Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Sunday, June 12, 2016

How To Fix the Humanities in Higher Education

It’s a true fact that in the U.S., the humanities division of higher education is in trouble.  Students are voting with their feet and staying away from history and English and other humanistic venues.
I’d like to take a moment to address the problem in a way that most humanities professors and administrators do not seem to emphasize and, in some cases, reject.  It’s called practicality.

In one practical move, the humanities need to go back to classical basics, except I’m not talking about teaching Greek and Latin and rehashing what used to be the grand narrative of Western Civilization.  Many Greek and Roman thinkers and teachers (the categories are not necessarily exclusive) were empiricists and nascent social scientists.  Aristotle’s writings on rhetoric reveal a mind keenly aware of how public discourse functions, how political arguments get put together, and so on.  Whereas many English Departments and colleges farm out the teaching of rhetoric to graduate students and adjuncts, Aristotle embraced it as essential.  I doubt if he’d have much time for most of what the Modern Language Association represents. 

At my own university, the English Department decided to manipulate the notion of “writing across the curriculum,” which was never meant as a replacement for first-year composition, and have the faculty at-large teach in the form of “first-year seminars.”  One problem, of course, is that writing really isn’t getting taught the way it should be, in most cases.  I don’t blame the faculty who have taken on the seminars.  I blame English for jettisoning their responsibility—not just English at my school, but English across the profession.  A second problem is that those students who once became interested in the humanities by means of a first-year composition course now never have the opportunity. A third problem is that enrollments in English courses have plummeted. Of course. 

So my first suggestion is to re-embrace rhetoric, not just at the first-year composition level, but also with new courses in public and political discourse.  In an age when these two areas of communication are undergoing revolutions, English departments are sitting on their hands.  It’s ludicrous.
My second suggestion is to find out, in detail, why students are walking and wheeling away from humanities.  Hire social scientists, if necessary, or even if it’s not necessary, for we know how humanities types love their confirmation bias. I know I do. 

I’d be delighted to be proved wrong by data, but my moderately informed guess is that students will take ethnic studies classes in history and literature even if most of them may not choose to major in such disciplines.  African American and Latino Studies classes at my university continue to attract a lot of students, even as enrollments in English plummet. It makes sense, at least on first glance, for just as public/political discourse is undergoing a revolution, conflict and cooperation between and within ethnic groups is another area undergoing revolution.  Why wouldn’t students—of all ethnicities—energized by Black Lives Matter and related events and conditions be interested in ethnic studies courses that dovetail with these phenomena?

Think of students as citizens.  That is how Aristotle and Quintillian thought of them—if you feel the need to seek classical approval.  The original seven liberal arts were rooted in civil practicality.  That’s why they included arithmetic, rhetoric, and music.  How beneficial it would be for students to learn how the blues, for example, massively influenced later genres of popular music but also the American culture at large. Ethnic studies courses—in a variety of humanities departments—think of students as citizens, too, he wrote, climbing on his hobby horse one last time.

Yes, that’s right, I’m invoking the call for relevant courses that arose in the 1960s.  No, I’m not suggesting that colleges base their humanities curricula on whatever students deem relevant.  I am suggesting that colleges look at what’s happening in society, how young people are responding to some of what’s happening, and adjust accordingly.  Besides, ethnic studies have come of age.  Texts are more widely available than ever.  The scholarship and pedagogy are seasoned. 

If, in English, it’s creative writing students want to take, then offer it—in the forms of poetry, fiction, and screenwriting, among others.  Offer playwriting.  Teach journalism. Teach blogging. Teach magazine-writing, including online magazines (obviously).  These are all opportunities to refine critical thinking and sharpen writing in general.  If you, personally, recoil from such courses, then hire someone else to teach them.  Keep teaching what you teach, but get out of the way. Please.

I don’t want to drift too far from the main point of my second suggestion, however.  Get empirical. Find out what students are interested in academically and why.  Make some adjustments based on the data. You don’t need to burn your dissertation (although you should stop trying to teach it) or give up on your pet critical and cultural-studies theories.  Just suspend your beliefs and find out what’s really going on. If necessary, respect your youngers, a radical concept, I know. 

Finally, I’d suggest reaching out across disciplines and campuses to find unlikely partners.  When I served briefly as the director of the writing center at U.C. Davis (about a hundred years ago), we were interested in pairing upper-level writing courses with courses across the curriculum.  I  made cold-calls to many departments and asked if they’d be interested in a partnership.  I vividly remember picking up the desk phone and calling someone in in wildlife science.  Pretty soon a writing course taught to students in that field materialized.

I’m not suggesting that anyone ought to turn the cold call into the primary mode of reviving the humanities, although it couldn’t hurt.  It’s probably more practical and workable for people in the humanities to reach out across their own campuses, to walk or wheel or drive to other departments and start with a tabula rasa, asking how you might collaborate with business departments & schools, education departments, engineering, sciences, and social sciences.  Teach all kinds of professionally applicable writing and socially vibrant literature courses. 


Be peripatetic. Get over yourselves.  Get out there and mix with students and colleagues.  Attend conferences outside your specialty and outside humanities.  Go on the road, see what’s what.  Ask questions (not rhetorical ones).  Shut up and listen. Revive the humanities brick by empirical, grounded, socially alert, sometimes old fashioned (rhetoric), innovative brick.  
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