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Education

Fixing the Humanities Ph.D. 325

Posted by Soulskill
from the start-calling-it-word-engineering dept.
An anonymous reader writes "A new report from the Modern Language Association focuses on the decline of Ph.D. programs in the humanities over the past several years. "These programs have gotten both more difficult and less rewarding: today, it can take almost a decade to get a doctorate, and, at the end of your program, you're unlikely to find a tenure-track job." According to the report, 40% of new Ph.D.s won't be able to find tenure-track jobs, and many of the rest won't manage to receive tenure at all. "Different people will tell you different stories about where all the jobs went. Some critics think that the humanities have gotten too weird—that undergrads, turned off by an overly theoretical approach, don't want to participate anymore, and that teaching opportunities have disappeared as a result. ... Others point to the corporatization of universities, which are increasingly inclined to hire part-time, 'adjunct' professors, rather than full-time, tenure-track ones, to teach undergrads. Adjuncts are cheaper; perhaps more importantly, they are easier to hire." The MLA doesn't want to reduce enrollments, but they think the grad school programs should be quicker to complete and dissertations should be shorter and less complex."
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Fixing the Humanities Ph.D.

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:23PM (#47181019)

    It looks like we have a good trend going, so I'm failing to see where the problem is or what actually need to be fixed.

  • by NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:25PM (#47181027)

    Others point to the corporatization of universities, which are increasingly inclined to hire part-time, âoeadjunctâ professors, rather than full-time, tenure-track ones, to teach undergrads. Adjuncts are cheaper; perhaps more importantly, they are easier to hire. Whereas it takes a committee of experts months to decide if someone's scholarship is good, it takes an administrator only a few minutes to decide if that person can teach. That makes it easy for faculty size to track student demand. Today, more than half of all the academic jobs at American universities are part-time, non-research positions.

    If you think "good scholarship" is the first (or only) criteria for getting tenure, then you don't know anything at all about academia. Getting tenure is about politics and schmoozing and ass-kissing.

  • market at work (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Charliemopps (1157495) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:35PM (#47181119)

    This is the market at work. A Humanities degree is fiscally worthless. At best, you can teach other people how to get the same degree you have. You might as well be teaching someone about stamp collecting or theology. Sure, there's rare cases where that will be handy to some company, but for the most part the humanities exist in their own echo chamber. You can teach other people about them, right books for other people interested in humanities, but it does the rest of the world almost no benefit. Get your humanities degree and you'll most likely end up working in tech support and spending your day correcting other peoples grammar. What's worse, is those other people (like me) wont care and just flag you as a troll.

  • Re:market at work (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wiggles (30088) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:37PM (#47181141)

    > right books

    Yeah - humanities education is worthless.

  • by GlobalEcho (26240) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:39PM (#47181149)

    The median time to get a Ph.D. is nine years.

    I think students who enter are often doing so by default. Education has been their life unto that point, they have always been outstanding students, and they enjoy it. They are too young and inexperienced to realize how long 9 years is and what they'll be missing (or perhaps they are too optimistic about their personal chances of being an outlier).

  • by Arakageeta (671142) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:40PM (#47181167)

    My girlfriend recently graduated with a PhD in history from a department ranked 11th by US News. She's won a number of nationally recognized awards. She still can't find a tenure-track job. She was hired as a visiting professor at a university for this past year. Pay was around $40k with benefits. She got great reviews from her students, so the university offered to re-hire her as an adjunct with the same workload (teaching four classes a semester)... but at *half* the pay and *without* benefits. Her pay and benefits were better as a graduate student! She politely declined the offer. Being valued so little by the same world that qualified you is hard to endure.

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:55PM (#47181329)
    If these humanities graduates were numerate as well as literate, they'd easily be able to calculate that supply far outstrips demand.

    If the only jobs for freshly minted PhDs is teaching the next generation of students (even supposing that most are only there to study for fun - and have neither the intention nor the motivation to try and get a degree-based job), then it will quickly become obvious to them that filling the "dead mens' shoes" is a suckers game. Given the low to zero growth in humanities departments, there simply aren't enough vacancies created every year.

