Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Sunday Thirsty on the "Humanities" / "Sciences" Divide.

Allow those flimsy quotes in the title to do their work. I know I'm about to generalize my ass off at times below.

I've taught for more than 25 years at 10 different institutions. Good ones, bad ones. I've been a part-timer and have had tenure. I spent seven years in charge of writing across the curriculum programs, and had the chance to talk about the teaching of writing (the most noble of all academic pursuits, if not the most well-paid) with faculty from every corner of a typical college.

I count mathematicians, scientists, business proffies, and engineers (along with all the rest) among the folks whose classes I've visited and into whose syllabi I've rummaged.

Every place I've been I have found an uneasy chasm between us, these folks who call the college campus our homes. I have been in the Humanities, of course, and I've been in those faculty rooms when the "damn scientists" across the way, in their gaudy new building "sneered down" on us, US, the only people teaching real critical thought.

And I've sat in a business professor's office as he said, "You people really suck too many nickels and dimes out of this place. If this were simply a business college, not a tear would be shed."

I had a Physics prof tell me once, "Really, if you didn't have me and my kind, all of the poets in the world would stumble around in darkness, too dull or slow to turn on a light."

And anyone who's spent some time in this job knows of similar tales.

Of course we love our own fields, disciplines.

At the end of this week, a funny post from Bubba garnered a handful of comments that got me thinking about the divides between proffies.

I've spent a bit of time tracking down some info from a couple of people, and used Leslie K to get some info, too. I beg forgiveness if bringing this up is uncomfortable, because it mostly passed quietly, these comments appearing rather down the list and after the post had shuffled to the bottom of the first page.

Hiram, who I've corresponded with, in response to Bubba's tale of lecturing for a whole class on the wrong topic, wrote, "You lecture?"

I read it as "You lecture?" which in and of itself could be a joke. That it wasn't at all what Hiram meant came clearer in a couple of hours, but not before Frod replied to Hiram: "I'm sorry, but mathematics and the checkable sciences are sufficiently rich in content that it's just not possible to learn much about them by sitting in a circle, holding hands, and singing 'Kumbaya.'"

Now, like most people here, I love Frod. I think he's wise and funny, and I love his toughness and I agree with nearly everything he says. I wish I were more like him most of the time.

But there was something in his comment that I'd heard before, in asides, in jokes, in faculty lounges in 5 different states. And that statement was: "The humanities are a joke."

Hiram replied shortly after with, "Wow, let your prejudices loose, Froderick. I lecture about half the time. My comment to Bubba was along the lines of YOU lecture. I can see how you could misunderstand my inflection, but I cannot believe how rude your own assumptions are about everything that's not a "checkable" discipline. It always disappoints me when someone I look up to reveals something as shallow as your bias about what HAS to be some of the disciplines where we sit in circles. Gross."

So, Hiram's first comment was not "You lecture?" but "You lecture?" which I'm guessing is some comic jab at Bubba. I have to admit Bubba does NOT seem like a lecturer to me, either, so the joke works on that level.

But regardless, the line Hiram fired off - and I know he intended it as a joke because I asked him via email - generated Frod's comment, which got me going.

Kimmie and Surly followed these comments with, in part: "Frodo, all the scientists at my college patronize me, so your remarks are not surprising. Disappointing to me, but not surprising," and "Extremely bad form, Frod. A cheap and disingenuous shot at the humanities is beneath you, and is not in keeping with the spirit of CM."

I'm not holding Frod out here for any other reason than it was his comment that sparked a number of dark experiences of my own about the nature of collegiality across disciplines.

But what we value in each other is important. Imagine sitting in your advising chair telling an undergrad that over in English they were sitting in a circle singing "Kumbaya." Imagine telling another undergrad that over in the Business building you check your ethics at the door. There are any number of insults that get flung around the academy about those "other" disciplines, but I don't quite get why, or quite understand how close minded we must be when we imagine that only our way is the right way, and that somehow other paths are clearly inferior.

Frod's comment made me want to blow a fucking telescope up; I tell the truth. You don't want to hear the one and only astronomer joke I know, the one about how many astronomers it takes the change a light bulb. (Okay, it takes three. One to actually change the bulb, one to tell the grad student how much harder it was in the old days, and another to write the grant proposal to pay for the bulb.)

But on a dreary Sunday morning, hours before the sun, I wanted to write this note to you all, to ask you this:

Q: Are there disciplinary divides at your college? Are they mild and humorous, or more complicated?


PS: Frod has sent the RGM a note asking that I delete his account. This is the second time he has left the blog.


  1. ####\########

  2. B###\########

  3. But to answer Cal's question:
    Actually, no. The biggest issues seem to be within each department rather than across the disciplines. Not sure which is worse, to be honest.

  4. There are gulfs
    of misunderstanding
    the colleges here.

    B-school folks sneer.
    Scientists snigger.

