The Crisis of the Humanities; also, I’m entering “annoying Canadian” territory

Most of the time when I return to the U.S. and attend a conference, a thread emerges some point about “the crisis of the humanities.” Sometimes it’s about Republicans defunding higher education, sometimes it’s about changing attitudes among undergraduates or university administrators, sometimes it’s about the publishing industry, sometimes it’s about curriculum, and sometimes it’s about changing standards for tenure or some combination of the above. Bottom line is that as long as I’ve been around universities (since 1989, if you’re counting), the humanities have been in crisis, at least according to the humanists.

This isn’t to diminish any of the issues — which are real — only to note that maybe we’re dealing with structural problems and less with something so acute as a crisis.

I didn’t really realize how pervasive the rhetoric was until I left three years ago. Sure, Canadians have lots to protest as well, from certain provinces’ wanton negligence in opening PhD programs right and left to increase revenue to the Harper government’s cuts to progressive programs to SSHRC’s proposals to start more actively steering academic agendas. But it’s a fundamentally different situation when many humanities professors are walking around with grants with 10s of thousands of dollars (or more) and our programs are expanding, at least in some areas.

Last weekend I attended a conference at the University of Utah on histories of new media. The conference was great, but as I said in the final session, I was really struck how the rhetoric of “crisis of the humanities” was replaced by talk of partnerships with business in one way or another. Tim Lenoir related his experience of turning to founding a company as a way around grant agencies’ reluctance to fund certain kinds of work; Henry Jenkins related his experience in founding and building Comparative Media Studies at MIT, where he was given a program but not much of a budget. Of course this has a lot to do with it being media studies (as opposed to classics) that we’re talking about, and of course some kinds of media studies research and teaching is more “interesting” to corporate funders than others. But the issue of funder interest isn’t new — we’ve been dealing with it with funding agencies, deans and administrators, and for that matter disagreements within departments for years. The issue, and I forget whether it was Jenkins or someone else who said it, is that humanities scholars are generally united by a hostility to practicality and utility; this is rooted in the idea that the humanities are basic research, devoid of any particular immediate application. And that fits nicely with the oppositional stance humanists like to cut.

As to the annoying Canadian thing, I’m pretty sure I said “in Canada” or “in Quebec” at least three times during discussions after panels. Guess I’ve had enough of whatever’s in the water. Or it’s harder and harder for me to imagine the U.S. except from outside it.