Politics, Economics, and Screwing the Humanities

My last post rhetorically analyzed a claim by Rick Anderson that it was a “mistake” on the part of librarians to ”put politics ahead of mission and service” where politics means “our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.” In response to a query from John DuPuis (who has also responded to the post I analyzed) about specific examples, Anderson offered this: “Another might be canceling a high-demand Big Deal package—not because it’s no longer affordable, but because the library wants to help undermine the Big Deal model in the marketplace or believes that the publisher in question is making unreasonable profits.”

In a previous post on vendor mistakes, Anderson elaborated on the mistake of responding to affordability statements with value arguments (and “value” is definitely a misused word in those situations) by remarking: “There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when we had the option of canceling marginal journal subscriptions and cutting our book budgets in order to make space for high-value, high-cost purchases, but for most of us, those days are over. All we have left are core subscriptions, and our book budgets have been gutted.”

Putting those comments together, we can describe a situation that has affected the budgets of a lot of academic libraries. Scholarly journal prices have been going up rates considerably above budget increases, or inflation, or just about any other standard measure, since at least the 1980s. Mass cancellations of journals led to the creation of the Big Deals, which was supposed to be a solution to the problem, although the “historic spend” which they like to take as a benchmark was of course the creation of the previous extraordinary price increases. Regardless, over time these inflexible packages have taken up more and more of the library budgets until many libraries have had to “gut” their book budgets, some to an extent where they have almost no money to spend on monographic purchases at all. We need to remember that book budgets aren’t just gutted. Librarians choose to reduce spending on monographs to purchase journal packages that increase in price and decrease the flexibility of library budgeting, and that choice has consequences for library patrons that librarians rarely want to tell those patrons.

If anyone “benefits” from this arrangement, it’s scientific researchers, because the highest-priced packages and journals are all for science, technology, and medical journals, not relatively inexpensive journals in the humanities. So over time, we’ve seen library support for scholars shift from what was perhaps more or less even or fair funding across the board to funding which struggles to cope with science journal costs and damns any programs that are monograph-heavy, which most humanities programs are. Some of these libraries try to support PhD programs in English, history, philosophy, or music with tiny monograph budgets while still entering into the Big Deals on science journals with the major vendors.

Now, the big question for discussion was, “To what degree is it appropriate to sacrifice the short-term good of our patrons in the pursuit of long-term economic reform in scholarly publishing (or vice versa)?” But let’s spin that another way. To what extent has it been appropriate to sacrifice the short and long term good of patrons in the humanities for the short term good of not having to resist price increases or rethink journal packages that slowly squeeze monograph budgets to death? Are historians or literary scholars or musicologists less deserving because they’re not in the sciences? If so, why bother to offer PhDs in programs that aren’t adequately, or even fairly, supported by the library? If anything, humanists need library support more than scientists. For scientists, libraries hold the report of work done in a laboratory, but for humanists the library is the laboratory.

The humanities are under attack on most campuses it seems, and will never win the fight for recognition if the standard is economic productivity, which many people seem to think is the only standard by which to measure a society, a university, or a human life. But if we’re looking at library budgets fairly, with an eye to all the stakeholders who rely on the library for scholarly research, we shouldn’t pretend that going along with Big Deals because they’re affordable if we severely reduce monograph budgets isn’t screwing over a lot of the scholars that libraries should be serving. Putting the economics of science publishing ahead of scholarly publishing as a whole has done a disservice to the humanities and any monograph-heavy field. So, as a humanities librarian, if I do what I can to resist that assault by encouraging open-access scholarly publishing whenever and wherever I can, I’m not just making a professional (not personal or political) decision based on how I think scholarly publishing should operate, I’m also making a professional decision to support the work of scholars in the humanities who have been shortchanged at so many libraries over the past 20 years. Those patrons have needs, too.

The Codex is Dead; Long Live the Codex

ACRLog had a post last week about humanists wanting print books rather than ebooks. Here’s a key passage:

Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.

When thinking of humanities scholars and their books, I don’t see how it matters if most students don’t want to read their books all the way through or want to treat scholarly monographs the way they treat encyclopedias, as collections of information tidbits to pick and choose among. The scholarly monograph in the humanities isn’t designed to be read that way. It’s not a report of research results, but the result of research, and the analyses and arguments develop throughout the book or at least throughout the chapters. And what’s more, scholars don’t just dip into one book at a time to get some useful fact; they immerse themselves in books and frequently move among many different books while working.

The writer notes that the same faculty who demand print books for their work are happy to read novels on their ebook readers while relaxing or traveling. “It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.” I don’t know why this would surprise any librarians who work in the humanities. It’s easy to forget amidst the technological splendor that the codex is an extremely useful tool. Humanists often work on research projects that involve examining multiple texts and comparing them, sometimes moving from book to book and sometimes from passage to passage within those books. Spreading several books on a desk and flipping back and forth between passages is relatively easy, and much easier than trying to do the same thing on any current ebook reader. Annotating a book with pencil in hand is also faster and easier than doing it on any ebook readers I’ve yet seen. It’s easy enough for me to think of examples from my own work. This summer I was writing a book chapter that was more or less intellectual history. The bulk of the chapter focused on four or five primary texts as well as a handful of secondary sources. I was trying both to analyze specific arguments occurring throughout the primary texts as well as compare the arguments to those in the other primary texts. The easiest way for me to do this was to have the books spread out around me, so that I could quickly put down one and pick up another or flip back and forth between several relevant passages in the same book.