    Humanities folks cluster
    in small groups,
    martyred and whiny.

    It hurts all.

  5. Good topic. Different fields value different aspects of "scholarship", and the cultural divide arises first, from not understanding (or appreciating) what is valued in another area, and second, from attempts to make public statements about the worth of work in another field, viewed through the lens of our own.

    Mathematicians value "difficulty" and "permanence" (as opposed to "relevance"). If you solve a twenty-year problem, you should be allowed to relax for a few years. A person who publishes difficult single-author papers in good journals at the rate of two every four years is doing fine. Try explaining that to someone in biology or engineering(or even applied math), where papers tend to be short and multiple-author, many of whom get in on it just for being in the lab (or in the grant.)

    Re. permanence: the theorems proved by (say) Liouville and Riemann (mid nineteenth century) are still taught, being at the foundation of much of contemporary analysis. Of course, analysis has moved on and the notation and emphasis are different; in this sense, there is a disciplinary-cultural aspect to it. But to then say (as a "post-modernist" might) that mathematical truths are "relative to a particular social-cultural context" is the kind of ridiculous statement that makes us angry. Then you get Alan Sokal's "Social Text" stunt, which exposes something.

    Still, I keep hoping for a "reverse-Alan-Sokal", played on theoretical physicists. It would just be a matter of mastering the terminology and having the mathematical expressions "look right", with nonsensical content. I imagine there are many in the Humanities and Social Sciences who are in some sense "in awe" of natural sciences/math people (and feelings of "superiority" from the other side), and that could be deflated a little.

    At the university this plays out in curricular committees and college-level tenure-promotion (T/P) votes. I think upper-division requirements outside the major should be abolished, and lower-division ones kept minimal. College-level T/P has to be entirely pro-forma (the sciences and humanities should probably be in separate colleges.) Greater understanding will come only from informal social contact between professionals in different areas (at the bar, or here) and those seem to be rare.

    1. A reverse hoax is very unlikely because it takes more than mathematical expressions that look right to get a scientific paper published in a reputable journal. I've seen plenty of "scientific" nonsense, it has all been self published by crackpots.

    2. I hope you're right, but I hear places like Physical Review Letters are not unassailable. Sometimes I fantasize I could do it myself:

      "In this paper we demonstrate that in globally hyperbolic spacetimes with nonzero Godbillon-Vey invariant, use of the cosmological standard candles would lead to a significant overestimate of the baryonic density in Hamster models of the Universe etc, etc." (You do know the Hamster metric, don't you?)

      The main reason a reverse hoax is unlikely is an asymmetry: a social sciences journal thought nothing of publishing a paper by someone in a Physics department with no record in the field, just because it "sounded right". A social scientist trying to publish a Physics paper (even a legit one) would be subject to very careful scrutiny (exactly to avoid a reverse hoax). A mathematician, on the other hand, might get away with it...

  6. I'm at a SLAC that used to be a professional school that used to be a SLAC. So, yeah. The professional programs are powerful and hog resources, while the humanities and sciences have to fight for funding and curriculum. It looks like the professional schools are winning, and so I, in my lowly humanities, will soon be teaching State Mandated Licensure Requirement for Hamster Masturbation.

  7. Oh, and as far as the drama goes, I have an interdisciplinary background in both sciences *and* humanities, and let me tell you, NO ONE is sitting around singing camp songs.

  8. I hated the smugness in the word "checkable" from the original comment.

    Humanities aren't checkable? Dunderheaded fools only think that.

    And yes, I'll even defend the circle. Good grief, why do I have to?!?

    My college gets along nicely, but we're small, and science folks actually know what Humanities folks do. Our offices and classrooms are near each other. We have shared space. We talk about our victories and struggles.

    I think when a business school or science center gets a multi-million dollar gift and they build a little castle somewhere off to their own, that's where divides start.

    1. I often found the arts courses I took quite frustrating because the intellectual processes used seemed, at times, vague and open-ended. I was accustomed to structure, logic, and method using verifiable data where possible. Equations described something which was concrete and often could be measured.

    2. NLAN's description of a course that has concrete equations that can be measured sounds exactly what I think hell would be like.

      I wonder if we sometimes differ simply because we do not agree what the point of college is. Ask that one day, Cal, so we can burn this mother down for good.

    3. Part of the reason I made my earlier comment was that those courses were taught in a dry and dull manner without much imagination. I should add that many of the math courses I took were equally aggravating for the same reasons.

      So what would have made for an enjoyable arts course? Why not something that combined, say, history and technology? A good example might be the science of ancient musical instruments. There are a lot of concepts that be taught such as how they worked (science and engineering) and why certain materials were used to build them (history, politics, and economics). Much of that would been directly relevant to what I was studying as, for example, designing a machine is, in many ways, not much different.

