Michael Bérubé’s “The Humanities, Unraveled”: The Ongoing Crisis in Humanities Graduate Education

Michael Bérubé’s moving piece “The Humanities, Unraveled,” published today in The Chronicle of Higher Education, considers the state of graduate education in the humanities. Bérubé describes this state as “a seamless garment of crisis” that makes it “exceptionally difficult to discuss any one aspect of graduate education in isolation.” In a discussion that ranges from the increase in contingent faculty in higher education over the past 40 years to the failure of the apprenticeship model to the history and current debates about alt-ac jobs and changing models of scholarly communication, Bérubé focuses throughout on the greater systemic problems that face graduate education in the humanities.

To address these issues, Bérubé considers a number of solutions. He questions the requirements for the Ph.D. (requirements you’d know if you read this article), referring to the decreased support for and elimination of subsidies for university presses and libraries and asking, “If we have all these new forms of scholarly communication, why are we asking our graduate students to write proto-monographs for a system that no longer supports monographs?” He also considers the “two-track” model of graduate education some have proposed as a solution to the lack of tenure-track employment: in this model, some students would take a research track, crafting a research project and completing a dissertation after having passed a College Board exam (find more info. in clep study guides), and some would take a four-year teaching track, reducing time to degree for those students who want positions focused on teaching. He rightly points out, however, that such a two-track system effectively already exists in the academic labor market – a small group of tenured faculty do research and a much larger group of untenured faculty primarily focus on teaching – and that it would be a mistake to institutionalize this division of labor. Finally, he emphasizes the need for graduate programs to limit the number of students they admit and to better support those they do, but also points out that it has been impossible to achieve a broad consensus on just what this means for all graduate programs in the humanities given the realities of institutional support. In the end, Bérubé’s point is this: there is a pressing need to “take care of the enabling conditions of graduate instruction,” in all of their complexities. If we do this, “the fields of expertise created and validated by the doctorate will take care of themselves.”

Bérubé also wastes no time in advocating the value of these fields; in perhaps the most striking paragraph of the piece, he emphasizes the intellectual vibrancy of the humanities. It’s quoted here in its entirety because, to use Bérubé’s technical terminology, it is awesome:

But I do want to say one thing about the fields of expertise we have created and validated in the humanities over the past 30 or 40 years. They have been, on the whole, pretty awesome. That’s a technical term, so let me explain. I have never been among, and indeed I have never quite understood, the people who believe that the rise of the study of race, gender, and class represented a vitiation of the humanities. Nor do I see the rise of the study of sexuality or postcoloniality or disability as an indicator of a decline in the intellectual power of the humanities. Quite the contrary. Though I have not agreed with every aspect of every intellectual initiative of the past 30 or 40 years, I think 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.

If, like me, you spend much of your time reading and thinking about the ongoing state of crisis in the humanities, this is quite refreshing. We need more paragraphs like this. Yet, Bérubé is also skeptical of this conclusion, not because of the content of humanities fields themselves but rather because of their perceived value. He writes, “when we look at the public reputation of the humanities…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.” And while he emphasizes that the alt-ac community has presented an important challenge to that attitude, he also acknowledges that often there are few institutional incentives for departments to emphasize “alternative” employment for humanities Ph.D.’s: “the department that most emphatically and open-mindedly embraces the idea of graduate training for careers outside academe might just find itself the department whose graduate program is eliminated in the next strategic plan.”

What, then, is to be done? This is the question that continues to haunt considerations of humanities graduate education, even (and perhaps especially) thoughtful ones like Bérubé’s. At both personal and institutional levels, the answers to this question are never easy or readily available. If anything, “The Humanities, Unraveled” is a reminder of just how difficult addressing such problems is. Yet, there is that paragraph – there is the exciting and invigorating and, yes, important work humanities scholars do. Like the realities of the academic labor market or of decreasing institutional support for the humanities, this fact must also inform our considerations of how to change graduate education in the humanities for the better.

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