Working with printed books is at the moment the fastest and easiest way to do this, which is probably why the scholars who do this sort of work the most like printed books. Everything else is clunky by comparison, especially ebook readers. This kind of work explains why humanists like ebook readers for casual reading but not for scholarly work. Leaving aside the DRM restrictions that make getting and reading ebooks so irritating at times, the ebook reader technology just isn’t sophisticated enough for widespread humanistic scholarly use yet. When it’s possible to flip instantly among several books and between passages on a device that’s easy on the eyes and allows annotation as quick as a pencil, this might change. Indeed, I was unsurprised by the Ebrary ebook survey that showed “The vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered.” To that I would add two caveats: first, better tools with fewer restrictions aren’t being offered, and second, the majority of students aren’t humanities scholars. My library did a large campus survey of faculty and students last year. 92% of humanists viewed print books as “essential.” This will change when the new tools become as adequate and easy to use as the old tools.

Sure, there might be ways around this, assuming one can get all the necessary books in digital format. (For the project I was working on this summer, I used books that were print-only and hard to get because few libraries held them, and they weren’t for sale or I would have purchased them for my own library. So much for PDA-only libraries relying on used-book dealers to meet their retrospective collection development needs.) But assuming I could, what current technology would suffice to replicate the ease of moving among books and passages of books? Maybe having six tablet computers would work. They would have to be devices that displayed PDFs well, too, so that the secondary journal literature could also easily be read. That sort of defeats the purpose of ebooks, because if I had to carry around, much less purchase, a handful of ebook readers the main purpose of having an ebook reader is eliminated.

I think this is an example where breathless ebook prophets are pushing a format that for now remains an inadequate tool for humanistic scholarly research, and I suspect they’re doing so because they never do any of that type of research, so they either don’t know or don’t care about the inadequate tools. Technology that doesn’t make work easier is bad technology, no matter how much some people might like it for their casual reading. When the tools improve, no one will be protesting the demise of the codex. The ideal might be one of those virtual reality gesture-input computers like in Minority Report. All it might take is a computer that could simultaneous project multiple, easily manipulated texts in the space surrounding a scholar, texts that could be read, highlighted, annotated, and flipped through as easily as printed books. Making copying and pasting of quotations easily into whatever passes for a virtual reality word processor would be a boon as well. When that technology is as ubiquitous in academia as printed books, then the problem will be solved and humanists might abandon the codex. And if they don’t, that’s the time to start chastising them for their reactionary views, because it’s not reactionary to resist technology that makes one’s life more difficult.

The immediate future will be considerably more banal, but I can see the trend with both the new Ebrary ebook downloads and the new ebook platform on the new Project Muse beta site. Both allow quick and easy downloading of portions of books into PDF format, and the entire book if you don’t mind it being broken up into sections or chapters. This mimics the availability of scholarly articles through many databases, and everyone admits that even humanist scholars have no problem with electronic articles, just electronic books. That’s because most of them print the articles out and read them on paper, which they will now be able to do with lots of future ebooks. I’d rather have the virtual reality library, but until that happens PDF printouts might be as close to an ebook-only future as most humanists are likely to get. Libraries might stop buying printed books some day. The codex is dead. Scholars will then print out their PDF ebooks to make reading and research easier. Love live the codex.

 

The Idea of the Humanities

I begin teaching the humanities librarianship course for the UIUC library school again this week, and one of the goals of the course is to understand just what we mean by the humanities. There are rival definitions, ranging from “the best that has been thought and said” to “those courses taught in humanities departments.” Fifty years ago, Ronald Crane, then an eminent literary critic at the University of Chicago, gave one of the definitions I like best. In brief, the humanities involve the application of linguistics, philosophical analysis, literary and artistic criticism, and historiography to understand outstanding human achievements that are not reducible to natural or social laws. However, for a fuller exploration, see the excerpts below from his essay, “The Idea of the Humanities.”

Excerpted from: Crane, R.S. “The Idea of the Humanities.” The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. 3-15.

“We have now tried out two common ways of answering our question of what exactly are the humanities–first, by pointing to certain subjects that are officially or conventionally designated as humanistic, and, second, by specifying the large and noble purposes which humanistic study may be supposed to serve; and we have found neither of them entirely satisfactory. There is, however, a third, and more promising, way of approaching our question–a way which is suggested by one of the earliest documents in which the term “humanities” occurs (in its singular Latin form of humanitas,  or humanity). The document is the work of a minor Latin grammarian (or professor of language and literature) of the second century; and in it “humanity” is defined simply as “education and training in the good arts” or disciplines; and the goodness of these arts is made to reside in the fact that those who earnestly desire and seek after them come to be most highly humanized, in the sense of being endowed with the virtues and knowledge that separate men most sharply from the lower animals….

It is a view that identifies the humanities, not with certain subjects of study merely, or with the pursuit of certain abstract ends, but with the proper cultivation of certain arts or disciplines, that is, of certain means; and it makes the humanistic character of such arts or methods to consist in their peculiar capacity to deal with those aspects of human experience that differentiate man most completely from the animals, to the end that individual men may actualize as fully as possible their potentialities as men….