      I would have found a course like that much more educational than one that, say, concentrated on a Jane Austen novel. By the way, I did read a number of classic books when I was much younger, having a preference for the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Later, I moved on to authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

      But I don't think my education could be considered too narrow. I mentioned in another posting that I sang with a university choir, but that was an extra-curricular activity. It was through that I began seriously listening to classical music and opera and still do today.

    4. The part that turns me off is not the absence of equations, it is what looks like unnecessary verbosity and deliberately obscure constructions; when I finally understand what point they're trying to make, I find myself thinking: couldn't they have said this in one-tenth the number of words? The difference in styles between fields is significant; rumor has it that Foucault had some original and interesting things to say, but I fall asleep every time I try.

  9. Can't we all just get along by trashing the School of Education?

    1. That's what works for my school. Oh, and the Exercise Science folk also get trashed a little (on and off the field).

    2. True, yes, derogatory comments about Sports Science are an effective way of uniting the rest of the campus... and Sports Science are too busy teaching their hundreds of students and advising all the sports clubs on campus to talk to anyone else, apparently, except about things like the national football league, which kinda reinforces the stereotype...

    3. Surly: too easy, no challenge here. Now, I think all the bigger places have something like a "Center for Teaching Excellence", where "bad, bad faculty" are sent to do penance (writing 100 times some school of ed. babble). We could talk about those...

    4. Peter:

      At the place where I used to teach, the introductory in-service session included a course on becoming a "master instructor". I didn't take it as it was made mandatory for new staff several years after I started. From what I heard, it was like you described--endless edu-babble.

    5. That would work for me (though actually I know some very smart people with Ed.D.s The trick is that they earned them mid-life/mid-career, when that program was simply the most practical way to get the capital-D degree they needed to go on doing what they were already doing well. It's the 20-something Ed.D. candidates who have never set foot in a classroom, and quite possibly never intend to do so, that bother me).

      I also rather like our "teaching excellence" folks, who spend a good deal of time trying to stand up for things that support good pedagogy (like small classes -- at least in some disciplines-- and assessments that take more time to grade than a scantron).

      Event Planning/Tourism/Hospitality also make good targets (actually, they're perfectly good things for people to be trained in, as is sports management, but I'm not sure they should be college majors. Vocational certificates, in addition to or instead of a college diploma earned in a more traditional field, seem like the way to go for those subjects).

  10. When I was a sophomore, I took a course on the social aspects of technology because that was the only arts option that I could fit into my timetable. A lot of other engineering students took it for the same reason.

    It turned out that the prof had contempt for engineers and shamelessly let that sentiment be known. I remember one lecture where some of the engineering students argued with him about some concept he presented. The dispute arose because someone with a technical background would legitimately interpret that idea differently than a person who didn't. He refused to entertain such a notion and would brook no debate.

    After a mid-term exam, he discussed the grades and how they were distributed among the various disciplines of the students taking the course. It delighted him that the lowest results came from those studying engineering and he enjoyed mocking us for it. It was completely unprofessional on his part and I wouldn't have surprised me if someone had filed a complaint about it.

    On the other hand, I sang in one of the university's choirs during my senior undergrad year. I estimated that at least a quarter of its members were students in engineering or science.

    1. I'm in the sciences and some of my colleagues share their disdain for the humanities when teaching to science majors. I find this behavior very unprofessional.

    2. The choir where I did my MA was made up mostly of math and science people.

  11. Well, it does seem like we have to have some kind of science war in a teapot once a year or so. I find it increasingly tedious, and I have less energy to respond anymore. I think I may have even tussled with Frod on this subject back in the first few months of CM's existence. I mostly get upset at anecdotal stories like the one directly above, because it is my discipline that is under attack there, and frankly that story doesn't sound anything like what we do. Like a lot of people of my generation in that discipline I started out in a quantitative discipline and then became interested in the history of such disciplines. So while I'll take it as an article of faith that the story is true, it is not representative of anything except the stupidity of one individual.

    I think these things are more fraught right now, because the politics of higher ed are taking a somewhat distasteful turn towards instrumentalizing education. So disciplines that can lay claim to being practical, whatever the fuck that means, are quick to dismiss others as lacking practicality. It is a lame and vapid argument. People with BAs in English can become CEOs. People who major in engineering can become unemployed. There are no guarantees.

    What I would say is this: I'd hate to live in a world run entirely by engineers, just as I'd hate to live in one run entirely by English majors. Vive la mother-fucking difference!

    1. I'm in the life sciences, but I was quite dismayed recently to see an op-ed in the local rag advocating dropping most "gen ed" requirements and concentrating on upper level courses in the major to get students a bachelor's in 3 years.

