The Future of the Humanities


I am reblogging my reply to HASTAC Scholar Gerry Canavan's excellent blog on Brian Croxall, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Clemson University.  Brian did not come to MLA this year because there were no job prospects and, instead, delivered a "virtual" MLA paper that was then blogged and tweeted and has been heard.  You can read Gerry's blog entry on this here:


And here is Brian Croxall's thoughtful and provocative presentation, not delivered at MLA, "The Absent Presence:  Today's Faculty."  The panel on which Brian did not appear was called "Todays Students, Todays Teachers: Economics.   Here's the url:


I wrote the comment below in response to Gerry's blog, and, to give it visibility, I am reblogging it here.  Clearly it has relevance beyond Brian's courageous and eloquent MLA action and Gerry's eloquent blog about its importance.  Tanks so much for writing the blog entry,  Gerry.  Here's the reblog of my reply to Gerry's blog:



I know everyone is bored to death with my talking about how I came out of my Ph.D. program in what, then, was the worst job market in academic history since the Great Depression.  600-1200 applications for every job.   I was on the market for three years.  In retrospect, I am glad I worked at Fermi Lab for a year and in a prison and a mental institution, too, plus at various junior colleges, part time at a liberal arts college, and also in a Franciscan monastery.  Those are precious experiences---but I can value those experiences from the very fortunate retrospect of an incredibly lucky, stable, rewarding career. 


I don't deceive myself.  Luck is what made the difference in that tenuous and precarious time, and not all of my colleagues then were lucky.  If one woman on the faculty--Professor Linda Wagner-Martin--hadn't gone back into the pile and plucked my rejected application, I would not have gotten my first tenure-track job at Michigan State, a wonderful job with fabulous students, and the place that gave me my academic sea legs.  I had the right number  of publications when I was on the market but so did lots of other people.  I also had utterly un-prestigious degrees when there were many people from the Ivies who could not find jobs those years.  So I am not being humble.  It is simply a fact that it was one happy accident and one generous person who saw a spark in me and gave me a chance.  Otherwise, I would not have had this career.  I have never forgotten that.


No career should be left to luck.  It wasn't fair then, it's not fair now.  I never forget that either.


Nor have I ever forgotten that for thirty years humanists have fought to keep the basic structure of their discipline pretty much as it was thirty years before that, even as the numbers of new positions decline.   I do not understand this mentality. It forces us to be precarious in an already precarious world.  Of course there are other factors, of course we are marginalized, etc etc.  Of course you and I know all that.  I can write about that another time. 


What I also know is that, as a profession, humanists have not done a good job of making a case for our centrality, we have not taken our own mission responsibly and seriously enough.  Some programs do this much better than others.  Some disciplines do this much better than others.  I'm generalizing, and I hope departments that have faced the challenges well will respond with their examples in the comment section below.  It would be great for all of us to be able to learn from these models.  We need good and shining models now. 


When I was a Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, my turf was an entire university.  I saw how different fields and departments responded to changing economic circumstances and changing social priorities and interests and needs of students.  Many fields radically and dramatically shift what they offer, what they emphasize, and who they recruit as graduate students relative to changes in the larger world beyond the academy.  This isn't always or necessarily good.  Many colleagues in the sciences lamented that their research plans changed with the rfp's from various granting agencies; they didn't have the luxury of sticking to only one field if the larger discipline said the action was somewhere else.  They envied those of us in the humanities who could come out of graduate school with a specialization and stick to it for an entire career, independent of the winds of change.  They were less envious when I quoted the numbers on how many humanists worked as adjuncts, on the low percentage of Ph.D.'s in the humanities who actually found those jobs in their specializations that they could then cling to for a lifetime, against the winds of change howling around them.


Many people in other fields find it  astonishing that some humanists consider it demeaning to even think of reforming their field even as they see fewer and fewer of their students find jobs.   What are our investments in remaining 'who we are' even as we diminish and dwindle?  Is that who we are?  The dwindlers?


I hate that definition.  And have my entire career.  As David Theo Goldberg and I said so many years ago when we wrote the "Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Era," if the humanities don't have a role in the "Information Age," who in the world does?  Everyone is perplexed by issues that, as humanists, we have a historical perspective on and critical expertise in. Rarely do we claim that.  Instead, we are bent on keeping periodization and genre as our ruling principles and making "coverage" our normative criteria for future requests for hires.   Does it matter if there are only two people a class in a given field?  Do we offer other kinds of generalist classes with huge enrollments that can help cross-subsidize our specializations?  Sometimes, but not enough and often not articulated, to administrators and to ourselves and to future members of our profession, as our response to a changing world.  Our pride at not changing means that we give up control of the change that is happening to us and to future generations of humanists.  


