How to Fix Humanities Grad School

There is a must read article on Slate for anyone professionally involved in the humanities. Now I know why I haven’t overused the term ‘must read’: so I can make it count when I really mean it!  Read. This. Article.

William Pannapacker, associate professor of English at Hope College, has been broadly critical of the current configuration of graduate schools in America in the past.  Here he sets out a six-point plan for reform of these institutions.  The severity of his plan reflects his belief in the severity of the crisis. You should read the whole article, but I’ve excerpted the essence of it here:

1. Get organized, or get crushed. Higher education in the humanities lacks centralized leadership. There is no equivalent of the American Medical Association capable of coordinated action in its own interest…

2. Expose who’s really teaching undergraduates. Reliable, up-to-date information should be available about the employment practices of individual universities. Prospective undergraduates and their parents should be able to choose institutions on the basis of who is actually doing the teaching: tenured faculty with a long-term relationship to the institution and the protections of academic freedom…or an army of transient, ill-paid, hired-at-the-last-minute adjuncts and graduate students without terminal degrees who are retained primarily on the basis of high evaluation scores from students…

3. Tell the truth about graduate school. It is essential that students seek independent counseling from career services about their options apart from graduate school. Undergraduates should have access to accurate, realistic, and up-to-date advising that is focused on their interests rather than the labor needs of universities wedded to romantic notions about the lives of college professors.

4. Disrupt the graduate-school labor scheme. Independently verified information about individual graduate programs should be made freely available online. That information should include acceptance rates, financial support, teaching requirements, time-to-degree, attrition rates, and, most important, job placement, accounting for every graduate with specific details.

5. Train students for real careers. Graduate programs must stop stigmatizing everything besides tenure-track positions at research universities that almost no one will get. They should cultivate an “alternative academic” sensibility by redesigning graduate school as professional training, including internships and networking opportunities, and working with other departments and programs, including partnerships with other institutions, granting agencies, government, and business to cultivate humanists who are prepared for hybrid careers in technology (“the digital humanities”), research, consulting, fundraising, publishing, and ethical leadership.

6. Just walk away. Do not let your irrational love for the humanities make you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation…In order to reform higher education, many of us will have to leave it, perhaps temporarily, but with the conviction that the fields of human activity and values we care about—history, literature, philosophy, languages, religion, and the arts—will be more likely to flourish outside of academe than in it.

Any thoughts?


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One Response to How to Fix Humanities Grad School

  1. Keith Brown says:

    A very interesting article (and a good summary thereof).

    I cannot emphasize enough how heavily the ethical dimensions of encouraging someone to get a graduate degree have weighed on my own soul since about 2004. And this goes hand in hand with worrying over how the humanities can be “reinvented” so that people can see how such learning actually can have a very practical outcome alongside the ability to imagine/theorize new critiques of arts & letters.

    They coincide precisely because the trend has been to make humanities as enclosed as the laboratory science. This makes what is studied in humanities graduate school lean toward the protective enclosure of the ivory tower rather than an opening onto engaging the world-at-large.

    When we turn philosophy into a laboratory science, it only works in the laboratory.

    That is precisely the kind of issue that has weakened philosophizing, which should be a way of life yet has become one laboratory methodology among hundreds.

    Good find, Alex.

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