      As an advisor to students in pre-professional programs, I lament the absurd list of undergrad requirements for these professional post baccalaureate schools, because they severely limit the opportunities for students to take humanities courses for no reason other than a healthy interest in learning new things. (and because the absurd requirements are often simply used to "weed out" applicants).

    2. Thomas Huxley said it well, a century ago.

      "An exclusively scientific training will bring about a mental twist as surely as an exclusive literary training. The value of the cargo does not compensate for a ship’s being out of trim; and I should be very sorry to think that the Scientific College would turn out none but lop-sided men."

  12. Our problems as humanists extend beyond my institution and into the larger culture, which has not yet processed humanist study as a viable/useful/practicable goal for its smart young things. Instead, anyone with any academic precocity is unceremoniously frog-marched off to business or engineering (whether they like it or not).

    As for our specific institution, wow, the divide is not only palpable, it is omnipresent, and it often makes for grating work conditions. It's a very top-down administrative culture (not a surprise given our environs), and about 90% of the top guns are trained engineers. This includes the dean of my division, of which I'm on the humanist fringe, but which on the whole has exactly zero in common with what they do over in the fancy engineering buildings on the opposite end of campus, where my partner works.

    We humanists lack the autonomy to govern ourselves because engineers are seen as "trained" for management, yet they don't have a clue what counts as an accomplishment in our respective fields. Example: I have a book coming out, which is intrinsically AWESOME. BUT... even though the department chair is on my side and has pushed for my promotion already, I am being prepped for the very real likelihood that this book won't be enough to push me out of the lowest ranks of the full-timers. To get to Accursed Professor, my publishing record needs to impress the dean, and to impress an engineer it ought to look more like my partner's pub list, which is much like what Peter K describes: multi-paper, multi-author, lab-based, funding-acquiring, conference publications (and not just conference presentations), etc. Beyond the book, I have some small, non-journal essays in the pipeline, plus a slew of conference papers, but unless conference papers turn up in published proceedings (which humanists in my field VERY rarely compile), these conferences don't count for diddly squat.

    If we had a humanist dean instead of a hamster wheel engineer, I would be more confident about the fair evaluation of my work, and I might even have a reasonable shot at stepping up to the next rung of this ladder. But because everything I've heard about this dean and his STEM-centric philosophy has been discouraging (to say the least), I have preemptively given up hope of achieving a promotion on purpose. If it happens eventually, fantastic, but in the meantime I will aim for projects that would better situate me in a field of humanists that isn't under STEM surveillance, i.e. projects designed for how things work back home in North America, where I will hopefully return once I just can't take this nonsense (and this powerlessness) anymore.

    1. My best dean ever was a historian; one of the worst, a lab scientist. In general, I'd expect someone from the social sciences/humanities side of things to have greater sensitivity for different ways people can make an original contribution.

      I think if your publication record impresses people in your field, that should be all it takes for promotion.

    2. Congrats on your book, EE. I think you're right; it's all a matter of perspective...

  13. The chemists and physicists, belonging to the hard sciences, are too busy making fun of those biologists in the soft sciences. We don't even have time contemplate the status of faculty outside our college.

    On a serious note, the disciplines get along pretty well at my university because we are united against the administration. We recognize that they screw all of us so we refuse to argue over which department deserves the larger of the crumbs they hand us.

    1. Oh, yes: this reminds me of my favorite xkcd strip, no. 435.

  14. Wars between science and humanities serve the interests of two groups: people writing books about science vs. humanities and administrators. I'll forgive the writers because they are at least engaged in an intellectual pursuit.

  15. On my campus we don't have a big divide beyond the occasional dig at each other about whether we have to grade papers or can use the clicker (used to be Scantron) for tests.

    I think this is because the campus (a SLAC) gets fair funding across the board and there is no pressure to publish or perish (we've adopted a 'teaching model' rather than a 'research agenda'). The Sciences don't get disproportionately more funding than the Humanities (I mean they get more, but they also need more specialized equipment, beyond our needs of a computer lab, for example).

    We are also a small faculty (less than 200), which means we all pretty much know each other, our kids play together, and because we are in an isolated rural area, have no choice but to live next to each other... this helps, too.

  16. "PS: Frod has sent the RGM a note asking that I delete his account. This is the second time he has left the blog."


    What about the poor-man's space program where we were going to launch Bubbles the chimp in a washing machine!! That was a THING, man!!!

    1. Strelnikov: SpaceX seems to be achieving results only a step or two more sophisticated than this. Maybe they can help you with Bubbles' great adventure?

      I do hope Frod will eventually come back. I enjoy his posts, and also don't want to be the only poster who periodically erases posts for editing reasons, posts multiple replies in one thread, and/or replies to hirself.

    2. Yeah, I hope Frod comes back, too. He said something silly, but it's impossible not to if one contributes regularly. The reaction was too strong, and the "flounce" was unnecessary.

