New Journal: History of the Humanities

The [University of Chicago Press][] is starting a new journal:

> The University of Chicago Press is pleased to announce the launch of _History of Humanities_, a new journal devoted to the historical and comparative study of the humanities. The first issue will be published in the spring of 2016. _History of Humanities_, along with the newly formed Society for the History of the Humanities, takes as its subject the evolution of a wide variety of disciplines including archaeology, art history, historiography, linguistics, literary studies, musicology, philology, and media studies, tracing these fields from their earliest developments, through their formalization into university disciplines, and to the modern day. By exploring these subjects across time and civilizations and along with their socio-political and epistemic implications, the journal takes a critical look at the concept of humanities itself.

It might be something for Jonathan Goodwin and me to think about, or at least Goodwin himself as he continues his graphing of various intellectual histories. I wonder how dominated the journal is going to be by historians.

[University of Chicago]:

Humanities Crisis Coverage Conventions

[Michael Hills’ discussion][] of the so-called “crisis in [of?] the humanities” in various media outlets as a form of fill-in-the-blank reporting begins terribly well. Having read more than a few of these articles, his ability to compress them down into a few generic moves made for a fun read: it also made me wonder if one couldn’t do something computationally with a collection of those texts, which is, after all, sort of what a fill-in-the-blank activity asks of us.

Sadly, Hill wasn’t content to leave it at that but to offer his own “cure for what ails us.” He isn’t quite brave enough to engage in a similar fill-in-the-blank exercise for balms of the sort he offers, but his advice struck me as open to such an approach as the others: I’ve read plenty of accounts that assert that we need to “get back to basics” or get “back to teaching” — I don’t know who these people are that live the life of luxury that got away from such things, but I can assure you that it’s just not possible in a regional public university. If anything, we are fighting to keep from being reduced to nothing more than the basics and teaching.

[Michael Hills’ discussion]:

The Report of the Humanities Commission

The [Chronicle of Higher Education has a decent write-up][che] of the results of the [Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences][chss], a commission created by a bi-partisan team of lawmakers to write a report about the role that the humanities and the social sciences play in education in general and, it seems, in higher education in particular. The key takeaway, for me at least, is that the report did not follow the model of the [2005 report][] by the National Academies to set funding priorities or measurable goals. The consensus seemed to be that the report, set in the current budgetary and ideological climate, simply needed to say something like “hey, the humanities and the human sciences are important.” I think that lacks vision and passion.

My mother was always adamant that many people can only value you as much as you value yourself, and if that comes down to dollars, you better be able to specify dollars.

Now, it’s true that she was in a position to walk away if the dollar amounts didn’t match up. Many people in the humanities probably don’t feel like they have that option, but since we are talking about group dynamics here in a complex social arrangement, it’s not too far off, I imagine, to think that something like a vicious cycle of under-funding and less talented/prepared individuals working in the area. At some point, if you starve an occupation long enough, your assessment will line up with its capabilities — this may be what conservatives have in mind.

Some of the comments to the Chronicle post are kind of silly, or devolve into silly spats, but there are a few posters who make the argument, as the report seems to, that humanists need to make a better case for themselves to the public. Some of the other commenters regard this as an either/or proposition, but it’s not. I am reminded of Henry Glassie’s statement that “articles are for fellow scholars and books are for people.” (That isn’t really a quote so much as a paraphrase, but I wanted to honor the fact that it’s his idea.)

[2005 report]:

More Counting of English Majors

I think [Alex Reid][] has it right in terms of how to phrase the question about what is happening with undergraduate education in general and in humanities (read English here) majors in particular:

> Yes, it is bogus to look at the large numbers in the late 60s, note the decline in English, and say this proves we are doing something wrong. But it is also bogus to look at the lower numbers from the late 40s or 50s and suggest that what we have seen since is a regression to the mean. Instead, we might start by saying that the idea of having a college major barely existed a century ago. It’s a little amusing to consider how the 1880s to 1910s paralleled our current period in terms of a rapidly expanding student base and changing values for going to college (then, like now, it was all about getting a better job in a new economy). The thing is, the contemporary English major grew out of that historical moment. And in the 1950s, when higher education was born again, English expanded with it. But as everyone points out, that popularity was fleeting.

