the intellectual power of the humanities."  He disagrees.  Indeed, he states, "I have never understood" people who think so, asserting that "there is no doubt that the study of the humanities is more vibrant, more exciting, and (dare I say it) more important than it was a generation ago."

Of course, to maintain the superiority of recent humanities trends to an audience of language and literature professors involves nothing "daring" at all.  Besides that, it casts all of the problems besetting the humanities as material, not intellectual.  The humanities are in wonderful condition in terms of their content; they suffer only in terms of dollars, employment practices, job markets.

Those whom Berube doesn't "understand" might be tempted to collect 25 recent books in literary/cultural studies published by a prominent press and conduct a deliberate conceptual and stylistic analysis of the opening pages of each one and form an evaluative judgment.  At this point in time, however, with material conditions so dire, critics shouldn't bother to debate whether the books and essays professors publish on post-coloniality and the like are generally weak or strong.  The promotion of essentially social science topics among literature professors has happened and research professors in tenured positions are committed to it notwithstanding dissidents who decry and mock their work.  

But if professors really want to address the deteriorating material conditions of their fields, they better learn to ask, if only tentatively, the reflexive question: "Did we do something wrong when we invested so much in race, class, sexuality . . .?"  Unless they take seriously the complaints of critics about the substance of their work, they will find themselves helpless to do anything about the decline of their own vocations.

Editor's note: A previous version of this piece incorrectly described Berube's speech as the "Presidential Address to the Modern Language Association." We regret the mistake.

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