      What? Multiple posts to a thread and replying to oneself are bad? But I'm having so much fun with this (with Bushmills as my companion.).

    3. Someone needs to delete a few comments they've made. QUICK. I'm going through Frod withdrawal. :) Seriously, come back on the playground, Frod. :)

    4. "Strelnikov: SpaceX seems to be achieving results only a step or two more sophisticated than this. Maybe they can help you with Bubbles' great adventure?"

      It was a THING, man! I had a booster made of a V-2 rocket engine, a silo, and bits of an rusty old ham radio antenna tower. We titled it "Cheapskate One"....if it had gone bad, we would have sold the charred monkey meat to Taco Bell.

    5. That sounds really cool, but I have to admit I'm beginning to feel a bit worried for Bubbles. Perhaps you could send him off to one of those chimp sanctuaries (before they're all filled with NIH retirees), and find a nice Norway rat or nutria or something to launch into space. Or perhaps even, if Frod's sabbatical is going to be extended this time (I wonder whether he's occupying Archie's former padded cell? Maybe only one of them can be safely let out at once?), you could cobble together some sort of primatoid robot from an accelerometer (they're making cheap ones to measure human activity, or lack thereof, these days, I gather) and some other spare parts? PETA would be happy (and maybe you could find a way to send back results as you went, so you'd know what went on *before* it crashed and burned, or burned and crashed, as the case may be, I believe, with objects undergoing reentry).

  17. I'm lucky enough to be in a humanities department that is one of the flagships of my university. Our proffies get much more awards, endowed chairs, interviews with mainstream media, etc, than our science departments do and I think that's understood around campus. I also have a number of scientist friends who are quite respectful of what I do. None of which means that if I meet a random scientist out there in the wild I don't quail a bit inwardly before identifying my field.

  18. My department is tiny, so the school combined two related disciplines in the same department. It works well. We tease each other a bit, but it's good natured. The only bump is when we teach the students in our majors to write as we each use different footnote styles. My discipline has one style, period. The other discipline uses multiple styles at the moment, including the one mine uses. So that's the one we teach.

  19. Oh, my. I missed that. Well, I suppose we were about due for one of our periodic tempests in a teapot.

    Yes, there's tension on my campus, and, at least from where I stand (at the near-bottom of the humanities period), it feels like most of the shit-flinging is coming our way.

    It's all sort of remote for me, since I don't get out of the department much (read: don't do university service/attend meetings much). But I do try to keep up, if only to figure out whether and for how long my job might be secure.

    I honestly don't know what the folks in the sciences, engineering, etc. think of us. I do know, mostly by secondhand report, that they really wish we'd teach their students to punctuate, write a grammatical sentence, etc. In turn, we really wish that someone had taught the students that in 5th grade -- instead of being forced to teach to some text -- and/or that the students had actually listened. We're supposed to be teaching rhetorical skills well above that level, and it's not at all clear that going over the use and misuse of apostrophes one more time is going to do a bit of good. I do warn my science writers that scientists in general tend to care about precision, for good reason -- you don't want to kill the patient, blow up the building, crash the satellite, etc. because of a misplaced decimal point -- and that that tends to translate into a preference for writers who follow grammar/citation rules closely as well.

    And we (meaning both my TT colleagues in English and I) can't help notice that, if the data reported by the Chronicle are correct, somebody at our institution is making a hell of a lot more money than we are (at whatever level we are). We aren't happy about that. And we (meaning my contingent colleagues) also aren't at all happy about the gap between full-time TT and full-time non-TT wages, especially since the non-TT faculty teach the core courses that tend to fill, while the full-time TT faculty teach the ones that tend to be underenrolled (there are some major exceptions to this pattern, but it's still a pattern). And I'm sure the adjuncts are pretty unhappy about the gap between full-time non-TT and part-time non-TT wages (especially since we're in one of those states where it looks like an unintended consequence of the Affordable Care Act may be to cut the hours available to adjuncts. Actually, it's a fully-intended "gotcha"/revenge move by a conservative governor).

    Meanwhile, various administrators and some other faculty (especially economists) are telling us that we should somehow be able to teach the core courses we do teach (mostly composition and core lit) more "efficiently," meaning in larger, lecture-style classes. We (the department) are doing that to some extent in core lit classes, but it's really not an option for composition (but boy do said administrators want it to be, and some people in disciplines where that approach works better are expressing bafflement that we can't do something with a lecture, or a MOOC, or whatever, and a bunch of TAs -- never mind that it would be downright irresponsible to increase the number of grad students in programs that might yield those TAs).

    And I could go on, and on, and on. But it's worth noting that a great deal of the tension above stems from competition over scarce resources, and that competition stems in large part from massive cuts in state aid over the last decade or two. That's even the source of one major source of stress/unhappiness for students: rising tuition costs (which really can't rise any higher at this point, hence the recent increase in the pressures above).