> I suppose one can look at those statistics and take it as evidence that the humanities can continue to trundle along as it has for the last 30 years or so. I will stick by my argument that the second industrial revolution, which spurred the growth of higher education, and created a foundation for the value of the print literacy that English has historically provided, has been supplanted by new economic engines. We shouldn’t be looking at the 1950s. We should be looking at the 1850s. From 1850 to 1920, the role of rhetoric and literary study in American universities was completed transformed because of the economic effects of the industrial revolution. Might the same be said of the shift from 1950-2020?

Reid’s basic assertion is that observers are quibbling over where to paint the playing field lines when we should be looking at the construction of the stadium. (The sports metaphor surprises me as much as anyone else reading this.) The fact is that there is a much larger transformation taking place in education, especially higher education, and we need to be thinking about it not only tactically but also strategically.

My own thoughts have mostly focused on tactics: let’s engage the current developments in various professions that highlight the role of information technologies to make sure not just our majors but students in general can glimpse, and possibly create/develop/maintain/revise, the connections between the codes and structures they encounter and the kinds of codes and structures that have long been the purview of the humanities in general and literary studies in particular.

I want to state that again: it’s not just about majors but about humanists making a valuable contribution to education in general. This might seem short-sighted in the face of myopic administrators who can’t see past counting heads, but I think we should keep our eyes on the bigger prize and on the larger mission: being a part of a collaborative that gives students the ideas, facts, concepts, and methods they need to create a place for themselves in the world, and in doing so, makes the world a more interesting, free, and safe place for everyone.

[Alex Reid]:

Learn to Write, Learn to Code

[James Somers][] planned to live the writing life, only the world called him back with a sweet job offer that focused on coding. Somers muses that the world is out of whack, too focused on coders, and some of his commenters, also coders, agree. Some even observe that the money is so good because investors think the next big thing will be digital and so coders make out as investors and entrepreneurs dance their dance.

My take: Somers is a great writer and, I assume based on his current job, he has coding chops. We need more people with both. Writing chops *and* coding chops. It’s the coders, however, who are leading the way in this regard — think Paul Graham for one. I’d love to see a humanities major, we could even go with the current moniker of digital humanities, that produced majors who could write and code. And by code I mean HTML and XML are a given, and maybe even SQL, and that there will be facility with at least a scripting language like Python or Ruby. (We’ll save C, C+, and Objective C and the other programming languages for computer science majors.) Too much of the current stuff I see is really about design — Photoshop and PowerPoint or Final Cut Pro. Design is fine — I put myself through graduate school doing graphic design work on the side — but what we need are majors who understand the architecture underlying all the infrastructure that now surrounds us. Experience in coding does that.

We can do this, humanities.

[James Somers]:

Humanistic Statistics and Beyond

I have been having a very interesting series of conversations with my graduate students about mathematics and statistics. In short, they are rather doggedly opposed to introducing any form of math into the work they do. In our discussions about Propp’s _Morphology of the Folktale_, for example, we looked at the pages of tabular material in the back of the book and I pointed out that it could easily be turned into a vector space model. Later, they seemed more amenable to discussing their own morphologies of various kinds of texts in a kind of pseudo-code of *if this … then that … else*, but when we turned to a discussion of statistics for inferring from their sample, they once again dug their heels in.

I want to be clear: I’m not faulting them. Our humanistic education has failed them. I could engage in some bombast here, but I think the really interesting thing is that nowhere is it written that we can’t use statistics to study literature, that we can’t attempt to quantify texts in interesting ways so that we can glimpse patterns perhaps not otherwise surfaced.

So I guess I am ready to have a conversation about what it is we should already know and what it is we should be making sure our undergraduate and graduate students know. There is, for example, no reason for me to teach basic statistics when that course is already available. Instead, I and my colleagues should be able to call upon a common, nay foundational, understanding of something like basic statistics as we explore ideas in upper division courses and graduate seminars.