They consist, generally, in all those things which, because not all men or all groups of men can, or do, do them, are therefore not amenable to adequate explanation in terms of general laws of natural processes, physical or biological, or in terms of collective social conditions or forces. They are the things which we cannot predict, in any scientific way, that men individually or in groups will do, but which, when they are done, we recognize as signs, not of any natural or social necessities, but of possibilities inherent in man’s peculiar nature. They are, in short, what we commonly speak of as human achievements–whether in sciences, in institutions, or in the arts. And, more especially, they are those human achievements, like Newtonian or modern physics, the American Constitution, or Shakespearean tragedy, to which we agree in attributing that kind of unprecedented excellence that calls forth wonder as well as admiration. These, wherever we find them, are the distinctive objects of the humanities; and the aim of the humanities is precisely such an understanding, appreciation, and use of them as will most completely preserve their character as human achievements that cannot be completely resolved into either natural processes common to men and animals or into impersonal forces affecting all the members of a given society….
 
Linguistics, the analysis of ideas, literary and artistic criticism, and historiography–these are the four constituent elements of the humanities when the humanities are defined in terms of the “good arts” which their successful cultivation presupposes….
 
We are doing a merely partial job in the teaching of literature, for example, when we are content to let our students see only those aspects of the great works we teach that can be brought out by asking questions concerning the language in which they are written or the historical circumstances that affected their writing, without also bringing to bear upon them, in a systematic way, the resources of the analysis of ideas and of the criticism of literary forms; or, conversely, when we approach literary works merely in terms of critical or philosophical analysis without adequate reference to problems of language and history….
 
The four arts are the arts of the humanities, in short, because they are pertinent in varying degrees to all the subject matters with which humanists commonly deal; they thus cut across the boundaries dividing the subject matters from one another; and it is precisely the convergence of all of them upon any subject matter that makes it, in the completest degree, humanistic….
 
Everything that men do has a natural and social basis or context, which humanists can forget only at the peril of making their studies of human achievements unreal and abstract. Every writer, every artist, every scientist, every statesman, every moral agent knows well that there are limits to what he can do, fixed not by himself but by the natural conditions in which he lives, the state of his culture or language, the logic of inquiry or artistic creation, the uniformities of popular psychology. These causes operate, however, more or less regularly, upon everybody; and they are not sufficient to account for those attributes of human achievements with which the humanist is distinctively concerned….
 
The sciences are most successful when they seek to move from the diversity and particularity of their observations toward as high a degree of unity, uniformity, simplicity, and necessity as their materials permit. The humanities, on the other hand, are most alive when they reverse this process, and look for devices of explanation and appreciation that will enable them to preserve as much as possible of the variety, the uniqueness, the unexpectedness, the complexity, the originality, that distinguish what men are capable of doing at their best from what they must do, or tend generally to do, as biological organisms or members of a community….
 
… the internal enemies of the humanities are mainly two in number. One of these is the spirit of dogmatism, or rather of sectarianism: the spirit that gives us so many rival schools of linguists, critics, historians, and philosophers, who frequently seem more intent on exposing each other’s errors than on getting ahead with their own studies; the spirit, also, that inspires the many futile quarrels and jealousies, in departments and divisions of the humanities, among specialists in the various disciplines. … The other enemy is perhaps more amenable, at least to a policy of containment. It is what I may call the spirit of reduction; the spirit that denies the essence of the humanities by seeking always to direct our attention away from the multiplicity and diversity of human achievements, in their rich concrete actuality, to some lower or lowest common denominator: the spirit that is ever intent on resolving the complex into the simple, the conscious into the unconscious, the human into the natural; the spirit for which great philosophic systems are nothing but the expression of personal opinions or class prejudices, the forms of art nothing but their materials’ or their sources in the unconscious mind, the acts of statesmen nothing but the reflections of economic forces, the moral virtues nothing but the mores or the functioning of the glands….”

The “Crisis” in the Humanities

As a humanities librarian and liberal humanist, I have both a professional and personal interest in the fate of the humanities, especially the professional study of the humanities. Thus, it is sometimes distressing to hear about the crisis in the humanities, especially the heated rhetoric of late. The “scenarios” from ARL threw a few sops to the humanities, but the general assumption seemed to be they would disappear from research universities within 20 years. The president of Cornell just issued a call to defend the humanities. The pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education bring us frequent laments for the state of the humanities. Martha Nussbaum has a new book out about the humanities crisis. I haven’t read it yet, but according to this review it opens: “we are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance.” The reviewer thinks she overstates the case, but she’s not alone in using such apocalyptic rhetoric. By now, most of you probably know that, despite still calling itself a university, SUNY Albany is planning to cut several of its foreign language departments, with the foreign-language classes to be replaced by talking- very-slowly classes.