    The biggest shame is that this comes as a surprise to so many of them AFTER they've graduated.

  • Re:Because... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lagomorpha2 (1376475) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:56PM (#47181341)

    There's no way most CS PhD students could go on to be professors. Most professors advise many PhD students, so the number of CS professors would have to double every few decades if that were the case. Most CS PhD students move on to do research in industry: Microsoft, Google, and so on. I just got my masters degree in CS, and I actually do know where the PhDs go -- overwhelmingly to the west coast to work in industry.

    I guess it's unfortunate for humanities students that there is not substantial industry that requires their abilities.

  • Re:Because... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anrego (830717) * on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:57PM (#47181353)

    I think what you've said kind of mirrors why "the humanities" might be exploding.

    There is no industry for them to branch into. They are all cramming into one funnel, and the proposed solution seems to be to toss more in. If the only viable career path for a CS student was to become a CS prof, we'd be having the same problem.

  • by roc97007 (608802) on Friday June 06, 2014 @01:08PM (#47181461) Journal

    > The biggest shame is that this comes as a surprise to so many of them AFTER they've graduated.

    I think it's a matter of denial. Being in humanities is comfortable. You learn the process of being at university and the process of making your professors happy and the process of negotiating a doctorate, and the rest is social mixers and waking up in the park naked with no idea how you got there. (This isn't just me, is it?) If you're getting a full ride, there's a tendency, I think, to just enjoy the trip and not worry about what you're actually going to do with your life until the subject becomes urgent.

  • Cultural issues (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Friday June 06, 2014 @01:11PM (#47181503) Homepage

    Some critics think that the humanities have gotten too weird—that undergrads, turned off by an overly theoretical approach, don't want to participate anymore, and that teaching opportunities have disappeared as a result. ...

    I think this is pointing at a larger cultural issue: The "Humanities" disappeared down a post-modern rabbit hole of nonsense. It's become widely held by "experts" that classics are all bullshit and only the most novel works are interesting. Paintings aren't important unless it's an abstract piece painted with feces. Literature isn't interesting unless it's incomprehensible. Philosophy isn't worth talking about unless it's mathematically provable.

    These subjects have the potential to be incredibly interesting and even important to our lives, but instead it's relegated to pseudo-science and trivia, and as a result, a lot of the "expert" PhDs don't know what the hell they're talking about.

  • Re:market at work (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Friday June 06, 2014 @01:26PM (#47181649)

    Actually our current society is founded on technological advancement, for example the mass production of white goods which had far more to do with the changing roles of women in society than second wave feminism ever did.

    As for inequality, the standard of living enjoyed by most people in modern western democracies is far beyond that of even the most powerful kings of yore, which can be directly attributed to capitalistic competition and efficiencies, economies of scale and so forth. Greed works really well as a motivator and performance enhancer.

    Environmentally there is a broad overall trend to move towards renewables - by 2100 I'd be surprised if there was a single coal or gas power plant left on earth. Petrol and diesel engines will be for the most part a thing of the past. Conservation efforts continue apace as we slowly gain further understanding of the biosphere around us.

    All of this was and will be achieved through advances in science and engineering, not so much by rearranging society to fit whatever ideology happens to be in vogue this decade.

    This is not of course an argument for unfettered capitalism nor is it an argument to abandon the humanities. It's merely pointing out that people who think they know the direction society should take are almost uniformly wrong, often with tragic consequences. You don't need to take a humanities course to care about humanity, nor do you need to view the world through an ideological lens in order to improve it. Quite the opposite in fact, leftist ideologies have been responsible for the murders of millions upon millions of inncoent people in the 20th century alone. Religions make the same moral rudder claim - perhaps you might consider why the two phenomena have this in common.

