A field in flux

America's Best Graduate Schools 2005
US News & World Report
by Rachel Hartigan Shea

Intellectual Entrepreneurship Student Jane Barnette Featured

Jane Barnette Is it worth the trouble? That's the question Jane Barnette kept asking herself as she struggled to finish her Ph.D. in theater history and criticism at the University of Texas-Austin. Barnette was hip deep in her dissertation on the effects of the burgeoning railroad system on Chicago-area theater when she started wondering why she was working so hard in a field with so few job prospects. "I was thinking that graduate school hadn't given me what I'd paid for," she says, "and that it was somebody else's fault besides my own."

If humanities scholars feel beleaguered, they've got good cause. The job market has been discouraging for years; their own university administrators seem to prefer economic development over literary theory; and the national media take pleasure in mocking their scholarly work as irrelevant and incomprehensible. But it turns out that malaise can be invigorating, as academics across the country realize that it is up to them to articulate why the humanities matter.

Knocked down. "I see them as a god in ruins stirring to take a proper place again," says Robert Weisbuch, the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, an educational organization that seeks to reinvigorate the liberal arts. A tally of students who graduated in the 2000-2001 school year with bachelor's degrees in all of the humanities disciplines combined comes to less than half of those who majored in business. University donors are more likely to funnel their money toward scientific endeavors, which are already eating up a growing share of university budgets, sparking speculation that humanities and social science graduate students are losing out on assistantships, fellowships, and stipends.

Meanwhile, the race for tenure keeps getting more extreme. "Higher education stands to lose, or at least severely damage, a generation of young scholars," wrote Stephen Greenblatt, a noted Shakespeare scholar at Harvard and former president of the Modern Language Association of America, in an open letter to the organization's members. Most departments now require junior faculty to have published at least one book before they will be considered for tenure. (Some elite departments even require two.) Yet financially strapped university presses have had to scale back their lists in disciplines like philosophy, English, and foreign languages, heightening scholarly competition and anxiety.

An unexamined life. But despite the dire anecdotes, no one can really say for sure how the humanities are faring. Unlike science education, which is tracked by the government-funded National Science Board as a matter of national importance, the humanities have never been thoroughly examined. "The humanities community itself, including its funders, knows deplorably little about what is taught to whom and by whom, how long it takes, where graduates and postgraduates go, what they do when they get there, and how many of them there are," says the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow, who worked on a project with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an organization of prominent scholars, business people, artists, and public servants, to come up with a system of collecting and analyzing data about the humanities. Members of the academy are currently attempting to track not only the humanists who stay in their field but the humanities majors who go on to other areas such as law, business, or medicine, thereby measuring to some degree the contribution of humanists to society.

After all, there's as much evidence that the humanities are thriving as there is that they're doomed. For one thing, ordinary people still read history, biographies, and fiction. "Borders and Barnes & Noble are crowded from early morning to late at night," says Weisbuch. And recent state budget crises have not targeted the humanities more than any other disciplines. "The budget crisis shows that the core is liberal arts," says Edward Ayers, dean of the college and graduate school of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia. In 2002, his school had to cut $3.2 million from its total budget of roughly $70 million, but "the stature of humanities was not diminished," he says. In fact, graduate-level funding actually increased, and this fiscal year both faculty and teaching assistants received small raises. Brown University will open a new humanities center in fall 2004, a move that was unanimously supported by campus leaders. Dartmouth College successfully opened one four years ago that focuses on putting science and technology into context. "Most students still want something to help them generate a meaningful narrative for how they live their lives," says Eric Gould, an English professor at the University of Denver.

Meanwhile, scholars, employers, and students are thinking about the humanities in a different way. In his book, The University in a Corporate Culture, Gould proposes that general undergraduate education should be organized around interdisciplinary topics such as the nature of capitalism, rather than divided by disciplinary lines. "It's taken humanities a little longer [than sciences] to move in the direction of interdisciplinary studies," says Linda Brady, dean of the college of humanities and social sciences at North Carolina State University. But there are signs of progress. Last fall, NC State philosophy Prof. Gary Comstock received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to lead an advanced bioethics institute in Lisbon, Portugal, where life sciences professors from around the world will learn how to integrate ethics into their courses.

Untapped resources. Some are drawing direct links between skills learned as, say, a philosopher and skills required to work for an arts organization or even a corporation. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation funds humanities graduate students who set up internships with nonacademic organizations such as broadcasting companies, for example, or museums, while the University of California-Davis may create a new "applied humanities" master's program to train students to work in organizations that require both managerial and intellectual skills.

Jane Barnette herself was caught up in the humanities revival. In the midst of her academic funk, she signed up for a course in UT's "intellectual entrepreneurship" program, which teaches grad students to think of ways their work can be pitched to the world outside the ivory tower. "It busted my scholarship wide open," she says. Despite theater studies' traditional division between performer and scholar, she returned to the university stage while finishing her Ph.D. And on the side, she threw herself into the Graduate Writing Project. "I realized it's not about the job; it was about the exploration and the discoveries," says Barnette. She also considered a wide variety of jobs outside academia including teaching private high school, directing theater, and becoming a writing consultant. In the end, she created the best of all possible worlds with her new position as an assistant professor in the department of theater and film at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Instead of sliding into a comfortable faculty position, she negotiated a job that transcends the boundaries of a typical professor. "I'm a professor, a writing consultant, and an artist," says Barnette, who will be directing Antigone this spring and teaching a class on graduate-level writing. "I couldn't have it until I imagined it."

--with Caroline Hsu