Here’s one scholar on the crisis in the humanities, especially for foreign-language study: “in our days the field of modern languages is undergoing a severe crisis….There is a general crisis in the humanities, there is a particular and more acute crisis in modern foreign languages.” That sounds ominous, and given the current crisis it is prescient indeed. It’s from the introductory paragraph of an essay by Hans W. Rosenhaupt, “Modern Foreign Language Study and the Needs of Our Times,” published in the journal Monatshefte für deutschen Unterricht in 1940. And Rosenhaupt was right to be concerned, because SUNY Albany, which in 1940 was the New York State College for Teachers, would within seventy years slowly expand into a research university before beginning the gradual slide backward. Germaine Brée, writing in the Modern Language Journal, is just as concerned about this crisis. “For our literary heritage has come to seem more and more overwhelming in its mass, burdensome and without significance. We have tended to lose the sense of delight and newness all good literature gives. This, I would say, is one aspect of the crisis in the humanities.” That was in 1949.

In the South Atlantic Bulletin, you can read about the twelfth meeting of the Southern Humanities Conference: “The Crisis of the Humanities in the South” was the theme. “The participants seemed to agree that a real crisis does exist. But, as one panelist put it, the crisis is neither ‘new nor localized;’” The conference was in April 1959. Given the turmoil of the times, such as the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the Little Rock Nine in 1957, I think there were bigger crises in the south to worry about, but fretting humanists often look inward in times of social unrest.

Throughout the 1960s the humanities stayed in crisis. In 1965, Penguin published the widely read book Crisis in the Humanities, edited by J.H. Plumb. That work analyzed the crisis in depth in art, philosophy, literary studies, and history. In 1964, The American Council of Learned Societies published The Commission on the Humanities, Report of the Commission on the Humanities. It’s a pessimistic report, in which we find that “the humanities in the age of super-science and supertechnology have an increasingly difficult struggle for existence,” and that “Today, more than ever, those concerns which nourish personality, and are at the heart of individual freedom, are being neglected in our free society. Those studies which refine the values and feed the very soul of a culture are increasingly starved of support.” I found out about this study through W. David Maxwell’s essay on “The Plight of the Humanities” (Journal of Aesthetic Education, April 1969), in which he argues that the humanities are in crisis because of a gap between their methods and their goals. In the same journal issue, Stuart A. Selby thinks the crisis results “from the fantastic specialization and fragmentation of scholarship which is incapable of presenting to the students a comprehensive enough view of the world.” It’s always something.

Unfortunately, the 1970s didn’t relieve the crisis in the humanities, either, maybe because of stagflation or Watergate or pet rocks. It was an acknowledged crisis that seemed to be spreading. In his essay, “Should Religious Studies Develop a Method?,” Richard E. Wentz warns that, “If religious study does not find a method appropriate to itself, it may fall victim to the crisis in the humanizing arts and to the crisis in theology.” (Journal of Higher Education , Jun., 1970). I think theology has been in crisis since the Origin of the Species was published, but it seems to keep on going. According to a professional note in the October 1975 PMLA, The School of Criticism and Theory Program at Irvine was created in 1976 “in the belief that a unifying conception of the humanities and humanistic discourse can be grounded in literary theory,” and that “a major reason for the crisis in the humanities” was that this belief didn’t “flourish in our intellectual communities.” Wolfgang Iser, in “The Current Situation of Literary Theory,” posits much the same development, and says that “As a reaction to the crisis in the humanities, literary theory became increasingly dependent on the relationship between literature and society-a relationship which stood in urgent need of clarification” (New Literary History, Autumn, 1979). Literary theory certainly took off in the next couple of decades, but it still didn’t fix the humanities, darn it.

In “The NEH and the Crisis in the Humanities,” Mel A. Topf tells us,”That the humanities are in trouble is no secret. Current discussion revolves around declining public support, declining enrollments as students turn away from the liberal arts to professional studies, and overproduction of Ph.D.’s.” As timely as today’s headlines! Except that was from the November 1975 issue of College English. Not everyone was convinced, though. In “Much Ado about Little? The Crisis in the Humanities,” Byrum E. Carter, opens, “The humanities, if we are to trust their academic spokesmen, are in trouble. They are plagued by declining student enrollments, a surplus of PhDs, a skeptical public, a sense of uncertainty as to mission, and a decline in available money. Dire predictions are made as to their future and cries arise for assistance in meeting the “crisis” that confronts humanistic scholarship” (Change, March 1978), but he doesn’t believe the situation is so dire, and predicts that the humanities will be around for a long time. It’s 32 years and counting so far.

In “Legacies of May,” Christopher I. Fynsk writes of economically driven education reform in France that is removing philosophy and the other humanities disciplines from the high place they traditionally held in the academy (MLN: Comparative Literature, Dec. 1978). He warns hat “some of the social forces that have made this reform possible in France are functioning similarly in the United States to create a situation of crisis in the humanities.” Apparently nobody told him the humanities had already been in crisis for 40 years. But again, as timely as today’s headlines, as philosophy departments are threatened with closure in several universities. Ellen Ashdown opens her essay “Humanities on the Front Lines” with an acknowledgement of the tenor of the times:

The threat to the humanities in colleges is now a common theme. Worried scholars and teachers face with dismay the public demand for “accountability” and its inappropriate consequences when applied to disciplines dealing unapologetically with questions of value. Those who feel the threat most deeply have responded with eloquence and passion that the traditional arts and letters are not antagonistic to scientific and practical studies, are not dispensable, are, in fact, central to education and life. (Change, March 1979)

I could go on, and on, and on. Search JSTOR for the phrase “crisis in the humanities.” Starting with the oldest articles first, I stopped reading at record 69 out of 217. The phrase first appears in a JSTOR journal in 1922, and from 1940 on becomes a steady stream of complaints. I think this is enough evidence to suggest that there has been a sense of crisis in the humanities almost as long as there have been departments of humanities. The organization of modern universities seems timeless, but the development of departments and disciplines as we know them now is a product of the late 19th century. Not only is the sense of crisis decades old and persistent, but for the most part the causes are as well. Students are choosing professional programs over the humanities; the sciences have the most authority and get the most funding; there are too many humanities PhDs; they’re evaluated by standards appropriate to the sciences but not the humanities. Every generation of scholars wakes up afresh, looks about, and thinks the sky is falling.