  • Hilarious Irony (Score:2, Insightful)

    by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Friday June 06, 2014 @01:43PM (#47181805) Homepage Journal

    Am I the only one who finds it hilariously ironic that a lot of the people who insist that the future of work is everyone having a "creative" job (i.e., humanities) are the same people mocking humanities majors for having useless educations?

  • Re:Because... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 06, 2014 @01:45PM (#47181821)

    "It also doesn't help that a lot of acedemic humanities types come across as ultra pretentious, often working on some bafflingely abstract project that no one outside their world gets. I've met people who are the stereotype (there is a big art school in this area), they come across as cartoons. This kind of thing doesn't inspire society to give a shit."

    -- said the I.T. guy.....

  • Re:Because... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by digsbo (1292334) on Friday June 06, 2014 @01:57PM (#47181921)

    I'm a better clarinet player than I am a software engineer. Yet, I decided to go into software engineering instead of music. Why? There is a greater need for engineers of my caliber than clarinet players of my caliber. I suppose I could be angry at the world for not paying me 6 figures to play clarinet, but it makes more sense to know my place in the world and produce something other people want and are willing to pay for.

    Perhaps the lesson here is that PhDs in Humanities are incapable of understanding their place in the world?

  • Re:Because... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CastrTroy (595695) on Friday June 06, 2014 @02:14PM (#47182071) Homepage
    Similarly, It's amazing that people put so much effort into becoming pro sports players when there is such little market for it. Parents will spend thousands of dollars per year, and countless hours bringing their kids to game and practice, all for that very small chance that they will become one of the top 1000 players in the world, and have a chance at playing pro. If they spent the same amount of time, effort, and money pursuing academic achievements, they kid would most likely end up capable of working in many high paying jobs. Even just a mediocre programmer can make a decent wage. A mediocre hockey player can't really make any money. It's only the pros who get paid.
  • by jellomizer (103300) on Friday June 06, 2014 @02:22PM (#47182131)

    Liberal Arts and Humanities need a STEM infusion much like how technical degrees get a Humanities infusion as part of the graduation requirements.

    My Undergrad in Computer Science, required me to take 200+ level humanity classes. Humanity Majors just need to take pre-100 level Math and Science classes. (Basically a rehash on what they took in high school)

    As for creating a balanced education Humanity Majors should Take Calculus I-II and 1 200+ Level Math class. And none of this watered down Calculus for Humanities, take the same class that freshmen engineers are taking. And they should be required to take 2 100 level Natural Science Classes (Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Astronomy (The real Astronomy not star gazing and remembering the planets) )

    There is a lot of value in a humanity education, it teaches you new ways to think about situations, but so Does Science and Math, when the situation needs a solid fact not a well formed opinion.

  • Re:Cultural issues (Score:4, Insightful)

    by debrisslider (442639) on Friday June 06, 2014 @02:27PM (#47182159)

    What happened to you to make you so bitter towards harmless humanities cranks?

    The whole point of the article is that there are too many Ph.Ds out there. One way to get noticed is to do work in new areas - either reexamining an older work through the prism of newer theories, examining a newer book/artist that hasn't had a lot of critical attention paid to it yet, or tearing down someone else's criticism of older work.

    The humanities isn't narrowing, it's broadening. I assure you there are just as many people studying the classics as there were before, but there are also people following other interests that have more meaning for them - people spending their time on minority authors, foreign works, the avant garde, or radically different approaches to criticism. There's also a lot of political ax-grinding and agenda-driven studies, but that comes from being in such a personal field.

    It's easy to set up a strawman argument against professors who write theses about things you don't understand or don't want to understand or don't think are valid art (let's not go there), but it's still a pretty small area of interest. You are, however, more likely to hear some (cultural) conservative bitching about corner-case dissertations and minor gallery pieces made with menstrual blood, and whatever happened to gosh-darn UNDERSTANDABLE art, in the same way that you get old-timer laments about how violent the country has become when crime is at an all-time low, or how every teenager dresses like a prostitute because Miley Cyrus.

