Humanities, Heal Yourselves

In a comment on a post of mine yesterday, Frederick Glaysher wrote, “Human experience is much deeper and profound than what the humanities has come to allow in our time, creating a disharmony that has deeply damaged itself and contemporary culture.” Indeed, many in humanities departments across American have created—or have allowed the creation of—an academic subculture that subverts the claims of the humanities to show the very best of human endeavor and consideration. Instead, the failures of those of us in the humanities have led to a general perception of the senior faculty as a closed guild wielding tenure and promotion decisions, peer review, and even the privilege of academic freedom as weapons protecting them what has from them what ain’t.

We in the humanities set ourselves up as the arbiters of all that is good and just in America, but do not act justly ourselves, or for the good of all. We become, in the words of Laura Kipnis, “symbolically incoherent.” Title IX, for example, a federal regulation meant for combatting sexual discrimination on campuses, is seen today as a cudgel for retribution or for advancing other agendas, in the eyes of the general public, as much as it is seen for its laudable intent. That’s our fault, those of us who work on campus. We have allowed this to happen.

We have allowed our sanctimonious worship at the altar of diversity to become cover for our own discrimination. We talk a good line, but we seldom walk it. People with disabilities haven’t found effective acceptance on campus—nor have “invisible” minorities such as Appalachians. We pretend to welcome African-Americans and other minorities, but their numbers mysteriously dwindle as career midpoints are reached. Students from privileged backgrounds, those speaking much like the faculty, are more readily welcomed—and they do better in their courses.

Outsiders notice this, even if we within the ivory tower turn our heads.

It’s worse.

There are campuses, today, where getting tenure or being promoted has become a hazing process, senior members of departments taking out their own frustrations on the young rather than supporting them and helping them further the scholarship and teaching that landed them their jobs in the first place. The diminution of the tenure track from well more than half of the faculty positions to less than a third has only increased the power of those making tenure and even promotion decisions. It has also led to an impression of tenure as regressive, a reward for those who do exactly what their seniors did. Tufts professor Sol Gittleman quotes Mark Taylor of Columbia, “The single most important factor preventing change in higher education is tenure.” Gittleman disagrees, and makes a strong argument for tenure—but the popular perception is more in line with Taylor’s, and not without reason.

The shared governance so important to those of us who are members of the AAUP becomes, in some hands, license to act with impunity. Not only has this resulted in a deteriorating public impression of our profession and of tenure but it has led to administrative meddling in the increasing number of dysfunctional departments—providing an excuse for more top-down university governance. Petty jealousies rule where considered discussion is assumed to prevail. Departmental power is rarely shared, chairs holding on to their positions, disbursing favors instead of dispersing governance.

Departments have become so removed from the scholarship of their members that many have little idea of what their colleagues are doing. Few bother to read the work of even those whose offices are down the hall and who teach the same classes. We become so intent on our own precarious climbs up the ladder of promotion that we forget that collegiality means more than being nice to each other—and that real scholarly progress always rests on discussion as well as on lone toil in lab or library.

One result of this is that we are right while everyone else is wrong. Our individual viewpoints have become so narrow as to be parochial. This spills over into peer review, where many of us savage any submission that does not adhere to our own line of thinking and the pedigree of our own scholarship. We claim to be open to a variety of viewpoints, but we don’t live the claim, excluding work that might contradict our own from the journals that define our fields.

Part of the problem in all of this—or part of its creation, certainly—is secrecy. Concerns for privacy are important, of course, but they have drifted into coverage for impunity. From Title IX investigations to hiring, tenure and promotion decisions to blind peer review, we have discovered that privacy can become a curtain hiding activities that should be in the sunshine. And we so use it. While talking about honesty and care, we act on our basest impulses, assured that they will never be uncovered.

While any one act of retaliation or revenge under the cover of privacy may not be discovered, the impact of the high number of them in academia is readily apparent even to the most casual outside observer. The dishonesty of academia is clear, therefore, to almost everyone except those of us most directly involved, those of us with a vested interest in keeping up the illusion of our moral superiority.

The values the AAUP fights for, including tenure and academic freedom, depend on a faculty that acts with compassion and respect. We make it harder for ourselves to defend our profession when we don’t act toward each other with these in mind. The privacy screen may make it easier to hide individual actions, but it does not erase the cancer eating the bowels of our profession.

Reform starts at home and with each of us. When we find ourselves involved in investigations, even secret ones, we should act as though in public. When we evaluate candidates for hire, tenure or promotion, we should ask ourselves if our deliberations and conclusions could stand up to public scrutiny. When we review an article or a book for a journal or a press, we should assume that what we write can be read by anyone. And we should remind others of this same responsibility.

Nothing I have written here is new, but nothing anyone has said earlier has changed anything–and I doubt this will, either.

The truth remains: Only then will we start to salvage our reputation. Otherwise, fear of others within our profession will continue to ensure that, as Glaysher also says in his comment, “the humanities remain closed off to any real debate, virtually guaranteeing their continuing decline.”

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.