The sky might indeed be falling, but if it is, it seems to be falling very slowly. It could also be that the sky is not so much falling, as readjusting itself, if that makes any sense. The story at SUNY Albany exemplifies my scenario for the future of research universities and their libraries. After World War II, college enrollments and higher education funding swelled enormously, and the humanities benefited from the largesse heaped upon the universities to pursue scientific research. I knew a professor of English who claimed the Defense Department paid off the student loans he had taken out to fund his English PhD in the 1960s. Money was flowing, enrollments were up, and every teacher’s college wanted to become a university, and every research university was molded on a model of research appropriate for scientific investigation but inappropriate for the humanities. However, that level of support was not sustainable. The New York College for Teachers became the University at Albany, and it may become the New York College for Teachers again. Or, more likely, it may shed its humanistic programs and devolve into a technical and scientific research center and undergraduate vocational training school rather than a research university as such, dedicated to creating and disseminating new knowledge in all disciplines. Such may be life. But that doesn’t mean that Cornell and Columbia and NYU will undergo similar changes. “The humanities” will survive just fine, only they’re likely to survive at a research level at considerably fewer universities. Maybe there’s only so much new knowledge that can be created in the humanities.

The unfortunate thing is that state governments seem to think that higher education isn’t sustainable, but that’s not the case. It’s the current number of research universities with thousands of humanities professors teaching light loads and doing research that requires expensive libraries that aren’t sustainable. The country just doesn’t need as many PhD programs in the humanities as it has, and research universities are going to start eliminating them as state funding dries up. My worry is that entire departments will be cut instead. It would be much worse for future generations if only the elite could study foreign languages or philosophy than if the number of PhD programs and research-intensive programs were reduced. That’s going to happen at any university that demands immediate profitability from every department.

The humanities were from the beginning about creating free, well-rounded people who could think clearly and communicate at a high level. In the middle ages, what we would now associate with the humanities (the trivium–rhetoric, grammar, and logic) was part of the “School of Arts” and taught to undergraduates, who then went on to the advanced schools for master’s degrees and doctorates in theology or the professions. In Renaissance Italy, the literae humaniores--rhetoric, grammar, poetry, history, and moral philosophy–were studied by the sons of the elite so they could advance themselves in a world that required abundant knowledge, critical thought, and clear communication to succeed. Today is no different. Every university should have people teaching literature and history and philosophy to undergraduates, but not every university needs literature and history and philosophy graduate programs. Their emergence and growth were the result of historical forces unrelated to the need for the number of such programs we now have.

The sense of crisis as a lack of historical memory effects librarianship as well. My friend Kathleen Kern at the University of Illinois is working on a project related to the “serials crisis.” It seems the phrase first pops up in the library literature in the mid-70s, but she found discussions of similar issues going back much further. I’ve been doing some research related to “information overload,” and have found evidence of a “crisis” as far back as the 16th century. By definition, a crisis requires a period of normalcy by which to define itself. I argue that we don’t really have a “serials crisis” or a “crisis in the humanities,” because the state in which we find ourselves has been the normal state for decades. Humanists, like librarians, always think people are out to get them (which is true), but they also think that the situation is new (which isn’t true). If we’re always in crisis, then we’re never in crisis.

The existence of patterns like this is why I’m so skeptical about hyperbolic or apocalyptic rhetoric in general.  People who say “X is the future!” with such boundless optimism usually have a very short historical memory, and they don’t realize that the majority of predictions about such and such being the future were just plain wrong, and even the most accurate ones were partially true at best. The same goes for the overly pessimistic predictions of decline. They’ve been with us at least since Plato. The humanities as a profession, like librarianship as a profession, always faces challenges, but constant challenges don’t a crisis make. They are the normal state of affairs. The appropriate action isn’t to jump for joy that we’re saved by some hot trend or panic because we’re supposedly in the midst of crisis, but to face the challenges soberly, make our case, and do the best we can to create the future we want. I find it more comforting to realize we’re not in a state of unprecedented crisis. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Teaching Humanities Reference

In the spring, I’ll be doing two things I never thought I would do: teach online and teach in a library school. I’ll be teaching arts & humanities reference online for the University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library Science. I took the same class myself about eleven years ago when I was in library school at Illinois, but I think things have changed quite a bit since then.

I’m writing not to make a news announcement, but to run some ideas by you. I know many of you do humanities reference at some level, and quite possibly teach it, and I would love to have your opinions on some ideas I have (comments or emails welcome). I’m not going to divulge some of my specific ideas about what I want to do with the course, because even though I have the basic outline already formed, I’m still tinkering with specifics. Instead, I would love your advice about the principles governing it.