    Also, as somebody said upthread, when the faculty start fighting each other over these things, nobody wins (except perhaps those who benefit from a weakened, divided, faculty).

    1. And we in the "hard" social sciences wonder why our average course enrollment load is about twice that of our colleagues in the Humanities -- and yet we get paid the same at our equity-is-all SLAC.

    2. Do you feel you deserve to get paid per student???

    3. I do know, mostly by secondhand report, that they really wish we'd teach their students to punctuate, write a grammatical sentence, etc. In turn, we really wish that someone had taught the students that in 5th grade -- instead of being forced to teach to some text -- and/or that the students had actually listened...

      What CC said. I'm working through a load of term-paper first drafts right now, from my "middle-school chemistry for college students" course, and I'm ready to poke my eyes out rather than read any more. The last one I graded, I told that I wouldn't make any editing marks because they'd be so thick s/he couldn't parse them, and that I would only go over the paper with hir in person. The one I'm working on now, I strongly suspect is plagiarized because the student who turned it in got 7% on the last exam, but I don't have the energy to check.

  20. So, I'll do the unpopular thing and just say: we would all be better off if what we did in the Humanities was called "scholarship," not "research." That way it would be clear that, at the end of the day, what we offer is new ways to interpret things, and occasionally--very occasionally, through archival work--a new thing to interpret (there is no point in reiterating "classic themes," though, as the books discussing those are available at any university library). What we do is useful for thinking better, but not for changing the world in any direct way, and lord knows not for selling to anyone outside academe. It is true, as well, that it often does not teach undergraduates well, and that for that we may turn back to older materials -- but it is crucial in helping us redesign courses, train graduate students, and get beyond groupthink in not only interpretation but also matters of policy and so on. And much of it actually IS creative, which is why "making it up" is not a sensible accusation to level at us. Just call it scholarship, and stop subjecting it to the protocols of the sciences.

    1. "What we do is useful for thinking better, but not for changing the world in any direct way, and lord knows not for selling to anyone outside academe."

      You could say that about (theoretical) math, too. Maybe we get a little more respect because, once in a while, physicists use something we did twenty years ago. Or somebody gets bored and cooks up a new snake-oil "investment instrument" based on an obscure theorem about stochastic processes. There's social worth for ya.

    2. Indeed, F&T. It's also requiring more and more work to put together sets of readings, questions, etc. that will truly stretch/develop students' critical thinking skills, because there's no pre-existing "right" answer they can look up on the internet.

      I'd imagine that that's getting trickier in pure/theoretical math, too, Peter K. Presumably students would benefit from working out the solutions to known problems anew, but it's incredibly tempting for many of them to just look up the "right" answer (on the other hand, the true mathematicians -- the ones who will eventually move into new territory -- are probably the ones who happily work out problems for themselves.

    3. I really like that distinction, F&T. But like the FT/adjunct divide, a division like this threatens to create a lower class of college teacher among people who actually do comparable work. (Or, if it has already been created, as I would argue it has at my institution, it would articulate it in a way that squashes dispute.)

  21. That CM convenes at all on these interwebs indicates that its participants have more in common than not, regardless of our particular hamsterfurologies. Doesn't Fab bless us by providing the forum? Or, perhaps, is he less a blesser than an artist who rises above C.P. Snow and the non-overlapping magisteria?

    I'll miss Frod. He will or will not return, in his own time. While he was here, he had his own brand of collegiality: He abstained from using words such as "fuck" and "shit," he tolerated other people's use of those words, he shared some neat photos of the Milky Way, he told some really interesting stories, he humbly admitted that he'd never even heard of Julius Sumner Miller (in spite of the seemingly huge number of similarities between Miller and Frod), and he was the Greatest Goddamn Scientist in California. I loved him more than band music and cookie-making.

  22. Admins contribute to the disdain for humanities because most fields don't bring in the research money that engineering and sciences do. However, the smart admins (hypothetical construct, of course) realize that it costs pennies to keep humanities departments operating. We need a 1.27 shitloads of equipment to keep our labs running, plus technicians, plus the usual staff and faculty salaries. When the research fairy doesn't put a big grant under my pillow at night, I hear about it. Oh, Lord, do I hear about it.

    1. The interesting thing, from my (humanities) point of view, is that it seems that pretty much all of the money that comes in through research grants gets spent on the activities supported by those grants, plus such forms of indirect support as overhead and hiring administrators to help faculty get, manage, and publicize the results of grants. The money doesn't actually flow elsewhere within the university; in fact, funded science research, like humanities research, probably actually costs the university a bit of money. That's fine; the research gets done, and funded at a fairly reasonable cost to the university, which in the process carries out one of its core functions.

