Want to know why John Guillory’s Professing Criticism has attracted such widespread attention? Because it’s widely read as a eulogy for a discipline that has lost its audience and lost its way.
There’s a pervasive sense among many adults with humanities degrees that In the wake of deconstruction, poststructuralism, postmodernism, semiotics and the cultural, linguistic and discursive turns, literary studies, in particular, like other core humanities disciplines, is in deep trouble.
The challenges that literary studies faces are evident to anyone who cares to look.
- The field has fragmented. There’s now affect studies, animal studies, cultural studies, diasporic studies, disabilities studies, the digital humanities, ecocriticism, Indigenous studies, the New Historicism, the medical humanities, performance studies, postcolonial criticism, women’s studies, post critique and more. As the field has fractured, its mission and purpose have grown increasingly unclear.
- The number of majors has declined severely and apparently irretrievably. Over the course of a single decade, core humanities disciplines have lost half their majors, which has led growing numbers of campuses to reduce the full-time, tenured faculty.
- The discipline now focuses more and more on the relatively recent present at the expense of the past. English departments find it harder and harder to justify professors with a specialty in Old English, Middle English, the Renaissance or even 18th- and 19th-century poetry and the novel.
- The field is besieged. It’s attacked from the right as too political, too jargon ridden, too theoretical, from the left as too apolitical, too insular and too ethnocentric and from all too many members of the general public as insufficiently skills-oriented and career-aligned. These criticisms are aggravated by businesses’ claim that too many college graduates can’t write well.
- At the same time, readership of academic critics and of literature itself has plummeted. Readership of literature has become a niche activity. The cultural cachet associated with literature has faded. No longer is a degree in English regarded as a signal that a student is exceptionally literate culturally, a superb writer and superior intellectually.
- The field feels increasingly marginalized inside the university. It’s treated by many administrators as essentially a service department, while colleagues outside the humanities increasingly dismiss the field as lacking rigor and as cinema studies lite, ethnic studies lite, Indigenous studies lite and women’s studies lite.
What happened? Were the wounds self-inflicted? I don’t think so.
1. The humanities golden age was relatively brief and reflected conditions that won’t return. The number of humanities majors soared in the 1950s and 1960s largely because the number of women in the academy rose and many didn’t feel like they had many other attractive options.
The rapid expansion of knowledge and the emergence of new fields of study like artificial intelligence, biomedical science, brain science, data science and machine learning made it inevitable that the core humanities would shrink, at least relatively.
As undergraduates become more career and vocationally oriented, many mistakenly believe that the optimal path to financial success lies in the STEM fields or prevocational majors in business, communication, engineering, hotel and restaurant management, and marketing.
2. Within the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, alternatives to the traditional disciplines attract more and more students. Not just Asian American studies, Black studies, gender and sexuality studies, Latinx studies and women’s studies, but arts, technology and communication, environmental studies, linguistics and sustainability.
3. Some of the discipline’s most vibrant scholarship now takes place outside the discipline’s traditional subfields. It lies in English language literature in Africa, the Caribbean, North Africa and the Middle East, South Asia and other areas apart from Britain, Ireland and the United States. Given fixed or shrinking faculty numbers, something’s got to give.
4. Nation-based fields strike many humanities scholars as too narrow, too insular and too provincial. National literatures are challenged by global literature and comparative literature, much as history is challenged by the growing emphasis on Atlantic studies, diasporic studies and world history.
All this said, there’s a great irony that I think has been insufficiently appreciated. For all the talk about the humanities retreat and the decline of English as a discipline, high theory, critical theory and cultural studies have had an extraordinarily powerful impact of public discourse. We’re all deconstructionists and postmodernists now. Command of the language of critical theory signifies one’s status as knowledgeable and up-to-date.
In other words, supposedly arcane literary critics and philosophers with impenetrable prose actually succeeded in bringing a host of ideas into the cultural mainstream.
These included the Foucaultesque notion that power and hierarchy can be found everywhere: for example, in language, in cultural categories and narratives and in representations as well as in economics or politics.
There’s the concept of performativity and the cultural, social and political dimensions of performance.
There’s postcolonialism—the study of the cultural, political and economic legacies of colonialism and imperialism—and narratology, the study of the structure and function of narratives and their themes, conventions and symbols.
Especially influential is critical identity studies—the study of how identities are formed, constructed and perpetuated historically, politically and sociologically; how gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexuality, dis/ability, nation, non-/religiosity and region influence identities; and how identities are shaped by structures of inequality and systems and practices of power.
Nor was the impact of critical theory and cultural critique restricted to literature departments. In my field, history, evidence, unitary conceptions of the nation state, master narratives and claims to objectivity were increasingly viewed as problematic. Within history, the most atheoretical of disciplines, more and more prominent scholars embraced not just revisionism but cultural critique, border studies and critical identity studies.
All of this raises truly difficult questions:
- Are traditional disciplines, departments and fields the best way to organize teaching and research within the humanities? For example, should English remain siloed from other literatures and languages? Should history place even more emphasis on transnational linkages and interconnections and treat the nation state and national histories more problematically?