When I was in library school, reference courses were heavily driven by reference questions that had specific answers. Ready reference might be too slight a term to cover some of these, but they were still mostly factual queries that could be answered if you knew the right obscure or standard reference work to consult. The days of ready reference have passed, though. I remembered only one specific question from the course I took, and I remember it being difficult to answer because only one relatively obscure reference work addressed it in any detail. I Googled that question recently, and the top result was a Wikipedia article–complete with citations–giving a fairly good answer. I almost never field factual questions from students anymore, and this seems to be the trend with most librarians I talk to.

So first of all I think humanities reference has changed from being question-driven to being project-driven, at least in colleges. From students at all levels, I’m asked not for answers to questions, but for strategies of research. It seems crucial for my work not just to know that X database or Y book might cover a field or have an answer, but to be able to map a research strategy for a specific research question or project. Do you find that to be the case?

Sometimes this is a simple matter. "Search MLA for some secondary articles on your novel." But usually it’s much more complex, and might involve searching databases in various fields, thinking about various ways to approach the topic, different avenues of exploration, different ways of conceiving the question depending on what resources we find, etc. This is especially true as the students engage in interdisciplinary work.

To do this requires a lot more than the ability to search databases or know where to find answers or isolated secondary literature.

The requirements below are a bit jumbled, but my hypothesis is that to provide good humanities reference, a librarian should have:

  • Knowledge of the organization of information in the various humanities
  • Familiarity with the essential reference tools and indexes
  • Basic understanding of scholarly communication in the humanities
  • Familiarity with the ways scholars in different disciplines approach sources or use information
  • Some knowledge of the digital humanities
  • The ability to guide research projects, not just answer questions
  • A conceptual understanding of research projects in the humanities
  • The capacity to read and understand scholarly books and articles in the humanities

If you’re a humanities reference librarian, does this sound right based on your own work?

I realize different environments require different levels of skill and knowledge. I’ve done most of my humanities reference in what amounts to liberal arts colleges at the undergraduate level, and I’m sure it’s different answering basic questions at a community college or helping high school students research their essays. However, a course in humanities reference should prepare library school students to work with undergraduates in the humanities at a minimum. I would think the reason for taking a specialized reference course would be the hope or expectation of having a good understanding of the field, rather than a cursory glance that would be useless in practice, and in my opinion this knowledge (at least at a basic level) is necessary.

 So far I’ve thought of a number of specific ways in which to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to do good reference work in the humanities, but would be grateful for any advice you have to offer.

 

The Usefulness of the Liberal Arts

There’s an interesting article in today’s Inside Higher Education making the case that while business people sometimes make the case for the usefulness of a liberal arts education in business, humanities professors rarely do. It contrasts the views of management guru Peter Drucker with those of English professor Stanley Fish. Drucker values the usefulness of the liberal arts (and, though the article doesn’t mention it, wrote an essay on management as a liberal art) for life and work, while Fish claims they serve no purpose and do nothing to improve people.

In a way, I can see Fish’s point. The liberal arts are so designated because they are the arts appropriate to free persons, that is, persons who do not have to work for a living and have the leisure to pursue their interests in literature or philosophy. At the very least, it gives those people something to talk about. People with jobs can always talk about their work, but people without jobs need something to occupy their time and have conversations about.

However, things have been different since the Renaissance. Rhetoric and other liberal arts began to flourish anew in the republics of Renaissance Italy because they were useful. Rhetoric is necessary to persuade, and persuasion is an important component of politics and law, as well as business. People were seeking out teachers of rhetoric and other liberal arts because they were strivers who wanted to improve themselves to get ahead, not because they were layabouts who needed to find enjoyable ways to kill time before the advent of television. This model of the liberal arts has just as much relevance today as it did then.

I suspect that the main reason humanities professors don’t play up the usefulness of the liberal arts for business is twofold. First, anything that smells of trade is looked down upon. We all know what shallow money-grubbers business people are. After all, we’ve been shown in numerous novels for the past two hundred years how awful they are, novels all written by people unsuccessful in the business world. Also, humanities professors rarely have much knowledge of what is necessary to succeed in the business world, because they’ve rarely spent much time outside academia. It’s a rare occurrence to find a humanities professor who has spent much time working in the business world in any but the lowest positions for brief times long ago. It’s hard to say if the liberal arts are useful for some profession if you’ve never worked in that profession.

Librarianship sometimes seems like an in-between world. It’s not quite academic in the way that teaching is academic, and parts are much more administrative than most professors would like. Even in non-managerial jobs, there’s a lot of paperwork and administrivia. Whereas I value the academic in academic librarianship, there are also plenty of librarians who thrill at the parallels between libraries and businesses and look to the business literature for inspiration. Regardless, what we do is more like what might be done in a business than what most professors do.

Even with that, it’s hard sometimes to articulate the usefulness of a liberal arts education for some library jobs. Because my job is working with humanities faculty, students, and collections, it’s obvious the knowledge and acclimatization gained through such an education is useful. Rhetoric is probably the most practical, and I get the same sense from non-academic friends. Whether you’re building a case for a budget increase or trying to sell someone a widget, the ability to construct persuasive arguments is important.

