Humanities in the Age of Austerity

As readers of this blog might already suspect, there are some exciting changes afoot over at North Dakota Quarterly. Part of these changes in a little volume dedicated to understanding the role and future of the humanities in the age of austerity. This reflects a long-term and rather circuitous project of my own that tries to understand the history of the American university system and what I perceive to be a series of recent changes and challenges to traditional work in the humanities.

I’m going to secretly post the call for papers here tomorrow morning, and the post the official call for papers on the North Dakota Quarterly website on Thursday. 

The challenge now is to weave together my ideas into a coherent essay that actually says something about the contemporary humanities project.

I have four basic tenets that I want to develop in this essay (and all of these things have been mentioned in my blog over the past couple of years). They are less distinct ideas and more a garbled mass of interrelated concepts reduced to simple statements. Some of these statements work better than others. 

1.Humanities and Audit Culture. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been intrigued by the expansion of audit culture (also know as the assessocracy) in the American university. My recent reading in higher education policy and criticism, particularly Gary Hall’s almost apocalyptic Uberfication of the University and Christopher Newfield’s more sober, The Great Mistake, have reinforced the pernicious nature of “data driven decision making.” In short, they point out that universities tend to only produce one kind of data that is comparable across the entire campus: money. As a result, most performance indicators – from teaching effectiveness to research impact – tend to ultimately devolve into efficiency indicators which then shape the distribution of funding. Fields with great capacity for efficient transfer of knowledge (or with traditions of practice in knowledge transfer that allow for a wider range of effectiveness) tend to be rewarded within audit cultures whereas fields with less efficient models – such as languages or even law, where success on the bar exam presents an externally imposed indicator of success – tend to struggle. Audit culture and accounting ultimately push the university toward fields where efficiency, or even the greatest return on their investment can be realized.    

This approach to learning is consistent with the origins of the modern university in the crucible of industrial revolution and nationalism. The dominant model for modern higher education remains the assembly line and this presupposes a kind of Taylorism in how it is administered.  

2. Humanities as Craft. The unfortunately reality for the humanities within audit culture is that most humanistic disciplines do not fit comfortably within the Taylorist assembly line model of higher education. While the humanities as disciplines emerged within this model, they are not “of this model.” In other words, when we sit down to “do history” or “do literature” or “make poems” or whatever, we don’t privilege efficiency and outcomes as much as process and understanding.

[As an aside, one of the things that the recent conversation about digital humanities and digital archaeology has demonstrated is that efforts to make our fields more efficient or to streamline the hard, often-slow work of the humanities are not universally embraced as “good.” While most of us act in certain ways to make our research more efficient, we tend to resist efficiency as an explicit goal.]

I’ve blogged pretty extensively in the past about history as craft, but as I’ve talked more and more with folks who do public history and public humanities, I’ve come to realize the powerful pull of sensationalist, results-driven public statements from folks working in the humanities. This privileging of results over process invites scholars in the humanities to view the process as something that is secondary to the product. But, most of us know that the process – like the recent trend toward craft – is far more important that the shortest route to a desired outcome (and see my point 1 for the clearest definition of a desirable outcome in American higher education). 

3. Humanities and Competition. Ultimately the emphasis on outcomes and efficiencies contributes significantly to a view of higher education that privileges competition over cooperation. Whether this is competition between scholars for grants, programs for students and funding, or universities for reputation, the model of competition driving excellence has been lifted from the handbook of neoliberalism and projected with wild abandon across campus. 

Of course, the goal of advocating competition is not to allow the cream to rise to the top, but to reinforce the position of the cream AT the top. In other words, advocating competition reinforces the status of the “winners” who largely achieved their place on campus on the basis of non-competitive processes. In short, most claims to competition work to assert the moral or practical superiority of the winner and the inferiority of the loser who then become deserving of treatment that limits in fundamental ways their ability to compete.

Even if we allow that competition can promote excellent projects, work, or programs, it does so at the expense of tremendous inefficiencies as programs and projects buy into competitive models of funding under which they are unlikely to find success for structural reasons. Fortunately, most of us in the humanities understand this, but fewer of us work together to create productive collaborations than I’d like to see. Working together to find ways to advance our collective work in the humanities – through, say, collaborative or cooperative publishing models – is a much wiser approach than struggling with one another to escape from the same crab pot. 

4. Humanities as a Brand. Over the past year, I’ve thought a good bit about this probably flawed juxtaposition: the university as a billboard versus the university as factory. The latter draws upon the history of higher education as the product of our Industrial Age and recognizes what we do as producing well-rounded, thoughtful, educated, and critical students. The former is advertising what it is that we imagine the public wants us to be doing and will support.

In many cases across campus the need or desire to produce a flashy billboard actually subverts the goals of the factory. In some cases ,the factory is seen as more or less obsolete. I developed these ideas based on an experience that in conversations surrounding a new institute for autonomous vehicles and drones. The idea behind this institute, as far as I could tell, was the promote research on autonomous vehicles and drones rather than actually to support this research on campus. On the one hand, this could be seen as a version of the “fake it until you make it” strategy which seeks to attract partners, grants, and other revenue to build something based on demonstrating a good idea or the strong potential for success. On the other hand, the making of the institute itself was a gamble that actually drew resources away from the work that was actually ongoing at the university.

Good work in the humanities is rarely flashy and rarely “brand worthy,” because it’s steeped in process, gradualist, and almost always provisional. Efforts to draw scholars of the humanities into billboard worthy research can run counter to the good, but plodding work that makes the humanities valuable. To use a painful metaphor, mass producing Rolls Royces not only undermines the craft values that make them special, but almost invariably undermines the purpose of having or making a Rolls Royce motorcar. 


As you can tell, these ideas are probably too expansive for a short, focused essay. Maybe they’re too diffuse. Maybe they’re simply not that good. But they’re what I got right now, and I’m going to work on them over the next couple of months until I feel like I have something to say. 

Stay tuned.

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