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Monday, December 10, 2012

Monday, December 10, 2012

Humanities Infrastructure 1

I agree with Mark Yudof: one of many reasons never to leave Austin Texas is the "easy access to breakfast tacos."  

After an excessive helping of these, and before my anti-devolution lecture on fixing public universities, I spent an hour drinking coffee with some UT Austin grad students, along with several faculty and an undergrad who could have been getting his PhD for all I could tell.  Inevitably we got into the status of the humanities, since grads are the first to feel the effects of funding cuts and have been doused with the general backwash of disrespect for their forms of knowledge and practice.  As one put it, "I'm already doing way too much to acquire the difficult specialized skills that nobody wants."

My response was that they don't know that they do want them because they don't know what those skills are.  They don't know the knowledge that these skills produce. They don't know this because we don't do a good enough job of telling them.  (They also often don't want to know, since humanities findings challenge so many orthodoxies, but we didn't go down that road.)
Our example of humanities "knowledge for its own sake" was medieval studies, which requires the grad student to learn Old English and a couple of variants of Latin in order to understand and explain texts that anyone who doesn't know those languages has never read.   I didn't agree on their irrelevance either as history or as texts.  As the latter, the stories continue to circulate, with Game of Thrones being only the latest wholesale derivation from the old tales. As the former, the history of late antiquity and pre-modern Europe is pertinent from top to bottom in our own period of declining Western hegemony over the means and ends of human progress.  That's just for starters.  The point I was making is that we can and must tell the story of our own research.  This has to start not with defense of the humanities but with going about its business. We should never defend the humanities, I found myself saying, but engage in and explain it.

One of the faculty members said that he understood the utility argument, but wasn't comfortable with instrumentalizing what we do.  And a grad student added that they don't have the time to do it anyway. They're scrambling to learn the field, and publicity is a whole job on top of that.

My response was that these are two separate jobs and that both have to be done.  Field specialization has to stay hard core, and bridging the resulting knowledge also must be done.  We generate the knowledge and we explain its meaning and impact.  The second can't dilute the first.  The university is the only institution in the world that generates deep historical and cultural knowledge that cannot be justified with immediate and obvious commercial impact. Academic executives are doing a fair-to-terrible job of protecting the function of knowledge creation about the human world. That means protection is up to us.

The front line here has to be senior faculty and not our students. My experience with a model that works better, I said, comes from the sciences and engineering.  For sociocultural reasons, they aren't on the defensive. They are overworked and face major cost problems, but don't lack group morale and confidence. Subdisciplines have organizations that communicate scientific findings as well as "societal impacts." Federal agencies generally require both in grant applications, and also fund both, so that principal investigators have financing to travel to conferences, to invite colleagues for conferences, and on top of that as a separate function to popularize their work.  Schools of natural sciences and colleges of engineering have money to promote their research results, which in turn are used for institutional fundraising.

An example of what the humanities could do is my own campus' Convergence magazine and website, which performs this bridging role with the public--and potential donors. The last issue has a Q&A with "the visionaries," in which a major donor discusses the future of technology with the campus' engineering dean and the director of a major engineering research institute.  Engineering's societal impacts are featured in a piece on "bridging the digital divide," in which engineers help bring the Internet to Africa.  There's a good range of material, all making the same point that UCSB's advanced research leads to economic and social development.   There is also no fear that explaining the relevance of the research will threaten research quality. It's quite the opposite: explaining relevance will more likely improve the research's funding, making it better.

Obviously in the humanities, our materials and approaches would be different from these. But on Friday I was about to give a lecture on the liberal arts' impact on human development, with the humanities front and center, and I was quite sure that the problem isn't our content.  Our problem, I said, is that we don't have the staff or the money to put out quarterly magazines. We don't have senior humanities faculty with the funding to send grad student representatives of the research unit to six or eight conferences a year at which they present both findings and implications.  We don't have collaborations among senior faculty in which clusters of related findings are presented by one of them, where websites constantly update the humanities results that  society needs to understand.

There's no originality to the idea of more publicity for humanities research.  The History News Network is probably the most advanced of these projects. 4 Humanities is a consortium that in the past couple of years has gotten off the ground. But I wasn't talking so much about bridging-through-publicity in itself, but about the institutional basis that would make it possible. That basis is everyday funding and ordinary activity, day in day out.  It would require in the humanities something that we barely had before, and which has been completely stripped out by the funding crisis: full-time staff that work on academic development: grant writing, budgeting, travel planning, conference organizing, and in general sustaining the social networks on which research and public dissemination depend.

In my first quarter at UCSB in 1990, the English department had a fulltime staff person for word processing and manuscript preparation. She was used entirely by faculty who didn't operate computers, many of whom also didn't type.  The assumption was that these senior researchers' medieval manuscript analysis or narratological theories were intrinsically important, and that the research university was there to partner with its faculty to support this research.  That staff person took another job, and instead of updating the position since new hiring had yielded a faculty that could produce its own manuscripts, but that still needed diverse forms of research support, the position became administrative, serving the institutional metabolism rather than literary and cultural research.