I’m less sure about the immediate usefulness of having read a lot of literature or viewed a lot of art, though, because such things seem to be most useful when the literature or art provides a shared context for people and allows them to communicate more effectively because they have something in common. In a discussion with a librarian once, I said the only function of the human appendix was to serve as a memento mori, but the joke lost its point when I had to explain what a memento mori was. Because of the various backgrounds of academic librarians, I’m already careful about making certain cultural allusions in conversation or assuming the shared values a mutual liberal education might provide. Out in the world it’s even harder to make such allusions or count on a shared culture created through education.

Thus it would seem that the skills, and not the content, of a liberal education that are the most valuable for business, which might be another reason it’s harder for academics to make the arguments for the usefulness of the liberal arts. In the humanities the emphasis isn’t so much on skills but on content. It’s not, "Professor X sure is good at putting together a persuasive PowerPoint presentation," but "Professor X is a leading authority on topic Y, and she also knows a lot about topic Z as well." Mastering a subject, or many subjects, is valued for its own sake, and not just because it’s good for sales. Mastering a subject is also a synecdoche for something larger as well. Mastery of a subject is also mastery of the self, of achieving or striving to achieve a kind of perfection, of overcoming the shallowness of popular culture and ignorant opinion and seeking to know and understand.

The article finds it surprising that business people are better at defending the liberal arts to business people than academics are, but this shouldn’t be surprising at all. Without shared values and a shared culture, communication is difficult. For better and worse, the cultures are too far apart to communicate well.

Student Expectations

An article in the New York Times this week reported on a study of student expectations that claimed they were a significant factor in grade complaints.  Students, it seems, have different expectations about what they should have to do to earn good grades. Some of the students quoted, for example, seemed to think that they should receive good grades based on their effort. One student said, "I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade…. What else is there really than the effort that you put in?” Truly an illuminating comment, I’m sure you’ll agree. To most of us the answer is obvious.

The article mentioned various efforts around the country to deal with these unwarranted expectations about grades. Apparently, at Wisconsin the professors tell students they need to  “read for knowledge and write with the goal of exploring ideas.” They have seminars to reinforce this idea and teach students what education is supposed to be about.

This last quote gets at a much more fundamental question about student expectations than whether they should be graded for effort. Namely, what is education for in the first place? What value does it have? What is college for? Many students value education only instrumentally. They think rightly or wrongly that a college education is a means to getting a job. Education in itself is valued only insofar as it leads to gainful employment. As a student once said to me years ago, "I’m going to be a farmer. Why do I need to take classes like this?" (The class in question was introductory rhetoric, in which the student was faring poorly.) Any response I could have given would have been lost on this particular student, because the student had such a drastically different understanding of what the purpose of college is than I did. He was going to get some practical agricultural training and maybe enough accounting skills to run the family farm. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it meant that he denigrated anything that didn’t lead to his instrumental purpose. For him, the purpose of a college "education" was to help him be a farmer.

Students like this must be truly bewildered when they enter almost any traditional college and they’re taught by people for whom knowledge is valued for itself and not for any instrumental purpose. This is true even in fields with practical applications, and not just in the liberal arts. Professors are professors because they like to learn. They are the types Aristotle was talking about when he said that man by nature desires to know. Philosophers by nature desire to know. Farmers desire to know how to run a farm. This is a huge and crucial difference. Students who seek only instrumental learning can’t even understand the love of liberal learning that motivates their teachers. Learning is valued for its own sake, and not for the sake of some practical goal.

This difference appears even more starkly in the humanities, which tend to have no instrumental value. If we study seventeenth-century Dutch trading patterns or ancient philosophy or French poetry, we don’t do so for pragmatic results. The result is understanding or knowledge, but not understanding or knowledge that we can apply to getting a job. Why study rhetoric or poetry or history or philosophy? Ultimately, the only reason can be the desire to know, and in this knowing to participate in a larger culture than we encounter in our daily lives. We may understand more about our world, we may even become more fully human in certain ways, but rarely are we going to be able to take this knowledge and go run a business.

One irony is that such a disinterested pursuit of knowledge can lead to practical results. Consider the study of philosophy. Studying philosophy developed my analytical skills in ways that other study wouldn’t have, and these skills have been useful for many things, including my job, but I wouldn’t have pursued the study and thus developed the skills were I not interested in the subject for itself. Studying history can develop in us an understanding of other people and other cultures and perhaps lead to sympathy with those unlike ourselves which might reduce tensions and increase world peace, but it doesn’t necessarily do this. This would be an unrealistic reason to read a history book.

Another irony is that the mis-expectation of the student quoted above, who believed he should get an ‘A’ for effort, is one expectation that has little to do with learning for its own sake or the non-instrumental value of humanistic study, but is instead an expectation completely at odds with the practical world he will encounter when leaving school. Imagine a performance appraisal for any job where it would be appropriate to ask, "what is there other than the effort you put in?" One of the most realistic and practical portions of higher education is the ultimate expectation of results–just like in the real world. Whether you’re repairing an automobile or preparing a sales presentation, no one cares about the effort you put in. People care about the finished product. The one way in which higher education indisputibly prepares one for the demands of the workaday world is the one this student finds the least understandable.

More on the Humanities in the Library

My last post generated a short conversation on Friendfeed. I’m not much of a controversialist, so it’s always interesting to be criticized. Last time I was merely reflecting on a couple of recent reports and their possible relationship to scholarship in the humanities. Dorothea Salo took issue with the post, and rather than respond on Friendfeed, I thought it worthwhile just to address the criticisms here. Also, I came to the discussion a bit late since I just noticed it today. Working two jobs right now is taking up a lot of my time.