Needless to say, HASTAC was founded partly to underscore that the humanities have a vital and central role in the world we live in but that needs to be a battle cry of the humanities more globally.  Humanists just don't do a good job of claiming our role, our expertise, or our relevance to students' lives.  Tragically, the result is that we have an increasingly marginal role. 


And potential members of our profession, like Brian Croxall, have no way to enter it.


we should be talking more about this

Thanks for this post, Cathy, I think it's a much-needed call to arms. Speaking to my friends who were on the market at MLA -- and even friends who have found permanent and semi-permanent jobs but not the ones they might have hoped for -- I am continually struck by the disconnect between what we're taught to do in graduate school and what the job market seems to value, as well as what those outside the humanities and indeed outside the academy altogether value. There's a real breakdown happening here with regard to both the humanities' present and their future: everyone recognizes it, but few seem interested in thinking about concrete solutions.

As you suggest, I don't think the reconfiguration of the humanities would even need to be all that radical; it would be something much more like a (re)articulation than a revolution. What we do will always be a part of the university. But we have to start talking about just what that will mean, and making better sense of our place in the new academy, before others do the deciding for us.


Cathy Davidson

Reading and Writing and Thinking and History

When I think of what the humanties offer--skills in reading, writing, critical thinking, and historical perspective--it is astonishing to me (and tragic) that we are not central.  We are too good and to quick to blame others for our marginalization.  I truly believe that most universities would be grateful for a visionary humanities program that addressed the critical needs of literacies for the twenty-first century.  That would not have to be all we need to do, but why we aren't making that our mission, staking that as our invaluable inestimable value in a radically changing world, is beyond my comprehension.   Thank you for writing this blog, Gerry, and thanks to Brian for his eloquently present absence.  I hope this makes a difference.


Great thoughts, both in the

Great thoughts, both in the body and in the comment above.

I started replying and it got too long for a comment. So I've posted my response here.

Cathy Davidson


Thanks, Ian.  That's quite a passionate response.  Gambatte kudasaii!!!


A Scientist's Perspective on Humanities

As a Biochemistry major, reading about issues in the discipline of Humanities really made me think about the importance of this subject in many different areas. For example, I have taken many ethics and communications courses to fulfill my liberal arts and minor requirements. However, these classes have helped me improve as a student. I learned how to convey my thoughts through writing, to think critically about world issues, such as considering the risks and benefits of genetic modification to humanity, to speak my views and discuss current ethical dilemmas with other people, and interpersonal skills that allowed me to work well with others. I was saddened to hear that this discipline is gradually shrinking. I think that interdisciplinary courses that bridge the humanities to politics, science, business, and more could help professionals and academics in this field. They could show how their expertise can be applied to various situations. It would also expose more people to the important lessons of the humanities as well as allow them to gain important skills that could make them better candidates for their chosen career paths. Personally, I hope that my medical ethics courses will be useful as I prepare for graduate school applications and interviews. In the future, the humanities should be recognized as a tool for multiple disciplines.   

Cathy Davidson

Multicultural Critical Theory at the Business School

Apropos of this conversation, the NY Times business section today discusses major business schools that are restructuring themselves, several getting rid of their traditional disciplines to think about shaping themselves to a new global perspective, and some including critical cultural and multicultural theory as part of their offerings.   It is that kind of discipline-inside-out rethinking that I believe the humanties require to thrive in the contemporary academy.


Thanks for sharing this link.

Thanks for sharing this link. Very interesting.

Cathy Davidson

Scholarship Shouldn't Be Simply Hunts for Apostasy--Tyler

Over on Facebook, my friend Tyler generated a discussion with this status update: "

"dear humanities scholars: changing one's mind based on evidence is a *virtue*"

And then he noted, later in the FB exchange, a line that seems about perfect to me:  "Is it too much to see a change of sea, where scholarship isn't simply hunts for apostasy?"


Thanks for the article.

Thanks for the article. You've raised a very important question. I studied at humanity faculty at the University and after graduating the University it occurred to me, that I'm useless in job market, that I'll not be able to find a job because there are no boundaries in this speciality. But, you are right, Cathy, humanities offer reading, writing and critical thinking. And these are very important skills. What lacks in humanities is Public Speaking. Not everyone can be a good speaker but he should (if he wants to be heard). As for me, I've found some books in Public Speaking (at shared files SE , for example) and spend a lot of time to practice.

Cathy Davidson

Master's in Knowledge and Networks

You're not alone.  That's why we are pioneering this new Master's degree.  We'd be delighted if you wanted to leave comments on it on the Comment Press site. Good luck to you!   We're really dedicated to helping institutions, including business, change for these new realities of students' lives and learning.