    There has been a backlash against 70s-80s style Continental theory for quite some time now - the heyday of 'overly theoretical' has died down. But also... why should undergrads dictate what they should be taught? I promise you, any high-schooler coming into Lit 101 has a pretty narrow view of how to interact with art, because that's just not taught in high school, because high school English is geared towards SAT scoring. It's difficult to learn new ways of reading outside of the common-sense interpretations, the "what does X symbolize?" essay questions printed in sophomore textbooks. If all you want to do is talk about what base symbolism means and whether characters have 'realistic' depictions, or bear testimony about how deeply something moved you, why pay thousands in tuition when you could just join a reading circle?

    What is so scary about learning new frameworks with which to interpret art? Placing works in context, historically and stylistically and politically? Spending some time thinking about how meanings are produced? Examining how something completely constructed and with a particular motivation can end up seeming so 'natural' and 'true'? Learning to completely disregard authorial intention in favor of coming up with your own meaning for something, OR learning more about an author and how the circumstances they lived in shaped their thought and style? Examining cultural or historical bias in older works through today's ideas about race, class, ethnicity, gender/sexuality, political power, psychology, etc? About looking beyond 'obvious' meanings? Learning a bit more about linguistics and grammar and cognitive language processing?

    All those things take a bit of "theory," because you kind of need a framework of words and concepts to be able to articulate them - how do you describe what you don't know how to describe because you haven't known to look for it before? Or if you don't need them, it's certainly easier to have a pre-established dictionary of terms to work with than to reinvent the wheel in every paper you write. Theory is shorthand for complex ideas. It's jargon, but no worse than reading a scientific paper without enough preparation. It makes no sense to an outsider, and people feel threatened by that for some reason - the big scary professor doesn't make sense to me, therefore he doesn't deserve a living. Kind of like how some people don't understand science, therefore it's wrong or incomprehensible or against the natural order of things because it doesn

  • Re:market at work (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Friday June 06, 2014 @02:31PM (#47182195)

    Capitalism is already an ideological lens.

    Capitalism is what people do when you leave them alone. You may as well say physics is a religion.

    they are organizing things to accumulate more and more wealth by dispossessing it from other people - which has been the whole capitalist project all along.

    ...except the wealth and standard of living for average individuals has been improving steadily under pseudo-capitalistic systems far more quickly than under any other known system. China is a good example of this, they were languishing in Mao's ubiquitous state everything until they began to embrace capitalism.

    Vast amounts of land was dispossessed from the commons by force a few hundred years ago, and now we have the rule of "private property" - which most people never wanted.

    You must be joking. Everybody wants and always has wanted private property! The only difference is that recently they've actually had the opportunity to acquire as muich of it as they could achieve. The myth of the commons is a leftist fairytale, the only time where that actually held true was under very limited conditions and for certain types of property for a very short period of time. Farmers did not share cattle or pigs, except maybe for breeding purposes.

    Millions of people are dying right now because of these policies because resources are being hoarded by a small number of people and don't get to where they are needed (food, water, medicine).

    Please. Food water and medicines aren't geting to people in developing countries because of the local tyrants, dictators, or other failures of the state, not because greedy white people are hoarding them all.

    So your beloved capitalist system is murdering "millions upon millions of innocent people" as we speak, and you still seem to think it's working well.

    Start with a false axiom and you inevitably end up with a false conclusion. GIGO.

    Science and engineering are amazing, but they only serve the interests of the ruling ideology - they can't fix the world's problems on their own.

    Yet they've been doing exactly that, working hand in glove with capitalism, which propagates their discoveries and advances.

    Unless they are oriented towards actually doing good for society they are just going to keep (for the most part) producing junk that makes more money for rich people.

    And we swing right back to neoreligious ideologies secure in the notion that THEY know what's best for people, nobody else, all evidence to the contrary pushed aside. People actually know what they want, that's why they're willing to pay money for it. Who are you to decide what's junk or not? With that said the government should play a role in disincentivising destrcutive habits like smoking and destructive developments like monopolies. Keep in mind that this is different to controlling these activities, prohibition and te war on drugs are evidence enough that if you take away what people want, far more dangerous capitalists arise to provide it.