- How do we balance the humanities’ traditional role with its more recent emphasis on inclusion, power, discourse and identity? For a century, the humanities were the disciplines committed to the preservation, study and interpretation of humanity’s history, artistic, cultural, literary, musical and scientific achievements and the development of its moral and political thought. How, in a time of shrinking faculties and a political backlash against approaches that some dismiss as trendy and faddish approaches, do we continue to what we once did while embracing new areas of study and new analytical and interpretative schema?
Here’s my response to these two questions.
- We should recognize that departments and disciplines need not be synonymous—and that’s not necessarily a problem. Departments are administrative units that can encompass a wide array of faculty, methodologies and modes of interpretation. Some function effectively—as do many departments of modern and classical languages. Some are deeply riven, like many Spanish departments that face bitter divisions between specialists in linguistics and peninsular and Latin American and U.S. Latinx literature and culture. Whether a department should be restructured hinges on its ability to function effectively. We should think of departments as big tents that encompass multiple approaches and points of view.
- Administrators should encourage more cross-disciplinary and thematic linkages not as substitutes but as supplements to existing departments. To take my own case, much of my scholarship contributes as much (if not more) to family studies, childhood studies and museum studies than it does to history as it is typically defined. I think it makes sense to foster stronger connections between individual humanities faculty members and pre-professional fields, whether in business, law, medicine, public policy or technology. There’s nothing wrong with dual loyalties in scholarship and teaching.
- The humanities should encourage their campuses to rethink the gen ed curriculum. The humanities disciplines dominate the core curriculum. That’s also where the core humanities departments get the bulk of their enrollment. How about radically reimagining the required courses that the offer humanities departments offer? How about offering classes on the “art of living”—which was the original purpose of the humanities? Or replace discipline-specific surveys with more pan-humanities classes, for example, on the development of the notion of rights or identities or equity or freedom or the idea of progress? Or with courses that deal with various aspects of the human condition, like bereavement, evil, intimacy or tragedy or that adopt global and comparative perspectives? Each of these approaches, I’m convinced, would better connect to an undergraduate student body that finds many traditional core classes high schoolish and irrelevant.
- The humanities disciplines must achieve a better balance between teaching substance and skills. We don’t typically think of the humanities disciplines as skills focused except in their stress on critical thinking. But as our campuses face more and more pressure to do a better job of teaching writing, public speaking, research, evidence evaluation and argumentation, the humanities need to raise their game.
Like it or not, we in the humanities are largely in charge of teaching students to express themselves clearly, whether orally or in writing. That’s a responsibility that has been ceded largely to composition courses taught almost exclusively by graduate students or instructors off the tenure track. I think it’s fair to say that no one is very satisfied with the results and AI text generating applications may well augment the problem. Teaching students to speak and write more clearly, stylishly and analytically is a responsibility we shouldn’t dodge.
We also need to do a better job of teaching students to conduct research, evaluate, analyze and interpret sources and make persuasive evidence-based arguments that acknowledge opposing points of view. History, my discipline, also needs to do much more to teach students how to use, dissect and visualize data.
As scholarship evolves and new fields of study proliferate, the humanities must adapt. That process won’t be easy. Tough, extremely contentious decisions lie ahead about coverage and hiring. Many of us worry a lot that as core humanities departments shrink, attention to the more distant past will diminish and some subjects central to the disciplines will disappear. Some also fear that in their eagerness to sustain enrollments, their humanities will embrace fads that will soon peter out.
The days when my department had 72 tenured or tenure-track faculty are already long gone, and my colleagues and I must think long and hard about whether to emphasize disciplinary breadth or specialization, whether to maintain a national focus or shift toward a more regional perspectives or whether to hire potentially popular classroom teachers or promising scholars irrespective of their teaching ability. Bitter battles lie ahead.
As we all know from our personal lives, adapting to change is hard. So as humanities departments confront a shifting environment, we have a lot to learn from the advice literature on coping and resilience:
- Accept the necessity of change. Heraclitus had it right: all is flux. Nothing stays still. The pressures for change are relentless. As Emerson supposedly quipped in response to Margaret Fuller’s declaration “I accept the universe,” she’d better.
- Consider change an opportunity, not a threat. We must conquer our fear of change and reframe our thinking. I know, this cliché sounds a bit like Monty Python in Life of Brian: “Always look on the bright side of life.” But change, however unwanted, does offer an opportunity to rethink tradition and adjust to new realities.
- Act intentionally. Embrace the change process. Acknowledge the challenges and consider options. Be an activator of change not change’s passive victim.
- Strive for balance. When faced with difficult decisions or options, it often makes sense to strike a balance between competing interests and priorities. That doesn’t necessarily mean achieving a compromise or finding a middle ground. But it does require acknowledging the costs of change and acting accordingly.
The history of the humanities is a history of change. The humanities have shifted, over time, from a process into a body of knowledge and then into a series of technique and methodologies that emphasize interpretation. The humanities are poised to change yet again. My recommendation is that we draw upon the past as we chart our path into an uncertain future.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.