      But that leaves the question of why admins so love those "revenue-generating" research activities, if they actually end up costing the university a bit of money. The only explanation I've been able to come up with is that it's a "mine is bigger than yours" thing: the status of college presidents (and deans and lower admins) is measured in large part by the size of their budgets, and the size of a budget is determined by the amount of money flowing *through* the university's coffers, regardless of how it's spent.*

      Meanwhile, the admins want us to find ways to teach core courses in the humanities that are already incredibly cheap to teach even more cheaply. That's not defensible, especially since we're already past the point where the overworking/underpaying of the faculty who teach such courses is affecting the students' experience for the worse. I don't mind a bit of within- (and even cross-) department subsidy of more advanced courses by less advanced ones, but the current situation goes too far (and the rise in community college transfers may make this a chancy funding model on which to rely in any case).

      *I suspect this is also the explanation for admins' fondness for athletic programs that don't really bring in net revenue either. That I'm not going to defend.

    2. They did a study at Mrs. Archie's university, and they figured out that the English department brought in the most revenue, simply because of the number of tuition paying butts in the seats of those core curriculum classes. Everyone was shocked, but it actually made sense once you thought about it.

    3. @Cassandra: Perhaps you could double-check with someone at your school this week? I suspect that you might discover that half of the amount of those lucrative science research grants are redistributed/spread around to the library, Info Tech, and other units that are used by the general school community.

    4. This is also why English Departments are blamed for the students not being able to read, write, or think critically. "What are you guys doing over there? How come they can't spell?"

    5. Cassandra, you are correct. The analogy to big time college sports is apt. Few schools make money off of research. It's probably the top 15, just like in football. However, like football, it is a way for universities to distinguish themselves. Both ESPN or the National Science Foundation advertise for the schools. R1-quality research, just like football, does attract students.

      Conducting research is a valuable learning experience for undergrads. Simply following the scientific method is instructive and can be performed at low cost. However, money does enhance the student's learning experience. It is not something that could be replicated in a teaching laboratory.

    6. Here's an example from a random school.

      But I am well into the bourbon now, so I could be misunderstanding something.

    7. @Bubba: our provost has said this straight out (our provost is also a humanist who teaches an introductory undergrad class that puts a lot of butts in seats -- and, admittedly, employs TAs -- on a regular basis, and continues to publish in his field. He's near retirement age, and probably a member of a dying breed -- the administrator who has spent substantial time as a regular faculty member, and continues to think like one). I have no reason to doubt his honesty, or his ability to parse a budget spreadsheet.

    8. @Ben: so in fact that's two core missions served: research *and* teaching.

      The only downside as far as I can see is the one you point out: more and more faculty members are now expected to seek outside funding, even if their institution has not traditionally done so. Since the pool of money isn't getting bigger (in fact, thanks to the recession and the sequester and all that fun stuff, it may be getting smaller), the returns on faculty and admin time spent chasing grants are getting lower (and at some schools it may mostly be a waste of time: faculty member applies because (s)he is required to, but knows (s)he has little chance of actually getting grant).

      This strikes me as the science/social science equivalent of ever-increasing publication expectations in the humanities (which no doubt exist in the sciences/social sciences too). Those may actually have settled down a bit in the last decade or so, but I vividly remember one of my few on-campus interviews, at a decent teaching-oriented place that had a number of tenured faculty members who held M.A.s (A.B.D.s who never went the final mile, in most cases), and had published an article or two at most. Admin. now wanted a book for tenure. Oh, and I would have been the only junior member of that very small department. How in the world a handful of mostly-unpublished senior faculty were supposed to mentor me through the process of publishing a book while teaching a very heavy load, I never figured out (and, to be fair, I think they understood the problem; the change wasn't their choice). Fortunately for all of us, they didn't hire me.

  23. It's not just the size of budgets: there's a "prestige" factor, which helps with recruiting. If a U wants to keep their "R1" status, they had better have graduate programs in the usual fields (sciences, humanities, math, engineering). To staff those, they need to recruit faculty active in research (or other scholarship) , and to be competitive in recruiting they have to offer the usual working conditions: research time, low teaching loads, start-up funds, and so on.

    I think what we're seeing is the coexistence of two separate systems (advanced courses/developmental-technical courses) within the same walls, serving different student populations. And you're probably right that as federal research support and state support for higher ed dries up, one system will be seen as subsidizing the other (through tuition), and will increasingly have to compete with community colleges for its clientele. Again here, "the brand" (even if that mainly means the football team) will play a role.

  24. This is at least the third teacher of English that I have seen make the claim that “the humanities are where real critical thinking is taught”.

    I must be dense. From Wikipedia: “Critical thinking is reflective reasoning about beliefs and actions. It is a way of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false.”

    In the sciences, one is required to match observations as unemotionally as possible against what we know about objective reality. Introspection has been shown to be a lousy way to discern reality, as demonstrated by the myriads of silly beliefs which people hold, and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

    So, please explain how the humanities are superior in deciding the scope of validity of a claim?

