Humanities Infrastructure 1

Remaking the University 2013-03-16

I agree with Mark Yudof: one of many reasons never to leave Austin Texas is the "easy access to breakfast tacos."   After an excessive helping of these, and before my anti-devolution lecture on fixing public universities, I spent an hour drinking coffee with some UT Austin grad students, along with several faculty and an undergrad who could have been getting his PhD for all I could tell.  Inevitably we got into the status of the humanities, since grads are the first to feel the effects of funding cuts and have been doused with the general backwash of disrespect for their forms of knowledge and practice.  As one put it, "I'm already doing way too much to acquire the difficult specialized skills that nobody wants." My response was that they don't know that they do want them because they don't know what those skills are.  They don't know the knowledge that these skills produce. They don't know this because we don't do a good enough job of telling them.  (They also often don't want to know, since humanities findings challenge so many orthodoxies, but we didn't go down that road.) Our example of humanities "knowledge for its own sake" was medieval studies, which requires the grad student to learn Old English and a couple of variants of Latin in order to understand and explain texts that anyone who doesn't know those languages has never read.   I didn't agree on their irrelevance either as history or as texts.  As the latter, the stories continue to circulate, with Game of Thrones being only the latest wholesale derivation from the old tales. As the former, the history of late antiquity and pre-modern Europe is pertinent from top to bottom in our own period of declining Western hegemony over the means and ends of human progress.  That's just for starters.  The point I was making is that we can and must tell the story of our own research.  This has to start not with defense of the humanities but with going about its business. We should never defend the humanities, I found myself saying, but engage in and explain it. One of the faculty members said that he understood the utility argument, but wasn't comfortable with instrumentalizing what we do.  And a grad student added that they don't have the time to do it anyway. They're scrambling to learn the field, and publicity is a whole job on top of that. My response was that these are two separate jobs and that both have to be done.  Field specialization has to stay hard core, and bridging the resulting knowledge also must be done.  We generate the knowledge and we explain its meaning and impact.  The second can't dilute the first.  The university is the only institution in the world that generates deep historical and cultural knowledge that cannot be justified with immediate and obvious commercial impact. Academic executives are doing a fair-to-terrible job of protecting the function of knowledge creation about the human world. That means protection is up to us. The front line here has to be senior faculty and not our students. My experience with a model that works better, I said, comes from the sciences and engineering.  For sociocultural reasons, they aren't on the defensive. They are overworked and face major cost problems, but don't lack group morale and confidence. Subdisciplines have organizations that communicate scientific findings as well as "societal impacts." Federal agencies generally require both in grant applications, and also fund both, so that principal investigators have financing to travel to conferences, to invite colleagues for conferences, and on top of that as a separate function to popularize their work.  Schools of natural sciences and colleges of engineering have money to promote their research results, which in turn are used for institutional fundraising. An example of what the humanities could do is my own campus' Convergence magazine and website, which performs this bridging role with the public--and potential donors. The last issue has a Q&A with "the visionaries," in which a major donor discusses the future of technology with the campus' engineering dean and the director of a major engineering research institute.  Engineering's societal impacts are featured in a piece on "bridging the digital divide," in which engineers help bring the Internet to Africa.  There's a good range of material, all making the same point that UCSB's advanced research leads to economic and social development.   There is also no fear that explaining the relevance of the research will threaten research quality. It's quite the opposite: explaining relevance will more likely improve the research's funding, making it better. Obviously in the humanities, our materials and approaches would be different from these. But on Friday I was about to give a lecture on the liberal arts' impact on human development, with the humanities front and center, and I was quite sure that the problem isn't our content.  Our problem, I said, is that we don't have the staff or the money to put out quarterly magazines. We don't have senior humanities faculty with the funding to send grad student representatives of the research unit to six or eight conferences a year at which they present both findings and implications.  We don't have collaborations among senior faculty in which clusters of related findings are presented by one of them, where websites constantly update the humanities results that  society needs to understand. There's no originality to the idea of more publicity for humanities research.  The History News Network is probably the most advanced of these projects. 4 Humanities is a consortium that in the past couple of years has gotten off the ground. But I wasn't talking so much about bridging-through-publicity in itself, but about the institutional basis that would make it possible. That basis is everyday funding and ordinary activity, day in day out.  It would require in the humanities something that we barely had before, and which has been completely stripped out by the funding crisis: full-time staff that work on academic development: grant writing, budgeting, travel planning, conference organizing, and in general sustaining the social networks on which research and public dissemination depend. In my first quarter at UCSB in 1990, the English department had a fulltime staff person for word processing and manuscript preparation. She was used entirely by faculty who didn't operate computers, many of whom also didn't type.  The assumption was that these senior researchers' medieval manuscript analysis or narratological theories were intrinsically important, and that the research university was there to partner with its faculty to support this research.  That staff person took another job, and instead of updating the position since new hiring had yielded a faculty that could produce its own manuscripts, but that still needed diverse forms of research support, the position became administrative, serving the institutional metabolism rather than literary and cultural research. In the 2008 cuts, my English department lost its remaining staff to a multidepartmental staff pool. This was the miniature version of UC Berkeley's Operation Excellence, and its operationally absurd idea of extracting most staff from departments and relocating them away from faculty on the other side of town. The result, in my humanities division, is that faculty-staff partnerships to both generate and publicly explain new humanities knowledge has become less likely than ever--which weakens the humanities as research disciplines in a moment of enormous need. To be a philistine, before we dismiss the possibility of major public support for the humanities, we need to picture ourselves with money.  Humanities faculty, I suggested in Austin, should then come together to design the proper infrastructure--staff research support, research-learning undergraduate courses, the copy writing, editing, and printing facilities, the relationships with institutional advancement, the distribution channels, travel and meetings, conference circulation and return invitations, the whole ensemble of people and activities that define healthy, modern, and socially valuable research divisions. We need to cost it out at each of our institutions. Then we need to enlist chairs, deans, and administrations to develop a multi-year plan to make this redevelopment happen. Why would our universities do this now when they have mostly done the opposite in the past? One incentive is that in the current permafrost austerity regime that our foolish leaders are imposing on public universities, the best way to insure that the humanities fields won't survive for public college students is to downsize their research output and to hide their huge social value. Thanks to the UT Austin folks for such a great conversation, which deserved a one-act play rather than the monologue of the post.