    But it's blinkered in the extreme to believe that either full state control or unfettered capitalism are the answer. Although it is notable that of the two, the former has been by far the most destructive.

    The only advantage the state has over corporations is that the state is accountable to the populace at large. When that bargain falls apart, you start to see the rise of the likes of libertarians, as a direct result of state failures and inefficiencies. Go talk to some of the people who actually lived under collectivised soviet regimes in Eastern Europe, they won't be long correcting your misapprehensions.

  • Re:Because... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by digsbo (1292334) on Friday June 06, 2014 @03:46PM (#47182853)

    In fact, if you look at the 20th Century, the "progressive", "communist", "socialist", "secular" governments murdered more of their own people through outright killing and mismanagement than were killed by foreign armies in the same century, and more than all religious wars ever. And today the clamoring from the Humanities PhDs is to follow "progressive", "communist", "socialist", "secular" policies.

    Perhaps the problem is the people with advanced degrees in Humanities are overwhelmingly wrong about the way the world really works, and we are right to relegate them to oblivion?

  • Re:market at work (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Pfhorrest (545131) on Friday June 06, 2014 @04:01PM (#47182963) Homepage Journal

    Capitalism is what people do when you leave them alone. You may as well say physics is a religion.

    People also steal from and enslave and murder each other when you "leave them alone", in the sense of total unregulated anomie.

    To say that people should be "left alone" in that sense is still to take an ethical, moral, or as you've been calling it, ideological stance. To say that nobody should do anything about it; that it is ok, acceptable behavior. Moral nihilism is still a moral position: the position that everything and its negation is OK, that nothing is either forbidden or obligatory.

    Now on the other hand, what I think you probably more likely meant to say, is that free markets (which are not identical to capitalism) are what happen when people leave each other alone, in the sense of not stealing from and enslaving and murdering and otherwise violating and exploiting each other. But because people will violate and exploit each other if "left alone" in the earlier sense, i.e. if nobody stops them, then in order to achieve a state where we all leaving each other alone in the later sense, we cannot "leave alone" those who would violate and exploit others.

    Freedom requires either everybody to be perfectly well behaved of their own accord (good luck with that), or for there to be enough people actively counteracting the misbehavior of others (but going no further in their actions against those others than to counteract their actions). As Adam Smith put it, a free market is a well-regulated market.

    And whether the practices that underlie capitalism (which, again, does not simply mean a free market) count as misbehavior or not, and are in need of counteraction or not, is an ideological position. Should we let people exclude others from the means of production by force, and even help them do so? (i.e. should it be privately owned?). Should we let people demand repayment on borrowed money or goods beyond the return of the money or goods, on threat of force, and even help them do so? (i.e. should contracts of rent and interest be enforceable?) Capitalism answers "yes" to both of those questions; a "no" answer to either would not be capitalism, but could still be a free market.

    To lose a free market, you'd have to answer "yes" to "Should we let people demand goods and services from others on threat of force?" It could be argued that allowing that on threats other than force would also lose the freedom of the market. Should we let people demand goods and services from others on threat of the release of private information (e.g. blackmail, I'll tell about your affair unless you pay me off). Should we let people demand goods and services from others on threat of letting them starve or freeze to death because they have no food or shelter? Now it's getting into controversial territory. But no matter what your answer to that question is, you're taking an ideological stance.

  • Re:Because... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Friday June 06, 2014 @04:06PM (#47183019) Journal
    According to the MLA (cited in the article), the problem is "“anti-intellectualism, anti-aesthetic hostility to literature, antipathy to theory." But this article reports hostility to literature within academia [wsj.com]. At UCLA, you can graduate as an English major without ever taking a class about Shakespeare.

    It doesn't have to be that way. People who truly understand the humanities have value in industry, [wsj.com] as Steve Jobs pointed out multiple times [campion.edu.au].

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