    1. I can't speak with any certainty about other disciplines. I teach English, reading and writing.

      What I find happens in my classes is students are asked to quite actively unlock the texts we read, whether they be articles about important issues (we're reading a lot of prisoner stories right now) or literature.

      My students are used to information washing over them and allowing whatever is written or said to be unchallenged.

      I find my most successful strategy is to get students to wonder about the reliability of information given to them, whether it be a personal memoir or an ad on TV. When I require them to evaluate these texts, to rebut claims they can find support for, and finally to add their voice to the conversation, I think they are actually becoming critical thinkers and writers.

      I want them to find earned power. They don't get it by just saying, "Well, I feel..." (a common complaint I hear from proffies outside the Humanities). They earn their power by understanding and evaluating other texts, always aiming for writing a text of their own that puts a more clear perspective on the issue.

      We just finished a prison story written by a charming criminal who won over women, lawyers, and judges for year. His essays are quite excellent, full of explanation, full of power, and the immediate response is: "Wow, what a good guy."

      But we go through text for a week or more, looking for clues, things the writer says that might be true, but may not as well. When we put a room of young minds together, we begin to carve up the text, looking for what's believable and what's not.

      When a young woman finally blurted out on day, in quite a non-academic way, "That's bullshit," the class just exploded.

      I said, "Prove it." And for another full class period we marked up his text, finding stuff he claimed that he had no support for. We made a list, and then began to write our own texts. His charm lost its sheen. My students saw "through" the charade, and found the "truth" of what remained.

      That one unlocking is often all it takes for students. In my experience, I am only trying to give them those tools, so that anything said or written or shown to them is worthy of their critical mind. "Is that bullshit?" "Is that real?"

      Some students get it quickly. Others struggle. But the sheer repetition of an English class, or at least my English class, allows them a chance to sharpen that tool.

      Early in the semester we do critical readings of syllabi from all over campus. That's an exercise that is fun. We even have some proffies over to class to talk about their intent, and my students often point out how the text really reads to a student. I've seen more than a few instructors pull out pens and make repairs right there in class.

      As I said, I only know my own discipline, and really, only my own class.

      But I teach critical thinking, every day, every week, 15 weeks a semester.

    2. Paddington, are you claiming that Humanities use introspection as a source of critical thinking?

    3. @Cynic - no. The point is that the claims must be tested against reality, not against our feelings.

      The overarching problem I have with the original comment is that "the humanities are the only disciplines where 'real' critical thought is taught". For someone who supposedly specializes in communication in English, this is an absurd statement to make.

    4. Paddington: Was there nothing in my long comment above that you thought had any rigor?

    5. One place where humanities forms of analysis come in handy, I think, is where there is no objectively establishable reality against to test a claim. As Hiram points out, a lot of humanities analysis is about identifying systems of meaning, and the components thereof, and trying to figure out whether they're internally consistent or not (and, if they're not, whether that's a strike against the author's/arguer's credibility, or just an inevitable result of the human condition -- which is where we start wandering into philosophy, theology, and/or the more qualitative end of psychology; humanities tend to be interdisciplinary, too). Race would be one very good example. By any objective measure (DNA, other means of mapping clusters of traits, both obvious -- skin color, hair texture, etc. -- and not-so-obvious -- resistance to malaria), race doesn't exist (or at least there are a dozen other equally-logical ways to group humankind that would cut across what we identify as "races"). However, race as a concept (social, legal, psychological, rhetorical) has had very real consequences for actual human beings over a significant period in human history, even as it has been defined, deployed, etc. in shifting and sometimes contradictory ways. To understand why any number of societies worldwide, and the world as a whole, acts/interacts as it does now, one needs to understand those systems of meaning, in all their dreadful and sometimes glorious illogic (the most successful arguments for freedom and/or equality were not necessarily the logical ones, remember; on other hand, what "worked" -- led to freedom -- during the Civil War era sometimes had unintended, or perhaps intended, consequences -- paternalism and continued inequality -- later). This stuff, as the Marxists will be happy to point out to you (they're right now and then), has material, measurable consequences: e.g. the continued wealth gap between "white" and "black" people in the U.S., 150 years after abolition (which is much larger than the income gap).

      tl;dr version: ideas, even illogical/unprovable ones, have power, and it's (therefore?) worth studying how they work.

    6. Hiram - of course your argument had spome rigour. I am still arguing against the utterly stupid idea that critical thinking does not exist outside the humanities. That is what the last clause of the fourth paragraph in the original piece states.

      Cassandra - I believe you are mixing cause and effect. Many years ago, I was talking with a professional psychologist, who berated me for treating people as though they were logical, which people are not. I pointed out that, while people are often not logical, their actions can be logically predicted, if one knows them well enough.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.