In the 2008 cuts, my English department lost its remaining staff to a multidepartmental staff pool. This was the miniature version of UC Berkeley's Operation Excellence, and its operationally absurd idea of extracting most staff from departments and relocating them away from faculty on the other side of town. The result, in my humanities division, is that faculty-staff partnerships to both generate and publicly explain new humanities knowledge has become less likely than ever--which weakens the humanities as research disciplines in a moment of enormous need.

To be a philistine, before we dismiss the possibility of major public support for the humanities, we need to picture ourselves with money.  Humanities faculty, I suggested in Austin, should then come together to design the proper infrastructure--staff research support, research-learning undergraduate courses, the copy writing, editing, and printing facilities, the relationships with institutional advancement, the distribution channels, travel and meetings, conference circulation and return invitations, the whole ensemble of people and activities that define healthy, modern, and socially valuable research divisions. We need to cost it out at each of our institutions. Then we need to enlist chairs, deans, and administrations to develop a multi-year plan to make this redevelopment happen.

Why would our universities do this now when they have mostly done the opposite in the past? One incentive is that in the current permafrost austerity regime that our foolish leaders are imposing on public universities, the best way to insure that the humanities fields won't survive for public college students is to downsize their research output and to hide their huge social value.

Thanks to the UT Austin folks for such a great conversation, which deserved a one-act play rather than the monologue of the post.


Joel Norris said...


FYI, the sciences and engineering do not have any institutionally supported full-time staff that work on grant writing, budgeting, travel planning, conference organizing, etc. Our support staff are funded by direct and indirect charges to external sources. If no external funding is available, we do it ourselves or do without.

Chris Newfield said...

yes, thanks Joel. It's not being done right in the sciences either. Hum doesn't have either direct or indirect cost recovery, for the most part, so it's been central funds and retention deals.

cloudminder said...

Koller presentation at UCD talked about Coursera's need for a learning specialist to directly look at pedagogy and she had an in depth discussion of the auto grading of what she called "homeworks"- so the "they" in your second and third paragraphs might be saying they need the skills. But just to confirm- who are you referring to when you say "they don't know what those skills are"?

When in Texas: Steak and eggs and a side of pecan pancakes are another way to go... but not often.

Shawn Warren said...

Hello Chris,

Yes, imagine the Humanities with money…

If the total cost to provide higher education and conduct and disseminate research in the Humanities were slashed by 50 or even 75%, there would be money to finance this idealized Humanities infrastructure.

However, to do that the infrastructure cannot be replicated across and among each institution as you suggest. This is part of the problem with higher education as it has been provided in the western world since the 19th century.

It is almost exclusively state funded and institution oriented. The cost to replicate the idealized infrastructure cannot be bore by the public – even in defence of the knowledge we generate.

The labour, facilities and equipment that would be required across the system would impose a financial burden on the public it cannot bear and as you note, a public that is a long way from understanding why they should.

However, this infrastructure (and more) can be realized in a different higher education system, under an alternative, new service model such as the professional or cooperative.

You point out that engineering (for instance) has done a great job of promoting its value. The profession does this – including publicity of its own research – without the need of public funding or union representation. It has been doing so for over 150 years through its professional society, along formal and informal channels. The same is true, although perhaps with less success, for the cooperative service model and its notable initiatives – Mondragon in Spain being an example of a higher education cooperative (among others).

The cost to operate professional societies or cooperatives that publicise their members’ work is a small fraction of the same service replicated across each institution in the US. And like universities and colleges they provide a wide range of services to their members and the general public.

For instance, the entire operating budget for the American Bar Association last year was $200 million and could be 5 or 10 times that and not come close to the administrative cost of universities and colleges – each adding to their cost with a new (or recovered) idealized Humanities infrastructure.

Both of these alternatives can provide higher education and research for as low as one-quarter the current cost and offer other responses to key issues such as labour exploitation, quality and access, global expansion, and stewardship of the civic enterprise itself.

Gerry Barnett said...

It might be instructive to see how much a typical humanities department indeed does "cost" and compare that with, say, the "cost" of a chemistry department or electrical engineering department.

We might, for starters, focus on the "cost" of undergraduate instruction, rather than the "total cost" of having a department.

I am very pleased with my university experience in the humanities. But I found that most faculty stared blankly me when I said I wanted to get a PhD in English literature so I could work in industry, which I have done after a fashion, using my advanced training in literature, history, and interpretation daily and productively.

Chris Newfield said...

Cloudminder - "they" are non-humanities academics /admin as well as public officials. Several senior people both running campuses and in govt have told me over the last few months that they like the humanities but don't know what they exactly do anymore. "I know it's not explaining the canon, right?" said one. "So what else is it?" I was happy to explain what I saw my colleagues doing via a few major categories of activities but more work, including codification and reduction, needs to be done here.

Gerry you are a pioneer! But what you did needs more support and systematization--which will keep us busy while we await a serious study of disaggregated teaching costs . ..

