The humanities, or the making of a pseudo-crisis

The New York Times has published another one of those cyclical articles about how the humanities are in deep trouble. Stanford is offered as an example:

Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.

With Stanford’s reputation in technology, it is no wonder that computer science is the university’s most popular major, and that there are no longer any humanities programs among the top five. But with the recession having helped turn college, in the popular view, into largely a tool for job preparation, administrators are concerned.

The article goes on to note that “the percentage of humanities majors hovers around 7 percent — half the 14 percent share in 1970.” But then it points out “that decline occurred between 1970, the high point, and 1985, not in recent years.” Thus, if a crisis in the humanities exists, it arose in those 15 years. Which begs the question: why so angsty about the humanities today?

There is a deeper problem with this account. Counting “majors” is not a good measurement of the role that humanities programs play since it overlooks “service” courses and overall enrollments in humanities courses (majors and non-majors).

The reason universities are defunding (or de-emphasizing) humanities programs is because they do not generate large research grants. Science and tech programs are lavished with such funding from private capital and public sources (NSF, NIH). “Digital Humanities” are “hot” from the standpoint of administrators because they are more susceptible to external funding (the application of “digital” sounds like money). This is likely the reason why Franco Moretti feels invigorated.

You look at this university’s extraordinary science and technology achievements, and if you wonder what will happen to the humanities, you can be threatened, or you can be invigorated,” said Franco Moretti, the director of the Stanford Literary Lab. “I’m choosing to be invigorated.

At the level of intellectual practice, what does the Literary Lab (borrowing the word “lab” from the hard sciences is a neat branding move) offer the humanities?

At Stanford, digital humanities get some of that vigor: In “Teaching Classics in the Digital Age,” graduate students use Rap Genius, a popular website for annotating lyrics from rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem, to annotate Homer and Virgil. In a Literary Lab project on 18th-century novels, English students study a database of nearly 2,000 early books to tease out when “romances,” “tales” and “histories” first emerged as novels, and what the different terms signified. And in “Introduction to Critical Text Mining,” English, history and computer majors use R software to break texts into chunks to analyze novels and Supreme Court rulings.

Number crunching novels or Supreme Court decisions in high positivist fashion won’t bring the meaning of the texts any closer to hand. However, the creation of digital archives is a more worthwhile use of technology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s