I’m going to blow through this quickly, so I can get back to real stuff, but I couldn’t let this awfulness go unremarked: Gary Olson’s latest essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, on “How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship.” The piece starts by noting “the growing number of commentators” at the recent Modern Language Association meeting “who were recommending changes in how the discipline conceives scholarly work.” I suspect if you went to any MLA between, say, 1960 and today, you could print that sentence and it would due true, but let’s take Olson’s word that such calls are becoming more frequent and confident.
Certainly, he says, the number of people contacting him to say how terrible such things would be is on the rise. Whatever their good intentions,
Such recommendations, my callers unanimously agreed, would damage not only the careers of aspiring and new professors but also the reputation of the humanities. The proposed changes would also present substantial challenges to academic administrators charged with evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion.
I’ll just note four huge problems with the essay.
The first is the clumsy use of “some people worry about something, so that’s evidence” as a form of argument. (One might argue that in a soft field like the humanities perception is reality, but given that this is an essay arguing for the strength of humanistic thinking and scholarship, I think Olson doesn’t want to go there.) So you get claims like this:
Some veteran faculty members worry that graduate students and young faculty members—all members of the fast-paced digital world—are losing… their capacity for deep concentration—the type of cognitive absorption essential to close, meditative reading and to sustained, richly complex writing.
[A]llowing doctoral students to produce alternative projects may well disadvantage them on the job market, as hiring committees—or at least some members of them—may not be as receptive to experimental forms and may favor candidates who have, in fact, produced a monograph…. “I can just imagine how my colleagues in our very traditional department would respond to a colleague’s tenure application if most of the work were digital,” said one department chair. “We would have a clash of cultures and values, and, sadly, I know who would win.”
And finally this:
It is true that more and more online journals are claiming to employ a peer-review process. That could be a positive development if we can arrive at a point where the community of scholars has confidence that the review process in online venues is as rigorous as it is in top-tier print journals. At the present, however, many scholars are still skeptical that the processes are equivalent.
Now, the argument that people don’t concentrate any more in the digital age is one worth having; my book contends that while plenty of people feel like their faculties of concentration and memory are under assault, it absolutely doesn’t have to be this way. Connection is inevitable, but distraction is a choice. But “some people say” is not proof.
Nor, I think it the argument that “we shouldn’t do it because the old fogies would shake their canes and yell, you kids get off my lawn” particularly convincing. It’s an unfortunate reality that some people don’t like new stuff. But that’s not a reason to not do new things that are good.
The second problem is that, tragically and not surprisingly, the assumption is that humanities Ph.D.s are all bound for academic jobs, and that training for other professions is more or less unthinkable.
Hence the equivalence of “job market” and “hiring committees,” even though 1) a fraction of humanities Ph.D.s are ever going to get tenure-track jobs, and 2) other industries are much more likely to be able to see the value of an innovative piece of work than the search committee chair whose last book was published by Yale UP in 1977. Google’s HR people won’t care if you haven’t produced a monograph, but rather have created something else that displays imagination, an ability to think deeply, and a capacity for focus.
More generally, the essay betrays an unwillingness, shared by far too many members of this generation of scholars, to admit that their field is not in some temporary crisis from which they’re going to soon recover, and that good people are ground up and denied futures for structural reasons. Instead, you get things like this:
Besides, the typical rationale for abandoning the traditional dissertation—that the time-to-degree for the humanities doctorate is too long—is not a function of the monograph as a genre; it is a function of some dissertators’ personal lives, as they attempt to juggle numerous priorities along with completing a dissertation.
Well, yes, personal lives can play a role. But… could the academy’s well-documented reliance on temporary, itinerant, and graduate student labor also play a role here? Might the fact that too many students are under-funded while they write be a contributing factor? This reminds me of Charles Murray’s argument that poor whites don’t work because their culture has eroded, not that they don’t work because the labor market for working class whites is a shadow of its former self.
So what recommendations does the essay embrace? How do we move forward to improve humanities scholarship?
This is the third problem with the essay: for the life of me, I cannot tell.
Olson doesn’t seem to say, except to imply that we need more of the same, only better funded. Like too many academics, he seems to believe that if we wait long enough, the fairies to come and sprinkle gold dust on everything. There’s no effort to distinguish good reform proposals from bad, to suggest how the rigor of traditional peer-review could be brought to electronic journals, to say how we might use other Web-based metrics (trackbacks, hits, number of comments, and other updated bibliometrics, for example) to help make informed judgments about digital scholarship.
Fourth an finally, I think this gives very short shrift to older faculty. As the son of someone who retired after twenty years at CSM, and then immediately went to Singapore for two years, I’ve seen at first hand that the relationship between age and personal conservatism is only as strong as you want it to be. He ends up constructing two sets of straw men, digital Panglosses and aging Cassandras, and thus doing justice to neither.
Okay, back to real work.