The first criticism is more about what I didn’t do in that post than what I did. The quote in full:

Interesting, but dodges the hard questions. What are we going to have to STOP DOING in order to do the new stuff? Because we ARE going to have to stop doing SOMETHING. There aren’t enough resources in the world.

I have a range of possible responses to this, from the snipey to the less snipey. The less snipey is that it seems I’m being criticized for failing to do something I never set out to do in the first place, which is hardly a meaningful criticism. After all, it was a blog post, not a management treatise. Thus, I wasn’t "dodging" the "hard questions." The supposedly hard questions were merely not part of the subject of the blog post. The topic was what I saw as a possible future of humanities scholarship and research libraries in about a thousand words.

I’ll get back to what we might stop doing in a moment. Before I do, I’d like to take a look at the second criticism:

Well, from my POV, I get cynical about posts like this because as a librarian working in a new area, I get damn-all help or support from librarians in general, non-technical librarians in particular, and humanities librarians ESPECIALLY. So until they get outta their comfort zone a little, I read such posts as this as "we don’t have to change a bit! really! lalalalalala let the world fly by…" instead of "we’ve got some hard decisions to consider and some changes to make."

Now it seems that I’m being criticized because she doesn’t get enough support for her work in her library. That’s never a good feeling at work, but I’m not sure how my post contributes to it. I’m really not sure what she does in her daily work or whether I would support it or not, but I’m an open-minded librarian and not especially reactionary, so who knows. I’m not sure what is meant in this context by "non-technical," but whatever it is I probably qualify, and I’m certainly a humanities librarian, so I suppose I’ll stand up for my own.

Apparently I don’t want to get out of my "comfort zone," and also I’m saying we don’t have to change a bit. My comfort zone is pretty large, but I suppose that could still be true. Do any of us want to get out of our comfort zones? I work in the humanities. I don’t see those science librarians getting out of their comfort zones to understand how the humanities operate, so I don’t think it’s just we humanities librarians who are special in that regard. The most serious criticism is that I’m arguing that some changes won’t or perhaps shouldn’t be occurring. That’s not what I’m saying at all. What I will say, and what I have said before, is that some things just aren’t changing, and the traditions and practices of humanities scholarship are among those things. It’s not a question of wanting or not wanting "change." It’s a question of looking around at what scholars in the humanities are actually doing, and for the most part they’re doing the same things they’ve been doing for centuries, and they’re not showing any signs of rapidly changing. Rather

The world of information may be changing rapidly, but humanists for the most part just don’t care. That change may in itself become a major object of humanistic study, and when it does it will be addressed in scholarly monographs and articles. We could only speculate on why change is slow, but I suspect that it’s the way they’re trained, the long years of discipline they undergo mastering a tradition. It also has to do with the nature of such scholarship. Humanists engage texts and arguments; thus they need texts and arguments to engage. Giving them a nice data set won’t please them. Libraries are there to serve scholars, not the other way around. It would be hubris to say scholars in the humanities need to change the way they work because we librarians just aren’t happy with their slow pace. Humanities librarians may be among the slowest to change, but it seems to me they’re still changing faster than humanities scholars might be comfortable with.

As for what we might give up, I don’t have many concrete answers. Part of my goal is to try to articulate in a small way what an ideal research library might be. Whether or not any library can live up to the ideal doesn’t really matter. Just because we fail at a worthwhile goal doesn’t mean the goal isn’t worthwhile. It just means we’re failures. That’s hard to take sometimes, but unpleasant truths are no less truthful for their unpleasantness.

Some libraries subscribe to fewer journals. Some cut their book budgets to the bone. Some give up buying European monographs. I’m not interested in the question of what libraries should give up, but of what they should provide. If research libraries can’t at a minimum provide the resources that their current cohort of scholars needs, then those research libraries are failing in their most important mission. If that means that humanists still need those scholarly monographs, but librarians aren’t buying them for whatever reason, the library has failed. Period. To some extent, we’re all failures, but we should have the courage to admit it, not challenge the facts of scholarship.

As a practical matter, I in fact don’t have a lot of hard decisions to consider. However you might feel about that, it’s true. While my library isn’t the richest or the biggest library around, it’s reasonably well endowed. I should also note for those of you not in the humanities, collecting in the humanities is cheap relative to the sciences. While some of those STM serials might be $10,000 a year and rising, that’s not the case in the humanities. Some of the best or most important journals might be a couple hundred dollars. Monographs are often under a hundred dollars, at least ones from this country. It’s not humanities collections that are breaking library budgets.

As for giving things up, we would have to look at the library more broadly than just humanities collection development, which to some extent was the main topic of my last post. Some of the changes seem quite easy. A reference librarian retires. We don’t have as much reference as we used to. But hey, we need a digital photographer if we’re going to digitize stuff. Let’s take the reference librarian line and hire a digital photographer instead. It’s library science, not rocket science. Regardless, I’m not the one making those large decisions for any library, and I’m not in a position to speculate on the future of every part of the research library or how every library should address their hard questions. I just write about what I know. The problem might be that I just don’t know that much.