Shawn- many interesting points to discuss. I like your general idea of redeploying professional societies and giving them a more important role in educational activities. However, no professional society, including those in engineering, shoulder the costs via membership charges of basic research or mass instruction, and they have typically focused on promoting the financial and professional interests of their members, establishing and monitoring regulations and the like. I don't agree that there are massive savings to be had by moving hundreds of thousands of students from one boat to the other, esp when the second boat is tiny and not engineered to leave the harbor so to speak. The humanities could do more with less by ending its contribution to expensive research in other disciplines, but I am concerned about improving the whole ecosystem including the SE portion that needs more rather than less funding. I focus more on fairness than on a new (service) model as a way for the public to both understand the costs of quality I & R and as a way to get enough transparency to see where we could find meaningful savings without making the poor poorer, which is our traditional and our current solution.

Shawn Warren said...

Hi Chris,

Thank you for your reply. I understand your aim is fairness, within this very unfair and under supported system. But as I see it, without the infusion of more or new money we are left choosing among evils because of desperately scarce resources and the self-interest of individuals, departments and institutions – all fiercely lobbying for dimes.

My approach is to step outside this defunct system and, yes, into one of two new boat that are presently small and untested, but the familiar craft is sinking rapidly in the harbour and its most common rescuers – private investors – are not the saviour I would choose or forfeit to.

I did not mean to suggest that membership fees would be sufficient to fully finance the professional or cooperative alternatives – instead they would be used to promote member and society work (among other activities). The IEEE publicizes research, community work, the latest developments in practice and policy, disciplinary action, and the like.

Instead, the total cost of providing HE services is covered by tuition revenue derived from an advertised price tag that is as low as one-quarter the current total cost.

You are the first person to say that these alternative service models will not produce “massive savings.” I have been waiting a long time to hear that. Can you tell me why? Could they produce moderate to good savings – setting aside other benefits of the alternatives? Also why do you say that the alternatives are not “engineered to leave the harbour?”

Finally, it is true that the modern professions have spent a considerable amount of time and energy promoting and protecting their membership – medicine and law have been and remain particularly active in this regard. However, that was then and this is now.

The early professions had to engage in this self-protective behaviour to establish themselves and unfortunately they have retained this momentum. A new, academic profession need not engage the same sort of protectionist measures: we have lessons from the first professions; the academic vocation is not historically situated as attorneys or physicians were; the ethos of academe is unique and not prone to power or money grabs (except where resources are scare); academics are the final authority on all subjects and even credential the professions… We see now the pitfalls before us, unlike the original professions.

At any rate, the cooperative model avoids these (and other) concerns about the professional alternative.


John said...

It seems to me it is not only a return to the past to ask for more humanities infrastructure -- it is a necessity for the future, no matter who conceives it. Take digital humanities. As with professional staffing overall, most universities that I know of have -- as they have tried to build IT capacities outside of computer science, in colleges of LAS -- have turned to a 'central hub' model, in which faculty either apply for a ticket for free services (e.g. setting up a piece of software) or 'bob for dollars' to develop a bigger initiative (e.g. you apply for a grant to get a tech person for one semester to help you 'innovate' a new online course). This central services model may have made sense during the first build out of IT, when need was relatively small and skill sets still primitive (e.g. any programmer could do any IT job). But now, humanities departments--for example, history--don't just need a generic IT person supported by a 'bobbing for dollars' grant, because all courses and all research increasingly involve sophisticated IT techniques and resources. At the same time, digital history is become such a specialty that it is becoming increasingly cumbersome (and a drag on real innovation) to have to re-explain what you're trying to do to each new general pool programmer you get for your grant. We need dedicated resources in the departments in order to really take advantage of what the future has to offer. 'Bobbing for dollars' / take a ticket models of IT provision--as, I suspect, with professional services more generally--stifle innovation by increasing the bureaucracy and by creating large groups of 'jack of all trades' IT people who don't necessarily have the time or assignment to dedicate themselves to really being creative with their skills in any one discipline. I imagine being a dedicated IT person in a humanities department, able to build research and teaching applications, would be a lot more rewarding than being at the call center, or scheduling a new set of 'get to know you' meetings each semester, before the One Term IT Excellence in Humanities (TM) grant wears out and you have to go to the next start up thing.

No more bobbing for dollars! No more tickets! That's the ticket to real excellence and innovation in the disciplines.

Chris Newfield said...

I missed the second Shawn comment and John's over the holiday. John this is great summary of an absolutely fundamental problem with "shared services" and the "operation excellence" model of clustering by function rather than keeping units together around shared activities, like a department. We used to have this "technostructure" that created efficiencies through internal coordination and aggregation of effort (Coase, Chandler, Means, Galbraith all analyzed this as a great strength of American corporate capitalism). Then we disaggregated for interesting various reasons, and that has huge operational costs for dubious gain. University management theory is always far enough behind the curve to miss the early gains and incur the later costs. That's what we're doing now without a correct infrastructure--which I hope can be corrected in time. Thanks for your insight on this.

Suzan Baker said...

I do not agree with your point that the research for humanities is not original.
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